© Talawa Theatre Company. Photographs by Rob Aberman. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.
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This is the programme for the Talawa Theatre Company’s production of C L R James’s play The Black Jacobins (1967), which ran from 21 February to 15 March 1986 at the Riverside Studios in London. It was the first play to be staged by the newly formed Black-led theatre company.
The Talawa Theatre Company was founded in 1986, driven by a vision to raise the profile of Black actors and to challenge the marginalisation of Black people across culture and the arts. ‘Talawa’, meaning gutsy and strong, comes from Jamaican patois. The 1980s saw an expansion of Black arts in London, a movement which reflected the political and cultural struggles of black and minority ethnic communities in Britain. Today, Talawa remains the UK’s leading Black-led theatre company.
Founder and director Yvonne Brewster was determined that Talawa would not merely occupy small theatre spaces or be seen as experimental. With her ambitious and epic inaugural production of C L R James’s The Black Jacobins, Brewster made the powerful political statement that Talawa was staking out its position in mainstream British theatre while also recognising the importance of C L R James’s work in reframing Black history. An exhibition and series of lectures about C L R James ran alongside the production of his play.
The production’s mostly Black cast included Norman Beaton playing the part of the charismatic Toussaint L’Ouverture (see p. 5 in the programme), Trevor Laird taking on the role of Dessalines (p. 7) and Bob Philips as Henri Christophe (p. 9).
The Black Jacobins, written by C L R James in 1967, dramatises the events of the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). In 1791, enslaved Africans in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) rose up against the profoundly brutal slave regime. The revolution was led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, who was born into enslavement, alongside co-revolutionaries Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe. Their struggle lasted for 12 years, and resulted in the abolition of slavery in Haiti and Haitian independence. The Haitian Revolution was the first and only successful slave revolt in the Americas and it led to the founding of the first Black republic outside Africa.
The Black Jacobins is also the title of the classic history of the Haitian Revolution by C L R James, published in 1938 and revised in 1963. This pioneering work of non-fiction was preceded by James’s first play about the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History, in 1936.
Talawa’s 1986 production of The Black Jacobins was particularly timely. As Yvonne Brewster says in the programme, ‘That this production should coincide with another Haitian revolution has caused a shiver or two’ (p. 4). She is referring to the popular movements which had emerged in Haiti in the mid-1980s, and which were successful in overthrowing the notorious dictator Jean-Claude (‘Baby-Doc’) Duvalier shortly before the play opened.