An Inconvenient Black History of British Musical Theatre

13 October 2021, 1.00 PM - 13 October 2021, 2.00 PM

Sean Mayes and Sarah Whitfield

Online - Zoom

The authors of a new book discuss their groundbreaking research into the hidden history of Black performers and musicians in this FREE public talk, jointly presented by the Department of Theatre & the Department of Music at the University of Bristol. 


Book your free ticket here:


The forthcoming book An Inconvenient Black History of British Musical Theatre: 1900-1950 uncovers the hidden Black history of this most influential of artforms. Drawing on lost archive material and digitised newspapers from the turn of the century onwards, this exciting story has been re-traced and restored to its rightful place. In this talk, authors Sean Mayes and Sarah Whitfield will take a focus on Bristol to uncover the special relationship between Black performers and the city: a connection which sits at the intersections of theatre, music, drama, and dance.

Register for this FREE public talk to hear about Paul Robeson’s multiple visits to Bristol Beacon (then the Colston Hall) in 1930, 1935, 1938, and 1939, through which he was described as ‘one of the greatest living singers’ performing to a ‘packed house held spellbound’. He then returned in 1949 to Central Hall, where he was recorded as giving 14 separate encores – when the concert was over, the audience simply refused to leave. He wasn’t the only important Black practitioner to perform in the city, though: the double-act George Williams and Bert Walker performed here as part of their In Dahomey tour in 1904, and several revues and musicals choreographed by Buddy Bradley were seen at Bristol’s Theatre Royal (now Bristol Old Vic). Impresario William Garland, dancer and choreographer Belle Davis, Scott and Whaley, Zaidee Jackson, and dancers like Amos Howard were just a few of the African American performers who made stops in town. At the same time, Bristol was also visited by a range of Black British performers: figures like the vocalist and comedian Cassie Walmer, as well as Laura Josephine Steer, known professionally as Morchashani.

The presence of Black practitioners is not a subset of British musical theatre history: it is the history of the form. Most crucially, Black performance practice was a vital and significant part of British musical theatre’s history between 1900 and 1950. The development of the musical is a complex story of extraordinary interweaving performance industries, which were consistently led by Black creative producers working in all areas of the cultural industries. For anyone who works in, studies, or cares about the arts, and who is committed to tackling the systemic exclusion and minoritisation of underrepresented creatives today, this talk will be more urgently relevant than ever. Click here to book your free ticket today:



About the Speakers:

Sean Mayes is a New York & Toronto-based music director, conductor, educator, and academic. As a music director & conductor, his work has involved productions in theatres and on stages across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Mr Mayes is an active member of the Broadway community as a music director, vocal coach, accompanist, arranger-orchestrator & pit musician. Mayes’ leading writing and scholarship is uniquely attuned to the current conversation of unpacking systemic issues surrounding representation in theatre. Mr. Mayes is a published author on the role of Black music directors and minoritized artists on Broadway (Reframing the Musical, Race, Culture and Identity, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), and on the retracing of Black practitioners through British musical theatre history (An Inconvenient Black History of British Musical Theatre, Bloomsbury, 2021).

Dr Sarah K. Whitfield is a musical theatre researcher, practitioner and academic. She writes about theatre history with a particular focus in uncovering the work that under-represented and minoritised groups do, and have done, in the arts. She has worked as a researcher and consultant for organisations and institutions to uncover their forgotten histories, and to address historic imbalances. Her recent publications include editing Reframing the Musical: Race, Culture and Identity for Palgrave Macmillan/Red Globe, and Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables (The Fourth Wall Series) for Routledge.

Instagram: @bh_bmt, @sarahinthepark, @seanmayes

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