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Talawa addresses controversy over claims its BAME director scheme appointed a white man

Anthony Ekundayo Lennon
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Talawa Theatre Company’s artistic director has argued “grey areas” must be acknowledged in the debate around identity, following claims that a placement aimed at increasing ethnic representation had been given to a man with white heritage.

Last week, reports surfaced that Anthony Ekundayo Lennon had been placed on a traineeship for minority ethnic arts leaders with Talawa, a black-led touring company, despite having spoken in the past about his white Irish parents.

It was claimed that Lennon, a director, had been quoted as saying that although he had white heritage, he identified as mixed race and described himself as an “African born again”.

It is understood that he applied for a place on the Artistic Director Leadership Programme as a mixed-race individual, and was given a two-year, paid position with Talawa last year.

Now, the company’s artistic director Michael Buffong has issued a statement arguing that Lennon’s case is “unique” and “complex”, and explaining that upon becoming aware of Lennon’s identity he sought legal advice, after which the director was still deemed eligible for the position.

“I welcome the debate around identity and while I am no arbiter of that debate, surely we must acknowledge that there are nuances and grey areas,” Buffong said.

He explained that he had “always been aware of [Lennon’s] unique and complicated story”, and that Lennon had been accepted by many as a person of mixed heritage. It was on this basis that Lennon was appointed Talawa’s trainee associate director as part of the ADLP scheme.

A year ago, Buffong said he became aware of contradictory quotes Lennon had given to the book about his identity, and that when asked, Lennon said he had been misquoted. However, Buffong did not clarify what specifically Lennon claimed to have been misquoted about.

“I took this very seriously and sought legal advice to check whether he was indeed eligible for the ADLP scheme. From the advice I was given, because of the complex nature of his case, he was deemed to still be eligible,” Buffong said.

He continued: “My concern is that this story has been hijacked by those who are attacking the validity of funding for BAME practitioners, at a time when power structures are lurching towards even more exclusion of marginalised communities.

“I want to stress that in this unique case there has been no attempt to mislead any funders or to deny anyone else considered more valid, a place.”

Michael Buffong’s statement in full

As artistic director of Talawa Theatre Company, I feel there’s a need to set the record straight about why I appointed Anthony Ekundayo Lennon as Talawa’s trainee associate director, as part of the Artistic Director Leadership Programme, if only to counter the misleading information that has been issued by some of the press in the past few days.

I have always been aware of Anthony’s unique and complicated story. For my generation, and when Talawa started as a company in 1986, there was a spirit of inclusivity which meant that he was accepted by many, inside the organisation and externally, as a person of mixed heritage. My judgement on Anthony’s suitability for the ADLP was based on this and I appointed him as Talawa’s trainee associate director for this project. I made this decision in good faith.

About a year ago, I was made aware of some quotes taken from a book that Anthony had contributed to about his identity. These were contrary to what I had understood about him. I asked Anthony about this and he said he was misquoted. I took this very seriously and sought legal advice to check whether he was indeed eligible for the ADLP scheme. From the advice I was given, because of the complex nature of his case, he was deemed to still be eligible.

I welcome the debate around identity and while I am no arbiter of that debate, surely we must acknowledge that there are nuances and grey areas.

As artistic director of Talawa Theatre Company, my concern is that this story has been hijacked by those who are attacking the validity of funding for BAME practitioners, at a time when power structures are lurching towards even more exclusion of marginalised communities. As our trainee associate director, Anthony receives a trainee fee in line with others in a similar role on the ADLP. This is pro-rata for the 3 days per week that he works at Talawa and is a standard fee across the industry for a training role. Talawa can confirm that neither we, nor Anthony have received £400,000 in funding, which was incorrectly published by some media outlets.

I want to stress that in this unique case there has been no attempt to mislead any funders or to deny anyone else considered more valid a place.

We are grateful to Arts Council England for their response to recent events whereby they stated:

“Talawa raised their wish to support Anthony with us. In responding, we took into account the law in relation to race and ethnicity. This is a very unusual case and we do not think it undermines the support we provide to black and minority ethnic people within the theatre sector.”

The ADLP programme is just one of the many facets of Talawa Theatre Company. I am proud to lead an organisation which has been at the forefront of the celebration and development of Black British theatre and theatre makers since 1986; my vision has always been to ensure that the theatre industry becomes diverse and fully representative of the UK’s black population.

We have staged over 40 productions in the past 32 years, from our recent groundbreaking King Lear (later televised by the BBC), to the country’s first ever all-black Guys and Dolls. Alongside our productions, we present a year-round artist development programme called Make, a new writing season called Talawa Firsts and various participation and grass roots programmes supporting over 200 artists a year. Our mission has been and will always be to champion diversity in the arts, and to offer support to black artists at all stages of their careers.

Equality and representation do not have fixed parameters; they change over time. Under my leadership, Talawa Theatre Company fights to ensure a diversity of art and artists across the creative industries. We will continue to strive to make a valuable contribution to the cultural life of the UK.

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