TThe National Theater in London will welcome a new audience for the first time since March with a new play whose main character asks: “How am I British as a black man?”
Written by Roy Williams and Clint Dyer, it is a sequel to the Death of England couple’s monologue, about football and national identity, which was a hit earlier this year in the Dorfman Theater at the National. England’s death closed in March, days before the National closed due to the coronavirus crisis. The new play, titled Death of England: Delroy, is another monologue and will be directed by Dyer and staged for a socially distant audience in the larger Olivier Theater. Dyer and Williams would become the first black British playwrights to have a full-scale production of their play in The Olive Tree. It will star Giles Terera, who won an Olivier Award for playing Aaron Burr in the musical Hamilton in London.
The new piece, which National Artistic Director Rufus Norris describes as explosive and topical, was the subject of a workshop this week at the South Rim site. The National has yet to confirm the production date but is hoping to stage it “as soon as possible” now that socially distanced indoor performances are allowed (step 4 of Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden’s roadmap to the reopening of theaters). There are plans to make the piece available digitally if live performances cannot resume as soon as expected.
Delroy is mentioned in Death of England as the best friend of a white working class man, Michael (played by Rafe Spall). Michael tells Delroy, “You can act like us and talk like us, but you’ll never be one of us. Williams said he had “felt this at various times in my life,” just like Dyer. “It marked me to a degree,” added Williams. “I use means to channel that and become the person that I am – and so is Clint.”
Michael’s comments “ring in Delroy’s ears” at the start of the new monologue, which has a mixture of rage and humor similar to that of its predecessor and is set in London in 2020. “Delroy wonders, ‘How am I? I British as a black man? ‘ He did it literally, he did everything right – he paid his taxes, he has a responsible job. He just feels: why is this happening to me?
Death of England began as a short drama commissioned by the Guardian and the Royal Court Theater for a series of ‘microworlds’ filmed in 2014. The project brought together journalists, playwrights and directors to address issues in key areas of Guardian coverage such as politics, education and sport. Dyer and Williams met sports writer Barney Ronay and decided to explore issues of race and national identity in football. Dyer, who directed the 2014 film, said at the time that being black and British gives him and Williams a perspective both as “both outsider and insider.” This, says Williams, “is the war Delroy has with himself – am I an insider or an outsider?” Especially with Michael’s family. He has a relationship with Michael’s sister, Carly.
Dyer and Williams had already started working together on the new play before the lockdown and before the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests in response to the murder of George Floyd. “We have been overwhelmed by events as of this writing,” said Williams. The couple fine-tuned sections of each other’s script via email in a collaboration that Williams called joyful. “I’m glad we felt this because it’s a serious thing we’re writing about, but you’ve got to have a little fun doing it.”
Williams said he felt a sense of relief that he was able to complete the Death of England series before UK theaters were closed by the pandemic and that it had been “gutted” for those whose pieces were in dress rehearsal in March. but could not open. He described walking past the city’s empty theaters as heartbreaking. When theaters begin to reopen, he warns that they cannot “continue where we left off”. Commissioning processes must change, he said. “I really want the theater to accept that there are new voices everywhere now. I want the theater to seize these voices and make them heard.
The National Theater is halfway through a dismissal consultation and is letting its team of 400 casual workers go. In a Guardian article on Friday, Norris writes that the organization is applying for a loan and, if successful, will make repayments for the next 20 years. Norris believes it is essential that theaters are able to continue to create works for audiences, commission writers and employ freelance artists, rather than leaving buildings dormant during the pandemic. “The fact that each theater remains inactive until the storm passes carries unacceptable risks,” he writes. “We will lose our independent workforce with its irreplaceable talent and skills, we will lose the progress we have made on diversity.” Amid what he describes as “the harsh and inevitable pain of layoffs,” Norris says that “the decision to at least begin the process of staging this work is important to the organization.”