An interview with Artistic Director Suzann McLean-I AM History

By Melissa Chemam

On October 1st, like every year since 1987, the UK entered its first ‘Black History Month’, an occasion for many cultural institutions to highlight the art, work and ideas of Caribbean and African people. But for Theatre Peckham, in South London, it’s the work they do every day. This autumn, the team presents its third season celebrating the voices and work of young Black artists in London, from 30 September to 6 November, focusing on the themes of belonging, migration and the Black community. I Am History talked to actor and artistic director Suzann McLean to find out more.

Suzann McLean is now a recognisable face of the theatre and film industry in the UK. She is also a mother and unproclaimed activist. As we talked about the festival she launched for Theatre Peckham three years ago, ‘Young, Gifted and Black’, it sounds quite obvious that she has given lots of thoughts on the value of promoting young creators from Black communities. The title is obviously borrowed from the incredibly powerful song by Nina Simone, who herself borrowed it from a play by her dear friend Lorraine Hansberry, one of the first women in African-American history to be produced on Broadway.

“When I first launched the Young, Gifted and Black season at Theatre Peckham back in 2019, my hope was that it would grow as a festival which celebrates and honours the Black experience in the UK and all of the intersectionalities within. I am so proud that 3 years in, Theatre Peckham continues to embody a culture of possibilities, a space where voices are heard.”

She herself has been acting for over 25 years and the director of Theatre Peckham since 2018, where she wants to nurture young people and their development all year long. “The idea this autumn is to celebrate ourselves,” she said. “So this title meant a lot to me.” For this third edition, she invited malakai sergeant to be her associate director and curator. “It focuses on nuanced stories, with the idea to push the boundaries and give unheard people a voice on stage.”

One other aspect Suzann really cares about is the conversations theatre can spark within these communities in real time, not years after the events. “This production is about now, it’s spontaneous, it’s a response to what people feel these days, not three years ago,” she added. That is why she and malakai included many spoken word events, daring theatre pieces and poetry. “Theatre has somehow been identified with certain forms,” she explained, “but its origin is in storytelling, especially in its African heritage, and I feel that it is what we need to come back to.”

She also believes in the power of sparking social discussions, like she tried to do with the programme of her ‘Conversation Station’ at Theatre Peckham. “Theatre can bring disorientation. In the same way you go out of the venue by a back door to the alleyway and don’t know where you are, the story shakes you and takes you places. It is the moment to find a community to enter a conversation afterwards. That is the beauty of theatre: we’re all in the same room, and the audience is an extra player in the production, that changes everything; for that reason, every night is different.”

The programme includes work by the acclaimed author, poet and Barber Shop Chronicles playwright Inua Ellams, who is bringing for one night only, his Search Party to Peckham. The open mic night Pen-Ting: South promises Hip Hop, politics, poetry, and to speak truth to power. The play Response to …cake comes from debut writer babirye bukilwa, and offers a portrait of family, interrogating roots and belonging. Royal Court Writer’s Room alumna Annette Brook brings in an insightful queer drama titled ‘how we love’, with queer Nigerians Regi and Babs putting “their friendship to the test by planning to marry to fool the authorities”.

The new writing by John Akinde results in OJÀ (The Market), which launches the season. The story “uncovers the impact of the black market on communities and survival by any means necessary is powerful and peppered with Afrobeat Rhythms.” Voices of Black Folk: In Unexpected Places by playwright and historian Khareem Jamal is an “insightful and energetic retake of history, amplifying voices that many have tried to erase.”

For Suzann, Black History Month is an opportunity but we mustn’t forget that it is also pigeon-holing Black culture. “Black history is everyone’s history,” she stated. “If the inventors, geniuses, writers our teachers talk about at school during the month of October were really celebrated, they would be talked about all year. If we were truly integrated, we wouldn’t need ‘a month’. So it’s up to the Black communities to be smart enough to educate their children the rest of the year. It’s also important to focus on stories that have more emotions than sadness and oppression, other narratives than abuse and victimisation.” So her programme for Young, Gifted and Black is about resilience, happiness, love, parties… “We must never forget,” she concluded, that no one can live through suffering only.”

Originally published at https://www.iamhistory.co.uk on October 13, 2021.

Freelance journalist/writer, I’ve reported in 30 countries for the BBC, CBC, DW, magazines, on African-European relations, social change, arts, music & politics