Credit: The National Theatre

Teaching history through theatre

By Caitlin Martin

Sharing the stories of minority groups on stage.

In As You Like It, Shakespeare famously quoted: “all the world’s a stage”. While this sombre metaphor has echoed through the arts for decades, the physical stage should also reflect the world and everyone in it. This year has witnessed mass civil rights movements in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, with the Black Lives Matter movement catapulted centre stage. With increased awareness for the BLM movement, there have been loud calls for more inclusive historical education; raising of minority voices; and information on the realities of colonialism. 

This call for inclusivity has also been seen in the theatre and entertainment industry, with both critics and the public alike calling for more diversity internationally over the last few years. #OscarsSoWhite and increased awareness of Black theatrical contributions are just some examples of how the narrative is being reshaped.  Last year’s Black History Month saw the inaugural debut honouring Black talent within the performing arts industry, shockingly, for the first time. While representation is vital, ensuring that stories discussing the experiences of minority groups are seen on stage is equally as important. This Black History Month, sharing historical perspectives and stories of minority voices seems a more pressing issue than ever. 

Theatre and history are both embedded in storytelling and sharing lived experiences. With historical accounts shared orally for centuries, both disciplines are intrinsically linked. The performing arts have the ability to inform and educate through sharing stories of minority voices and experiences, teaching history in an electric and thought-provoking manner.  Lin-Manuel Miranda demonstrated this with his Broadway phenomena Hamilton, interweaving the historical past with the political present. While the presentation of Hamilton as an allegory of immigrant inclusiveness and equality is a stretch, it sparks an awareness of inclusion and immigrant voices. It tells the widely accepted Eurocentric understanding of American history to “sit down” and questions accepted historical narratives and realpolitik as no one is in “the room where it happens”. The success of this hip-hop musical demonstrates that theatre and history do work hand in hand, with the colour-blind casting encouraging diversity within an often white-washed historical rhetoric. 

Theatre has the capacity to conflict with accepted and mainstream narratives and bring to light unknown stories of figures and perspectives. The National Theatre’s At Home lockdown streaming of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs seemed particularly poignant after Spring’s BLM protests. Its depiction of the plights of colonialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in an unnamed African city educates the audience on the realities of Black colonial history. Plays such as Les Blancs present a stark contrast to the educational narratives in the curriculum, and have a key role in educating the masses and creating awareness. 

Bringing a variety of voices and diversity to the theatre scene provides a range of perspectives, which, much like telling stories, is at the heart of both theatre and history. My education in school was shaped by a White, national curriculum where perspectives of BAME were few and far between. As a recent history graduate, it was only when I got to university that differing perspectives took centre stage and made me realise how white-washed history across the UK’s curriculum truly is. 

Telling stories creates bridges and builds relationships. Presenting stories that discuss the experiences of minority groups will not only create awareness and educate, but also strengthen the bonds of the vibrant, multicultural society we live in today. There are still a lot of bridges to build and using diverse theatre as a means to present this history is an important pathway to the world we want to create post-pandemic. 


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