Michael Abbensetts

Contributor: Nisha Obano

Michael Abbensetts was born on 8 June 1983 in Georgetown, British Guiana (now Guyana) to Neville John, a doctor, and Elaine Abbensetts. He was enrolled at Queen’s College at the age of fourteen and left in 1956. He continued his education in Canada, first at Stanstead College, Quebec and later at Sir George Williams University in Montreal until 1961. He then left for the UK and acquired British citizenship in 1974.

A writer of short stories, Abbensetts turned to theatre after seeing a performance of John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger. His first play, Sweet Talk, was performed at the Royal Court in London in 1973 and directed by Stephen Frears, starring Mona Hammond and Don Warrington. Sweet Talk won the George Devine Award that year, and Abbensetts became Resident Dramatist at the Royal Court. 1973 also saw Abbensetts’ first television drama; The Museum Attendant, directed by Stephen Frears, was based on the author’s own experiences as a security guard at the Tower of London, and was broadcast on BBC 2. Abbensetts went on to have a successful career writing for the stage and television with works like Inner City Blues (1974), Roadrunner and Black Christmas (1977), often working with the actor Norman Beaton (who would later become the television barber of Peckham, Desmond Ambrose). Then came Empire Road in 1978. Not only was Empire Road Britain’s first black soap opera, it also boasted an all-black production unit with Abbensetts as creator and writer, Horace Ové as director (for the second series) and Norman Beaton starring alongside Corinne Skinner-Carter. Unfortunately Empire Road was axed after two series in 1979. But Abbensetts continued to write for television with Easy Money (1981), Big George is Dead and Little Napoleans, which was broadcast on Channel 4 in 1994 and starred Norman Beaton and Saeed Jaffrey as two rival solicitors in a comic drama about the relationship between West Indians and Asians in Britain.

Abbensetts has also taught courses on Caribbean film and television. He was visiting professor of drama at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in the early 1980s and has been a fellow at British universities and at the City and Guilds of London School of Art. Having been a pioneer of Caribbean drama on British television, providing actors like Norman Beaton, Rudolph Walker and Mona Hammond with interesting roles portraying the everyday experiences of black people in the UK, Abbensetts has been credited as ‘the writer who gave Caribbeans a real voice in Britain’, and he remains one of the most respected black playwrights of his generation.

Empire Road. London: Panther, 1979.

Four Plays: Sweet Talk, Alterations, In the Mood and El Dorado. London: Oberon, 2001.

‘Royston’s Diary’ and ‘The Street Party’. Living Together Book 2. Ed. Rhodri Jones. London: Heinemann: 1988.

Samba. London: Methuen, 1980.

Sweet Talk. London: Methuen, 1974.

Alterations. Dir. Peter Stevenson. Perf. Don Warrington, Elizabeth Adar, Lloyd Anderson and Trevor Burtle. New End Theatre, Hampstead, London. 1978.

Alterations 2. Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London. 1986.

El Dorado. Dir. Philip Hedley. Perf. Guy Gregory, Carmen Munroe, Jo Martin and Allister Bain. Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London. 1984.

In The Mood. Dir. Robin Lefevre. Perf. Norman Beaton, Allister Bain, Mona Hammond, Marty Cruickshank and Stefan Kalipha. Hampstead Theatre, London. 10 Jan. 1981.

The Lion. Dir. Dan Lloyd and Horace Ové. Perf. Madge Sinclair, Stefan Kalipha, David Webber, Colette Brown and Danny Sapani. Talawa Theatre Company. Cochrane Theatre, London. 30 Sept. 1993.

The Outlaw. Dir. Robert Gillespie. Perf. Raul Newney, Joy Richardson, Jacqueline Pearce, Tony Hippolyte and Wolfe Morris. Carib Theatre Company. Arts Theatre, London. 15 Nov. 1983.

Samba. Dir. Kenneth Chubb. Perf. Trevor Butler, Rachel Bell, Angela Bruce, Thomas Baptiste and Norman Beaton. Tricycle Theatre, London. 16 Sept. 1980.

Sweet Talk. Dir. Stephen Frears. Perf. Allister Bain, Mona Hammond, Don Warrington, Sally Watts, Joan Ann Maynard and Lee Williams-Davis. English Stage Company. Royal Court Theatre, London. 31 July 1973.

Big George is Dead. Dir. Henry Martin. Perf. Norman Beaton, Linzi Drew, Ram John Holder, Kwabena Manso, Joan Ann Maynard, Paul McKenzie, Count Prince Miller, Wolfe Morris, Sol Raye, Carl Rigg, Rudolph Walker and T-Bone Wilson. Television Film. 1987.

Black Christmas. Dir. Stephen Frears. Perf. Janet Bartley, Norman Beaton, Linda Goddard, Stefan Kalipha, Carmen Munroe and Shope Shodeinde. BBC Television. 20 Dec. 1977.

Easy Money. BBC 2 Playhouse. Dir. Gillian Lynne. Perf. Gary Shail, Norman Beaton, Trevor Laird, Stanley Lebor, Derek Smith, Imelda Staunton and Kim Thomson. BBC 2. 28 May 1982.

Empire Road. Dir. Alex Marshall, Peter Jefferies, Horace Ové and Michael Custance. Perf. Norman Beaton, Corinne Sinner-Carter, Joseph Marcell, Trevor Bulter, Wayne Laryea, Nalini Moonasar and Rosa Roberts. BBC Television. 1978-1979.

‘Inner City Blues’. Crown Court. Dir. Carol Wilks. Perf. Joseph Berry, Nadia Catouse, Richard Colson, John Flanagan, Sheila Gish, Ram John Holder, Oscar James, Seymour Matthews, Joan Ann Maynard, William Mervyn, David Miller, Ronald Radd and Peter Wheeler. Granada Television. 2 Aug. 1975.

Little Napoleans. Dir. Rob Walker. Perf. Norman Beaton, Saeed Jaffrey, Lesley Manville, Simon Callow, Barrie Houghton, Kim Vithana and Zohra Segal. Channel 4. 1994.

The Museum Attendant. Thirty-Minute Theatre. Dir. Stephen Frears. Perf. Stringer Davis, Horace James and Tony Selby. BBC Television. 2 Aug. 1973.

‘Roadrunner’. ITV Playhouse. Dir. Barry Hanson. Perf. Trevor Thomas, Barry Reckord, Janet Bartley, Nadia Catouse, Ram John Holder, Rudolph Walker and Neville Phillips. Independent Television (ITV). 5 July 1977.

‘Vanessa’s World’. Doctors. Dir. Ray Kilby. Perf. Christopher Timothy, Maggie Cronin, Corrinne Wicks, Tom Butcher, Ariyon Bakare, Natalie J Robb, Eva Fontaine, Tabitha Wady. BBC Television. 16 Oct. 2001.

 

Alterations. BBC World Service, 1980.

Brothers of the Sword. BBC Radio. 30 Aug. 1978.

The Dark Horse. BBC Radio. 19 Oct. 1981.

The Fast Lane. Capital Radio. 1980.

Home Again. BBC Radio. 1 Dec. 1975.

Sweet Talk. BBC Radio. 1974.

The Sunny Side of the Street. BBC Radio. 29 July 1977.

Abbensetts, Michael, Anton Phillips, Rudolph Walker, Janet Kay, Malcolm Frederick, Jeffrey Kissoon and Geraldine Connor. ‘Alarm bell for black theatre in Britain’. Letter. The Guardian 21 July 2005: 27.

—. ‘Imperial Sizzlings’. The Observer 30 Dec. 1979: 36.

Banks-Smith, Nancy. Review of Black Christmas by Michael Abbensetts. BBC 2. The Guardian 21 Dec. 1977: 8.

Billington, Michael. ‘All our yesterdays: Want to find out about British history? Look no further than its theatre. As the National Youth Theatre celebrates its 50th anniversary with six new plays marking every decade since the 1950s, Michael Billington examines the concerns – and the blindspots – of Britain’s postwar dramatists’. The Guardian 3 Aug. 2006, G2: 18.

—. Review of Alterations 2 by Michael Abbensetts. Theatre Royal, Stratford East. The Guardian 5 Feb. 1986: 11.

—. ‘The law of the jungle’. Review of The Lion by Michael Abbensetts. Talawa Theatre Company. Cochrane Theatre, London. The Observer 5 Oct. 1993: A6.

—. ‘Life in a box: Black actors already play Shakespearean Kings and now they’re taking on Noël Coward. But where are the new roles that reflect our world?’. The Guardian 4 Dec. 2002: 48.

—. Review of Outlaw by Michael Abbensetts. Carib Theatre Company. The Arts Theatre, London. The Guardian 17 Nov. 1983: 10.

—. Review of Samba by Michael Abbensetts. Tricycle Theatre. The Guardian 19 Sept. 1980: 11.

‘Black but not dark’. The Guardian 21 Jan 1984: 11.

Black Londoners. Narr. Sonia Fraser, Stanley Charles, Alex Pascall, Michael Abbensetts, Molife Pheto, Stewart Patten and Malcolm Laycock. BBC Radio London. Rec. 9 Oct. 1983.

Bourne, Stephen. Black in the British Frame: The Black Experience in British Film and Television. London: Continuum, 2001.

Carne, Rosalind. ‘A case for positive discrimination’. The Guardian 13 June 1983: 9.

Christopher, David. British Culture: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 1999.

Cochrane, Claire. Twentieth-Century British Theatre: Industry, Art and Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.

Cook, Joan. ‘No “intermissions” for prolific playwright’. The New York Times 2 Nov. 1986: NJ27.

Cushman, Robert. ‘The case for dirty hands’. Review of Samba by Michael Abbensetts. Tricycle Theatre, London. The Observer 21 Sept. 1980: 31.

—. Review of Alterations by Michael Abbensetts. The Observer 20 Aug. 1978: 21.

—. Review of Outlaw by Michael Abbensetts. Carib Theatre Company. Arts Theatre, London. The Observer 20 Nov. 1983: 33.

Day-Lewis, Sean. ‘Tom and the Murray Mince’. Review of Big George is Dead by Michael Abbensetts. Channel 4. The Guardian 2 Oct. 1987: 19.

de Jongh, Nicholas. ‘New End’. Review of Alterations by Michael Abbensetts. New End Theatre, Hampstead, London. The Guardian 15 Aug. 1978: 6.

—. Review of El Dorado by Michael Abbensetts. Theatre Royal, Stratford East. The Guardian 1 Feb. 1984: 9.

—. Review of In the Mood by Michael Abbensetts. Hampstead Theatre, London. The Guardian 13 Oct. 1981: 9.

Ferris, Paul. Review of The Dark Horse by Michael Abbensetts. BBC Radio 4. The Observer 25 Oct. 1981: 48.

—.‘Rockall and Reagan’. Review of The Fast Lane by Michael Abbensetts. Dir. Liane Aukin. Capital Radio. The Observer 9 Nov. 1980: 44.

Fiddick, Peter. ‘How to handle a euphemism in black and white’. The Guardian 30 Oct. 1978: 10.

Godiwala, Dimple. Alternatives Within the Mainstream: British Black and Asian Theatres. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006.

Gray, John. Black Theatre and Performance: A Pan-African Bibliography. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Guptara, Prabhu, S. ‘Abbensetts, Michael’. Contemporary Dramatists. Ed. D L Kirkpatrick. 4th ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1988: 1-2.

‘A hard look without soft soap’. The Guardian 21 Aug. 1979: 8.

Herbert, Hugh. ‘The light of the silvery moon’. Review of Little Napoleans by Michael Abbensetts. Channel 4. The Guardian 29 June 1994: T6.

Hilary, Jim. ‘How black theatre grabbed the spotlight’. The Guardian 14 Oct. 1985: 13.

King, Bruce. The Oxford Literary History Vol. 13 1948-2000: The Internationalization of English Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.

Kingsley, Hilary. ‘Couple courting laughter and votes’. Review of Little Napoleans by Michael Abbensetts. Channel 4. The Times 4 June 1994: np.

Kingston, Jeremy. ‘Declining in exile’. Review of The Lion by Michael Abbensetts. Talawa Theatre Company. Cochrane Theatre, London. The Times 6 Oct. 1993: np.

Klein, Alvin. Review of Alterations 1 by Michael Abbensetts. Crossroads Theatre Company, New Brunswick. The New York Times 9 Nov. 1986: NJ24.

Kwei-Armah, Kwame. ‘“Know Whence You Came”: Dramatic Art and Black British Identity’. New Theatre Quarterly 23.3 (2007): 253-263.

—. ‘Sixty years of forgotten treasures: Britain is to get a Black Theatre Archive. Playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah relives his role in its creation’. The Guardian 28 Sept. 2009, G2: 19.

Lantz, Victoria Pettersen. ‘Locating Cultures, Constructing Identities: The Caribbean Diaspora, Black Britain and the Theatre of Mustapha Matura’. Diss. University of Wisconsin, 2010.

Leavy, Suzan. ‘Abbensetts an Example’. Television Today 19 May 1994: np.

Malik, Sarita. Representing Black Britain: Black and Asian Images on Television. London: Sage, 2002.

McMillan, Michael. ‘Notes on Becoming an Artist’. Black Theatre in Britain. Ed. A Ruth Tompsett. Spec. issue of Performing Arts International 1.2 (1996): 57-64.

Newcomb, Horace, ed. Encyclopedia of Television: 001. 2nd ed. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2004.

Phillips, Mike. ‘If it’s hard for black actors in Britain, it’s hard too for black playwrights: Michael Abbensetts should get much more widely known with Empire Road, his new BBC black series set in Birmingham’. The Guardian 5 June 1978: 8.

—. ‘Michael Hastings’ next black project is Marcus Garvey, Rastafarian legend. It’s as if Mustapha Matura were to write about Mosley, says Mike Phillips, who explains black reaction to being represented on stage by Gloo Joo’. The Guardian 12 Feb. 1979: 10.

Poore, Benjamin. Heritage, Nostalgia and Modern British Theatre: Staging the Victorians. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Radin, Victoria. ‘The black Coronation Street’. The Observer 29 Oct. 1978: 31.

Ratcliffe, Michael. ‘The Barker Alternative’. Review of Alterations 2, by Michael Abbensetts. Theatre Royal, Stratford East. The Observer 9 Feb. 1986: 25.

Roberts, Philip. The Royal Court Theatre and the Modern Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Stoby, Michelle. ‘Black British Drama After Empire Road: An Interview with Michael Abbensetts’. Wasafiri 17.35 (2002): 3-8.

‘“A taste of nothing much”: Norman Beaton argues that the BBC should be looking among Britain’s black actors for an Othello — and many other roles as well’. The Guardian 9 Feb. 1979: 12.

Walters, Margaret. ‘Taking Race for Granted’. New Society 16 Nov. 1978.