Dame Janet Suzman, a South African-born Shakespearian actress, has come under fire for saying that black and Asian people don’t visit the theatre as much as white people because it’s not part of their culture to do so. The actress, whose aunt was an anti-apartheid campaigner, made the comments following an appeal by fellow actress Meera Syal for theatres to do more to attract Asian audiences.
Responding to Ms Syal’s comments, Dame Janet said: “Theatre is a white invention, a European invention, and white people go to it. It’s in their DNA. It starts with Shakespeare,” The Guardian has reported.
She continued: “I’ve just done a South African play. My co-star is a young black man from the slums of Cape Town. Totally brilliant actor. I saw one black face in the room, at the Print Room. I rail against that and say why don’t black people come to see a play about one of the most powerful African states?
“And they don’t bloody come. They’re not interested. It’s not in their culture, that’s why. Just as their stuff is not in white culture. Fair’s fair. Theatre is a totally European invention, as is tragedy. Other countries don’t do tragedy. It’s an invention by the Greeks.”
Asked about Ms Syal’s appeal, in which she said that theatres should “cater” to Asian audiences, Dame Janet responded “Catering is probably the correct word. It’s as if one was ordering food for a special wedding where the tastes are different.
“Some people are vegetarians and some are not. I don’t know what to say. Until the Asian writers make plays that will appeal, how can one say that?
“Stuff’s going on at the National [Theatre], which is an adaptation of that brilliant novel written by a white woman about the slums of [Mumbai]. If that’s catering, then it’s brilliantly catered for. East is East, which is bloody well thought through. But it’s up to writers to do it.”
Predictably, her remarks drew ire from a whole host of authors and playwrights, including Syal who said: “I don’t think I’ve ever heard any single race or culture claim theatre as their invention before.”
Booker Prize winning novelist Ben Okri was dismissive of Suzman’s comments, saying: “She’s ill informed about the very old traditions of African and Indian cultures which go back thousands of years. It’s sad that she thinks that.”
However, he then went on to unwittingly make her point for her. Speaking about his time serving on the National Theatre’s board, Okri recounted: “They tore their hair out about how to get black audiences. It’s partly the problem of the plays.” He also said that he believed theatres were not friendly places, and that they ought to do more to make people feel comfortable.
Meanwhile, David Lan, artistic director of the Young Vic made it clear that he thought Suzman was wrong, and that he believed her comments raised all sorts of questions.
He told the Guardian: “The theatre we have has two explicit historical beginnings. One is the very early church … and what we think of as the classical theatre of Greece. But what exactly was that? Where did that come from? What was Greece? And so on and so on. Our culture is much more complex than that.
“Also, theatre is music, theatre is dance. If you’re talking about a certain kind of bourgeois theatre which developed in European cities in the 17th and 18th centuries, then yes, that is a white invention. But the best of our theatre draws from the whole world.”