Idris Elba has responded to claims of plagiarism and gender discrimination from two writers who worked on his new play, Tree.
Elba and director Kwame Kwei-Armah were credited as the creators of Tree, which premiered Thursday at the Manchester International Festival (MIF). However, two female writers, Tori Allen-Martin and Sarah Henley, declare themselves to be the writers behind the play and claim that they were removed from the play and had their ideas reworked. They also claim that Elba and Kwei-Armah have failed to cite them as the original writers.
In a Medium post, the two wrote that they had developed Tree "for 4 years with multiple drafts, workshops, re-drafts and industry performances." However, when the play was announced to headine the festival last year, they weren't told.
"Sadly though--we weren't informed about the announcement, nor were we mentioned anywhere in it, and it was the first indication that we were being pushed off the project by far more powerful people in the theater," they wrote. They also claim themselves to be victims of gender discrimination.
"...we wanted to highlight the fact that moving the original writers off [sic] a project isn't unusual and can be done professionally and amicably," they wrote. "However, the levels of intimidation and disrespect we faced were totally unacceptable, soul-destrorying [sic] and as we've since heard--not uncommon for up and coming theatre writers, particularly female ones."
Both Allen-Martin and Henley agree that the idea for Tree came from Elba's mi Mandela album, on which Allen-Martin contributed and provided vocals. But where Allen-Martin and Henley say things started to go south was when Kwei-Armah was brought on board in May 2018. In the months after, there were delays on the project. The writers wrote they were told the delays were due to scheduling conflicts with Elba and Kwei-Armah. But they claim that "the project was continuing to be developed without us, given that the public announcement, copy, engagement of the rest of the creative team, etc, happened prior to any further agreement with us."
Henley and Allen-Martin also claim Elba sent them a revised synopsis by Kwei-Armah, and that Kwei-Armah's email showed his intent to write the play, despite the months Allen-Martin and Henley already spent writing their version. The two claim in that in October 2018, after months of attempts to squash creative differences, Kwei-Armah sent the writers an offer to ghostwrite the play based on his revision. According to their account, Henley and Allen-Martin were officially dismissed from the project November 14, 2018.
Elba, on the other hand, claims in his Twitter-published statement that Kwei-Armah was brought on "as a collaborator and theatre partner with Tori and Sarah to write."
— Idris Elba (@idriselba) July 4, 2019
"I thought this could be an incredible opportunity for Tori and Sarah to collaborate with MIF and Young Vic [Theatre] and hone their craft further and we wanted to provide the support needed; they were excited at the prospect," he wrote. He claims Henley and Allen-Martin "decided they didn't want to pursue the early thoughts and declined to work any further on the project" after new development proposals regarding Tree came up. Elba claims that he respected their decision to leave. But that the basis of the play is from his music.
"We were left without any writers and had to start work very quickly, which is our contractual right as the beholder of the original idea, the album," he continued. He also wrote that Henley and Allen-Martin were acknowledged in the program's foreword for the play's first preview in Manchester.
"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," he continued. "The outcome is an accusation of plagiarism and discrimination. However frustrating this has been for all, we will continue to offer opportunities and to support the next generation of writers and talent."
Shadow And Act has reached out to Elba's camp for further comment on the situation and will update this story if we receive one.
Photo credit: Tori Allen-Martin and Sarah Henley on Medium