What does Black mean? Anthony Lennon, Talawa and British Black artistic history

Anthony Ekundayo Lennon became breaking news on Sunday.

Mainstream papers, including the Sunday Times, Independent, The Guardian, and the Evening Standard stoked up racial fires that a white man (Lennon) had misappropriated funds for Black people in the theatre by pretending he is mixed race.

What reportedly happened, is Lennon applied for a position at Talawa – Black theatre company founded in 1986 by actresses Yvonne Brewster, Mona Hammond, Carmen Munroe – currently run by Michael Buffong. The advertisement for the role ran as “open to people of colour“. The job included a full-time residential traineeship funded with government assistance from Arts Council England. The programme itself was created to assist non-white theatre creatives in getting access into an industry dominated by white men. The problem is that although Lennon looks mixed race, both his parents are white, Irish to be specific, yet allegedly Lennon ticked the ‘mixed race‘ box when applying.

As it stands, Lennon hasn’t made any comments to the press, it’s also not entirely clear why this story became headline news now, especially as his heritage hasn’t been a secret, Lennon has spoken about his Irish heritage. People who know him are defending him and his unchanged and public knowledge story that up until the age of 13 his race wasn’t an issue and then, one day things changed people started treating him as if he was Black positively and negatively; he looked in the mirror and saw black, he started identifying as Black. There are people who have benefitted from the work Lennon has put in at Talawa who disapprove of the ‘witch hunt‘.

But there are also people who ‘know‘ Lennon or know of his work at Talawa, who don’t believe he’s pulled his weight – that his contribution to Black theatre could have been done by anyone. Who question why he added a Nigerian name to his birth name. Who don’t think he’s deserved of sharing a pot of ‘diversity‘ targeted funding because he’s not genetically black, regardless his looks. Who believe he and whomever at Talawa knew about the ‘deception‘ should step down.

The pressure to comment and react is huge in 2018. People see click-bait headlines and go crazy whether or not they have all the facts. Quick to condemn or defend strangers based on another stranger or friend of a friend’s opinion, based on a snippet of a possible truth. The wont to join the conversation to be a part of the conversation comes before thinking about whether we should.

Because TBB doesn’t have a relationship with Lennon or know too much about what the hell happened outside of a lot of anecdotal opinions for and against him, we’re not jumping in too deep. But what stands out for us:

  • Did Lennon lie to get work or money which could have gone to a Black person whose heritage cannot be questioned?

The conversation about what is black is almost irrelevant. Almost. Because one point which we can’t avoid, Black people of a certain hue cannot wake up and decide to be white. Black people who look white, though they may ‘pass‘ in certain spaces, genetics can expose the lie quite easily through childbirth so passing is never a sure thing. Clearly, Lennon’s situation isn’t as clear-cut as the comparison to Rachel Dolezal. Simplistically Lennon really does look mixed race or light skinned black. Dolezal does not, and she goes out of her way to manipulate her Caucasian looks to appear more black, by wearing dark makeup and wearing her hair in stereotypically Black hairstyles.

What we at TBB are actually more excited about is the resurfacing of a brilliant episode of the BBC 1 series ‘Everyman‘. The episode called ‘Chilling Out‘ features an all-black cast and Lennon, playing themselves in a scripted programme about what it’s like to be Black in the UK. Once you get over the shock at how young some of our acting legends are, it’s important to note that this episode was aired in 1990 almost 30 years ago. The conversation in this show, including a no, holds barred challenge to Lennon who openly discusses being white but looking ‘half-caste‘ (yes there was a time when the term half-caste wasn’t seen as derogatory), could be had today. Nothing has changed. What is black is still in 2018 being defined today.

Another note, the number of times a synopsis about a new show, or film reads, ‘this will touch on a taboo topic never been shown on screen before’, it betrays how little British Black arts history we know. How little our contribution to Britsh entertainment is archived, protected and revered. How little we are taught about our rich artistic legacy. This is the first time some of us at TBB have seen this episode and we’re mad at ourselves and the industry. Regardless the outcome of whatever is going to happen to Mr. Lennon (if he lied, pay the consequences / if he didn’t, what now?) the challenge for you, for all of us British, Black and in the arts – screen, stage, sound, literature is to know our history. Know our back story. Understand the people who came before us, right here in the UK, rather than America. If this is where we’re calling home, then let’s understand what our people did to lay the groundwork for why we even have a Talawa in the first place.

Maybe if we could get a stranglehold on who we are, we wouldn’t be so easily distracted, infiltrated, and misinformed?

Acknowledgments to the legendary cast of Chilling Out – Eddie Nestor, Lennie James, Colin McFarlane, Sylvester Williams, Jacqui Gordon Lawrence, Dona Croll, and Anthony Lennon.


Latest articles

Related articles