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British classical theatre is celebrated worldwide for its rich history, enthralling stories and enduring influence. Yet, despite its vibrant heritage, the genre has traditionally been a challenging field for black actors to enter. One London-based theatre company aims to change that by encouraging women of colour to embrace classical texts.
Mawa Theatre Company is the UK's first all-black, all-female theatre group. The company examines the works of renowned English playwright William Shakespeare and makes him accessible to a new audience.
"Traditionally, classical theatre is a white male-dominated industry," says Maisey Bawden, Mawa Theatre's Artistic Director. "We want to see more representation of black and black mixed-race women in classical theatre," she explains.
'Shakespeare is not going away'
Despite being dead for over 400 years, Shakespeare's work remains very much alive. His plays are featured in cinema, television, school curriculums and, of course, theatre productions.
"Shakespeare is always going to be commissioned in theatres. So as long as that's happening, it is important for us to lean into that as Black women because Shakespeare is not going away," says Maisey.
Gabrielle Brooks, Creative Director of Mawa Theatre, says that some people in her peer group view Shakespeare negatively. The theatre aspires to alter those hardened perceptions and highlight the finest aspects of his work.
"One of the biggest challenges is how people feel that Shakespeare is not for them because of how it's been presented to them through traditional education," she says.
According to Danielle, Mawa's executive director, school curriculums often ask pupils to read Shakespeare but rarely encourage them to explore the work as a performance. "Academically, we need to start looking at how Shakespeare is, at its core, a show," she says.
'Shakespeare was a revolutionary'
Mawa Theatre encourages black actors to push boundaries and experiment with Shakespeare's famous texts. "Shakespeare was a revolutionary, so we'd like to think that he would encourage us to move with the times as well," she explains.
Mawa recently held a drama competition called 'The Monologue Slam' at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. The esteemed writer wrote and directed plays there dating back to the 1500s. The famous theatre has been reconstructed several times but has kept its unique round shape.
"Doing a monologue is a great way to explore the company's vision in an environment that is all Shakespeare," explains Danielle. A competition like The Monologue Slam can be a fantastic way for an actor to launch their career, as a wide variety of talent agencies attend.
'People who look like us'
Although Mawa is a new company, it has already won an Industry Minds award for its mental health approach. They have also been nominated for a Black Tech Achievement (BTA) Award for innovative use of technology.
Despite these accolades, the women behind the theatre company consider their ability to give black women autonomy their most significant achievement. "Inserting ourselves into a space that is normally not for people who look like us, we're doing that every single day we put something on," Gabrielle explains.
Danielle says she faced many challenges as a black actor and was inspired to join the company. "The opportunities for us can feel limited sometimes," says Danielle. "I want other actors to feel that they have the space I never got to have," she adds.
According to actor Tracey Dominique, the obstacles that Danielle encountered in her early acting career still exist. She says black women are frequently limited to roles that perpetuate negative stereotypes or are used solely as props.
"It's a challenge just getting past that initial preconception of, 'well, we can't have two black girls in the play'," explains Tracey. "How do we get out of that angry black woman trope and be seen for the range of what we can actually do?" she asks rhetorically.
Mawa Theatre Company is a progressive organisation providing black women a solid place to grow and flourish. By incorporating the work of William Shakespeare, the group is giving new life to timeless classics. As the company grows, there is little doubt that the theatre landscape will change and that black and black-mixed-race women will find the recognition and opportunities offered to everyone.