Tonderai Munyevu: ‘We need to see people of colour in period plays because we exist, we always have’

Kudzanayi Chiwawa and Ayesha Casley Hayford (Photo credit: Harry Elletson)

Tonderai Munyevu is the co-artistic director of Two Gents Productions, which is staging an all-black, all-female version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest with Ayesha Casely-Hayford and Kudzanayi Chiwawa playing all the characters. Here he explains why it was important to stage the 19th Century comedy of manners with black, female actors.

In Zimbabwe, the narrator begins a story with “Paivapo!”, to this the audience responds “Dzefunde!”. The contract is: “I am ready to tell you the story” and “We are ready to listen.” When theatre addresses its audience it is at its most powerful.

Theatre looks at the past not as it was back then. Otherwise we perpetuate old-fashioned views and more.

We need to see people of colour in period plays because we exist, we always have, and we deserve to see ourselves refracted on every stage in ways that spark further conversation and dialogue. We need to look at classical texts through a contemporary lens.

Theatre looks at the past not as it was back then. Otherwise we perpetuate old-fashioned views and more. It is impossible for us to actually capture original practice. It does not exist. There in the past is our present. Who really knows what Shakespeare, or Ibsen … meant? It is all conjecture. And parallel to that history of the text, there is the history of conjecture and imagination. So, if we are looking at a text that is 100 years old, or 50 or 20 years old, we are placing a claim in that continuum of thought and dialogue

Starting my career 11 years ago, it was always incredible how many more auditions and meetings my white colleagues had in comparison to my few. This bled into agents only having one person of colour in my age and gender group. If I have felt this way, God knows how black actresses have felt, given the misogyny and racism of the casting process. A waste of talent that ultimately affects the audience and the community at large.

And do you know… if I can believe that one of my fellow actors is Elizabeth I why can’t she/he see me as Leicester? The mind and heart has limitless possibilities. The Importance of Being Earnest with Kudzanayi and Ayesha takes you to the past while being rooted in the multiplicity of the present. As women they bring great clarity to Cecily, Lady Bracknell and Gwendolyn while also revealing interesting shades and nuances of the two leading men, informed by their experiences as women of colour in 2019. They are irresistible.

‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ will be at Tara Theatre, London, from 27 February-16 March 2019.

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