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Reintroducing: The Black Plays Archive


The writer Winsome Pinnock during rehearsals for her play, Leave Taking, in 1995 - holding a hot drink whilst someone points a pencil at a script

The Black Plays Archive is an online catalogue of the first professional production in the UK of plays written by Black British, African, and Caribbean playwrights. It’s for everyone – teachers, students, actors, writers, arts professionals, and curious enthusiasts.

Initiated originally by playwright and former National Theatre Associate Kwame Kwei-Armah, the Black Plays Archive is a resource that charts and catalogues the history and legacies of Black British theatre in the UK. To celebrate its ten year anniversary in 2023, the Black Plays Archive launched a new website.

A group of people sitting around a dining room table, looking at a woman on the right hand side who appears to be speaking.

Actors Frances Ashman (left), Rebekah Murrell (centre), Oliver Alvin-Wilson (centre), Ricky Fearon (centre), and Cecilia Nobe; (right) in Natasha Gordon’s play Nine Night at the National Theatre in 2018. Photo © Helen Murray.

To date, the Black Plays Archive holds production information for a whopping 850+ plays and documents the works of 300+ playwrights and writers. Beginning in 1909 with a performance record for Ernest Trimingham’s The Lily of Bermuda (a surviving libretto to a musical comedy), the Black Plays Archive draws together information of the cast and production teams for produced shows.

In addition to this, it collates where further archival records and materials about a play may be located (such as in the George Padmore Institute, Goldsmith’s Future Histories Special Collection and the Black Cultural Archives – who aided in the creation of the Black Plays Archive ten years ago).

The Black Plays Archive today

One of the aims of the Black Plays Archive is to bring forgotten plays and playwrights back into memory as well as catalogue contemporary works, so they won’t be forgotten. In 2021, playwright Winsome Pinnock’s trail-blazing 1987 play Leave Taking was added to the GCSE curriculum, bringing a much-needed perspective of Black British life to classrooms across the UK.

The play follows a Jamaican born mother, Enid, clashing with her two British born daughters, Del and Viv, due to cultural differences. The play premiered at Liverpool Playhouse in 1987 but was later staged in 1994 at the National Theatre (in the then Cottesloe, now Dorfman Theatre). Production and rehearsal photographs, programmes, and further materials surrounding the 1994 production can be accessed via the National Theatre Archive.

Additionally, in 2023 the UK saw its first ever production of Una Marson’s 1938 play Pocomania at Theatre Peckham. Hailed as the “birth of Jamaica’s National Drama”, the play was brought to life by Decolonising the Archive, an initiative that aims to create and diversify access to archives. The play’s production team and cast from 2023 have since been added to the Black Plays Archive.

In a Black and White photograph, three woman are standing in a rehearsal room, looking towards a person in front of them, with scripts in hand.

Actors Jenni George (left), Karen Tomlin (centre) and Ginny Holder (right) in rehearsal for Winsome Pinnock’s play Leave Taking at the National Theatre in 1994. Photo © Richard H Smith.

Resources in the Black Plays Archive

Three woman sitting on a stage surrounded by a cornfield set, looking concerned down at the floor and each other.

Actors Sarah Niles (left), Natalie Simpson (middle), and Rachel Ofori (right) in Inua Ellams’ adaptation of Chekov’s Three Sisters, National Theatre, 2019. Photograph © The Other Richard.

In addition to cataloguing first performances and notating cast and production teams, the Black Plays Archive also holds a growing number of resources to assist teachers, students and researchers with their work. Resources include education packs detailing historical context, structure and themes of selected plays.

Additionally, monologue resources have been created for students and actors searching for plays that reflect their identities and lived experiences, for use both inside the classroom and for drama school auditions. Resources will continue to be added over the coming months and further teaching resources can be found in the National Theatre’s Learning Hub.

Further to these resources, a collection of recorded audio extracts of plays from within the Black Plays Archive is available to listen to, allowing users to hear excerpts of works from Alfred Fagon, Roy Williams, and Linda Brogan alongside many others.

These extracts are available in addition to the Black Plays Archive’s own podcast, That Black Theatre Podcast. Hosted by PhD researcher Nadine Deller, and her sister Nadia Deller, That Black Theatre Podcast celebrates the leaders of Black British theatre whilst discussing their work in the context of the socio-political events that influenced their writing. The podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Google Podcasts, as well as on further audio platforms.


The Black Plays Archive and the National Theatre

Three years before the National Theatre moved to its forever home in the South Bank in 1976, Wole Soyinka’s The Bacchae was staged at the Old Vic theatre by the National Theatre company in 1973. This was the first ever play written by a Black playwright performed at the National Theatre. The production expanded Euripides’ original text by using it to critique what Soyinka called “guilty men of power”, reframing the original myth into an allegorical tale of the underclasses and populism.

Following on from this, Winsome Pinnock became the first Black woman playwright to have work produced at the National Theatre, with her play Leave Taking opening on the Dorfman (then Cottesloe) stage in 1994.

In the time between these two productions and since, the National Theatre has staged a variety of plays that feature in the Black Plays Archive, including Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman (2009), Pinnock’s Rockets and Blue Lights (2021), Kwame Kwei-Armah’s plays Fix Up (2004) and Statements of Regret (2007), Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum Dreams (2014), Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night (2018), and Roy Williams and Clint Dyer’s Death of England Trilogy (2020 – 2023) alongside many more.

A poster with a black background and a red splash of paint on it, saying OF EURIPIDES in an ancient font as well as credits of a production by the National Theatre at The Old Vic.

The poster for Wole Soyinka’s 1973 adaptation of The Bacchae, after Euripides at the National Theatre.

Find out more

About the author: Rianna Simons is the National Theatre Archive’s Black Plays Archive Coordinator.

The National Theatre Archive is open and free for visitors. Find out more about how to visit, take a tour and opportunities to get involved.

Find out more about the Archive here

Image at the top: Director Paulette Randall (left) and Winsome Pinnock (right) in rehearsal for Pinnock’s Leave Taking, 1994 at the National Theatre. Photo © Richard H Smith.