Playwright Tanika Gupta was brought up in a household of avid fans of Rabindranath Tagore, the former poet laureate of India and prominent playwright. “But anytime I mentioned him at school,” she remembers, “nobody knew who I was talking about.” At the time, her classes were full of Arthur Miller, Shakespeare, and a host of Restoration comedies. “I loved it all, but there was nothing that reflected a more diverse background.” Where, she wanted to know, were the playwrights like Tagore in her classes?
In 2019, Gupta’s play The Empress was one of the texts chosen for the pilot scheme of Lit in Colour, Penguin’s campaign to increase the number of texts by Black, Asian and minority ethnic writers studied in schools. Originally directed by Emma Rice at The Royal Shakespeare Company in 2013, The Empress tells the intertwined story of Queen Victoria’s attendant and teacher, Abdul Karim, and Rani Das, an Indian ayah, or nanny. With a whirlwind portrayal of busy London streets and the range of people who inhabit them, the play challenges the typical idea of a homogenous white Victorian England. “It’s a fun way to learn about history, isn’t it?” Gupta says. “For kids, I think sitting and reading through history books can be quite dour, but doing it through drama is always a good thing.”
When the play was initially staged, she was shocked at the lack of knowledge of British history it revealed. “When it was originally produced, people kept coming up to me and saying, ‘I didn't know this. I didn't know these people existed’. Why is that? Because it's not taught in schools.”
The stories we read as children and teenagers work their way into our bones. They teach us empathy and curiosity. They help us figure out the world we live in. And whether entirely fantastical, or based in historical truth like The Empress, they encourage us to question who controls the narrative.
But the stories studied in schools today are limited. In 2019, fewer than 1% of GCSE English Literature pupils studied a book by a person of colour. With such a shallow selection of stories and storytellers unrepresentative of the society we live in, the next generation is denied access to an enormous, glorious number of writers and the worlds their words can illuminate.
Lit in Colour is trying to change this. With awarding body Pearson Edexcel and race equality thinktank The Runnymede Trust, Penguin’s programme has commissioned research into the barriers preventing students from accessing books by writers of colour. Through interviews and surveys, this research resulted in a set of recommendations for change, which the scheme is helping to set in motion in 100 schools and colleges.
Now, Lit in Colour is expanding. It was recently announced that Penguin have partnered with Bloomsbury and their playtext imprint, Methuen drama, to tackle the limited scope of drama texts studied in school.
“We're committed to this long-term,” says Bloomsbury’s Margaret Bartley, publisher of Arden Shakespeare, who is Editorial Director of Classics, Drama and Performance, Literary Studies and represents Bloomsbury the Lit in Colour advisory board. “Drama offers students a way of expressing themselves and exploring their identities in a way that’s different to fiction. The performative element can give students a voice in the classroom. But if students are not seeing themselves reflected in what they’re studying, they’re less likely to engage with it.”
Together, the publishers hope to make English and drama classes more inclusive and representative. For the last two years, Bloomsbury have supported Lit in Colour’s Pioneer scheme, donating the chosen texts – including The Empress – to schools taking part. But Bartley and her team felt it wasn’t enough. “As the leading play publisher in the country, and with a lot of our plays studied at school and university, we wanted to do more.” Bloomsbury have since opened their vast archive of playtexts to the scheme, and are working closely with schools, students and exam boards to support teachers to embed these texts into the classroom. “Being exposed to more diverse voices helps us understand each other,” she says. “Our goal is that it might help seed future writers, actors, directors and theatre-makers who realise that theatre is something that's relevant and exciting for them.”
Bartley is keenly aware of the obstacles in the programme’s way. “Change has to be made, but it has to be facilitated,” she insists. “You can’t just put it all on the teachers. Exam boards can change the texts but you have to support the teacher. It’s very difficult to ask a teacher to change their set text. They have lesson plans and tight deadlines and pressures of achieving great results for their kids, all of which makes it much more comfortable to stick with the text you know delivers for your students.”
“That’s why the spirit of collaboration that Lit in Colour has, in getting competing publishers to work together, needs to be extended to the teachers and schools,” she continues. “We all know how hard teachers are working, and even more so in the last two years. This is about giving them the space and time and support to help them make a change. It’s about really listening to teachers so that we get it right for them.”
Building on the impressive piece of research done at the start of the Lit in Colour scheme, the partnership is now commissioning a new piece of in-depth research investigating the teaching of playtexts in schools and the barriers to change teachers face. By talking with teachers and students, the research will explore how best to support both to succeed. They hope this research will inform future publishing too – not just of playtexts, but of resources to go alongside them.
To support Bloomsbury’s work on the scheme, and to ensure the partnership is making an impact, Gupta is on a newly formed advisory panel. She sits alongside the Donmar’s Talent Development Manager, mezze eade, and Artistic Director of Tamasha Theatre Company, Pooja Ghai. One of the group’s tasks is to support the creation of an “incomplete” list of recommended plays by writers of colour, to expand the options available to teachers.
“To me, this is part of a broader move to try and decolonise the curriculum,” says Gupta. “I have grown-up children now and even when they went through school, there was nothing for them in terms of their own culture. But it’s not just about Asians learning about Asians, and Africans learning about Africans. It’s about everybody learning about each other’s history through literature. Without that, nothing’s going to change.” She is hopeful that by expanding the breadth of storytelling being examined in schools, this scheme can make a real impact. After all, she says, “it all starts with education.”