THE question of representation of people of colour on the Scottish stage (and, for that matter, within theatre audiences) is as complex as it is urgent. Where black people of African and African-Caribbean descent are concerned, there has been, in recent years, some incremental progress.

Black theatre artists based in Scotland – such as dramatist and actor Adura Onashile (author of black history plays HeLa and Ghosts) and Nicole Cooper (two times Best Performance winner at the annual Critics’ Awards For Theatre In Scotland) – have come to the fore. Writer and performer Hannah Lavery’s theatrical monologue The Drift is a recent highlight.

Both Onashile and Cooper have achieved prominence partly through playing parts (such as the lead role in Euripides’s Greek classic Medea) that have historically been reserved for white actors.

Such casting is one important element in addressing the pressing issue of black representation. Another, as Glasgow-based writer and legal scholar May Sumbwanyambe points out, is creating plays about black Scottish history.

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I catch up with the writer during rehearsals for his forthcoming play Enough Of Him, a drama about Joseph Knight, a black slave from Jamaica who famously challenged his own enslavement through the Scottish legal system. The play, which is being directed by Orla O’Loughlin, former artistic director of Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, is a co-production of the National Theatre of Scotland and Pitlochry Festival Theatre.

For Sumbwanyambe, there is no point in history plays unless they speak to the present. He remembers during the debate over the UK’s membership in the European Union, listening to right-wing Brexiteers with a growing sense of weariness.

There was, he says, a lot of “coded language”. Terms like: “we want our country back” were being thrown around with alacrity.

He “struggled”, he says, with the feeling he was getting from some white people that they were longing for a Britain before the arrival of the Windrush in 1948, when, according to their perception, the UK was a “white nation”. Being well-versed in British legal and social history, he knew that “black people have been contributing [to British society]... for a very, very long period of time”.

One of those people was Joseph Knight. Seized in West Africa, and enslaved in Jamaica, where he was purchased by Scottish plantation owner Sir John Wedderburn, Knight was brought to Perthshire as a “favoured” slave to serve in Wedderburn’s mansion.

In his landmark legal action – which was heard by the Justices of the Peace court in Perth in 1774 – Knight established (on appeal against an original ruling in Wedderburn’s favour) that slavery had no legal status in Scotland and, consequently, he was a free man.

The National: May Sumbwanyambe.

Sumbwanyambe (above) is not the first writer to alight upon Knight’s inspiring story. James Robertson’s novel Joseph Knight was published in 2003 to considerable acclaim.

For Sumbwanyambe, however, it is important that black Scottish history be represented on the public stage. He is pleased, he says, to see Rona Munro’s new play James IV: Queen Of The Fight addressing the fact that there were Moors from southern Spain (people of black African descent) in the Scottish court at Holyrood in the early-1600s.

Much has been said about black representation in Scotland since the reignition of the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement following the hideous, racist murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020.

The National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) was “ahead of the curve”

in terms of the recent debate, says Sumbwanyambe.

Prior to BLM hitting the headlines two years ago – not least as a result of the trashing of the statue of the hated slaver Edward Colston in Bristol – the company had already asked him which black Scottish play he would want to write. Consequently, Enough Of Him (in which actor Omar Austin is set to play the role of Knight) was already in train by the time activists were on the streets, taking the knee in Floyd’s memory.

The initial question from the NTS was: “If you had to choose one black Scottish story to write a play about, which one would it be?” However, Sumbwanyambe was clear from the outset that he didn’t want to cram a lot of stories into one play for fear that he might not get another opportunity to put black Scottish history on the stage.

Consequently, he is currently engaged in an extraordinary 10 playwriting projects that are, he says: “trying to retell the story of Scotland from the point-of-view of the country’s black sons and daughters”. Those projects include a play under commission to Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre about Tom Johnson, the Sierra Leonean sailor who, despite being stabbed during the infamous race riot on Glasgow’s Broomielaw in 1919, was taken, not to hospital, but to be arraigned before magistrates.

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Whether it is Johnson, Knight or any other figure in black Scottish history, Sumbwanyambe is dedicated to what he calls “creative intervention” in the representation of the past. In other words, he is committed to finding a compelling artistic expression for stories that are rooted in real historical events.

Not only does the playwright want to create deep and compelling characterisations for Knight and his white, working-class lover Annie Thompson, but he also wants to render Wedderburn himself with the same kind of human complexity. There is, he says, no reward for audiences in the slave owner being represented as a pantomime villain.

Even Wedderburn, Sumbwanyambe insists, carries the “trauma” of having lived in a brutal Jamaican society, in which physical abuse, torture and rape of black slaves was routine. Crucially, he says, as the audience encounters the characters in Scotland in the 1770s, we have to sense that their memories of their lives in Jamaica are something that they are experiencing “right now” in the present moment of the play.

Such a sense of immediacy is, arguably, the essence of all great history plays. Enough Of Him promises to be a powerful and memorable drama about a key moment in black Scottish history.

Enough Of Him plays at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, October 20-29, then touring until November 19: