So in 1990, having rocked up from Brixton, South London to play in Danny Boyle’s Last Days of Don Juan and Nic Hytner’s King Lear, and spending two months acclimatising in Stratford-upon-Avon, I found myself wondering what I was doing here and blaming Mr Boyle for enticing me to come.
Wandering through an exhibition space upstairs in The Swan Theatre, I came across a picture of Ira Aldridge, a celebrated black classical actor from the 19th Century, who at the time I’d never heard of, and then a few displays down a picture of Paul Robeson playing Othello at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1959, whom I did know from Showboat, but more significantly on a personal level for his political ideology rather than his playing of Shakespeare.
This seemingly random moment sparked what has since become a 26-year relationship with the Bard. Synchronicity, without involving crystal healing or dousing, is certainly poignant in my case, and has contributed to the rich tapestry of my experience with Shakespeare.
Treading these boards is the starting point I remember from many an old actor, but now I find myself one of these old actors, and being asked to share my experiences with it being Black History Month. For me every day is an historical day as a black actor with this company, and I guess in my life. I didn’t understand or know why I hadn’t heard of Ira Aldridge or whose responsibility that was, but my presence within the company meant that I would discover more and could do something about it. Even whilst training at drama school the cultural and artistic reference points were always white, and that in itself wasn’t a problem, but had I known about trailblazers, Mr Aldridge and Mr Robeson, then I would have felt more included and able to take ownership of all forms of classical work, not only Shakespeare.
I say this whether you are bi-racial, mixed race, multicultural, friends of the earth, whatever... in my mind the reason for these distinctions is about affirming with a label the desire for inclusion. Some reviewers may pale into insignificance, always making the negative references to ones inclusion, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, black, or “it’s just not the Queen's English”. It’s not simply black and white anymore or us and them. If you’re not equipped with the facts, just ask James Cooney, a great young actor with the 2016 Season, born to a Filipino mother and an English father, he inherited most of his father's characteristics but with the subtle undertones of his mother. Yet he was singled out in one review as ‘white’. Is this relevant? Should the focus not simply be on great story telling irrespective of one’s perceived colour?
Let’s not forget that this game of play acting inspires, unites and teaches if you’re not blinkered by your own short coming but instead bold, fearless and humane. In my time with the RSC I have been fortunate to encounter many a director and writer who have done and been just that. It’s sometimes difficult to appreciate when you are on the inside of this huge evolving entity that is the RSC that you are a component that matters, and in my formative days I didn’t know how best to use all the resources that it could afford me. It wasn’t until I met George Lucas for Star Wars and he looked at my CV, that I began to understand. He said you’ve worked regularly for the RSC, one of the greatest theatre companies in the world, so you must be a very fine actor, with which he turned my CV face down and offered me the job. That's all we are looking for as actors, regardless of race - acknowledgement and acceptance as artists.
Through the ensuing years, in the same way you cannot choose your family I didn’t chose Shakespeare, it chose me; words, thoughts, ideas forcing me to communicate, challenging me to think and inspiring me to change. The plays don’t change, but we as human beings and actors do. The words remain the same and this is now my fifth Lear that the stars have aligned, with hopefully one or two more characters still to play. As an actor of many characters and colours this is certainly one of the most creative and at times challenging training grounds that I have trod. Sitting on the grass in the sunshine outside the RST after a performance of Hamlet with a group of predominately black youth theatre actors chatting, it is clear that they can see me because once I was very much one of them.
The idea of sharing these boards with Ira Aldridge, Paul Robeson, Hugh Quarshie, Tanya Moodie, Claire Benedict, Ray Fearon, Paterson Joseph, Willard White, David Oyelowo, Paapa Essiedu, Natalie Simpson... I could go on, and it will go on.
Thanks Mr Shakespeare, and thank you the RSC for being everything to every man, woman and child, and all of those in between.
Black History Month - October 2016
Join us in celebrating past performance and looking to the future of diversity in theatre. Follow our stories on our Black History Month blog and share your comments using #blackhistory