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The Holocaust is our history too

Outspoken: Rikki Beadle-Blair

RARELY, WHEN people talk about black history do they refer to the holocaust of the Second World War. Shalom Baby, a new play by award-winning playwright, Rikki Beadle Blair, is a romantic comedy that focuses specifically on black people caught in the violence of Nazi Germany.

The renowned director feels black people should examine other aspects of black history, and not just slavery.

“I guess we have been looking at other forms of oppression, like slavery, racism and segregation; we focus almost entirely on those,” says Beadle-Blair. “I don’t think we should focus less on slavery, but we should focus on other things in addition to it and celebrate our diversity, and our true Diaspora.

“Almost everybody I talk to about this play asks me, ‘what were black people doing in Germany?’ Like we have never travelled! There are black people all over the world and always have been, but there are people who don’t know that. People don’t know that we are pioneers, explorers, travelers and wealthy leaders. We have been around! Because of the legacy of being stolen from a continent, we’ve become less proud of our intrepid nature. It’s almost like wishing we stayed at home.”

Researching a subject like the Holocaust, which literally means to be completely consumed by fire, is difficult, mainly because much of the evidence has been destroyed.

“Of course, by the nature of the Holocaust, people have been exterminated, but as I found more evidence, it’s been very moving. The history of black people involved is very patchy. We [black people] haven’t been as diligent in maintaining and investigating our history, as the Jewish community. Obviously, there were more Jewish people who died but they have been very passionate about maintaining their history.”

Looking deeper into the history of black people in Germany pre-1945, Beadle-Blair discovered the book, Destined to Witness, by African-German writer Hans-Jurgen Massaquoi, who grew up in Nazi Germany.

“It really helped me to understand the German people. You have someone who wasn’t an Aryan, who gets pulled in by the propaganda and wants a Nazi uniform for Christmas. I thought I knew a lot about black history, but doing my research, I have been humbled by how little I knew.”

After visiting the Holocaust museum in America, Beadle-Blair, who is the brother of former EastEnders actor Gary Beadle, was inspired to write about all the victims of the far-right organisation.

“I went to Washington DC 10 years ago and there is an amazing Holocaust museum. I was really struck by the fact that in America, where the Holocaust didn’t actually take place, there was this amazing museum, but not an African American museum and at that time, no Native American museum either.

“It brought two things to my mind. One: is it easier to look at the things that other countries have done to people? And two: I noticed black organisations are not as passionate about telling our story in the Holocaust.”
Set in a vibrant 1930’s Berlin, Shalom Baby follows the love story between a wealthy Jewish girl and a black Shabbes Goy; a boy who assists Jews with tasks forbidden by Jewish law.

No stranger to tackling controversial subjects matters, the openly gay writer explored the issue of homophobia in dancehall culture in his 2005 production Bashment. This time, he explores the traditions of black and Jewish humour in the face of oppression, as the nightlife culture conflicts with the rise of the Nazi movement.

Contrasting this love story from the past with a modern day mixed-race romance in Brooklyn, Beadle-Blair delves into recent tensions and ties between the black and Jewish communities.

“In Brooklyn, the relationship between black and Jewish people is more strained than it is here [in England]. In New York, there have been riots between the two, so it seemed like a really good juxtaposition.”

In addition, he says he wants to prove that black British writers can create stories that tackle more than the obvious ‘black issues.’

“I want to be able to punch with the big boys. I want to have the freedom to write about what I want, like Arthur Miller or Harold Pinter. I don’t want to leave the entire epic and international themes to the white writers, I want it to belong to us too. If not, once again, white writers own the world and black writers rent it.”

* Shalom Baby opens at the Theatre Royal Stratford East on October 20, for more information visit www.stratfordeast.com

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