To know more about ourselves
30 March 2018
No wonder we're so addicted to Netflix, says Nadeem Lala, as he examines how we talk about minority representation in theatre
Another piece about how we need to encourage diversity in theatre. “Yes, very important,” you think to yourself, nodding your head vigorously. But just uttering the words diversity/outreach/minority has already created a distance for the reader. It is hard to resist the subconscious urge that these have been reduced to ‘token’ topics - written, read and discussed in isolated bubbles. Once you exit the bubble, the topic ceases to feel that important.
Now you are probably sitting there thinking: "this is presumptuous, I don’t think that’s true at all, I acknowledge just how important it is to discuss and tackle such matters." However, discussions surrounding this topic usually takes place in a formal NSDF-style space, which makes it hard to create an emotional attachment to the subject at hand, which is crucially needed to break away from this formal dialogue.
Let’s remove this distance, let’s start afresh. I don’t need to cite statistics that affirms the lack of representation of ethnic minorities in the entertainment industry, the need to have three-dimensional BME characters and stories, etc. – you already know all of this. Ava Davies made a stellar point in Tuesday’s edition of Noises Off, where she said, “I have to keep saying why I need to see myself onstage, and it’s not even to white people anymore, it’s other East and South East Asians who don’t seem to get it and I don’t know why”. In response to that, what we need to do is go beyond the formal discussions and really delve personally into why minorities feel that this issue affects us so much.
To understand the persistence of institutional barriers towards minorities in the industry, one needs to acknowledge the psychological barriers. What really is the problem are mental blocks – that this is not for us. it’s hard to picture yourself in the industry when you don’t see yourself represented on stage. BME actors are far and few in between, and as a South Asian, creatives from my ethnic background are even fewer (to clarify, South Asian covers the entire Indian sub-continent). It may seem innocuous but if most of the representations of ethnic minorities in western cinema are one-dimensional, it feeds into our personal perceptions. I was brought up to see South Asian actors in western cinema predominantly as a one-dimensional supporting role at best, and at worst, an extra with an exaggerated accent for some racial comic value. The struggle to feel that your voice matters, that you feel attractive and beautiful as a person of colour – is all too prominent. And it’s a fear that needs to be overcome when expressing yourself in the arts.
I had the privilege to take part in a wonderful discussion with leading theatre professionals on Tuesday morning regarding this dialogue about ethnic minorities. And coming out of it, I’ve realised that one of the things that needs to be addressed is why we are not empowered by our ethnic background. Someone during this discussion stated that she felt offended when someone asked her what’s her ethnic background, and I know many friends who are of a BME background and feel similarly offended too, with their responses being largely along the lines of: “I’m British, I was born and raised here”.
And I wholeheartedly understand that but at the same time, I feel that this subconsciously creates a barrier that doesn’t allow us to truly express ourselves in the arts. 'We' are British, but at the same time, our ancestral origins are not from here and there is a profound power towards embracing that, and I believe truly understanding that will propel BME theatre. I believe that a large part of why stories surrounding minority communities are not written or expressed is due to the mental resistance towards acknowledging what it feels to be a minority in the UK. We are focused on ‘being British’ rather than understanding that we occupy a unique space as both British, but also as something else. And I guess the problem lies in that by acknowledging you are different, one feels less assimilated into British society.
Moreover, there are institutional factors that just can’t be changed any time soon. Now I’m saying this as a fact rather than an insinuation, but at Warwick University, students who study theatre and performance/english and theatre are predominantly white. Beyond that, most of their friends are predominantly white as a result. If you don’t have many friends from a BME background, how can you stage theatre that includes people of colour? Any sort of entertainment, film or theatre, is usually in some way a reflection of the society we are in. And if BME people are not a part of your everyday life, it is very unlikely that you will be putting up plays that makes them feel inclusive.
One of the main reasons why I’m writing this is because we need to embrace the power of our stories. There is a reason why we are so addicted to entertainment, to Netflix, we crave to see reflections of our daily lives on screen. And we also crave to see our wildest imaginations come to life. To see theatre that encompasses that for people of colour is to acknowledge who we are, is to understand who we are, is to know more about ourselves.
Photo credit: Giulia Delprato