Afrocentric Theatre, Music, Culture and Business

Michael Buffong, Talawa Theatre – Guys & Dolls (Play Interview) Michael Buffong, Talawa Theatre – Guys & Dolls (Play Interview)
Michael Buffong, Talawa Theatre – Guys & Dolls (Play Interview)

This Christmas director Michael Buffong transports the smash-hit musical GUYS AND DOLLS up-town to 1939 Harlem in the UK’s first all-Black cast production of this iconic show. In a co-production by the Royal Exchange theatre and Talawa, the UK’s primary Black led touring theatre company. Ray Fearon as the charming Nathan Detroit leads an all-star cast that includes Ashley Zhangazha and Abiona Omonua. Choreography is by the award winning hip-hop dancer Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy. Ebonyonline.net caught up with the director ahead of its Xmas release.


EO: Why did you decide to get involved in directing a black version of the iconic ‘Guys and Dolls’s musical?

MB: After the phenomenal success of King Lear our previous co-production, the Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange, Sarah Franckom, asked me what would I like to do next. I’d always wanted to do a musical, and Guys and Dolls is my one of my favourites. So, here we are.


EO: As a director, what did you want to achieve. Ie what was your vision?

MB: My vision for this production was that it shouldn’t take place against a glitzy backdrop of theatre land and 42nd Street, but against a community or neighbourhood setting. Setting it in Harlem means that we can also infuse the production with Black music of that time – the jazz and blues sound which isn’t too far from the original score but which helps ground the characters in their setting and shape their context.


We know that Harlem by the late 1930s was a real melting pot as Black people from the agricultural South came to the urban and industrial North via the ‘underground railroad’, and they brought with them music, cultural traditions and ways of understanding the world which created a very unique energy that lit the spark of creativity.


EO: You’ve said “Much of our popular culture, from dance to music, has its roots in the pre-war Harlem.” How did you want to convey this to the audience?

MB: I hope this will come across in the recognition of the music and of the dance that the audience will see and hear.  It will look in keeping with the period, but also have a contemporary feel and energy for today’s audiences.


EO: What was it like working with Ray Fearon, Ashley Zhangazha and the rest of this marvellous cast?

MB: It an absolute joy to be working with Ray again. The last time we worked together was ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ here at the Exchange which was a fantastic experience as well as a hugely successful production.  I’ve been watching Ashley over the last few years with keen interest and I’m really enjoying what he is bringing to the role of Sky Masterson.


Many of the rest of the cast are new to me, but working with them in the rehearsal room is nothing short of awe inspiring – everyone is bringing so much to this production.


EO: And the much lauded choreographer Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy of Boy Blue Entertainments?

MB: Kenrick brings such huge expertise and experience. I feel we have an immediate understanding of the world we are creating, and his ability to draw in the different dance and movement styles adds a dimension and energy we wouldn’t have seen before in Guys and Dolls.



EO: For those who don’t know, give us a very brief history of Talawa theatre?

MB: Talawa Theatre Company has been in existence for 30 years, having been founded in late 1986 by Yvonne Brewster, Carmen Munroe, Mona Hammond, and Ingo Espejel.  We were founded in response to the lack of creative opportunities for Black actors and the marginalisation of Black peoples from cultural processes.


We are now the UK’s primary Black led touring theatre company. Our work is informed by the wealth and diversity of the Black British experience, and we consciously work at this in all our work, especially through our artist development activity.


We nurture new stories and fresh approaches to theatre-making through MAKE, our UK wide community of Black theatre makers who are shaping their own development, and the future of British theatre.


EO: How important is it for Talawa to be collaborating with other theatre companies like the Royal Exchange?

MB: Theatre thrives on collaboration. Our relationship with the Royal Exchange has been mutually rewarding, and Guys and Dolls is our third collaboration. Prior to that the Royal Exchange co-produced King Lear and All My Sons with us, both of which were phenomenally successful.


As a theatre company without a venue of our own, we can only make and show work on this scale with collaborations like the one we have with the Royal Exchange.  The team at the Royal Exchange are a real delight to work with.


EO: What other projects do you have in the pipeline?

MB: We are working on several projects.  Our community of Black theatre makers, MAKE, will launch an online counterpart in spring 2018.  In addition, we’ll be holding a showcase of work by new artists in early summer.


For 2019, we’re planning a unique season of large-scale BAME work with our partners at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre which will be seen both in Birmingham and in London’s West End.  As part of this we’ll also be supporting and enhancing the London shows with a wrap-around programme of work by emerging BAME artists, production and directing staff and will have everything from a festival of new play readings, and work-in-progress, to workshops and master-classes.


The idea is to boost the visibility and profile of established and emerging diverse theatrical talent.  And as part of that we will be working in partnership with leading BAME artists including Lenny Henry, Meera Syal, Don Warrington, and Lucian Msamati.  It’s really exciting.


EO: Recently we went to see the BiBi Crew. Which was the female version of the Posse, of which you were part. Tell us why their formation was important?

MB: The Bibi crew, like our company The Posse, was a direct response to the feeling of hitting a glass ceiling in our profession. We wanted to have some control of the work we were doing. It was a very empowering, and it was great to be in a company of actors who had control over their work.


EO: Finally, what can audience expect from this new and exciting production of Guys and Dolls?

MB: For me, storytelling is as important as the music in this production of Guys and Dolls. The interaction between Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown is very like that between Beatrice and Benedict in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and I want to get that across along with the great jazz music, singing and movement which will be such an inseparable part of this show.


Put it this way, we’re planning on making this Guys and Dolls a night to end all nights at the theatre!


Guys and Dolls runs from 2 December – 27 January at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. For details and tickets visit www.talawMB:com  or www.royalexchange.co.uk  Box office: 0161 833 9833

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