Two female writers allege they suffered “intimidation and disrespect” after being removed from a play billed as being co-created by Idris Elba.
Tree, a musical theatre production about life in South Africa after Nelson Mandela, will premiere at the Manchester International Festival (MIF) this month and is credited to Hollywood star Elba and theatre director Kwame Kwei-Armah.
However, Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin say they worked on the play for four years before being “pushed off the project by far more powerful people”.
In a blog post titled Tree. A Story Of Gender And Power In Theatre, the writers say they were threatened with legal action if they spoke out publicly.
Producers responded with a statement, saying they were “deeply saddened” to read Allen-Martin and Henley’s allegations.
MIF, London’s Young Vic theatre and Elba’s production company Green Door Pictures accepted the women were involved in “exploring ideas” for the project, but they “did not feel their proposed direction was artistically viable”.
They added: “Several offers were made to Tori Allen-Martin and Sarah Henley to discuss the future of the show, and how the producers could continue working with them, which they declined.”
John McGrath, artistic director and chief executive of MIF, said Kwei-Armah was invited on to the project by Elba and his involvement “has been characterised by the integrity and creativity for which he is widely known”.
The script is “entirely his creation”, McGrath said.
Allen-Martin and Henley’s blog post alleges they became “completely disposable” after working on Tree for four years, “because we’re not famous or important enough”.
They acknowledge the project will have changed over its development, but said: “We put four years of work into that project, and the majority of those involved read our script, our proposal documents, our premise, and our synopsis — there is no way it’s a ‘different project’, no matter how much it’s changed”.
“We were expected to shut up, lie down, and take it,” they added.
Both women said their mental health had suffered as a result and are raising money to pay their £5,000 legal fees accrued from consulting lawyers.
Kwei-Armah, the creative director of the Young Vic, released his own statement on Twitter, denying the women’s version of events and offering to debate them in public.
He added: “I understand the pain of being ‘released’ from a project. It has happened to me, and it cuts deep.”
Elba, 46, and Kwei-Armah, who have known each other since their 20s, said they used Elba’s album Mi Mandela as a starting point for Tree.
The production stars Irish actress Sinead Cusack and Alfred Enoch, who is best known for playing Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter films.
The MIF takes place from July 4 to July 21.