Theatre-maker and writer Naomi Joseph discusses her experiences as an artist in the performing arts – while lack of representation is one issue, challenges about being pigeonholed are another.
Main image: A Letitia Wright in The Convert, written by Danai Gurira
Much has been said about the representation of people of colour in the arts. From passionate speeches by known advocates to insightful articles examining progress, artists and audiences alike have called out the stories that are being told, how they are being told and who is telling them.
As a theatre-maker and writer and a woman of colour, I too am bored and frustrated with the one-dimensional ‘cultural’ stories that have circulated our stages and screens. I have grown tired of seeing stereotypical casting at worse, token casting at best.
It would be unfair to say that there hasn’t been progress. Where artists of colour once lacked resources we are creating our own. A prime example of this is Hear Me Now, a book of monologues written by and for actors of colour.
“But I am frustrated. Frustrated because at one event I attended I was volunteered by a facilitator to speak about being a woman of colour in the arts and to lead a smaller group discussion on it. Like I was an unpaid guest speaker being asked to share a workplace anecdote.”
We are seeing a variety of interesting work being programmed. We have more artistic directors of colour who are leading the way for BAME (black and minority ethnic) talent both on and offstage. Yet in the wake of these progressions I have found myself facing a new set of challenges.
Firstly, many people seem to only want to talk to me about or expect me to talk about my experiences of being a person of colour in the arts. It is difficult to even bring this topic up because it is obviously important that these conversations take place. But I am frustrated. Frustrated because at one event I attended I was volunteered by a facilitator to speak about being a woman of colour in the arts and to lead a smaller group discussion on it. Like I was an unpaid guest speaker being asked to share a workplace anecdote.
Cover of Hear Me Now: Audition Monologues for Actors of Colour
Except what is being asked is much greater than that. These discussions may be held in good faith but it takes artists of colour a significant amount of emotional energy to talk to a roomful of strangers about personal experiences of professional endeavours, even more so when it is thrust upon you. (The irony being that this particular event was held in Open Space, a format where participants essentially choose the structure of the day, they can call sessions on what to discuss and when they want to discuss them)
Oftentimes I might be one of the only people of colour in the room, so it’s really hard not to feel like you are turning your back on artists in a similar position to yourself by saying actually, I don’t have the energy to speak up today. Actually, if you really want to include me, include me in other conversations too.
As a participant I want to be heard but I am also met with expectations to be some sort of teacher or leader or tell others how to do the work to create space for an artist like me. There’s almost a disappoint on people’s face when I say that what I really want is what every artist wants: to be able to tell the stories they want to with funding, space and trustworthy collaborators.
It’s also wrong to volunteer me as the representative of female artists of colour. After sharing the universal experience of being asked “where are you from” and “no, where are you really from?’ artists of colour are individual people with individual experiences. I’ve had my share of ignorant comments (“it must be easy for you to get parts because there aren’t a lot of Indian actresses”) but I know that there are artists who have had it much worse.
“Subject matter doesn’t negate the need for good writing or solid performances or a united creative team. Nor does it mean that the responsibility of a venue is over after they have programmed “diversity night”
Which leads me on to my second major challenge. People expect me to only make work about being a woman of colour.
I can’t tell you how many people, upon discovering I am mixed race, have had a light bulb moment and said “Oh! You should make something about that. A lot of people are talking about that these days.”
From a business perspective (and yes, the arts can still be a business!) the mentality of strike while the iron’s hot makes sense but let’s remember that being an artist of colour isn’t a fad that is going to go away. We must not forget that some of the experiences we see onstage exist offstage in the performer’s everyday lives too. I strongly don’t believe in exorcising personal experiences for the sake of a new theatre show.
Matthew Xia, Artistic Director, Actors Touring Company
Besides, I have made work on those topics. I will make work on these topics. Not because it’s “in” but because I feel I have something to say. Our experiences should be valued for what they are and not how we can commercialise them. And if artists are making work on these topics they should be supported and not exploited.
Also, objectively speaking, these themes might be topical but that doesn’t mean the work they have inspired is automatically good. Subject matter doesn’t negate the need for good writing or solid performances or a united creative team. Nor does it mean that the responsibility of a venue is over after they have programmed ‘diversity night:’ a showcase for BAME talent.
Progress is a movement, a transition, we need to keep moving forward.
“Does it really look like progress if organisations are only engaging with artists of colour during curated discussions about being an artist of colour? How can we be included in the work that is being made if other doors are still closed to us?”
Does it really look like progress if organisations are only programming artists of colour to make work about being people of colour?
Does it really look like progress if organisations are only engaging with artists of colour during curated discussions about being an artist of colour? How can we be included in the work that is being made if other doors are still closed to us?
There must be room for future professional collaborations, otherwise the relationship that organisations and venues have with artists of colour is still very curated and one dimensional.
To me, being an artist of colour means choice. A choice to create stories about my heritage and culture if I want to but equally able to create stories that don’t rely on the theme of being a person of colour in order to be valid or programmed.