A play for today: Michael Buffong on bringing new voices to the stage

By Mark Sinclair

Talawa Theatre Company’s Artistic Director, Michael Buffong (far left), with Ako Michell and Lucy Vandi in rehearsals for Guys and Dolls. Photograph by Anneka Morley.

Last year the Talawa Theatre Company celebrated its 30th anniversary. In the years since its founding in London in 1986 by Yvonne Brewster, Carmen Munroe, Mona Hammond and Inigo Espejel, it has launched over 40 award-winning black-led productions as well as the careers of a range of actors, writers and directors alike. Its original aim of establishing a company that could respond directly to the lack of diversity and opportunity in UK theatre for black talent remains vital, yet its influence on the wider performing arts culture in the country is now considerable.

Michael Buffong with Pepter Lunkuse (Cordelia, on left), Debbie Korley (Regan) and Rakie Ayola (Goneril) during rehearsals for King Lear. Photograph by Jonathan Keenan

Michael Buffong joined the company in 2011 as its Artistic Director and is currently overseeing Talawa’s version of Guys and Dolls, which opened at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester at the beginning of this month. “We are looking good,” he says during a break in rehearsals, two weeks before opening night. “We’re just doing a big dance number at the moment, but it’s coming together.” As Buffong’s first musical, it’s new territory for the experienced director, but it’s an area that fits well with his own interests in music and dance and Talawa’s vision for taking a theatrical staple and reworking it in new and exciting ways.

“Guys and Dolls is set on Broadway and I thought, if I was going to do a version, I’d like to move it to Harlem which is just further up [from there] – and that way it lives in a black community,” he says. “By doing so we really get to push the musical aspects of the piece, make the music jazzier or bluesier, or more gospel. And then, of course, we can do a lot of dance that we look at today that has its roots back in that time.”

Set in the late 1930s, Talawa’s version of the story moves the action into an area that is “just out of the Harlem Renaissance”, Buffong adds, referring to the “great explosion in black literature and black art, music. [That] seemed like a really good fit to me.” Guys and Dolls presents a world of “gamblers and hustlers, guys trying to make a living,” he adds. “I thought that feels right alongside everything else that’s happening in late 1939.”

Rakie Ayola (Goneril) &and Debbie Korley (Regan) in King Lear. Photograph by Jonathan-Keenan

With choreography by Kenrick ‘H20′ Sandy, whose Blak Whyte Gray was recently staged at the Barbican in London, Buffong’s take on a musical production has meant working with a cast who have to engage with a range of different kinds of performance. “My first week is spent watching the cast learn the songs and learning the choreography,” he says. “And that’s quite interesting from a director’s point of view because, actually, you’re not really doing much. There are lots of different elements before you get to go, ‘Right, OK, this is the bit I do’. As a process it’s pretty cool.”

Ray Fearon and Ashley Zhangazha Guys and Dolls rehearsals, Photograph by Anneka Morley

The process itself is one of continual evolution, tempered by Buffong’s desire to get to certain “arrival points” along the journey. While the script naturally remains the place to begin from, new ideas come to fruition as the rehearsals develop. “When I read the scripts I’m always fascinated [by] the amount of things you can find within lines that suddenly grow from a rehearsal room, that are not necessarily on the page, but you find spaces for these things to happen,” says Buffong. “That’s always quite an amazing part of the process. And one of the great things about working with your cast is watching them grow, from an initial table read to [being] in a rehearsal room, wandering round the floor, finding their characters and understanding them – and once they’ve got them, seeing how far they will go emotionally.”

Last Christmas we had our own production of King Lear on TV on Christmas Day, which is a huge statement from the BBC and the industry as a whole as to where Talawa has gone

When the production moves into its performance space, the work evolves once again. “Up until that moment you’re in a rehearsal room, which has got a ‘mark-up’ [tape marking out where the set will go] but doesn’t look like the set,” Buffong continues. “Then that does something to them again as performers, they kind of grow a bit more into that space. And then of course there’s [the] audience … then something else happens again. It’s great to watch all these shifts of gear, these changes as a process.”

King Lear, Don Warrington and Miltos Yerloemou. Photograph by Jonathan Keenan

There’s a nurturing quality inherent to theatre production and it’s a key aspect of Talawa’s approach to working with new talent. “It’s definitely part of our business model,” says Buffong. “We nurture, we invest in the talent, [we have] R&D with theatre-makers.” A large part of Talawa’s work is off stage, in collaboration with new writers and the company has several schemes in place such as its Firsts festival and Typt summer school, that help artists with their work. In fact, the company has just closed its most recent Script Reading b Service submissions window. But what does Talawa look for in new plays – is there something that makes great writing stand out?

“It might sound a bit clichéd, but there’s something about a ‘voice’,” says Buffong. “If they have a distinctive sound. It might be writing you’ve never even recognised before … because you just haven’t heard a story told that way before. There’s a ‘muscularity’ in the language that’s needed for it to work on a theatre stage that’s quite different from television,” he adds. Buffong cites Theresa Ikoko, the writer of Talawa’s recent production, Girls, and Tash Marshall, whose play Half Breed came in as a script reading and is now on stage in India, as two recent success stories. “There’s something about their writing that’s quite ‘strong’, you know?” (Incidentally, ‘Talawa’ is Jamaican patois for ‘gutsy’.)

Philip Whitchurch (Earl of Gloucester, on left) and Don Warrington (King Lear) in Talawa’s production of King Lear. Photograph by
Jonathan Keenan

Alongside a distinctive voice, a writer’s work also needs to have an authenticity to it, too. “I guess it’s how [they’re] put together [that’s] maybe the key to it,” says Buffong. “How does the person who’s writing it see the world? Maybe they’ve got the language, but a good dramaturge might say … you might need to think of it in this way? Or maybe it’s a voice that’s strong, but they haven’t quite found the way of telling their stories yet? So they may not be ready for the stage, but there’s definitely a voice there and that needs nurturing.”

On its Script Reading Service webpage, Talawa encourages writers to avoid stereotypes, research the social and cultural contexts of their characters and “write what you want to write”. Ikoko’s own take on the process as she experienced it is recorded here, too. “There aren’t very many routes into this out-of-reach world,” she says. “Talawa look for us, they seek us out and take the time and care needed to build us up in all the ways that truly matter.”

These are challenges that the company has continued to take on and the results over three decades show its wider level of influence on the cultural fabric of the country. “In terms of the company itself, its brand has become stronger … it’s becoming so recognisable,” says Buffong. “Last Christmas we had our own production of King Lear on TV on Christmas Day, which is a huge statement from the BBC and the industry as a whole as to where the company has gone, what it has to offer and what it looks like to the rest of industry…. And people who work [with] the company at all sorts of levels, off stage talent or on stage, writing, directing, there’s a feeling that if you’re associated with the company that’s a good thing, because the company stands for excellence.”

Buffong’s latest production looks set to continue the Talawa tradition of bringing new ideas and voices to the stage. “I think the fact that we do a production like Guys and Dolls, maybe now other companies around the country are going to go, ‘Well, we should do something – they’ve done All My Sons, King Lear and Guys and Dolls. Wow.’ In terms of what black work can do, [we’re] like a beacon of what it looks like and what it can achieve.”

Guys and Dolls is at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until January 27 2018. See talawa.com and royalexchange.co.uk

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