10 years in the making


Sphinx Theatre Company - Janet Suzman

Here at the ArtHouse, a part of our artistic policy is a belief in the diversity of voices in our cultural community. As such, we were shocked by Dame Janet Suzman’s comments and felt compelled to publish the letter below in response.

My name is DeObia Oparei, I am a working actor and a writer, whose first play debuted at the Royal Court Theatre, in 2002. I am also a proud Briton of African heritage, whose ROOTS are decidedly more south east London, Woolwich, to be exact, than Abuja, Nigeria. So please don’t ask me where I’m from…..originally.

Janet Suzman’s attempt to Ridley Scott black people out of a rich theatrical legacy that pre-dates the Greeks, is as pathetic as the film director’s attempt to white wash Egypt as if it were a country in Europe. Her comments smack of white privilege, white patronage, and garden variety racism. In her comments read the not so subtle language of the white supremacist who seeks to ‘primitivize’ and ‘decivilize’ black life and the black experience. Hear, in her voice, a Prospero complex where all non whites must function as the world’s Caliban. “You taught me language; and my profit on’t, is, I know how to curse.” Bitch, please!


In a desire to educate and inform I am reminded of, Franz Fanon – ‘Black Skin White Masks’ – and his…”when someone strives and strains to prove to me that black men are as intelligent as white men I say that intelligence has never saved anyone: and that is true, for, if philosophy and intelligence are invoked to proclaim the equality of men, they have also been employed to justify the extermination of men.” However, I’m black, I’m human and I’m enraged enough by this celebrated, white actress’s comments to offer up the following. 


I dare anyone to look upon the bronze masks and statues of the ancient kingdoms of Benin and Ife. The terracotta masks of the Nok people, from around 500 AD, in what is now, modern Nigeria. And, not presuppose that a great tradition of theatre and story telling lie beneath these precious artefacts. Griots, the community story tellers and poets of the ancient Africans. Were trusted actors, orators, and historians who, from mouth to ear, told the histories of their communities and villages. Telling of the great clans, the noble lineages, the bravest warriors, spectacular battles and tribal myths, presented in spoken word, dance and song. These epic poems, or monologue plays, pre dated the Greeks and were sure to rival Homer, in scale and dramatic execution. That they were oracular does not invalidate. That they were not scribal has allowed Africa and black Africans to be long plagued by racial stereotypes. 


Racial stereotypes that Suzman’s spurious comments dredge up. Comments that project, like Joseph Conrad’s, ‘Heart Of Darkness’, as Igbo novelist, Chinua Achebe, observed…’Africa, and blacks, as the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.’ The history of Africa – and it’s antiquities –  has long been hijacked, looted, distorted and mutilated. 


In his book, Black Athena: The Fabrication Of Ancient Greece, professor Martin Bernal questions the white assumption of Europe as the font of civilisation. His extensive and contentious research places black Egyptians and Phoenicians at the centre of the West’s origins. Professor Bernal calls out 19th Century scholars for their construction of a racist ‘cult of Greece’ based purely on the need to prove Aryan origins for Western culture – because, god forbid! Those heathen darkies had any influence upon Western civilisation. Professor Bernal accuses these classists of suppressing the numerous connections between African and Near Eastern cultures on early Greek myth and art. The West’s cultural bias gave birth to a ‘White Africa,’ Egypt and a Black, sub-Saharan Africa. 


Dame Janet Suzman is a  privileged, white actress, born in sub Saharan, South Africa. In her attempt to marginalise the black imagination and subordinate black creativity, she proves, that apartheid, in her native land, may be over, but psychological apartheid is, alive and kicking.    


Theatre, like art, is everywhere in black life. It is not only confined to the abstract, as it is in the West. In Africa, art is used in everyday objects, from pottery to clothes. Art is not separated into museums. In ancient tribal cultures, where music, dance, costume and story telling abound, all existed as instruments of ritual. And, in Africa, as in ancient Greece, the progress from ritual to ritual-drama existed. The most famous of all African griots, Terence, an African slave, (born 195 bc)  rose to become a celebrated playwright of the Roman Republic. The ‘literary Obama’ of his time. Oft quoted, by the late Maya Angelou, a prolific black author, dancer, actress and theatre director, who had theatre’s DNA in her black bones.  Terence, wrote, “I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.”


To the question of why black people do not come to the theatre. The work of African American author and professor, Melissa Harris Perry, has chronicled extensively and in much depth, how the public space when white dominated, such as neighbourhoods, buildings, theatres and auditoriums, act as battlegrounds for the black psyche and body where racist micro aggressions occur and abound. From, excessive staring, racial profiling, and passive aggressive behaviours. Indeed, no person of colour within, and, evermore sadly, out of, the diaspora, has ever stood in line, for something, and not at one time or other, suspected that a white person’s needs were prioritised over their own. And, in a (western) culture where black people congregating was once illegal, in a city, Cape Town, where blacks used to need a pass to enter, and in a white world where the black male body is criminalised, the presence of more than one black, in a white dominated space, such as a theatre, continues to cause consternation. Ask yourself, the white reader, would you not stare at a large group of black men and women, standing at the bar in the National’s Olivier, or the Royal Court, or The Swan theatre, in Stratford Upon Avon?  Or would you assume they were the warm up band, there to entertain you? Both act as ‘raced’ micro aggressions that dehumanise the subject. Add that to the many micro aggressions a black person experiences in a white country, throughout the day. From the seat that remains empty, beside the black person on a train or tube to the white woman who clutches her bag tighter as the black male walks towards her. These thousands of small incidents per year add up to an experience of violence and assault on a black person’s sanity and humanity. No wonder then, that a ‘white theatre space’ no matter how well intentioned it’s practitioners, is the last place people of colour will want to retreat to, at the end of the day.


However, black people do go to the theatre. Just not white theatre. London’s, Theatre Royal, Stratford East, reflects a diverse audience because it consistently does work that reflects a multicultural community. Multi millionaire, African American film maker, Tyler Perry, was able to score a lucrative multi picture deal with Lionsgate, his first two films grossing $100 million, because he built a solid black audience, whilst performing his plays on the chit’lin circuit. Performance venues that were safe for black artists to perform in, during segregation. (Tyler Perry, critics aside.) Proving that when it relates to us and we’re not being insulted, ‘buffoon’d’ or ‘coon’d,’ we come. 


Poetry is to be found in the lives of people, not just privileged white middle class people.  Art, and it’s cousin, theatre, lives in the soul of every man and not just the white man. To claim it’s invention as white is to annihilate the imagination of non white culture. In his scintillating essay, ‘Here Be Dragons’, novelist, James Baldwin writes, ‘the human imagination is perpetually required to examine, control, and redefine reality, of which we must assume ourselves to be at the centre and the key.’ During the Atlantic slave trade the architects of white supremacy reduced an African’s reality to three-fifths of a human being. In contemporary culture the pernicious narrative of white supremacy defines a black person’s reality and life as inferior to white life. 


Should Suzman get a free pass because she’s the niece of an anti apartheid campaigner. Hell no. That she’s an apartheid era South African, who seems never to have heard of, The Market Theatre of Johannesburg, who produced the most important theatre to come out of South Africa during that time, is incredulous. Does she not know of the creative partnership between Athol Fugard, a white playwright, John Kani, a black actor and Mbogeni Ngema, a black playwright, that produced some of the most dazzling theatre of the 70’s and 80’s, in her homeland?  Has she never heard of South Africa’s most successful theatrical export ‘Woza Albert?’ And it’s black stars who lit up NYC’s Broadway, and the West End, with sell out performances, as well as performing to packed houses in South Africa’s black townships from Gugulethu to Soweto? 


How does one even begin to penetrate this level of ignorance and racism? The black experience like the black male body is targeted and ‘homicide-d’ every day. And the path from the plantation to a young black teenager, Michael Brown, being gunned down by a white cop, & his subsequent acquittal, to the killing of Eric Garner, by a white cop, & his subsequent acquittal, to the white washing of African history, by director, Ridley Scott, where the main characters, including a former African slave, Moses, are depicted by white actors while black actors play the thieves, assassins and servants. Along with Janet Suzman’s insistence and inference that to be black is to be ignorant of theatre, all plays into the same old white supremacist narrative that has and still is used to justify the killing of the black body and just as fatally, the black imagination.


Suzman’s comments point to a structural thinking in our British, middle class, Oxbridge dominated nice white theatre environment that needs to be dismantled. Otherwise the talent drain of actors of colour from the U.K. to the U.S, will continue unabated. Her insistence that ‘theatre is in the DNA of white people but not other people’, is a eugenics inspired racist pseudo-science that had it been directed towards the Jews and Jewish people, would have caused an uproar. That it was directed at black people, it’s supposed to pass as a storm in a British tea cup. Make some noise people!


I call on other prominent voices in British theatre to speak out against what is an attack on a peoples creative contribution and investment in a country’s theatrical legacy that has enriched  us all in multicultural Britain. This is my country, I am nobody’s Caliban. I sucked on a black African’s breast to get the DNA that produces my creative black milk. I call on the artistic directors of The National Theatre, The Royal Court Theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Company, companies I have served, with my dark brown skinned theatrical DNA, to step up and speak up. Silence is participation. White people and people of colour, in British theatre, make some noise! 

‘I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.’ Terence (black dramatist, 195 bc)

DeObia Oparei 


Update: Dame Janet Suzman, has since apologised for her racist remarks. But the creative contributions of non white culture continues to be under represented in British theatre, television and film.