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Queen of Chapeltown: West Yorkshire Playhouse to mark Leeds West Indian Carnival 50th anniversary with major new production

Paying homage to Leeds’ rich culture, West Yorkshire Playhouse is working in partnership with Leeds West Indian Carnival Committee to celebrate the 50th Anniversary year of Carnival with the vibrant new production Queen of Chapeltown, as part of a season of Carnival inspired events.

Inspired by original first-hand accounts from the West Indian community, Queen of Chapeltown weaves recognisable Leeds voices from the real life events of Carnival’s birth in 1967 into an exuberant snapshot of this significant moment in British history.

Following four West Indians as they arrive in Leeds, including founding Carnivalist Arthur France MBE, the production spans a journey through time seeing the Quarry theatre transform from post-war Britain to the jubilant hosting of the first ever King and Queen Show. Surrounded by a company of community actors, a professional cast of five will share stories inspired by those involved in the inaugural Leeds West Indian King and Queen Show at Leeds’ Jubilee Hall.

This newly commissioned play is written by leading BBC Radio Producer, author and historian Colin Grant and directed by West Yorkshire Playhouse Associate Director Amy Leach, with dramaturgy by actor and broadcaster Burt Caesar and movement direction by West Yorkshire Playhouse Associate Artist Pauline Mayers.

Writer Colin Grant said: “In an inhospitable post-war Britain a group of pioneering West Indians came up with a simple and defiant riposte: Carnival. Queen of Chapeltown captures that moment of extraordinary transformation: the birth of a tradition which, for one weekend in August, would wash away the bad taste of anti-immigrant sentiment with a burst of colour and flash of exuberance that would forever change Leeds and Britain.”

Founding Member and Leeds West Indian Carnival Chairperson Arthur France said: “I left the tiny island of Nevis in the 1950s, leaving my home and family behind for a new future in the UK. As a student in Leeds, I yearned for Caribbean culture and heritage and Leeds West Indian Carnival was born as an antidote to that yearning. I’m excited to see how Queen of Chapeltown will document the very beginnings of Carnival and the challenges we overcame to make it happen, and celebrate that first burst of Caribbean culture, music and art in Leeds 50 years on.”

West Yorkshire Playhouse Artistic Director James Brining said: “Leeds West Indian Carnival is one of the oldest Carnivals in Western Europe and plays such a key part of Leeds’ cultural make-up. We are delighted to be working in collaboration with the Leeds West Indian Carnival Committee to share and curate pieces of work which celebrate and mark this moment within the history of the city of Leeds. For four years we have played host to the vibrant and joyous King & Queen Show and to be part of the city’s anniversary celebrations is tremendously important to the Playhouse.”

Director Amy Leach said: “This is the 50th year of Leeds West Indian Carnival and I am thrilled to be directing a piece as part of the major celebrations that are happening across the city. This is a play that celebrates and remembers those pioneering voices who, against all odds, pulled together this incredible event that has shaped the city. The production has risen out of interviews conducted by BBC Radio Producer and Oral Historian Colin Grant. Inspired by those first-hand accounts, Colin has created a play that explores the momentous year of 1967, and pays tribute to the young West Indian people who, unbeknownst to them, were making history.”

Continuing the 50th anniversary celebrations, events running alongside Queen of Chapeltown include: Leeds Carnival King & Queen Show, a joyous celebration with incredible costumes, steel pans and a Carnival Choir; Carnival Chronicles, written and directed by Zodwa Nyoni (Ode to Leeds, West Yorkshire Playhouse), a piece of new writing exploring migration, love and loss; and Carnival Messiah Film Screening, celebrating and commemorating 10 years since the final performance of Geraldine Connor’s inspirational piece.

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