Tuesday, 2 September 2008

To Be (Black) Or Not To Be

For the past month I have been living in a cocoon that is called the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and much news of the world has passed me by. For those who don’t know this is an annual festival of live performance in Scotland’s capital.

I was performing in two plays, the second of which was one of Shakespeare’s earliest and bloodiest, Titus Andronicus. This play reads like the script of a Scream movie and as such was a hell of a lot of fun. I play Aaron the Moor, which is one of Shakespeare very few specifically black roles and a very bad man. I enjoyed myself immensely not just theatrically but also socially, however there were conundrums niggling away at the back of my mind.

It all comes back to the historical basis of our understanding of what being black represents and its root therein. Shakespeare has three Blacks in his cannon, Othello, a good man of standing who is manipulated into villainy, Aaron, who has nothing about him but villainy and The Prince of Morocco, a dignified ruler.

I believe that Shakespeare was no stranger to people of colour considering that in his day (1601) there were an estimated 15,000 – 20,000 black people in London, not all of whom were slaves or domiciles and yet there seems no reason for Aaron to be black. The Prince of Morocco being African would be, Othello is an example of the consequences of racial isolation and xenophobic jealousy so, again that is borne out by its very themes but Aaron has no seeming reason to be a ‘moor’.

Not too long ago I wrote an article on the portrayal of black characters in comics and one of the conclusions which I came to is that when that exists for which we have no real empathy we resort to caricature rather than an attempt to find real artistic truth and to a certain extent this is what has happened here.

One of my fellow cast members a white, pale skinned, ginger headed chap admitted that at drama school he had played Aaron and qualified with a distinction. I was aghast when he demonstrated for me the pseudo Jamaican accent he had been allowed to get away with. Let’s forget for the moment that at the time this was written Jamaica as an English colony did not even exist, the bigger crime for me was the establishment pandering and applauding this heinous portrayal of what being black is thought to be.

The biggest enemy of this rectification of the stereotype is the distortion of history in the general social subconscious. My last theatre job had a bunch of us sitting watching a reality TV show which saw children competing to be cast as Oliver in the new musical Oliver Twist. I was expositing on the theory that as it was down to a public vote the public would never allow the black candidate to be chosen. There was a general hubbub of disagreement which I graciously accepted, when a member of the crew walked in and exclaimed
“The black one shouldn’t be in this; it’s just not historically accurate”
A statement which was inaccurate in itself considering that 200 years after Shakespeare’s time the Black population and indeed the now indigenous black population would have increased despite the immigration restrictions of the day.
However this is the common belief that has embedded itself in the national consciousness and informs our day to day lives.

As an actor, especially with locks, this has dire consequences. Producers tend to think in terms of stereotypes and cast black people for black roles rather than just ‘roles’. A quick look at my last 5 television castings will spell this out in no uncertain terms.

1 Rum advert which exploited the Jamaican party lifestyle stereotype so badly that I walked out of the casting.
3 Rastafarian musicians
1 Rastafarian hospital receptionist that only answered people in Bob Marley lyrics
And tomorrow I’m going for a casting as a murder suspect.

However despite this I was pleased to hear that the recent production of King Lear at the globe had several Black and one Asian actor playing non ethnic specific roles. I was also pleased by a chance encounter in a club with a director who had produced Titus Andronicus in the past and had refused to cast his one black actor as Aaron because he felt his talents supported another role, the director had effectually cast outside of the stereotype.

The question remains though – how long can I maintain my integrity in light of the need to you know….eat.


David Wynne said...

“The black one shouldn’t be in this; it’s just not historically accurate”

I have to say this, putting aside the lack of historical knowledge on display there for a moment-


...But yeah, it's astonishing how many people in this country fail to realise just how multi-cultural it's always been*. But then, they probably think tea comes from England, too...

David Monteith said... my life kids burst into song all the time!!!!

But seriously I really think the biggest aid to instituionalised racism is this fase perception of history. Its why I think that Black History in schools need to focus less on slavery and more on a realistic World History

Anonymous said...

you played aaron?!?
god that would've been incredible to see!!
(big fan of geeksyn by the way)
anyway, your acting cred just shot up about 500% in my estimation...
i sincerely wish i could have seen it...

Anonymous said...

you bring up some interesting insights in your post's which frankly i hadn't considered before...i studied this play in college and mainly think of aaron as the most memorable and most interesting character in the play...his brazen vitality and relentless self sufficiency made him almost endearing...and he is clearly far more intelligent than any of the nobles...i've always perceived him as "an excellent piece of villainy" without really taking into account the implications of his color...
essentially you are correct, he could well have been any color at all...his ethnicity really has no crucial bearing on his part in the play...
shakespeare is a slippery fellow though, and won't be nailed down very easily...
the choice of color for aaron could well have been a gratuitous choice on will's part, but we can't forget that this play is very deeply concerned with the notion of honor...we see titus espousing high flown honorable intentions, but yet he disowns his sons, his brothers, and kills mutius...while aaron espouses villainy, and yet he goes to extreme lengths to protect the life of a defenseless baby...
i seem to recall a discussion that centered on shakespeare bringing out the humanity of a figure that in the popular mind didn't have any...
i'll have to dig out my notes...