The Black British Theatre Awards are back for a second year, and for 2020 they will be broadcast on Sky Arts showcasing some of the finest work by Black actors, performers, and creatives in the UK. “This is an important year with UK Theatre coming to a standstill and the Black Lives Matter movement protests,” said BBTA directors Solange Urdang and Omar F Okai. “We feel it is important now more than ever to highlight the wonderful Black British talent we have in abundance and hope to bring positivity to such a difficult time.”
Among the nominees is plenty of incredible queer talent, some of who have come together for this very special editorial titled Black Theatreland. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie star Layton Williams, trans actress Kim Tatum, musical director Sean Green, theatre icon Rikki Beadle-Blair, and acting sensations Nicole Raquel Dennis, Arun Blair-Mangat, Cherrelle Skeete, Ryan Carter, and Nicholas McLean all feature.
“There have been so few Black queer British icons historically, that the only sustainable way has been to forge new paths, and create new contexts,” says Rikki Beadle-Blair, who is up for the LGBTQ+ Champion Award. “But that’s what creativity is, right? So now we are finding and acknowledging those icons. And becoming them.”
Musical director Sean Green – who is nominated for the Musical Director Recognition Award – adds: “I always saw Theatre as a space that was very accepting of different races, sexualities and genders. And it is, but most of that diversity is evident on stage, rather than in the creative team or the management. As a musician and musical director I have become very used to being the only band member of colour, the only openly gay band member or both, unless the work calls for black representation on stage. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given but I do wonder what my career might have looked like if I was a white musician.
“That’s why I feel the Black British Theatre Awards are so important right now, as it shines a light on talent that is there working in every corner of our industry. That real support network helps you feel seen and in turn less alone.”
Speaking about her experience as a Black queer artist navigating the theatre world, Cherrelle Skeete – who is nominated for Best Supporting Female Actor in a Play – says: “It’s been a journey of chapters and getting a deeper connection to who I am and all my many intersections. I can be all of them and none of them as well. Knowing that whatever environment I’m in, all parts of me are valuable, and to always be brave enough to share and speak from that place, nothing is wasted.
“I am so fortunate in my career I have played multiple queer characters, in shows written by black queer people too. I know this is because of the work of people like Lady Phyll, Rikki Beadle-Blair plus a long line of Black Queer Womxn performers like Sharon D. Clarke and Doreen Blackstock.”
Arun Blair-Mangat, who is up for the LGBTQ+ Champion Award and was starring in hit new musical &Juliet as we went into lockdown, adds: “I’ve definitely found acceptance and a sense of community within the theatre world. The last two roles that I’ve played on stage were openly queer characters of colour, which was both liberating and empowering.
“But visibility on stage is only half of the battle. We need creative teams and those behind the scenes to also be as, if not, more diverse. I want to see Black, Asian and Arab Theatre makers, movers and shapers. We need more trans creatives, non-binary artists and queer people at the helm. The more we strive for greater representation across the board, is the moment we’ll see even more authentic, more beautiful stories being told.”
When we support each other we become stronger. With Black Lives Matter and senseless killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor etc, a door has been opened with the realisation we must glow each other up. Helping and learning from each other will help our community evolve even further. – Kim Tatum
Speaking about her experience as a trans performer in theatre, Kim Tatum – also known as Mzz Kimberley and who will be presenting the LGBTQ+ Champion Award – says: “It has been a challenge, specially being trans. There have been times where I was right for the job, but my colour or gender was not. However, things are improving for our community slowly, we are moving into a direction where we are looked at as just performers, challenging preconceptions.
“Some producers are learning that they need to get out of living in a white cis heteronormative world and realise the world isn’t so black and white. The good old boys club has stopped our community for years because of their racial bias.”
It’s why events like The Black British Theatre Awards are so vital, shining the spotlight on a community of performers and creatives who have historically been sorely underrepresented and overlooked in the industry.
“To be able to be in a room with people who look like you and celebrate your collective success is one of the most electrifying experiences,” says Nick McClean. “Growing up and being told that life would automatically be harder for you because of the colour of your skin makes recognising our collective achievements all the more rewarding.”
Black people are the vitality and life blood of innovation. Real OG Alchemists that can fearlessly create magic from nothing. – Cherrelle Skeete
Layton Williams – who is also in the running for the LGBTQ+ Champion Award – adds: “In my speech last year, I mentioned that I was so proud to pick up the award as a Black, gay man because it took me a while to accept my blackness and my gayness at the same. There’s so much homophobia where I come from (Jamaica) and it’s hard to love a certain part of yourself when you feel like they don’t love you.
“But now I embrace my blackness and my gayness together. It makes me even more proud that a black theatre awards is acknowledging queer people. When we stand side by side together we’re so much stronger. If we’re saying Black Lives Matter, we’re saying All Black Lives Matter, Black Trans lives, Black Queer lives.
“If you’re a queer person reading this, and you’re thinking how can I do it, how can I get there, you’ve just got to keep striving. If we can be out here wearing crowns on SKY TV, snatching trophies, eventually if you work hard, you can be too, so keep at it!”
Nicole Raquel Dennis – who is up for three awards, including Best Supporting Female Actor in a Musical – agrees with that sentiment. “We’ve needed these awards for the longest time. We need this safe and important space where we celebrate the talents of so many black artists that often and most times go unrecognised and not appreciated enough,” she says. “Representation is so important and we don’t always see that in mainstream award ceremonies.”
The Black British Theatre Awards will air on Sky Arts at 9pm on 25 October.