Two Female Writers Claim They Were Pushed Out of Idris Elba Play

@Marc Brenner

In a blog post, the writers say they were removed without credit from 'Tree,' a theater production billed as a collaboration between Idris Elba and director Kwame Kwei-Armah.

Two female writers claim they were removed, without credit, from a high-profile British theater production being put on by actor Idris Elba and British director and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah. The play, Tree, will premiere at the Manchester International Festival on July 4 before moving to the Young Vic in London, where it is scheduled to run July 29-Aug. 29.

But in a blog post entitled "Tree. A story of gender and power in theatre," Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin claim they conceived of the original idea for the show and worked for four years on the project, before being dropped shortly before it went into production. They further claim they felt "bullied and silenced" by the play's producers who they claim repeatedly made financial offers to "buy us off."

"For us it's been devastating proof of the way doors are shut on women, and on the underdogs," they wrote. "We became completely disposable because we’re not famous or important enough. We were expected to shut up, lie down, and take it."

Tree is billed as a fusion of music, drama and dance following "one man’s journey into the heart and soul of contemporary South Africa." Alfred Enoch (How to Get Away With Murder) stars as Kaelo, a London-born mixed-race man forced by a family tragedy to travel for the first time to his parents' homeland of South Africa. Sinéad Cusack co-stars alongside Christian Bradley and Lucy Briggs-Owen.

Henley and Allen-Martin claim Tree began as a project back in 2015 when Elba, who was friends with Allen-Martin and had collaborated with her on his music album mi Mandela, asked the pair to “come up with an idea for a musical” using the music from mi Mandela. The two women claim they worked with Elba developing and workshopping the project for the next three and a half years. But, they claim, when Kwame Kwei-Armah signed on to direct the play last summer, they were sidelined with Kwei-Armah showing a “clear intention to write the piece” as well as direct it.

The story of Henley and Allen-Martin's claims was first reported by The Stage magazine in London. 

Henley and Allen-Martin write that Kwame retained several of their original ideas, "including the premise, timelines and time zones, most of our characters and their relationships to each other and many of the plot points,” of the original project, but changed the story dramatically. "In our opinion, our story of hope and celebration had become more of a black trauma narrative and it had been politicized in a way we weren’t happy with, with certain race issues (including a character based on Tori’s mixed ethnicity) contorted in a way we felt was detrimental to the show and the way mixed ethnicity is viewed as a result."

In a joint statement, Elba's Green Door Pictures company, the Young Vic and the Manchester International Festival (MIF) said they were "deeply saddened" to read the online article. All three said they were "passionate about supporting and nurturing emerging talent within the creative industry from the widest variety of backgrounds" and were "committed to ensuring fair representation on stage and behind the scenes."

They acknowledged that Henley and Allen-Martin were involved in "exploring ideas for a project based on Idris’ original concept," but took issue with the writers' portrayal of events. "The fact of the matter is that MIF and Green Door did not feel their proposed direction was artistically viable," they wrote. "It was decided by these producers that the show needed to go in a very different direction with a new writer attached, using Idris Elba’s original concept as the starting point."

They also denied any legal obligations to Henley and Allen-Martin and said their offers of a “thanks to” credit and an additional payment were made "only in the spirit of reaching a compromise."

Henley and Allen-Martin have set up a donations page online to raise money to pay their legal fees — some $6,300 (£5,000) — incurred and to raise money for a new organization, called Burn Bright, to help female writers in the creative industries.

Kwei-Armah tweeted a personal response to the claim, expressing sympathy for the two writers, but rejecting their version of events. "I understand the pain of being ‘released’ from a project. It has happened to me, and it cuts deep," he wrote..

Kwei-Armah said he would welcome a public debate on the issue with Henley and Allen-Martin "at a venue of their choice."

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the premiere date of Tree at the Manchester Festival. It is July 4. The Stage, not The Guardian, first reported the story.