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Features Published 19 May 2017

Why can’t a black body be just a black body on stage?

"Why can’t I perform without the pressure to represent an entire culture or make a jaw-dropping statement on diversity?" Nicole Acquah writes on the difficulties of being politicised as a black performer.
Nicole Acquah
Paapa Essiedu in the RSC's production of 'Hamlet'. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Paapa Essiedu in the RSC’s production of ‘Hamlet’. Photo: Manuel Harlan


It’s opening night. You’ve worked hard to create a show in collaboration with six other artists. The show is glamorous, passionate, sexy and bold. It tells the story of a new performer and the challenges she faces when joining a cabaret club. The show runs smoothly. Lights go down and the audience applause – some even shed tears. Curtain call. The show was a success!

Or was it? Some well-meaning audience members say that the show makes some harmful political statements on race and that the company should consider the impact of the casting choice for this ‘new performer.’ The performer they speak of – is you. Oh, did I fail to mention that you’re a black British actor?

The above is a recent (although sadly not an isolated) event which I’ve experienced during my career so far. The fact that BAME performers are considered to be inherently more political than white performers frustrates me. The show in question made no reference to race or ethnicity, and I didn’t get my role because of my appearance. (In fact, I had performed alongside people of many other races – it just so happened that my fellow actors had the benefit of being ‘coded’ as white). And yet people still questioned why I, as a black person, was ‘placed’ in the role of the outsider.

My first reaction was of frustration and if I’m honest, dejection. It was then I realised that I could never just be a body in the space. I remember sitting and thinking: “No matter the type of art I intend to make, my body will always be read through racial semiotics. I will constantly be judged and seen as ‘other.’ My race is considered more important than what I am saying.” This isn’t a nice feeling when you’re an artist – the idea that your artistic intention and moreover, integrity is glossed over in favour of analysing your appearance. It makes you wonder why you bother making art in the first place.

Now, I’m all for questioning casting choices and talking about theatre’s role in encouraging diversity. I believe there are many instances– white washing, under-representation, misrepresentation and fetishisation of BAME performers, just to name a few – in which application of racial theory should not only acknowledged but encouraged if we are to improve diversity in UK theatres.

So why are some political readings imperative and others borderline offensive? And more importantly where do we draw the line? On one hand, we don’t want to lose our ability to criticise and challenge altogether. On the other hand, enforced political readings can feel tokenistic and unnecessary.

Firstly, we must acknowledge the political statement any body can make in the space – but especially, a marginalised body. To be proudly Black in a world that tells you to prescribe to Eurocentric beauty standards is a political statement. I once had a friend who, in response to a self-deprecating comment, said that she thinks it’s pretty cool to be considered ‘fat’ because ‘in a way, it’s a kind of Screw You to the patriarchy.’ And although she was saying this somewhat flippantly, I do see a point: to have an appearance other than one that society celebrates is political within itself.

Similarly, I’m currently working on a play called For a Black Girl, which overtly discusses race and appearance. Moreover, the main character is indeed cast as a black woman. By all means, analyse how race functions in that play. But there is a difference between choosing to make a point and having a political reading forced upon you. The latter feels much less ‘Screw You’, and far more a symptom of oppression. Such an attitude can be demeaning at best, insulting at worst. It says, ‘You were placed in this position. You have no autonomy. I must save you’. Even worse it says, ‘You will be seen and critiqued differently based on your race alone.’ I feel a lot of BAME performers have an undue amount of pressure placed upon them – a kind of pressure that, quite frankly, isn’t placed upon white actors. We are seen through a different lens.

This pressure became especially visible in the initial uproar that followed Noma Dumezweni’s casting as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. But more widely, when people see posters featuring a primarily black cast, the show isn’t judged by artistic merit alone. People wonder: ‘What are they trying to achieve with this fully black cast?’ ‘Are they trying too hard to be diverse?’ ‘What (political) statement is being made here?’ It is interesting that such questions are rarely asked of predominantly white films or theatre – because white-dominated media has become the norm. Matt Trueman sums it up perfectly: ‘white is still presented as neutral onstage. It is taken as the colour without connotations; the blank canvas on which other signifiers can be hung; the norm from which anything else deviates.’ Conversely, as BAME performers, we can be seen as the deviation from an already constructed norm. Within the UK, BAME figures represent approximately 6.6% of performers employed in the industry. How many of this percentage are expected to make ‘race-centred art? How much of this work is over-politicised?

Often, BAME performers are applauded when their work centres on diversity; Cynthia Erivo recently won a highly deserved Tony award for her performance in The Color Purple. Still, it would be a positive step forward to see BAME performers winning awards for art which do not necessarily centre on racial struggle. The writer development agency Spread the Word’s examination of over 203 UK-based published novelists found that “the best chance of publication for a BAME novelist is to write literary fiction that conforms to a stereotypical view of Black or Asian communities…or some other image that conforms to White preconceptions.”

Admittedly, colorblind casting is becoming increasingly accepted. This is a positive and vital step forward, not only for BAME performers but the performing arts industry as whole. And it’s especially vital for actors in the UK, where period dramas hold so much attention and affection. UK theatres have embraced Paapa Essiedu, a British actor of Ghanaian descent, as Hamlet in the RSC’s production. More recently we have seen Sophie Okenedo in the Tony Award-winning, dark comedy The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? I believe that this increased diversity in high profile theatres will diminish the need to look for the ‘why’ behind the casting choice – insofar as it is inappropriately related to race.

However, beyond these rare starring roles, the type of parts allocated to black and Asian performers is often problematic. In Lyn Gardner’s article, Colour-Blind Casting: How Far Have We Really Come?, ’ she argues that the sort of roles BAME performers seem most likely to be cast in are those of minor characters or service roles, such as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. There should be an equal distribution of opportunities, regardless of race, but it seems certain roles may be considered more ‘appropriate’ for ethnic minorities than others.

Such categorisation of BAME artists has been criticised by Kwame Kwei-Armah, a performer, director and writer best known for the award winning Elmina’s Kitchen (the first play by a black Briton to be produced at the West End). Kwei-Armah was recently approached by a Drama undergraduate who sought his advice. She had spoken to her university about the lack of BAME writers studied on the course. The university assured her they were launching a ‘political theatre unit’ to solve the issue. This unit would include women, LGBTQ, Black and Asian writers. Kwei-Armah’s responded: “I would interpret this to mean that my work only exists through the lens of white sympathy.” I would agree. Why must these works be pigeon-holed as political and shoved into, as the student called it, a ‘Minorities Corner’? Kwei-Armah has also spoken about how Elmina’s Kitchen, despite its success, still conflicted with audience expectations: “There is still a perception that a traditional white audience won’t come out to see a play that is quintessentially black. Somehow we’re all so tribal that they’ll just go, ‘Oh, that’s one for the black audiences, so we can miss that one.”

This assumption that black artists make ‘political black art for politically minded black audiences’ is highly divisive. In White Woman Listen!, Carby talks about the white gaze and how analysing black lives from a white perspective can be reductive. It is an illuminating read and one that I highly recommend. Similarly, an article on the white gaze by Selina Thompson discusses how the choices of black women “are interrogated at length, and subject to surveillance”. Our artistic choices are questioned and doubted. Rather than ‘What are you trying to do here?’ we are asked: ‘What are you trying to achieve as a black woman?’

Why can’t I perform without the pressure to represent an entire culture or make a jaw-dropping statement on diversity? It’s a simple ask really. I am reminded of an interview conducted with Malorie Blackman, an author perhaps most famous for Noughts & Crosses, which will be adapted for screen this year. Blackman was asked why she wrote about black characters and why her book covers featured black protagonists. Presumably, the interviewer expected some sort of political response, some justification as to why.

My response would be – why not? Why can’t a protagonist be of any race without any hidden political agenda? I rarely see white authors quizzed on the fact their book features a white protagonist on the front cover. Always being seen through the lens of racial semiotics suggests that regardless of the show’s content, I am not seen as a human being. Instead I am a hyperpoliticised body to whom another layer of meaning must be assigned. My autonomy is removed.

As black actors, we are seen as ‘the same’, regardless of our unique histories. We are therefore reduced to ‘object’ – the object of pity or unjustified scrutiny. The crux of the matter is: when audience reaction would be radically different if the role was assigned to a white actor, we’ve got a problem. And if audiences focus on narrative rather than race when watching a white actor but cannot do the same when watching a BAME actor…we’ve got a huge problem. I just want to be.

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Nicole Acquah

Nicole Acquah is a writer, performer and theatre director. She holds a BA in Drama and Creative Writing from Royal Holloway University, and has a particular interest in interdisciplinary practice, physical theatre, new writing and autobiographical performance. She has directed a number of productions for the Sky High Theatre Company, which she founded in 2013. Since then, she has gone on to perform in both short and feature films. She secretly wishes she could rap or beatbox but she can’t (yet) so she performs spoken word and performance poetry at venues across the UK. Close enough. She is currently undertaking an MA at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Nicole can be found on twitter @Nico_Deemus.