Photos from for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enufNatalie Keeney

It’s easy to look at the Cambridge drama scene (and it is a scene) and draw negative conclusions about its relationship with race. How many lead roles at the main theatres have lately gone to people of colour? Were any of those people not Joey Akubeze? What proportion of any given chorus line, tech team, or railing-full of posters features even one non-white face? It is for this reason that lots of people, not least of all me, will be very happy to see Sophiatown listed as the ADC’s Week 3 mainshow this term. Not only does it feature dominant and interesting black characters, but it actively addresses – albeit in a foreign and historical setting – some of the issues surrounding shared and conflicting histories, multiculturalism and prejudice. The director, third-year Anthropologist Justina Kehinde Ogunseitan, made waves, and history, in 2012 with her production of for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Not only did she achieve the impossible, selling out the Fitzpatrick Hall (having been refused an ADC slot), but she put an entirely black student cast, which I was lucky enough to be a part of, on a Cambridge stage for the first time in the University’s 800-year history. Now, all-black shows needn’t be an aim necessarily, but that fact does say a lot about the scene.

In this issue, I see a microcosm of something much bigger: university admissions. After all, how many BME people, particularly of African or Caribbean descent, can be seen anywhere in Cambridge? The University’s website asserts, and I believe it, that “we welcome applications from students of the highest intellectual potential, irrespective of social, racial, religious and financial considerations”. The Admissions department announced in 2013 that “the collegiate University invests over £2.5 million each year on engaging with UK state school students and their teachers. In 2011/12, contact was made with over 140,000 state sector students at over 2,800 different events”. Obviously, we can’t conflate state school education and race, but thanks to a broad and complex socioeconomic history that there isn’t space to go into, in this case the two are linked.

And the facts, whether about drama or the University, can be over-simplified: in Cambridge’s 2013 application cycle, 18 per cent of non-white applicants were awarded offers, compared with 29 per cent of white applicants. At face value (so to speak), that sounds a lot like the ADC termcard, but when we think about the broader context, things arise that skew the obvious conclusion; nationally in the 2009 A Level results, 29,000+ white students achieved AAA or higher, compared with 452 black students. Moreover, a spokeswoman for Oxford pointed out in the last uproar about admissions, “nearly half of black applicants are applying for...the three toughest subjects to get places in”. Theatre’s lack of BME students is only a little behind the University’s, and both are being improved on – but perhaps not quickly enough.

I think few people, though, would argue that they’ve actually been refused racially unspecified roles on the grounds of colour. There may be a small problem with directors complacently envisioning their characters as white and thus being shaken when people of colour audition, but I would hope and expect that they overcome any surprise before it comes to casting decisions. And none of this is to say that there haven’t been some great diverse shows put on by Cambridge students: I fondly remember Tatiana Noukong’s Joyful Joyful at the ADC last year, for instance. Part concert, part theatre, it combined music, movement and poetry to express the history and feeling behind gospel music. It seems that there is at least one notably black show a year these days.

In fact, in my time doing drama here, I have been approached many times by directors looking specifically for black/mixed race actors, only one of whom was black herself. My experience suggests that the specifically coloured roles are there, but a lack of keen actors has meant that a few people have become the obvious choices and have dominated what is already a small sector. Sadly, too, a lot of those roles were topically black – their race was an issue within the play, rather than just happening to be so. I was to be a chorus member enhancing the legitimacy of a Deep South setting, say, or a black prisoner making illicit friends with a white. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure whether to be glad or worried when I was pursued for a non-specified race role because they ‘thought it would be nice’ to have a coloured person in their project. Good intentions, of course, but weird thinking... no-one wants to be the token any more than they want to be left out, which leaves well-meaning directors in something of a conundrum.

It’s a shame that as well as a lack of actors, there is a lack of non-canonical theatre; especially given how Euro- or western- centric many of our academic courses already are. Even the new writing is the same, though that’s hardly surprising given that many of us are Brits yet to travel much of the world – but imagine how exciting a new-write by an African student set in their hometown might be. And it seems that those who do know about existing theatre from further afield aren’t too keen to put it on. I can only guess at the reasons for a lack of enthusiasm: some, by no means all, BME students may come from traditional backgrounds where they are discouraged from big-commitment extra-curricular activities that could jeopardise their studies. Some may see the current dearth and assume that it’s deliberate, that they are not welcome. Some may have come from schools which were not able to run inspiring drama departments.

It would only take a little more openness to draw out that potential talent, and it’s the big scary theatres and committees, rather than the intimidated/alienated students, that must enact that. Although, of course, they can’t put on diverse plays unless they receive strong applications, they can make it clear that they are open to, or if they’re brave enough, actively seeking, plays from more various backgrounds, and actors to match.

The ADC may not have £2.5 million to throw at the race disparity, but continuing and improving its bill of culturally various productions will make more people feel welcome and will ultimately benefit the entire drama community.

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