After a successful run earlier this year, #Hashtag Lightie, the third play by writer/director Lynette Linton, is back for a second run for a short time at the Arcola Theatre.
The play explores several issues that surround the mixed-race experience in the UK, in particular, the relationship with the word ‘lightie’ both within and outside the Black community.
You may have heard it, used it, or even have been called it; the term ‘lightie’ is one that is loaded with several meanings. And attaching it to a hashtag brings with it a particular nuance that does not go unchecked in our digitalised world. But what exactly does it mean? I met with the play’s director Rikki Beadle-Blair to find out.
“Calling someone a lightie can be celebratory or derogatory. It can be a full on put down or it can be a challenge.” he said, before going on to explain the term also implies a sense of privilege either claimed or conferred upon, as if “to say that I’m in an exclusive club and you’re not.”
Set in East London, #Hashtag Lightie, follows Ella, a mixed-race teenager who shares beauty tips on her YouTube channel. As her confidence is boosted by her rapidly growing popularity, she coins the phrase ‘#lightie’, a moniker given to her by her followers, in reference to her mixed heritage and, as some emphatically state, her beauty. However, things take a turn for the worse when one of her videos goes viral, resulting in a vicious backlash against her and her family. And her followers, whom she considered friends soon prove to be otherwise.
“Ella thinks she’s being political in a small, simple and uncontroversial way”, explains Beadle-Blair. “But then she gets this confidence of ‘ok I really like who I am, I like my colour’… and then she starts making little comments that suggest that rather than just liking who she is or loving who she is, she is favouring who she is”. Arguably one can conclude that it’s a thin line between loving yourself and fueling hate towards others. Beadle-Blair agrees, “It is a fine line for anybody particularly young people. To think ‘Ok how do I value myself? How do I not define myself by people who attack me and people who praise me? How do I accept praise and criticism without being a slave to it? How do I retain my sense of self?’And it’s so difficult, because once you’re counting views or subscribers, you play into what the masses want and how to get more attention, rather than staying true to yourself”
Interspersed with video scenes from Ella’s followers, other vloggers, tweets, snapchats and Insta posts, the play presents a lively and amusing take on youth culture. There was a beautiful moment where two characters gave a knowing nod to comedian, Michael Dapaah’s character Big Shaq, which resulted in most of the young audience singing along to ‘Mans Not Hot’. Scenes like this provided much needed comic relief and were well balanced against the more dramatic elements of the play. It also showed just how much the play had connected with the majority of the audience, who perhaps weren’t typical theatregoers.
This is largely due to the creativity of the play’s writer Lynnette Linton, whom Beadle-Blair credits with creating “a piece of work that’s entertaining and connects with her in a way she wishes the theatre would connect with her more often.” He goes on to say, “There are so many people of colour or people with an interest in identity politics and the issues surrounding a person of colour, who want to discuss it; because it’s not being discussed on stage and if it is, it’s not being discussed in an entertaining or accessible way.”
This sentiment was also echoed by the play’s cast at the Q&A after the show. Often when a mixed-race person is portrayed on stage or screen, they are seen as confused about their identity in some way. However, #Hashtag Lightie takes that idea and flips it around to depict the people around the mixed-race characters as being the confused ones; simply because they feel the need to force their definition of identity upon those they consider to be other, without really considering what it all means.
It goes without saying that #Hashtag Lightie packs a huge punch from an entertainment and intellectual standpoint. With standout performances from the cast as a whole, it was refreshing to see a piece of work that brings together such important, relevant and timely issues to be discussed in an open and honest manner. Yes, there was at times visible discomfort from sections of the audience regardless of race. But that’s a good thing, especially if it gets people talking and thinking about their own experiences.
As Beadle-Blair points out, the play “makes everybody feel a little bit uncomfortable at certain points. That’s what I want the play to do – make me feel uncomfortable in a safe environment – which this play does this so beautifully”.
#Hashtag Lightie is on at the Arcola Theatre, London until 2 December 2017. Find out more and book tickets here.
Review by Priscilla Owusu