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6 November 2018

When it comes to arts funding, a white director can’t know the “struggles of a black man”

Lennon, who has at some point in his life identified as white, describes himself as a “born-again African”. 

By Dorothy Musariri

Last year, director Anthony Ekundayo Lennon was named as one of four “theatre practitioners of colour” who would indirectly split a £406,500 grant given to theatres to develop BAME talent, which was awarded to each in the form of a paid two-year residential traineeship. 

There is just one catch. Anthony Ekundayo Lennon was born to white parents. The decision to award him funding has riled up people in the creative industry, particularly those of a Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background. 

It begs the question, should ethnicity be a choice? Especially when it comes with a financial pay off?

Lennon, who has at some point in his life identified as white, describes himself as a “born-again African”. He claims that, as a child, he was treated like a minority and subjected to racist abuse, according to an ebook obtained by the Sunday Times.

It is easy to sympathise with Lennon over what he says to have experienced as an adolescent, and judging by the debate on Twitter, it is clear which ethnic group he most resembles is an open question in the eye of some beholders. 

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But Lennon reportedly applied for the grant as a “mixed-heritage” individual, despite telling a BBC documentary in 1990 that: “My parents are white and so are their parents, and so are their parents, and so are their parents.” What’s worse is that he saw fit to apply for the full-time residential traineeship funded by UK taxpayers through the Arts Council England to aid “talent development for future BAME leader”. 

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Lennon has for a long time now been working in black theatre. He began his career as a trainee at a Shoreditch theatre company called Talawa. He went on to appear in the show Chilling Out and has even worked as a director in an all-black adaption of Guys and Dolls. In 2012, he told an audience: “Although I’m white, with white parents, I have gone through the struggles of a black man, a black actor.”

Arts Council England, which runs the diversity fund, has responded to the backlash on Twitter, stating: “Talawa raised their wish to support Anthony with us. In responding we took into account the law in relation to race and ethnicity. This is a very unusual case and we do not think it undermines the support we provide to black and minority ethnic people within the theatre sector.” 

But in an industry where, on average, BAME backgrounds made up just 8 per cent of staff of chief executives there is an obvious need for more ethnic minority leaders – and not just white people who happen to pass as BAME. The same study by The Stage, also found that in 2016-17, 78 per cent of all permanent theatre staff in the UK were white, 9 per cent were from a BAME background and 9 per cent were unknown. 

Some might argue that Lennon is using the limited funding to advocate BAME causes, but this raises the question: why does he need a specific fund to do this, if he is already so dedicated to this cause? 

However good an actor Lennon is, his racially fluid looks place him in the fortunate position to be able to opt in to being black, or white. Despite his attempts at empathy, he has no real idea of the struggles black actors and directors experience in an industry obsessed with white characters and classic period (white) dramas. His award takes away from the little opportunities that people of colour have.