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Theatre diversity scheme embroiled in controversy after doubts raised about participant’s heritage

Anthony Ekundayo Lennon
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An Arts Council England-funded programme for minority ethnic arts leaders has found itself at the centre of a controversy after it was revealed that one of the directors taking part was born to white Irish parents.

The Artistic Director Leadership Programme was set up last year to train “future theatre leaders of colour”. It provides leadership development for 30 theatre practitioners of colour, from whom four individuals were selected to receive paid, two-year residential traineeships with theatre companies.

One of these four directors is Anthony Ekundayo Lennon, who was partnered with Talawa Theatre Company as part of the scheme. However, he has previously spoken about his white heritage, and that he was born in London to white Irish parents.

According to the Sunday Times, Lennon said in a 2012 speech: “Although I am white, with white parents, I have gone through the struggles of a black man, a black actor.”

He was referring to his appearance, and said his skin tone and curly hair had been the target of bullying by people who saw him as mixed race.

The paper also referenced a book to which Lennon contributed, Photo ID, in which he explained that some years ago he changed his name from Anthony Lennon to Taharka Ekundayo. In a professional capacity, he is now referred to as Anthony Ekundayo Lennon.

In the book he wrote: “I was at a stage in my life where to address myself as Anthony Lennon did not fulfil me; it didn’t seem to allow me to express myself as I saw fit. Some people call me born-again African. I prefer to call myself an African born again.”

ADLP pairs the directors with companies, including Talawa, Tiata Fahodzi, Freedom Studios and 20 Stories High, all of which are led by people of colour.

When it launched last year, the scheme said it aimed to “increase the representation of theatremakers of colour at the highest level of British theatre management”.

It is understood that Lennon applied as a mixed-heritage individual.

Following reports of Lennon’s heritage, his position on the scheme ignited a debate on social media, with some arguing that he should not benefit from such support, and that he pursued positions of power “off the back of his unique experience when those opportunities should’ve been given to those with relatable experience”.

In a statement, ADLP said Talawa was satisfied Lennon was eligible for the opportunity, “as a result of a long-standing relationship with him over a number of years, in which he has identified as a mixed heritage individual”, and therefore supported his recruitment.

Talawa, where Lennon is associate director, added: “As an artist of mixed heritage, he is not only eligible for the position, but his experience, work and achievements make him an exceptional person for the role.”

While the programme is administered by ADLP, it is funded by Arts Council England’s Sustained Theatre Fund and received £406,500.

An Arts Council spokeswoman said: “Talawa raised its 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.”

Lennon has been contacted for comment by The Stage.

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