THE TOUGHEST GAME IN SHOWBUSINESS (Being an Actor of Colour in Britain)

I have been pursuing a career as an actor for nearly a decade now and was never in any illusion concerning just how tough it would be.  As an Actor of Colour for want of a better term, I am well aware just how tougher things would be for me and what we collectively have to work against.

Now before someone leaps out and says: ‘Not you as well Gennis!  Spare us the Race Card’.  Okay, okay, just hear me out on this.  I went through the British Comprehensive School system that came into being during the 1960s.  A system of Education that has been successful in failing every single generation of school children since its inception back in the free, so-called era of new ideas and new ways of thinking.  I am not against new ideas  – New ideas for the betterment of all.  What I am against is changes for changes sake.  Irrespective of the Political colours of Government in the UK over the past half-century, successive British Governments have succeeded where The State always succeeds – Interfering  with what works or what they may think needs fine tuning which ultimately undermines everything altogether.  In other words playing Political Football with your child’s education and ultimately their future.  I bring up the British State Education system for a specific reason.

Being a child born in the Sixties, I went through the above system not really learning or being encouraged to gain an overview of not only my own British-Jamaican heritage but that of the British historical perspective as a whole.  Yes, we studied British History and in some cases British Imperial History but not how that history links into many things that seem to plague British Society to this day.  There was no insight into Immigration historically.  In the eleven years I spent in a British State school  classroom, I never knew (or rather learned,) the Celts migrated from Eastern Europe, nor the multi-national nature of the Roman Empire in that to be a Roman Citizen, you didn’t have to be born in Rome itself to be a Citizen  – You just needed to born in a province under Roman rule.  As a slave it was possible (but not easy,) to earn the right to become a Citizen of Rome.  So when the Romans began their conquest of Britain, it was not a bunch of pumped up Italian killing machines invading the Nation of Britain but a multi-national army of Roman Legions, an organised and superior military machine that included black legionnaire soldiers.  How many more of these black legionnaires kept law and order, as well the peace during the four hundred years that Britain was a province of Rome?  And how many of those black and multi-national legionnaires stood guard on Hadrian’s Wall in the latter years of Roman Rule? And ultimately how many of them stayed behind after Rome withdrew and left Britannia to her own devices?

It is ironic that none of this was ever mentioned or discussed in any Classroom I ever sat in and History was my favourite subject at school.  Given Roman Britain was a part of the course syllabus for History, it is amazing that no mention was ever made of a Black Roman Emperor by the name of Septimus Severus.   The first Black Man to hold the position of Caesar and to run his Empire from the North of England for more than decade before he died and his remains cremated at York and returned to his homeland of what is now Libya.  The fact he came to conquer Caledonia (Scotland,) and add it to his Province of Britannia.  A major feat and one he (Severus,) failed to accomplish.  A major feat and a major setback, and one where no mention was ever made in any history book I ever read on Roman Britain.  My thanks to one Edward Izzard Esq., for the above revelation as part his TV Series ‘Mongrel Britain’.

This brings me full-circle in terms of my being an Actor of Colour.  I make that distinction simply because that is how I am judged by the professions in casting, film and television.  You see they to this day (in the UK at least,) still perpetuate the myth that people of colour never made nor have ever made a single contribution to the development, wealth and power of the British Nation.  In any historical drama that is produced in Britain whether via Film or Television, people of colour are conspicuous by their absence.  In fact when I go to auditions for classical, historical or Shakespearean roles, it is automatically assumed I either cannot do them or that there were no black people in Britain at that time period or there are no black characters in Shakespeare.  Excuse me!?? Who were Othello and the Prince of Morocco? One assistant at an Agency called Wilson-Gough told me after my audition to stick to contemporary roles and not bother with Classical roles.  Odd, given I was classically trained as an Actor but never mind.  Ignorance is always bliss with some people Fergus.  Especially you.  Worse when like you they actually work in the media or performing arts. Needless say I am not offered those kind of roles, nor do I actively seek them anymore.  I still read Shakespeare and classical literature but then I always did.  Ever since childhood.  Kind of goes against the stereotype does it not?

The myth still exists that People of Colour did not start migrating to the United Kingdom until the post-world war two period.  This is simply not the whole truth!  We have always been here.  There has always been a ‘Black Britannia’.  A book of that name was written by a West Indian journalist who actually worked and lived in Britain.  And yet this Book is virtually unknown to the black British population.  I only ever heard of this seminal work via the books page of Ebony Magazine in the 1980s.  It would be another twenty years before I gained a copy of this book via second bookshop online.  And what a read it was.

It is with a certain degree of frustration and anger that I approach the fact that in the 21st Century Immigrants and People of Colour in Britain are still fighting an uphill battle to get recognition that their forefathers had contributed so much to the makeup and fabric of British Society.  It is however ironic that the current British Monarchy is of German ancestry, something of a fitting tribute to a multi-racial society such as Britain but something that seems to get overlooked time and time again.    How odd!

Like most things in one’s life the above has been at the back of my mind for some time.  What prompted me to write about it was a friend of mine via Facebook (on more than one occasion,) has asked me when am I going to the U.S. of A?  My response has always been the same.  I cannot afford to do so – which is true but there are other reasons which are just as practical and just as good as any other – to my way of thinking anyway.

To my knowledge (because I actually looked into this,) most black British actors who make it or have any kind of ongoing successful acting career here and elsewhere, established themselves here in the UK first.  Idris Alba, Lennie James, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Eamonn Walker and Chijetwel Ejiofor are the names that spring to mind immediately.  They were bringing something to the table.  Now I am not saying I have nothing to bring to the table but Acting is many things to me.  It is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances, to be able to create and live the kind of life one wants to live but also to be true to one’s self and do the kind work one wants to do.  For me I see no reason (even if I could afford to do so,) of having to deal with situations elsewhere that I am dealing with and have so far failed to overcome here (though ‘conquer’ seems more apt term to me).  I am first and foremost a British Actor.  I want to establish a career playing British characters and creating characters who reflect me, my background and where I am coming from before taking Hollywood by storm or anything else.   I want to see myself portrayed on Film and Television both literally and metaphorically.  Oddly enough I rarely see black characters on British Film or Television that reflect my background or upbringing.  That I think is how one builds a success acting career domestically and internationally.  I just don’t see how running off to New York and/or LA during Pilot Season (or any other season for that matter,) is going to help me realise my ambition when I am still working hard, fighting hard to realise those ambitions here.  There are those who would say it is not going happen Daniel as long as you stay here.  Hey, I am under no illusions here either.  It might very well not happen but who says it is likely to happen in New York and Los Angeles?  One does not know until they try of course but finances aside that is a no go area for me right now.  I am fighting the good fight on familiar territory and even though I lived in The States many years ago, it was not always so familiar a territory to me.  Maybe if I was Actor back then I would have made the leap but that was then, I am dealing with the here and now.

I have always felt even before I embarked on a career in the Performing Arts, that there was a world to conquer here in the British Isles.  I have seen many positive things that have encouraged me but I have also seen many things that says the battle needs to go on.  I am only one person, one actor out of many, one Actor of Colour out of many but if I don’t make a stand and say I want to establish an acting career here in my Home Country, a career that is going to change people’s perceptions for the better then who will do it?  Why shouldn’t there be a Black British counterpart to those Black Hollywood Actors I mentioned earlier.  How is running away to The States going to make that happen?  Playing American characters is one thing but I really don’t want an acting career where I am going to be doing every role in an American Accent, especially when I am not an American and there are plenty of African-American actors out there anyway.  The occasional role yes.  A good role yes.  But not a career that is defined by that and that alone.   How boring!  I might as well bore myself to death working in an office for what is the point of being an Actor if you are going to be defined by one thing and one thing alone?

One of the toughest games in Showbusiness to be sure.  Being an Actor of Colour.  As if one doesn’t have enough to deal with being an actor per se.