Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

No Press, No Reviews

Narional Theatre at the Cardiff Race Riots

A half-year is over, the preceding pages displaying a bouncy, energetic performance scene. But it is incomplete.

National theatre put on a production that was unique in leaving no imprint of any kind.

This had a reason, reviewers in Cardiff being uninvited. This was in accord with its management ethos of clubby privacy. There is a continuity to corporate culture. The activities of national theatre in this era had their seeds sown in the first chapter. John McGrath had the sense, and the vision, to intermingle the programme with pieces of genuine impact.

But the base of the corporate culture remains. “They stitch together a load of local productions and call it national.” That was Michael Bogdanov. Admittedly he had an insider's interest, and disappointment. But his corollary also had a point. “They do things in all these different places but it's the same people at every one.” This was 2010 and, for a beneficiary of the New Critics initiative who was at eleven of the thirteen, it had a smack of accuracy to it.

National theatre has been in Butetown before and returned in 2019. Not that anyone would know it with no press invited, no media coverage. So it was with “the Soul Exchange” in 2011. The only record of that event, on this site, reported the company's notion of marketing segmentation. Exclusion is a part of its core. If it happens in Butetown then the rest of the city is not invited and is unwanted.

On and off, over the years, theatre budgets have tilted towards the marking of anniversaries: Dylan Thomas, the Mimosa, the First World War, the health service. So too has another centenary come into focus. “Blacks Hunted By a Furious Mob”. That was one headline of 100 years ago from the South Wales News. “An amazing orgy of pistol firing, window smashing, and skirmishes”. That was the Western Mail.

Shaheen Sutton wrote an impassioned piece for Wales Arts Review on the 1919 race riots in Newport. “Nothing reflects a society more than the history it chooses to commemorate”, ran the opening. “And nothing relegates a community more than its story being rendered invisible.”

The article goes to the nub of the history.

“Soon after the Armistice was signed on 11th November 1918, many discharged soldiers and sailors of colour who contributed to the efforts of World War One were brought back to Britain to take up permanent residence. This increased the minority ethnic population in Wales, especially in seaport areas like Cardiff, Newport and Barry, where there was already an Indian population made up of lascars.

“Lascars were merchants and seaman who settled when unable to return to their homeland because of the Navigation Act. Many lascars ended up in seamen’s hostels close to the docks, where they found work. However, at a time of dissatisfaction with post-war employment, and with a shortage of housing, many who had found work began to encounter overt racial hostility from white counterparts, who in returning to old jobs looked enviously upon the well-paid roles on ships in docklands. Money divisions led to racial tensions which also extended towards Arab, Somali, West African and West Indian ex-servicemen.

“This racial animosity led to a series of race riots all over Britain. Tensions erupted first in Glasgow, in January, 1919, then boiled over into parts of England, like London, South Shields, Hull, Salford, Liverpool, and eventually Wales. Another factor that exacerbated growing racial tensions between black and white men was the perception that these black men were fraternising with local, white women. This incensed many white men, who actively began targeting and violently attacking black men for having relations with, or marrying white women.”

National Theatre Wales marked the centenary with a production “Wild Scenes at Cardiff”. The title was taken from an account in the South Wales Echo at the time. It was created and performed by Mike Pearson and Ali Goolyad.

The publicity gave a foretaste:

“In mid-June 1919, our city was plunged into four days and nights of violent mayhem that left three dead, many in hospital, and buildings wrecked and burnt. Its causes were a complex knot of post-war frustrations following demobilization – lack of housing, lack of jobs, lack of opportunity. But most shocking was the racial aspect, as local troublemakers, ex-servicemen and Colonial soldiers clashed with Yemeni, Somali and Caribbean seamen, in front of vast crowds of on-lookers. The ‘Cardiff race riots’: one of those moments in a city’s history that lingers – in family stories, in popular myths – but for which there is no complete official record.”

The production ran for two performances and left no record. This is unique for a national company. But then it does not need to. It is a private club, its clubbiness maintained by a small cluster of members. They are all publicly-funded, all happy to place fidelity to one another over service to theatre audiences of Wales.

The account of the riots of 1919 can be read at:

https://www.walesartsreview.org/remembering-the-newport-race-riots-of-1919/

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
01 July 2019

 

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