THE VERY first BAFTA was awarded in May 1949, nearly 71 years ago.
In the utopian world of the stories I write about, there is no such talk about #BAFTASSOWHITE.
Uncle Denzel would have won his best actor Oscar for Malcom X and Auntie Angela would have taken home the main prize for What’s Love Got to Do With It? Black and Asian British artists wouldn’t feel forced to go over to the States to get work and a play, film or TV programme that has majority black actors wouldn’t be called a black play, film or TV programme. It would just be called a play, film or TV programme…
But here we are.
In the last ten years or so, approximately five per cent of nominations for best actor, actress or best supporting actor or actress were non-white. It just seems to me more ways to let us know that we are not deemed good enough to be even considered as contenders. Awards like BAFTA recognise excellence, it honours the best of the best – outstanding contributions and so on.
Now I think I can speak on behalf of many people of colour when I say that we in order to even be thought of as just OK, let alone excellent – have to work even harder at times to prove ourselves, so it’s a damn shame that once again we’re here having these same conversations about the lack of cultural diversity in arts and entertainment.
And this pertains to other industries too, of course. I have had many hours with other Black and Asian creatives about how hard it is to get our work on the stage or be on the stage.
People try it too – Bafta knew that they were going to be scrutinised and judged so they released a statement. They’re disappointed that the nominations in most of the categories lack diversity. The find it ‘infuriating’ apparently. Nope, this is not good enough. Same with theatre. No one can say that there aren’t enough ‘excellent’ and ‘outstanding’ talent from people of colour in the theatre industry. Or any of us can’t be artistic directors, chairs of boards or CEOs. The Stage conducted a Diversity in Leadership study and 14 per cent of artistic directors in the UK are people of colour and 2 per cent are executive directors. So basically ‘92 per cent of top theatre bosses are white’ (The Stage, Jan 2020)
I remember writing a monologue which was to be performed and I had requested for a black female actor. I didn’t think anything of it. When the time came for the performance, I had to squint, sit at the edge of my seat to see better, move the braids from my face because I couldn’t believe that a non-black actor was reading out my words. When I questioned the producer of the event afterwards, she told me she couldn’t find a black female actor. I go back to my utopian stories where Bernardine Evaristo won the Booker Prize by herself and people of colour are seen as professional off the bat and the term ‘emerging’ means something else entirely. I dig deep into myself and try to remember the breathing techniques I used when in labour with my son. They couldn’t find a black actor to perform my monologue? In London? Where the city is saturated with actors?
So what can I do about this? Not that I think it is my problem to solve. Nor is it other people of colour’s. It isn’t our problem that there’s another ‘so white’ hashtag because another huge institution has got it wrong again. But I can do something in my little world where I don’t have my work compromised because someone couldn’t find me a black actor.
Can I release a statement somewhere and say how infuriated I am over this? No, but instead what I have been doing is deciding to change my utopian stories into real life. In 2017, I co-created and edited Hear Me Now Audition Monologues for Actors of Colour to bring a sense of empowerment to actors in an audition room who usually have to stand in front of white casting directors and producers. The monologues were written by writers who were paired with actors to create bespoke new monologues. Fast forward and what was a book that has given actors of colour choice and variety, has now spanned into a festival.
Hear Me Now Presents lovesexidentityambition is a festival at Theatre503, that takes 16 monologues from the book that are highlighting a need to change up how in particular, stories are being told about black and Asian women. You see, the diversity issue isn’t black and white. It isn’t just about needing more stories on the right platforms or needing more actors in roles that are non-white. It’s also about what stories that are being told. This festival came together because of the lack of nuanced stories about black and Asian women. Many of our stories are trauma-based only and while these themes are important too, there’s just a lot more we can say about ourselves.
lovesexidentityambition sees actors, directors and hosts – all female, all black and Asian – take our rightful place at the seat of the big theatre table. A table we have created ourselves, might I add. No permissions were needed, no f’s were given. Because collectively we are excellent and outstanding.
Hear Me Now Presents lovesexidentityambition is on February 4-8, at Theatre503. For tickets, https://theatre503.com/whats-on/hear-me-now/