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Actor Gloria Onitiri: Colourblind casting is a choice, so don’t ignore my skin colour

Carly Mercedes Dyer, Gloria Onitiri and Rosie Fletcher in rehearsals for Hadestown at the National Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks Carly Mercedes Dyer, Gloria Onitiri and Rosie Fletcher in rehearsals for Hadestown at the National Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks
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The idea behind colourblind casting is not to see the colour of an actor as relevant to a particular role, that it isn’t an issue. But there is a problem: it can mean missing out a fundamental part of the development process when staging a play.

When casting a black actor like me – or anyone from any diverse group – you have to take into account that we will bring our heritage and cultural experiences to the role we are being asked to create.

No matter the action on stage, an audience looks from the outside and does see colour. They will project their ideas and expectations of who you are and what you should be.

We have to be open to discussing this as creatives, and be confident that when making a casting choice you should then embrace it in its entirety. A director once told me they didn’t see my colour, which was odd, as I do. I love my skin colour. I think it’s great. I don’t want people to pretend not to see it. For me, it’s an asset.

With older texts, we often take on characters traditionally played by white actors. That means the context and the background of the actors playing certain roles can – if we choose – have an impact on the playing of a piece. It also opens a world of new possibilities in the creation and development of drama. It allows us to see an old text in a new way.

I’m not saying that we must talk about it or indeed that it should be an issue on every project, but that creatives shouldn’t be afraid to discuss it. Not embracing difference feels like a protective move, that people don’t want to get it wrong or come across as looking at someone different to them and pointing it out too much.

The thing is, we are all different. That we can learn from each other’s experiences is surely what makes us exciting as humans. We shouldn’t ignore it or close it off. I was born and raised in Britain but I have picked up and carried my Nigerian heritage with me.

If you cast me in a role, you should ask me: “What would this mean for you?” We seem to be afraid of crossing that line. There’s colourblindness, and then there’s colour mindfulness, and colour consciousness, which is what I’m more interested in. It’s actually less about colour – which we use as a blanket phrase – and more about heritage, acknowledging it and using it to deepen a part.

We need to get to a point, in the theatre-making process, where people are not afraid of each other. In a creative industry, we are pioneers, we’re supposed to lead the way with that sort of stuff. If we can’t have those discussions, what are we doing?

And this is not just about skin colour, it’s about gender and disability and so on. Casting is the first step, the second step is: don’t pretend it’s not a thing. It is a thing. It’s a choice, and an interesting one. So let’s explore it.

Gloria Onitiri is in Hadestown, which opens at the National Theatre next month; gloriaonitiri.com

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