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Event explores the history of Black performers across local theatres


The University of Wolverhampton's School of Performing Arts is celebrating Black History Month with a virtual event exploring the work of Black performers across the theatres and variety halls of the West Midlands between 1900 and 1950.

The event will be held on Tuesday 13th October 2020 at 7.00 pm. Dr Sarah Whitfield, Senior Lecture in Musical Theatre and Course Leader for the Musical Theatre Master's Course will be in conversation with New York director, Sean Mayes, talking about their forthcoming book with Methuen Drama - An Inconvenient Black History of British Musical Theatre 1900-1950.

The talk explores how some of the most famous Black artists of all time performed in the West Midlands. International singing star and activist, Paul Robeson returned many times to great acclaim in Coventry, Birmingham and Hanley (Stoke). Perhaps the greatest tap dancers of all time, the Nicholas Brothers, performed at the Birmingham Hippodrome in 1948; even Josephine Baker performed in Birmingham in 1937.

The talk unpicks the network of theatres across the West Midlands and the many Black artists and producers who toured long before Windrush. We note the extensive work of performers like Cassie Walmer – who visited Walsall in 1900, Birmingham born Black comedian Eddie Emerson (who toured throughout the 1920s and 30s), and African American producer and musician Will Garland, who performed extensively across the region.

Sarah said: ‘We are particularly excited to share the history of Mabel Mercer, who was born in Staffordshire, and before her long career as a cabaret performer in New York, worked extensively across the UK including the many theatres in the West Midlands.

“The histories we tell about this period matter to the future: Black performers and practitioners shaped musical theatre across the UK, and we can’t wait to share the particular contribution and importance to the West Midlands.”

Originally from Canada, Sean is a New York music director active both in New York City & Toronto, with a background in London & the United Kingdom. In New York City, Sean is an active member of the Broadway music community as a music director, vocal coach, accompanist, arranger/orchestrator & pit musician. Additionally, Sean is a proud Music Director Teaching Artist with Disney Theatrical Group, the New York Pops, and New York City Center, as well as Music Director of the Fourth Universalist Society of New York.

Equally comfortable in the realm of education as in musical theatre, Sean is a sought out educator of musical theatre, vocal, choral & instrumental music in many styles to all ages. His work embraces a diversity and sensitivity to numerous realms of music and leadership. In 2019, Sean was Music Director and Conductor of the Canadian premiere of THE COLOR PURPLE. 

Dr Sarah Whitfield's 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.

Her research focuses on recovering collaborative labour and challenging historiographies of the musical through recovery archival practices. Her work has addressed feminist readings of musical theatre, such as her work on Frozen; representations of masculinity and theatricality; and more recently on fan studies and fans' resistant readings of Hamilton as a bisexual space.

Anyone interested in attending the free event should book through Eventbrite. 


For more information please contact the Corporate Communications Team.

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