On January 23, the first ever Arts Council England decibel award for culturally diverse achievement in the arts was presented at the South Bank Show Awards. The award winner, celebrated playwright Roy Williams, discusses the importance of the award and decibel’s aims to raise the profile of culturally diverse arts in Britain.
First off, I would like to say how deeply honoured I am to have received this award, especially as it is the first. I think we are all well aware of how short-changed the ethnic minorities are when it comes to representation in the arts. There are still a few, like myself, plugging away, doing our thing. The decibel award is important because I feel it is shining a light on those people, letting everyone else know we are here, making a difference but more importantly making art. That is the most crucial thing.
It is all very well complaining about who isn’t doing what when it comes to fair representation but, as my mum Gloria sometimes says, “mind what’s in yer own back yard, before yu holler” – before you start criticising someone else about their lack of effort, make sure you’re doing something about it. Otherwise someone else might be criticising you about the same thing.
Without a doubt, we definitely need more black people in positions of power; artistic directors, producers, programmers, etc. You name it; we don’t have it, guaranteed. But those positions and others will be useless if there was no work around, which is where we, the artists come in.
If I may, I would like to come at this from a writer’s perspective. I don’t think there are enough people who realise how powerful the writer is. After all, everything begins with the written word. Every single thing! Without us, there is nothing and no one can move forward. If writers did not exist, the West End would be like a cemetery.
It is not good to simply say we need more plays by black people because there isn’t enough out there at the moment. Of course we need more black plays, but they have to be good plays. Excellent, in fact. And they have to have come from the writers’ soul, not their heads. Writers must not let themselves be censored in any way by anyone, including themselves, regardless of what their agenda is.
I have heard accusations of institutionalised racism being levelled at several of our main theatre buildings, The National Theatre and Royal Court included, but the people who run these theatres are not stupid. They want to put on good work, because it makes them look good, and I honestly do not think they care where it comes from.
The urge to want to create a piece of art; and I’m talking about the urge that comes from the pit of your stomach; must come above everything else, including the colour of your skin. It must come from a feeling that being an artist is the only thing you can do, the only thing you want to do, the only thing that you are.
Having passion for your work, and showing that passion, is the key. You show a talent and total commitment to your art, and I believe you will be rewarded. Naïve? Perhaps. I am not dumb enough to believe that having talent is the only thing that matters. A little bit of luck, and learning how to play the game I suppose do help. But crucially, it is all about the art. Everything else, I do not care what it is, should work around it.
And so, I end this piece as I started it. The Arts Council England decibel award recognises work that contributes to the development and promotion of Black and Asian arts. This is a noble and honourable gesture; I am thrilled to receive this award.