Whenever I am asked about my identity, I feel a huge weight descend on me. There is an immense pressure to say just the right thing, and I often find myself speaking with a voice that is not practiced in being heard. At this point, I am used to my skin doing the talking for me. I am "mixed race: white and black African", or so the check boxes on the numerous forms I've ticked tell me. My father is white, and my mother is black, which makes me exactly half and half. 50/50 bread. A magical mudblood. And yet since starting work as a professional actor just over a year ago, I often find myself being asked what I've experienced as a black actor, while my white side is ignored. I didn't grow up identifying as black, or indeed white, and so I can't help feeling like a fraud when pushed to say something smart about being either one. I'm living the all too familiar nightmare of walking into the wrong room and giving a presentation on a topic I haven't prepared for. 

Ophelia sits on the floor, looking anguished, wearing white jeans
Natalie Simpson as Ophelia
Photo by Manuel Harlan © RSC Browse and license our images

Growing up in Nigeria, I was referred to as an oyibo (white man), but here in England, I am referred to as black. I have therefore lived my life as a chameleon, my skin colour distorted by the lens through which I am viewed. My identity is an ever-changing, colourfully projected construct that dictates my path through this world of tight-collar definitions. In my mind's eye, I have always seen myself as a little brown girl, sitting (however uncomfortably) on a fence between two fields. Since starting work as an actor, that fence has grown increasingly unstable, and I have never felt the need to choose a side more urgently. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that the side is being chosen for me. The more I am asked about the dream of when my craft will transcend my colour, the more I realise the limitations my colour introduces. I am made to understand that one half of me is being pushed to the forefront because it is the half that needs more attention. The half that is historically used to being oppressed, and whose culture I have personally known to be suppressed. It is the half that, as I battled through my adolescence, I downplayed to fit in to my English boarding school. It is the half whose hair I chemically straightened, whose language I forgot, and whose accent I 'fixed'. 

So I have been asked, as part of Black History Month, to give some insight following my debut year as a black actor! Although I feel under-qualified to speak confidently about the ins and outs of industry diversity, as my career experience is shallow; my life experience on identity is not. When I was young in Nigeria, I would binge watch Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen movies and convince myself I would never be able to go on the same adventures as them because I wasn't blonde. My afro wouldn't fit under the helmets when I rode on vespas, and it would explode into a fur ball if I got romantically caught in the rain. It would be nice if the work I do could inspire a young girl like me not to wrap her hair in a yellow cloth and stand in front of the air conditioner, pretending her luscious blonde locks are billowing in the wind. I think I can be secure in knowing that the work I did this year at the RSC genuinely helped me on the path to realising that dream, and I will be forever grateful and proud of that.

So my insight would be in keeping with the Nigerian saying: "no condition is permanent." As I continue through my career, wobbling on my metaphorical fence from being pushed and pulled by both sides, I will remember those words and accept that although people will always project their idea of who I should be, nothing lasts forever, and in the end I can and will choose whoever the frick I want to be..

...And that's pretty much why I became an actor

 Natalie Simpson

Natalie Simpson

Natalie Simpson graduated from LAMDA in 2015. Since drama school she has performed in Measure for Measure at the Young Vic theatre, and is currently in her debut RSC season. She played Ophelia in Hamlet, and is currently playing Guideria in Cymbeline and Cordelia in King Lear, both opening at the Barbican later this year.

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

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