"I thought people from South East London just stabbed and killed each other. I didn't know you get an education."
This was the response I was met with during my Fresher's Week at East 15 Acting School when a young lady asked where I was from, and I proudly replied "South East London."
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't irritated, but I realised that her perception was a common stereotype of young black males that many also shared.
Growing up I constantly battled with how I was perceived by teachers, the police, strangers, friends and family; but what I struggled with most was how I saw myself. Because of this I started to 'play up' to the labels I was given, while secretly grappling to find my identity and my role in our society.
Hoodlum. Big for nothing. Dyslexic. Under-achiever. Lower-class. Poor. Fat boy. Hot head. Loud mouth. Young carer. IC3 Male. Panda - what the bullies called me. And Bison - my street name. All of these labels reflected assumptions about me by individuals who didn't understand the behaviour I exhibited, the music I listened to, the culture I came from or the enormous responsibilities I was carrying as a young teen.
Lacking a sense of purpose and identity, I sought refuge in the sub-cultures which were surrounding me.
Now years later, I see young black men echoing the same behaviours I once exhibited on the streets, parks and backs of buses after school. Taking refuge in gang culture. Attempting to turn 'respect' into a common currency. All the while, the media continued to perpetuate an enduring image of disillusioned black youths, feeding destructive stereotypes. I found they were rarely showing different races and individuals of BAME backgrounds which I like to refer to as the GM (Global Majority) in a positive way.
So with Dominic Garfield, I created Big Foot, a solo theatre shows to challenge the common stereotype of the scary young black man. It's a semi-autobiographical coming of age tale on stage to bust issues of perception and stereotyping in an honest and (I hope) humorous way.
Big Foot, photographer Camilla Greenwell
Big Foot tackles big themes and issues head-on, teenage pregnancy, abortion, identity and fatherhood until the character finally fathoms what it means to truly become a man. In this show, I lay out all my past vulnerabilities and I hope offer insight to break open some of myths around being a young black man.
While performing this show on tour all over the UK with my company HighRise Theatre and Black Theatre Live, I've seen grown men cry in Margate; ladies of all ages in Bury St Edmunds and London thanking me for being open, men and women of all ethnicities saying how much they've been able relate to the show. It's been a remarkably cathartic and life enhancing experience for me.
In rural Hexham there was a beautiful moment when a big white guy with a bald head proclaimed in the post-show Q&A "While watching the show I finally understood why some black men adopt the bravado. You've changed my opinion tonight, thank you."
Big Foot, photographer Camilla Greenwell
The very next day in Peterborough, there was an EDL demonstration opposite the theatre, and a heavy police presence. For someone like me, who had a seriously bad run in with the National Front in his youth, the heavy police presence around the EDL march was daunting; the community that I come from we don't relate police with safety. For all the wonderful ambition of this show on tour I had to seek refuge again. The challenge of touring and telling the Big Foot story has exposed me again to the current racism which persists in England and by contrast has also shown me the common humanity of people whose hearts and minds have been genuinely touched by the show.
These examples spell out how much is still to be done in our society to confound racist stereotypes. The enduring power of stories to evoke empathy for each other among the audiences I've encountered has been truly heartening, and the ability to connect with help young men of all backgrounds to confront and accept their identity remains as powerful testimony to the value of the theatre. It is after all most important to show the head and the heart behind the myth of Big Foot.