Ones to watch in 2022: May Sumbwanyambe

With his play Enough of Him, about a slave freed by the Scottish courts in 1778, due to open at Pitlochry Festival Theatre in the autumn and another play in development for the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow, May Sumbwanyambe is preparing for a hectic 12 months, writes Joyce McMillan

May Sumbwanyambe

When May Sumbwanyambe was born in Edinburgh, back in 1986, his parents simply assumed – or hoped – that he would grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer. They were both doctors, who had come to Edinburgh from southern Africa to train, and decided not to return immediately to his father’s homeland of Zambia; and for many years, it looked as if their third child, May, would fulfil those ambitions, as the family moved first to Livingston, and then south to Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

By the time he turned 20, Sumbwanyambe was a law student at Leeds University; but during his time at Leeds, something began to change. He became fascinated by the stories her encountered in the legal cases he studied, what he calls the “slow stories” of human life and conflict, in all their complexity; and the turning-point came when he was sent by a student newspaper to review Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads, a play about English identity and race by the great black British playwright Roy Williams.

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“I never even wrote the review,” says Sumbwanyambe. “I just knew that I was in love, and that writing plays, and being involved in theatre, was what I wanted to do. I wrote a play really quickly after that, and sent it in to West Yorkshire Playhouse, and the answer came back that the play was terrible, but they wanted to talk to me, because there was something promising there. And that was really the start of my life as a playwright.”

All of which helps to explain why, 15 years on, Sumbwanyambe is fast becoming one of the key creative figures in Scotland’s increasingly determined effort to come to terms with its own colonial past, and particularly with Scottish involvement in slavery and the slave trade. His play Enough Of Him – about the story of Joseph Knight, freed from slavery to the Wedderburn family by the Scottish courts in 1778, and his wife Annie Thomson, a working-class Scottish woman – will be co-produced by the National Theatre of Scotland and Pitlochry Festival Theatre in the autumn of 2022, after many pandemic-related delays.

His 2018 BBC radio version of the story, The Trial of Joseph Knight, has already been broadcast; and his schedule for the coming year is packed with projects, ranging from the completion of his PhD thesis for the University of York, to a series of four further plays about the history of black people in Scotland before 1950, one of them – about the American civil rights campaigner Frederick Douglass, and his visits to Scotland in the 1840s and 50s – already under commission to the Citizens’ Theatre.

Add in commissions for new radio and television plays, and a raft of teaching and workshop commitments, and it makes for a frantically busy schedule; but after a recent decision to settle in Glasgow, Sumbwanyambe says his main feeling is one of gratitude that he has been able to keep working through the pandemic, and has found a place he can call home.

“After that first encounter with West Yorkshire Playhouse, I had years of tremendous support from theatres in London, in Scotland, and all over the north of England,” says Sumbanyambe. “Early on, I had a residency at Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse that changed everything for me; and I was in London for while, and had some great experiences, including presenting a short play at the Old Vic – although London can be quite an unforgiving environment for theatre work, I think.”

In 2016, Sumbwanyambe’s play After Independence – about the fate of a formerly white-owned farm in Zimbabwe – scored a major critical success in London; but in 2017, he returned to Scotland, first to teach at Napier University, and then for a year’s residency at Edinburgh University.

“The Scottish referendum in 2014 really made me think about my own identity,” says Sumbwanyambe. “I think my siblings and I had always used the phrase “black British” as a kind of get-out, because we certainly didn’t feel English. If I had been living in Scotland in 2014, I would have voted for independence; but it still felt as if I was at risk of losing that “black British” identity without having any say in it, and I had to think that through.”

For Sumbwanyambe, the solution was to come back to Scotland, and make his home here. There’s nothing simplistic, though, about his attitude to Scotland, or to the whole history of black people in Britain; instead, he prefers the long, slow process of telling rich stories, and recognising complexity.

“It’s interesting that although I never practised law, many of my stories have the detail of legal cases as their backdrop. I love the contradictions that exist there – like the fact that Henry Dundas, whose statue and pillar in Edinburgh are now so controversial because of his connections to the slave trade – was the advocate who made the case for Joseph Knight’s freedom at the Court of Session in 1778.

“I’m also interested in expanding the range of stories of black people in Britain. There’s a very strong tendency in British theatre to stereotype black stories as “urban” stories, but that’s not the whole picture; there are plenty of black middle-class families who face different issues, and growing up near Grimsby, I lived in an area that was all about the land and agriculture. So I’m still intensely interested in the whole story of land ownership and farming, and that dimension of British and colonial history.

“For now, though, I’m just glad to be here in Glasgow, and to be working with so many great theatre people here. When the Kenmure Street action against deportations by the immigration service happened last year – just a couple of streets from my flat – I just thought this is it, I’m home. These are my people; and this is where I can work and carry on working, for a long time to come.”

Enough Of Him will premiere at Pitlochry Festival Theatre in autumn 2022

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