Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Black Voices 17th October 2011

Who was in it? Patterson Joseph leads a trio of BAME (black and minority ethnic) actors; Don Warrington, Ellen Thomas and Asif Khan in discussing black presence in theatre.

Where was it? Lyttelton, National Theatre.

Ellen Thomas
I often play a game, it stems from growing up in a mainly white area of Southampton where I was often the only ethnic minority;I am mixed race of Afro-Caribbean and White Irish/Scottish descent, with a bit of Portuguese and Indian thrown in. That game is SPOT THE NON-WHITE PERSON. As a game to play in London on the tube or the bus it quickly ends but at the National and at most theatres I usually concede defeat and spot myself.

As part of Black History Month Joseph et al discuss the presence of black actors in productions. Patterson is keen to stress that black people have been on the British Isles for years (he told the wonderful tale of a black soldier on Hadrian's Wall during the Roman period), why aren't they featured in more classical productions as characters, beyond slavery and servants? The problem is there isn't that much of a presence despite, by the sounds of it, drama schools having a long held "colour blind" policy giving their students a variety of roles that doesn't depend on them being, or not being a certain race. When I go to the National, for example, plays set in the inter-war years dominate. A Woman Killed with Kindness had an all white cast but that isn't to say the National Theatre is objectionable to casting black actors, they frequently appear in ensembles and The National did produce Elmina's Kitchen, which had an all black cast including Patterson and Warrington but I've heard some of the views of playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, including his claims that he felt uncomfortable with "mixing the races"  on Radio 4's The House I Grew Up In, which makes me question his motives when he cast only black actors, was it about increased theatrical presence, to get more black audience members or to avoid working with white people?

Patterson Joseph
Why aren't there more roles for black actors? There's Othello and...well exactly. Theatres are forced into colour-blind casting, see the recent Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with James Earl Jones, for example. Colour blind casting is only really used for commercial purposes on the big theatres. I'm not sure it is used JUST because the actor is good and capable. Ellen Thomas told a anecdote about an audition she had; at an open casting she was told, along with the others, to play a peasant during the workshop. Being contary Thomas decided to play the leader of the peasants. Her boldness won her the part of the Queen of Spain.Jonathan Pryce came up when talking about colour blind casting; he had played an Asian character in Miss Saigon on Broadway and should this be as acceptable as casting a BAME in a traditionally white role. All of the panel said that was fine, except Don Warrington who questioned the commericial, bums on seats motives of casting Pryce rather than casting an Asian actor.

There were many BAME drama students in the audience for this talk and when it came to the Q&A session it was clear many of them thought there should be favouritism, both from the drama schools and from casting directors. I'm not an actor but if I was I'm not sure I would be happy with this. Do BAME students really want semesters where they focus on plays that may allow them to play "black" roles but alienate their fellow white students? Is it not better for schools to teach the skills and for the actors to convince a casting director that whilst they may be black they can easily play this role written for a white person. I do wonder if there is a sense of entitlement to roles from some BAMEs rather than an acceptance that, sadly, they will have to work harder than their white counterparts for roles.

All four speakers were examples of people who were successful through sheer talent. It is always going to be difficult for an actor to be a "black actor" because there simply aren't enough black roles being written. Whatever your colour or religion you have to first and foremost be a good actor the rest comes later.

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