While performing in theatre – starring in majority black, Asian and minority ethnic casts, such as Motown the Musical and The Lion King, as well as casts in which I’ve been in the minority – I have advocated for the inclusion of diverse roles that reflect the existence of people of colour in this country. I have also sought to raise awareness in the creative industry of the areas that need attention around diversity.
There may be government-initiated schemes and ethnicity checkboxes put in place to diversify theatre, but has that reached the audiences? When stepping on to the stage of the Gielgud Theatre each night in my current show, the predominantly white faces in the audience make me fear that efforts to diversify theatre are failing.
In 2019, I became a board member for the inaugural Black British Theatre Awards, established to celebrate the role that black Britons have played in the success of UK and international theatre. At the launch of the awards, Kenneth Tharp spoke about how hugely important the contribution and visibility of black people are in the arts.
The Africa Centre director said: “If we [black people] do not have a seat at the table, we’re being discussed on the menu.” It’s a quote that resonates with Fairview at the Young Vic, directed by Nadia Latif. The play explores the scrutiny people of colour face under the ‘white gaze’.
Fairview examines how this gaze has forced a racial identity on people of colour and how they navigate it as a result. Given how many BAME actors have had experiences of directors asking them to be “more black or sassy”, it’s clear this forced identity is also often the one put on stage.
With caricatures of BAME people played to predominantly white audiences, how is the demographic around theatre supposed to change? I also wonder how it affects those BAME actors’ sense of identity?
Ticket prices have long dictated who sits in the auditorium, limiting access to the theatre by pricing out a proportion of working-class people, including ethnic minorities.
However, there are many people of colour who can afford theatre tickets and enjoy the arts, but choose not to. Why do people whose cultural identity is so ingrained in art deny themselves the theatre experience unless there’s nothing they can relate to that truthfully explores their sense of identity, alienating them from any conversation had on the stage?
Each night I look out into the auditorium for audience members of colour and to my disappointment there are never more than a handful dotted around.
There are exciting BAME productions such as Nine Night, Small Island and Three Sisters, with accurate narratives that encourages diverse audiences. But if people of colour are not going to see most theatre, it means our efforts to diversify on and off stage is failing – leaving ethnic minority narratives in theatre and their experiences in society invisible.
Daniel Bailey is a writer and performer