Writers Who Worked on Idris Elba Play Say They Have Been Erased

Writers Who Worked on Idris Elba Play Say They Have Been Erased


LONDON — It should have been a moment of celebration for Tori Allen-Martin and Sarah Henley, two British playwrights.

On Thursday, “Tree,” a play they worked on for several years in collaboration with the actor Idris Elba, is set to have its world premiere at the Manchester International Festival. It is directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, the artistic director of the Young Vic theater in London, where it will transfer from July 29.

But the playwrights will not be at the premiere. In separate telephone interviews, they said their role in the play’s development had been erased, and that their work was not being properly acknowledged.

Mr. Elba and Mr. Kwei-Armah say the playwrights withdrew from the project, and that the show evolved so much that it is now a different work.

Ms. Allen-Martin and Ms. Henley said they have spent months wrangling with the show’s producers and their lawyers over what they see as proper credit for their work.

“This whole process has been terribly upsetting, and we’ve felt terrified about speaking out,” the pair wrote in a blog post, published Tuesday on Medium.

“People need to be better, especially people who inspire others,” they added.

Ms. Allen-Martin and Ms. Henley said they had not seen the final production, or read the final script, but said the play’s description on the festival’s website had similarities to their script.

On Thursday, Idris Elba, who declined through a spokeswoman to comment for this article, responded with a statement on Twitter. Ms. Allen-Martin and Ms. Henley stepped back voluntarily from the production after they were told it needed to go in a new direction, Mr. Elba said.

“We wanted to offer an opportunity to support these new writers while creating a piece of work of scale and to a director’s vision,” Mr. Elba said. “The outcome is an accusation of plagiarism and discrimination.”

The flap has gripped Britain’s theater world, where open disputes about authorship and attribution are rare. But an editorial in The Stage, an industry newspaper, said that “putting aside the precise details of this case, aspects of the pair’s narrative will appear depressingly familiar.”

Bryony Kimmings, a performer and writer, said in a telephone interview that she had never been removed from a project herself, but that she knew other writers who had. They would normally get a credit, such as saying a work was “based on an original story” by them, and a fee or royalty payment anyway, she said.

There was a culture of “hero worship” in Britain’s theaters, she said, and many were reluctant to acknowledge projects were collaborations and give recognition to everyone involved.

Ms. Allen-Martin and Ms. Henley said their work on “Tree” dated to January 2015, when Mr. Elba asked Ms. Allen-Martin to help him make a musical based on an album he had released called “Mi Mandela.”

The playwrights wrote a script outline for “Tree,” about a mixed-race young man from London whose parents met during Apartheid, and who travels on a journey to South Africa to discover his roots.

In March 2016, they signed a “deal memo” with Mr. Elba’s production company Green Door and a theater company, Duchess Street Productions. The agreement, seen by The New York Times, includes details of royalties and states that other writers can be brought on board only with the approval of Ms. Allen-Martin and Ms. Henley.

In a statement, Green Door, the Young Vic and the Manchester International Festival said this was only a script “for consideration.” “It is important to appreciate that ‘Tree’ has always been Idris’ project,” the statement added.

In May 2018, Mr. Elba called Ms. Allen-Martin, she said, to confirm that “Tree,” was going ahead — and in a big way: The Manchester International Festival was onboard and the Young Vic wanted to partner on the show. “It felt like our big break,” Ms. Allen-Martin said.

Later that month, the playwrights said they met Mr. Kwei-Armah to discuss what would happen next. He was effusive and passionate about the project, Ms. Allen-Martin said. They discussed some changes to the play’s direction to give “Tree” more of a concert feel and involve the audience more, she said, and left feeling positive about the project moving forward.

“It was one of the most exciting days of our lives,” said Ms. Henley. “I cried when I came out.”

Then things went wrong, she said.

On Oct. 18, they were emailed a revised synopsis by Mr. Kwei-Armah that contained elements of their story, but changed from a tale of hope and celebration to “more of a black trauma narrative” which the playwrights were unhappy with, they said in their Medium post.

Ms. Allen-Martin and Ms. Henley added they then tried to have discussions about what this meant and what their future roles would be, but Mr. Kwei-Armah declined to speak directly.

In an open letter to Ms. Allen-Martin and Ms. Henley posted on Twitter on Tuesday, Mr. Kwei-Armah said he never refused to meet the playwrights. “Quite the opposite,” he wrote: “I continually requested for us to simply meet and discuss that the outline was only a creative jumping off point.”

In November the playwrights received an email saying their script would not be used and their “writing services” were no longer required.

Ms. Allen-Martin said she and Ms. Henley were offered 10,000 British pounds — about $12,500 — and a “with thanks to” credit in the playbill. They rejected the offer.

Ms. Allen-Martin and Ms. Henley are thanked by Idris Elba in the playbill, in a list of people “who worked with me along the way,” but aren’t acknowledged as members of the creative team.

Ms. Henley said they only decided to go public with their story as they had run out of other options. “There was so much fear before doing this,” she said. “We talked to a lot of people and most said, ‘You’ll get blacklisted.’”

“I’ve based my career on being open and truthful,” Ms. Allen-Martin said. “It didn’t feel truthful to hide it.”

Alex Marshall is a European culture reporter, based in London. @alexmarshall81

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