Idris Elba has denies claims made by two former writers on his play “Tree,” who say their work was plagiarized and that they were forced off of the project, which premieres at the Manchester International Festival on Friday.
The two female writers, Tori Allen-Martin and Sarah Henley, made the accusation in a Medium post on Tuesday, titled “Tree. A Story of Gender and Power in Theatre.” In it, they explained their involvement in the project over four years, including “multiple drafts, workshops, re-drafts and industry performances,” and said that Kwame Kwei-Armah, who is listed as a creator alongside Elba, took credit for their ideas.
Elba released a statement on Twitter Thursday explaining that the origins of the play was inspired by his desire to visit his late father’s birthplace in South Africa, reflected in the song “Tree” from his album “Mi Mandela,” which serves as the basis of the play. Elba called the claims “offensive and troubling … We wanted to offer an opportunity to support these new writers … the outcome is an accusation of plagiarism and discrimination.”
Elba’s claims that Allen-Martin and Henley chose to no longer be a part of the project due to creative differences, while the women claim that they were never given the choice to maintain creative control over their work.
The women’s statement claims that when Kwei-Armah came onto the project, they were led to believe that he would not be involved in the writing process.
“He explained explicitly that he didn’t want to write it, that we were the writers and that he would dramaturg and direct the project,” they said of Kwei-Armah. In Elba’s statement, he refers to Kwei-Armah as a “collaborator and theatre partner” whom he hired to write alongside the women.
The women continued that Kwei-Armah told them: “The next steps being: him to chat to Idris re the direction of the show, Tori, Sarah and Kwame to brainstorm the next draft, Tori and Sarah to write the next draft, then workshops in October and January, followed by a full production in June/July 2019. We were elated.”
But, according to Allen-Martin and Henley, the next they heard was that they project was being re-developed without them, and that Kwei-Armah intended to write it himself. At one point, they were offered a contract to ghost-write a revised version of their original draft, but that they declined as it offered “no credit or creative control.”
Elba’s statement says, “As new ambitions started to be proposed as the jumping off point for their development, Tori & Sarah decided they didn’t want to pursue the early thoughts and declined to work any further on the project. This is not uncommon in the development process. They expressed their reasoning and we respected their decision. We were left without any writers and had to start work very quickly, which is our contractual right as beholder of the original idea, the album … We have acknowledged Tori and Sarah in the foreword of the program printed ready for the first preview in Manchester.”
Kwei-Armah also responded to the claims on Tuesday, saying: “I write this rebuttal with an empathetic heart … It has always been our understanding that your entitlements related to the workshop and not the project as a whole – the latter being Idris’ personal brainchild.”
This is my personal response to the allegations made by Tori n Sarah. There will be an official statement but didn’t want anyone to think that I would hide behind that. would be happy and in fact encourage a public discussion with Tori n Sarah n myself at a venue of their choice pic.twitter.com/4rDTyc53UP
— Kwame Kwei-Armah (@kwamekweiarmah) July 2, 2019
“Tree” is a co-production of Manchester International Festival, Young Vic and Elba’s Green Door Pictures, in association with Eleanor Lloyd Productions, Bob Benton for Anthology Theatre, Eilene Davidson Productions and Dawn Smalberg for Ragovoy Entertainment.