A 2016 RSC production of HamletManuel Harlan (c) RSC

Before I came to Cambridge, I had no idea I was BME. According to Wikipedia’s disambiguation page, the phrase has 16 different meanings: the version that predominates in Cambridge is Black and Minority Ethnic, a term commonly used in the UK to describe people from non-white descent.

This definition appears nowhere on the page which it links to, the much more substantive (if problematic) ‘Classification of ethnicity in the United Kingdom’. Here, ethnicity is divided into categories and subcategories; this definition, used in government censuses and medical forms, does not require every person who is non-white to be lumped together into one group; it does not create an Other that is opposed a norm of Whiteness. Moreover, the term is simply inaccurate: I am of white descent, and of black descent – this definition requires me to abandon that, to be fully “of non-white descent”, to be “other”.

“To suggest that the only importance in a casting is that they are ‘BME’… perpetuates the alienation that I, and many other actors, feel”

It is this view of ethnicity that dominates the Cambridge theatre scene. In the Lent term 2018 CUADC Actor’s Lists, the word ‘BME’ appears 19 times. Most egregiously, a show with an entirely white production team calls for five roles, three of which are to be ‘white’ and two of which are to be ‘BME’. Ethnicity can be an important part of a role’s characterisation, but to suggest that the only importance in a casting is that they are BME, as opposed to white, perpetuates the alienation that I, and many other actors, feel.

Equally, it’s frankly ridiculous to suggest that a South-East Asian, a black person, and a mixed race person all have the same otherness; the experience of race is different between each person, never mind between people with ethnic origins that are separated by thousands of miles and millennia of history. Rather than creating a role for marginalised people, this approach marginalises them all - by suggesting that any race except white is interchangeable, it creates the expectation that ‘BME’ actors can only play the ‘other’ parts.

I have experienced this othering firsthand: I was cast in a play for a role written for a black person. Of course, there is nothing wrong with race-bending a part if there is nothing that requires them to be of a certain race. However, one monologue had the character claiming that they occupied this position of being other: quoting from the script, they described themselves as “something skankier”, and describes that “mud from another pond left a stink on her” (with the heavy implication that this stink is race-mixing).

When I asked the director (who had not caught this subtext), she admitted that the part was originally written for a black character. When I asked her why she had cast me, she said it was because I was “obviously non-Aryan”. This was the first time I had ever been made aware that the slight tan of my skin meant that I was “other” enough to play the role of a fully black person. The piece, which was new writing that had won a prestigious prize, was of course written by a white Cambridge student, for whom the experience of being alienated was alien.

Of course, not all of Cambridge so explicitly others its performers; The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui had a diverse cast, and a lead (Jordan Julien as the eponymous Arturo Ui) who, in his closing speech, gave an incredible example of theatrical mimesis. I believed that he was Hitler, and his race had nothing to do with how good of an actor he was. This attitude, which was reflected in the final product, was fostered from the start of the production: the Actors List from that term stresses that auditions for the play were genderblind and colourblind, rather than white and BME. This is the attitude that the Cambridge theatre scene should foster: the best people for the best role, not the blackest people for the blackest role.


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Other efforts to foster this diversity often feel insular, or like quota-filling. One wonders, given that the term BME others the people to whom it is applied, why CUMTS feel it necessary to host a ‘BME Bar Night’. The night is not to foreground musicals by people of colour, but instead to limit the people who can perform explicitly to this homogenous other, which in itself implies a parochial, protective attitude: why can’t BME people share the stage with non-BME people?

The same criticism might be levelled at all-BME productions. Cambridge has absolutely no shortage of Shakespeare; so what exactly do BME versions of Twelfth Night or Macbeth add to the equation, aside from ghettoising the actors within them? These efforts would have been timely before people accepted that good acting comes from your acting and not your skin tone. But as the recognition for actors like Riz Ahmed, Paapa Essiedu and Benedict Wong shows, we are no longer at that point. I sincerely doubt that there is anyone at Cambridge who thinks that the colour of your skin limits your acting ability; we must therefore stop limiting the roles available to these actors

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