Tab Idris Elba-1562309865918
Director Idris Elba Image Credit: AP

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

On July 4, ‘Tree’, a play they worked on for several years in collaboration with actor Idris Elba, is set to have its world premiere at the Manchester International Festival. It is directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic theatre in London, where it will transfer from July 29.

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

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

Allen-Martin and 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 July 2 on Medium.

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

Allen-Martin and 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 July 4, Elba, who declined through a spokeswoman to comment for this article, responded with a statement on Twitter. Allen-Martin and Henley stepped back voluntarily from the production after they were told it needed to go in a new direction, 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,” Elba said. “The outcome is an accusation of plagiarism and discrimination.”

Allen-Martin and Henley said their work on ‘Tree’ dated to January 2015, when Elba asked 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 Elba’s production company Green Door and a theatre company, Duchess Street Productions. In May 2018, Elba called Allen-Martin 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.

On October 18, they were emailed a revised synopsis by 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.

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

In an open letter to Allen-Martin and Henley posted on Twitter, Kwei-Armah said he never refused to meet the playwrights.

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

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

Allen-Martin and Henley are thanked by 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.