I Am Not A Number – And I’m Not A Label Either

I read a theatre critic recently bemoaning the lack of diversity in a pantomime cast and whilst there were a couple of black actors in the ensemble, this did not, in their opinion, correlate with national statistics. I felt quite unhappy about this and wanted to respond but somehow got derailed with things getting well and truly ‘trumped’ over the last couple of weeks with even Fellowes throwing his two penneth in for what it wasn’t worth so, following some reflection, I finally write. Bear with me if it jumps around a bit but the conclusion doesn’t change.

My mother came to England in 1959 all the way from the west of Ireland. Arriving in London she walked past signs on houses like the one below. Fortunately, she was in nursing digs so any potential confrontation was avoided – and if you’ve ever met my mother you’d know there’s little that stops her once she gets going!


Now these are all labels. No one is actually black, it just so happens their skin is darker compared to someone else. There’s no white either – their skin is just comparably lighter. Allow me to digress slightly with a story from my past.

I remember getting a part-time job with my friend, Martin, when we both 16 years old. We’d known each other since we were four. Someone remarked to me one day about why did I hang around with the ‘black guy’. I didn’t know who they were talking about and it took some time for the penny to drop at which point my response of ‘but Martin isn’t black’ left everyone present complexed. Or dumbfounded because let’s be honest these guys were all pretty dumb in my opinion. In our current society Martin would be labelled as ‘Mixed Race’. A black mother and a white father. But that label doesn’t apply to me because although my mother is Irish and my father was half-English/half-Irish, my colour is white. A very pale shade of white it must be noted – perhaps that’s the Irish in me – which is why I get to tick the box (label) ‘White – Other’ when filling in forms.

In all the time I had known Martin I never thought of him by his colour. He was just Martin. And he never thought of me in terms of my national mix. I was just Mark.

And it is much the same for all the other self-imposed labels. I think we’re all born like this – accepting, non-judgemental. We don’t think in terms of labels, we think in terms of the person. Some we like, some less so. That’s how life is. But these labels – ethnicity; gender; ability; orientation; and the rest – just don’t come into it.

I find the current attitudes being adopted towards immigration as part of the Brexit debate very alarming – and this in a country that has a rich history of embracing diversity: just look at the language and how it has absorbed the words from so many others. But isn’t the best response one of education?

So back to the theatre critic and his demand for diversity. Let’s not pretend there hasn’t been discrimination historically, there has and there are sadly elements of it still around and I think we’re all agreed this is wrong. But is the best way to counter it through some kind of reverse discrimination or perhaps through a focus on education.

If I’m an actor do I want to get a job because of my ability – I’m the best and most capable person – or because I tick the right box – if the labels right, then wear it?

You see when I go to see a show I want to be entertained by the best cast – or the best available in that location at that time. I see the actor and their performance, nothing else. Just like when I was 4 years old.

Someone in response to the theatre critic commented that without any black females in the cast, a young black girl watching in the audience would not have anyone to look up to. Woah, stop right there. Have we now got to label the audience as well? Why can’t anyone who comes to see the show be entertained and inspired – aren’t we all role models in life?

I recently had the pleasure of seeing National Theatre’s production of Amadeus starring Lucian Msamati in the lead role of Salieri, an Italian classical composer of the late 18th Century/early 19th Century. There’s a portrait of Salieri below left and a stock image of Msamati right next to it.

antonio_salieri_painted_by_joseph_willibrord_mahler tumblr_inline_oh06gcnos21rdh6ct_500

Msamati previously played Iago in RSC’s production of Othello – he felt Iago was the more interesting character in the production than the initially offered part of Othello, the Moor – and this sadly prompted a debate about Msamati’s colour and selection for the role at that time. Msamati’s response sums it up perfectly:

‘I thought, isn’t it sad in this day and age that people are still having these kinds of discussions…Is that all I am? Is the only thing you can bring up is that I’m a couple of shades darker than a cappuccino?’

Msamati faced similar remarks in relation to his role as Salieri and I loved his response in a pre-show interview along the lines that he hoped that the darker hue of his skin wouldn’t get in the way of the performance.

His point is he is an actor. Not a black actor. An actor. He continues:

‘There are still some who do not see the actor, they see the colour, to which my response is that the limit is in your imagination. In this world of make-believe and fantasy that we create, where it’s perfectly fine to create a boarding school that is reached by a train from platform 9¾, there’s a block to your assumption that they can’t be black.’

I would go one step further having seen him perform – he is a fantastic actor and an inspiring role model for any young actor starting out.

Now I know the theatre critic meant well (sounds like a first that I know). And I know the person commenting about the young girl in the audience meant well. Yet in my opinion this obsession with labelling people only serves to perpetuate a problem, the same problem my mother encountered when she first arrived in England nearly sixty years ago.

But the answer is right here amongst us, in the playgrounds of young children who see the world as a blank canvas and the people in it for who they are. So maybe if we want to get things right then we need to go back to the beginning and nurture and reinforce that childish thought throughout the years of education that follow alongside learning the ABC and the 123 and stop those bad seeds from developing and growing.

Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York made an impassioned response to Trump’s immigration ban:

‘As a New Yorker I’m a Muslim. As a New Yorker I am Jewish. I am black, gay, disabled, a woman seeking to control her health and choices. Because as a New Yorker we are one community – the New Yorker comprised of all the above.’ 

And that last sentence is the key – we are all one and the same.

Or as the wild grizzly bear might put it: white, black, man, woman, straight, gay, Catholic, Muslim, American, Mexican…all taste like chicken.

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