The Black Jacobins
Talawa Theatre Company - 21st February 2019
On this day, 33 years ago, Yvonne Brewster registered Talawa Theatre Company, changing at a stroke the theatre landscape of the UK. Talawa Theatre Company was among the first professional Black theatre companies and rapidly grew to become the leader in its field, a position it has retained.
"That year , when the abolition of the Greater London Council (GLC) by Margaret Thatcher’s government was a certainty, I received a phone call suggesting I submit, virtually immediately, a fully costed proposal for a theatrical production. I was told that there might be funding available for the staging of something ‘impressive’ from the black community. Having been convinced that this proposal was not a hoax, there was no difficulty identifying the The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution as the ultimate choice.
My preliminary blue-sky budget for this production – which would require a minimum of 23 actors, a first-rate set design, lighting, sound and costume designers, excellent stage managers, innumerable 18th-century military costumes, a full six weeks rehearsal in decent rehearsal rooms and the rental of a splendid venue – topped the £80,000 mark.
Even today, this is an enormous sum for an independent black production in England: an impossible dream.
The money was, surprisingly, granted in full with no quibbles.
Quickly, I had to form a theatre company. With Mona Hammond, Inigo Espegel and Carmen Munroe,
Talawa Theatre Company was born."
The Black Jacobins was Talawa's first production.
In terms of the numbers of cast members, The Black Jacobins was probably Talawa's largest production (see cast list below) and made an audacious statement about a Black theatre company occupying mid-scale stages.
The cast included Norman Beaton playing the charismatic Toussaint Louverture, Talawa's co-founder Mona Hammond, and numerous others who went on to forge successful careers in theatre, TV and film.
Michael Coveney, Financial Times
"How marvellous to see a large-scale project - presented by the newly formed Talawa ... that lends dignity and credibility to the Black theatre movement."
The Black Jacobins, written by C L R James in 1967, dramatises the events of the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) led by François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture.
The French Caribbean slave colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) rises up against the profoundly brutal regime.
The revolution is 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 existence of such a state was a rebuke to the slave owning powers in the newly independent USA, as well as Britain, France and others.
Under French rule, between the years of 1697 and 1804, 800,000 West African Slaves were brought to what was then known as Saint-Domingue to work on the vast plantations that produced sixty percent of France and Britain's coffee and three quarters of the world's sugar.
Saint-Domingue accounted for one third of the entire African slave trade, and the conditions under which they lived and were treated were known to be some of the most cruel.
The Saint-Domingue population reached 520,000 in 1790, of which 425,000 were slaves.
After the slaves declared themselves free and the country independent in 1804, the former colonial overlord France, with the complicity of its allies, demanded that the newly formed country pay the French government and French slaveholders the modern equivalent of US $21 billion dollars for the "theft" of the slaves and the land that they had turned into profitable sugar and coffee-producing plantations.
This 'independence debt' was financed by French banks and the American Citibank. It was finally paid off by Haiti in 1947.
The Black Jacobins was also the title of CLR James' classic history of the Haitian Revolution, published in 1938 and revised in 1963.
This pioneering work of non-fiction was preceded by James’s first play about the Haitian Revolution in 1936, Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History.
Talawa’s 1986 production of The Black Jacobins was particularly timely.
"That this production should coincide with another Haitian revolution has caused a shiver or two"
Yvonne Brewster was referring to the popular movements which had emerged in Haiti in the mid-1980s, and which overthrew dictator Jean-Claude (‘Baby-Doc’) Duvalier just days before the play opened.
In retelling the history of the Haitian Revolution in his 1967 play, James’s aim was to foreground the role played by enslaved people, popular alternative leaders and lower-ranking soldiers.
James had already pioneered this ‘history from below’ approach in his 1938 history, and the play develops these ideas, drawing on Marxist political theories he developed in the US in the 1940s and 1950s.
A key aspect of James’s political theory was the importance of self-organisation and the mobilisation of ‘the masses’ from below. He rejected the concept of vanguardism, whereby professional revolutionaries form an organisation (e.g. the Bolshevik Party in Russia) to mobilise and lead the working-class masses to revolution.
Drama gave James a liberating alternative to the formal processes of academic history, and an opportunity to develop alternative protagonists.
“I was determined to produce it. After all, this was about the ‘energy of a people trying to be born’, as we as Caribbean citizens abroad appreciate only too well … I wondered about it as a clarion call for people no longer inclined to revolution.”
Cyril Lionel Robert James – better known as C L R James – was a historian, journalist, intellectual and socialist. His most famous work is The Black Jacobins, a history of the Haitian Revolution.
"I did not have the rights to produce the play. I persuaded Darcus Howe to introduce me to C L R James, his uncle. Although C L R James eventually put this right, he couldn’t immediately compute the situation: here was this woman, with all this money to spend, wanting to put his play on stage after half a century, only now, at the eleventh hour, seeking his permission… Eventually he chuckled, making the point that usually people came along with great, lofty production ideas, but no money."