When Reuben Esson-Parkes unearthed a photographic goldmine of 1970s/80s Black artists in the Riverside Studios archive collection, he was inspired to curate an exhibition celebrating the their creative endeavours.
Black and Gifted is the first large-scale exhibition of Riverside Studios' archived collection; before its current incarnation as a theatre and arts centre, the Hammersmith venue opened its doors in 1933 as a film, then TV, studios — used to shoot everything from Hancock's Half Hour to Doctor Who.
In 1976, it became an arts theatre, and it is from this era that Black and Gifted shines a light on a time when Riverside Studios was a rare outlet for Black companies — including the Black Theatre Cooperative, Talawa and Dance Theatre of Harlem — as well as performers like Norman Beaton, Yvonne Brewster, Mona Hammond and Lenny Henry.
Reuben Esson-Parkes, Riverside Studios' creative associate, was inspired to delve into the venue's collections of photographs after hearing an interview with the well-known playwright, poet and musician Benjamin Zephaniah, in which he recalled Riverside as a "home from home" for young Black creatives.
"The sense of excitement, hope and endless creativity are evident in these photos"
"For young Black people at the time, there were very few places to go. Full stop," said Zephaniah during the interview — noting how young Black theatre and dance practitioners — predominantly artists with African Caribbean heritage — found Riverside more than just a studio.
Esson-Parkes says on his subsequent explorations in the archives, he found a wealth of photographs conveying the ambitions and achievements of Black theatre, dance and music practitioners working at Riverside Studios during the late 1970s and early 1980s. "Eye-opening" posters, photographs and flyers show Black artists being given a platform during their formative years. "The sense of excitement, hope and endless creativity are evident in these photos," says the curator.
Among the photos are those of productions and rehearsals featuring Norman Beaton, one of Britain's most influential Black actors, best known for his role in Channel 4's Peckham-based comedy Desmond's. Before that, Beaton had a successful career on Riverside's stage, and acted in Yvonne Brewster's debut production of The Black Jacobins.
There are also photographs from Zephaniah's dub opera Job Rocking; rehearsal images for Mustapha Matura's Welcome Home Jacko; photos of Mona Hammond, a Jamaican-British actor and another co-founder of the Talawa Theatre Company, who also played in O Babylon! The Musical. Flyers from early Lenny Henry gigs can be seen too, from the time he was carving out his career as a stand-up comedian.
"What I see in many of the photos is young, Black and gifted artists who utilised and benefited from the platform that Riverside Studios provided in its unique and special way in being a creative hub and connecting, embracing and presenting talent,” says Esson-Parkes.
"I see young Black men and women with dreams and a desire to perform and be heard"
The material — on display at Riverside Studios until 16 April 2023 — takes the form of a "giant photo album", and Esson-Parkes hopes people will fall in love with the material, and feel the same inspiration from it, as he did.
"In the photos, I see young Black men and women with dreams and a desire to perform and be heard," says Esson-Parkes, "the exhibition will be striking, alive and nostalgic."
Black and Gifted, Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, 13 March-16 April 2023, free