Suddenly he lowers his voice and slows his speech, assuming stern ownership of our telephone conversation, like a grown up instructing a child. I've been frank with him, indicating that my delight at his recent casting as Cassius in Julius Caesar has been tempered by the fact that it is an 'all black' production.
My comment ruffles him; his reply surprises me. He asks how I respond when I hear that Colin Firth has been cast in something. I explain that I never respond in anyway because Colin Firth is always cast in something. He contends that the production we're discussing will occur on one of the finest stages in the land (The RSC) with some of the finest actors in the land, arguing it is not an 'all black' production but one set in an unspecified East Africa country decades ago.
I stand corrected: my attitude indeed denigrates the calibre of his fellow players, but otherwise we have to agree to differ because - in my experience - productions like this never have white cast members. Why, when Europeans have been in Africa for hundreds of years? I insist that it's tantamount to positive discrimination in the theatre - how about an all black Othello with a white moor for a change? He counters that it's not positive discrimination, just positive.
Award winning actor and writer Cyril Nri and I are cogitating thus because an actor we know, one decorated by Her Majesty for services to British acting and star of a hit US series, has had his remarks, regarding slim-pickings for black actors, turned into this broadsheet headline, "David Harewood: as a black actor there are very few roles for me in Britain". Surely it wasn't the main thrust of his conversation, but it has suited the Telegraph to stir a hackneyed narrative, one that Cyril thinks erroneous, "A myth" to be transcended. If papers like the Telegraph wish to peddle that narrative let them, but unsuspecting actors should be circumspect of being lured into the 'colour parlour' because it's not the full story.
We agree that it's easily construed by the successful because they are given opportunities to promote their work, whereas those who don't succeed can't air grievances. Cyril even quips that it's good PR to aggrandise the lucrative market you hope to continue exploiting. Yet, he knows a few frustrated talents - not necessarily black- who can't get arrested (so to speak) over here or over there, just as he knows a handful who have been unspeakably fortunate. He then propounds an apercu, that securing good roles has more to do with class than colour. Because he is perceived as well-to-do/upper-middle, he has scored judge and police superintendent on television, where other actors can only expect gang member or token mate. He might be right: the most successful black actor from the UK in recent years is a Dulwich College alumnus.
And isn't it all a bit backward bandying words like black and white around? I contact another friend, actor and filmmaker Giles Terera, to see what he thinks. I ask if these notions are anything more than a frustrating bore to him. He confirms "I don't want to be considered a black actor- I get very bored with it!" Giles has been directed by Peter Brook, played Caliban to Ralph Fiennes' Prospero and is currently preparing his feature documentary, a Shakespeare road movie, Muse of Fire for the film festival circuit.
He has some fascinating insights and is spirited on the subject. Once, an investor who congratulated him on his performance as Horatio, immediately tainted the compliment with "Of course, Horatio wasn't black." Cheers. Giles cared about his The Tempest character Caliban enough to want to transcend colour with his performance until- as scripted- the esteemed lead called him "Slave!" in front of a majority white audience. "It made me want to go more towards that, to say actually I am black and there's no point ignoring it."
Recently, to some drama students, he pointed out that because the majority of producers, programmers and audiences were white that the intended thespians would be frequently challenged by a system of subtle colour narratives. However, he thinks David Harewood has a point, "The American industry is different to ours. Their society is different to ours. I would like to see here be as good as it there." He proffers that theatre, his preferred arena, is making exemplary achievements that television and cinema are starting to follow. His account of performing Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman at the National Theatre, where some of the cast infamously 'whited up' is both astonishing and uproarious. "I want to go to the theatre and see myself reflected as much as I want to turn on the television and see myself reflected. That's all."
What I gather and believe more and more is that a certain level of success is selective. The misleading tease that anybody can succeed to that extent never goes out of fashion. Acting has its own '1%.' They are so overwhelmingly promoted that their success gets mistaken for something normal, an entitlement even. Cyril and Giles are agreed that valuing the work is paramount, and that the cultivation of ownership, writing and production is vital. The exclusion felt by actors of any ethnic group could be that there is not enough material being created for them by them. Britain yet lacks its Spike Lee, John Singleton, Tyler Perry equivalents. Steve McQueen has attained something remarkable by creating films that pay the colour conversation no mind. Without question there will be those who applaud his bold pictures for their excellence and those who level accusations of exclusion at his projects, questioning why he does things the way he does. Interestingly, for his third feature he has secured the services of one of the actors mentioned above.
Guess which one.