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All-black makeover for classic English tale

DREAM TEAM: Lenny Henry and Lashana Lynch will star in Educating Rita

A BRITISH comedy classic is getting an all-black makeover, courtesy of renowned director Michael Buffong.

Stage production Educating Rita premiered in 1980 and three years later was adapted into a film of the same name, starring British acting heavyweights Michael Caine and Julie Walters.

Now, the story of Rita, a working class British woman and her Open University lecturer Frank is getting an all-black makeover.

Starring UK comedy hero-turned stage star Lenny Henry, alongside actress Lashana Lynch, who featured in the BBC drama Death In Paradise, Buffong’s Educating Rita may raise a few eyebrows. But the renowned director feels his all-black version shouldn’t be regarded as a big deal.

“It shouldn’t be but it probably will be,” Buffong acknowledges. “That will probably be the tag line: ‘Educating Rita with a black cast.’ But I’m hoping people will see it and say, ‘Wow, I can’t imagine it with any other cast.’

“There seems to be an appetite for it because the show is selling really well. There may be some reluctance. Maybe someone will say, ‘Surely Rita can’t be black?’ Or, ‘Frank can’t be black?’ But with theatre, anything is possible and permissible. So if there is any reluctance, hopefully once people see it, they’ll be blown away.”

Speaking of the production’s stars, Henry and Lynch, Buffong says they have a great chemistry between them.

“I would pay money to watch these two. They spark off each other really well. It’s a lovely story and they’ve got a great vibe between them.”

Gearing up for a five-week run at Chichester Festival Theatre, Educating Rita follows its two characters, whose lives both change when Rita signs up for an Open University course and Frank becomes her tutor. The enduring comedy from playwright Willy Russell, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, features universal themes such as the desire for change and self-development.

But while a story may feature relatable issues, or a plot where racial identity has no relevance, it hasn’t stopped some audiences voicing objection when the story in question was re-worked with a black character in the fold.

One of the most notable examples of this was actor Idris Elba’s casting in the 2011 film Thor.

A superhero story, based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name, Thor saw the British actor undertake the role of mythical god Heimdall – who was portrayed as a white character in the famed comic books.

The casting sparked uproar amongst loyal fans of the comic, many of whom felt that casting a black actor as Heimdall didn’t – as one comic-lover put it – respect “the integrity of the source material.”


MAN OF VISION: Director Michael Buffong

More recently, there was similar outcry when it was revealed that black US actor Michael B. Jordan will star in the upcoming movie Fantastic Four; another film based on classic Marvel Comics characters.

Once again, the character in question – Johnny Storm aka The Human Torch – had previously been depicted as white. And once again, some of the comic’s fans are unhappy that Jordan is not white.

Apparently, even child actors can’t escape the ‘but you’re black’ finger-pointing from those lacking an open mind. Many took to social media to whine when 11-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis was cast as the title character in last year’s remake of the classic tale, Annie.

But despite an apparent legacy of audience unease at black actors undertaking typically ‘white roles’, Buffong is optimistic that audiences are changing for the better.

“When it comes to black representation, I don’t think it’s still the case that people are saying, ‘Oh wow, I can’t imagine that black actor in that role’. Granted, there’s still a long way to go, but there has been a development, which I think has made audiences more open-minded.”

Still, Buffong, who is the Artistic Director of leading black British theatre company, Talawa, feels that Britain has a way to go in order to catch up with the type of black representation that is seen in US dramas.

“If you look at American dramas, it’s not unusual to see a black character playing a surgeon, a chief of police or a judge,” reasons Buffong, who has worked in theatre for 15 years. “Over here, we do need greater representation across a variety of roles.

“Talawa is absolutely helping to redress that balance, but there is still quite a way to go. There has been change – some has been progressive and some has gone back a bit, in terms of representation.

For example, there used to be more black theatre companies. That’s why campaigns like Act For Change are necessary,” Buffong says of the project that campaigns for better representation across the live and recorded arts.

“But I’m always going to be optimistic about progression. With Talawa, [fellow black theatre company] Eclipse and campaigns like Act For Change, we’re all pushing for change so I’m optimistic that things will improve.”

So what’s the future for this dynamic director, whose previous theatre credits include All My Sons and A Raisin In The Sun?

“I’m fundamentally a storyteller; that’s my passion,” he says. “And like all of us, I want to see things that I can identify with. So I just want to keep on working and telling great stories. There are so many talented people out there and I want to continue working with them.”

Educating Rita is at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester from June 18 - July 25. For more information, visit www.cft.org.uk

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