Caramel queen or white man’s whore: #HashtagLightie, the play exploring the realities of modern mixed-race lives

by Zahra Dalilah

Women and men of mixed heritage, especially black/white, are often called upon in media to provide an inoffensive face of diversity, a fetishized vision of exotic beauty or simplistically characterised as inherently confused halves of one thing or the other. The play #HashtagLightie – which recently sold out the Arcola Theatre, London before rehearsals had even begun – effortlessly defies these restrictions with a story that is relatable in its specificity and genuine in its relationships.

The show, written by Lynette Linton and directed by Rikki Beadle-Blair, centres on an Irish/Bajan family who become the targets of racial abuse on social media. Although issues of colourism and the impact of social media on young lives are not exactly new, #HashtagLightie interweaves these with a fresh look at the identities and perceptions of mixed-race women and men in British society.

hashtag-lightie-3Such meaty topics are coupled with a hilarious script that bounces easily between a tight-knit cast. Eldest sibling Melissa struggles with her well-meaning white liberal partner who “only dates black girls.” Her younger sister Aimee tries to decipher whether her dark-skinned black fiancé, who constantly calls her his “caramel queen” and enthuses over the “caramel babies” that she’ll give him, only sees her as a trophy. Meanwhile, Aimee’s twin brother Kevin struggles when his identity as a black man and his relationship with his quarter-black daughter are questioned.

The youngest daughter, Ella, spends her time talking about her family on social media, which leads to racist abuse being hurled at all of them. For instance, Melissa is labelled a “white man’s whore”, while other users criticise Aimee’s engagement to “a n***er”. When the family finds out, they are forced to confront the complex dynamics of their own relationships and senses of identity.

 

Whilst it is, at times, difficult to sympathise with Ella’s vanity and downright ignorance, her naivety regarding the fallout from her actions humanises her as a character. Melissa also offers a character the audience can really get their teeth into as she relives the experiences that have come to define her. However, Aimee and Kevin are less developed as characters and are mainly defined by their reactions to being judged by anonymous strangers on the internet.

Overall, though, it was clear that #HashtagLightie had connected with its audience; several classes of GCSE students who were in attendance gasped, laughed and cried throughout before battling to speak during the Q&A at the end.

The ideas underlying #HashtagLightie grew out of writer Lynette Linton’s distress and confusion regarding the hate mixed-race women received based on the ethnicity of their partners; her frustration at one-dimensional media representations of mixed-race identities; and her own experiences of working with young people.

Before the script was written, the production team hosted a focus group of around thirty-five people of mixed black/white heritage, including family members of Beadle-Blair and Linton. “Everyone was kind of giddy and a little bit intoxicated”, Beadle-Blair recounts. “People got emotional, it was funny, [there were] lots of stories, lots of things they wanted to share. But what was really powerful was that sense of a family, [being] in a room where everyone’s going to be a step nearer to understanding what I’m talking about”. That sense of familiarity, of ownership over the space, is perhaps the play’s most powerful feature, giving it the feeling of a story being told from within.

How can more of these plays make it into theatres? Beadle-Blair points to #HashtagLightie‘s central theme of social media. “It’s sad that black women’s voices, mixed-race women’s voices, women of colour’s voices have been marginalised for so long but what’s exciting is, now it’s their turn”. With the rise of social media, he says, “conversations are switching away from what the BBC commissioning editors think is relevant or want to explore”. #HashtagLightie, for example, has benefitted greatly from this. Although several theatres declined the play because it was seen as too risky, its social media presence increased demand to the point where three extra shows had to be added.

At the end of the show, an astounded audience member stuttered out her gratitude to the team for bringing the play to life; as a 40-year-old mixed-race woman, she had never seen herself represented in such a textured and honest way. Capturing with ease the language of the ethnicities, classes and cultures it depicts, #HashtagLightie is a much-needed depiction of a community often wholly ignored by the world of theatre.

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Take Back The City community activist and co-founder of Our Fathers and Us, a research project on Black British fatherhood, Zahra’s truest loves include hip hop, Lewisham and theories of revolution. Also a trilingual travel addict, you can usually catch her skipping borders across continents whilst trying to understand the true meaning of diaspora. Twitter: @ZahraDalilah1

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