I was elated to be asked to join the RSC in 1981. I was proud to be following in the footsteps of the black actors who had recently preceded me, like Calvin Lockhart and Alton Kumalo. I had seen both Brewster Mason and Donald Sinden in the last two productions of Othello and I was determined to demonstrate that there would never again be any need to cast another white actor in that role. And, I admit, I felt pretty pleased with myself because I had been offered named parts in my first season, not simply a play-as-cast contract. This, as I thought, allowed me to take my seat at the Round Table alongside those great and distinguished actors whom I had seen as a schoolboy, rather than stand at the back like some kind of squire or knave.
It felt as if I had arrived; but at the same time, it was the beginning of a new challenge. The classical theatre, as I thought, was the ultimate test of an actor’s ability: if you could master Shakespeare, you could master anything.
They were the really quite enjoyable times, and they were the downright frustrating times. Playing Aaron the Moor illuminated the peculiar position of the black actor in a theatrical culture which had historically marginalised or ignored black people. Like Aaron, I had reached the imperial court of the theatrical world – Stratford-upon-Avon! Like Aaron, I was used to being one of a few if not the only black face in any given situation – at school, at university, on stage. Like him, I suspected that predominantly white audiences might only ever see me as black. But where he chose to damage and destroy his adopted society, I chose to try to fight and change mine. I am still trying.
My advice to any young actor joining the company for the first time is not to expect too much: theatre tends to promise more than it delivers. But keep faith in yourself, try to take a long-term view, learn; and remember that others have gone before you. You need not feel alone.
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