Being BAME: A Catch 22
BAME is a word that has recently been latched onto my identity and frankly, very unwillingly. When I introduce myself to people I do not say I am a BAME actor, I say I am simply an actor, but when applying for jobs roughly 90% of the work I apply for has the word ‘BAME’ in the description. I have a love-hate relationship with the ‘new’ acronym. Honestly, I view myself as no different from the thousands of other fresh-faced actors wanting to be noticed.
My main fear is that there may be times where I am contributing to the misrepresentation of black women by considering or taking on a certain role. Here begins my Catch 22. For example, earlier this year I went to see Hedda Gabler at the National because I am a huge fan of Ruth Wilson and very fond of the play itself. However, the National has a habit of dotting diversity into each production when in my mind diversity doesn’t mean having one black actor, one asian actor or one disabled actor all in the same production, as if fulfilling a quota. Let’s knock this idea that every show has to be diverse at every moment because honestly, life isn’t. Diversity to me means having a majority caucasian show such as Hedda Gabler, but then also staging a Bengali production with an all Bengali cast or a production with a disability bias cast, giving these individual cultures an equal platform and status rather than filling in the minor characters with BAME actors to satisfy the quotas. Otherwise you end up with an obvious white elephant as I saw in Hedda Gabler. The only diverse cast member was Lovborg (played wonderfully by Chukwudi Iwuji) but his character was a drunkard, an outsider who couldn’t keep his hands off a wealthy white woman. Sound familiar? This was just a sophisticated stereotype of old school Hollywood. Had he been cast as Judge Brack it would have said something different as we rarely see a BAME character as a person of authority in a caucasian world but we see the reverse more often than not. But you can’t blame Iwuji, for he’s taken up an incredible opportunity to be cast in a production at the National Theatre in one of the best contemporary pieces of theatre. As any of us would. But we need to start seeing how our representation is being used and what it says to our cultures and demographics, even on the best national stages.
Recently I spoke to Ambreen Razia about her recent production of POT. She said she was aware of her casting and concerned with being conscious of how her casting would represent foster care children and drug crime in the UK. Personally it was one of the best conscious castings I’d seen in a while. Without giving too much away about her production, the voice of reason was a black actor, Gamba Cole, and the main drug leader was an asian actor, Wahab Sheikh. Cole’s casting was a relief and a change from the estate crime narrative we see in theatre. Personally I think it takes a BAME actor to see this as they have been stereotyped themselves.
As stated earlier we need to have productions that truly reflect the different social groups of England and celebrate those demographics and not peppered diversity. This idea that BAME actors and shows are a ‘risk’ is not healthy. When looking at the statistics it is not even remotely true. BAME shows have shorter runs but are continually sold out. BAME people of all ages are crying out to see themselves represented and people from all walks of life are supporting it. Sadly I have become aware that in the casting world I may be here to fill a quota or because I fit a ‘look’. This is not healthy. However, I am grateful for these ‘quotas’ because it’s going to get me the work in areas of theatre for which BAME actors are not usually considered. I need to accept that I will never be without a label, whether it be BAME, Diversity, PoC or WoC, because at times it can provide a much-needed advantage.