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  • Klein Blue

Updated: Feb 27


In the dawn of films like ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ I have wondered what the future looks like for the British East Asian actor in the film/television/theatre industry.


I remember the day the film came out - it felt as if a long lost pride in me was reignited. It was special. That feeling of acceptance and being seen gave me high hopes as a graduating drama school student preparing for the industry. It was a sign of moving forwards, combatting my subconscious fear of a lack of representation and thus, a lack of opportunity as an East Asian actor - a fear most minority actors have. A fear derived from my experience of watching the 400th celebration of Shakespeare, which was broadcasted live from the RSC by the BBC. The Swan theatre was graced by a great many actors, from all races. All races apart from one. The show failed to portray a single East Asian actor on stage that could truly represent someone like me. It was that moment that inspired me to be someone who could represent my community.


The industry is becoming more diverse. But not as much as it could be. The term that I believe holds us back the most is ‘BAME’. Made in the late 1970s, BME was meant to signify minorities fighting against racism in the UK. Now, it feels like a non-negotiable term to categorise people, making it easier and more politically-correct than saying ‘non-white’. The term ’asian’ feels equally reductive to me, and it has made me wonder about whether friends of mine feel similarly about being called ‘black’. Not to mention those who are forced to choose the term ‘ethnic minority’ - who is meant to identify with this label?


The term ‘diversity’ seems like the best option when it comes to embracing difference. It is broad enough to include anyone who considers themselves ‘other’ and thus more inclusive. When asked whether he considered himself Chinese or North American, Bruce Lee replied: “I think of myself as a human being...under the sky, under the heaven there is but one family, it just so happens that people are different.” The term ‘multi-cultural’ also appeals to me, and I think would be more appropriate for people to use especially when casting actors. These terms I think are more likely to help create a space that rejects stereotypes and allows us to relate to actors, or indeed people, in a more humane way.


When I started acting, I found myself at various youth theatre workshops and panel talks around identity and race. Inevitably these discussions would focus on black history and black identity, and its participants would primarily be black and white actors. Whilst I felt like I could relate to some of the experiences that my black actor friends expressed, I could only relate to a certain point until I realised that it was a struggle to find my own community who could support me in my struggle to feel heard as an East Asian actor.


I started to use these platforms I found myself in to begin expressing my culture and the stories from where I am from, mostly being the only East Asian. I then soon found myself working alongside Asian directors and meeting other East Asian actors to help with this exploration of our identity. Working alongside British East Asian artists, and discussing these topics openly with a group of actors like me, made me realise how much my community was engaging in socio-political activities whilst making work that tells the story of our people. But it wouldn’t be enough for me as an individual, as an artist, to only be taking part in stories that portray East Asian culture, in East Asian theatre companies, in films like ‘Crazy Rich Asians’. That doesn’t mean these films can’t be catalysts for progress. The East Asian community has dealt with yellow face, misrepresentations on/off screen, censorship and other digressions that have failed to recognise our talents as artists since before the Bruce Lee film era.


Real progress means inclusive collaboration between different cultures to tell a story that truly reflects the society we live, as well as the society we hope to create. If we only seek to make theatre in our separate communities, we will miss the opportunity to create a real conversation around diversity and fail to adapt to the era of globalisation we find ourselves living in.

  • Klein Blue

Identity is something that we all struggle with. It’s something we are born with and into, given to us by parents, by the midwives and doctors who helped bring us into the world. With identity comes a given set of ideals and rules you’re meant to abide by. We are all given a toolkit of rules whether moral, religious, cultural and political. The latter falls into the former three.


Me, myself ‘Anyebe Godwin’ full name Anyebe Godwin Oluwatosin Oluaseun Anteyi I have had different debates with identity through life and my career. All my names are either from namesakes — whether uncles or grandparents — or from the circumstance of my birth or my family at the time of birth.


Anyebe means Salvation, but at a young age I was embarrassed that my name wasn’t Anthony or Andrew. At one point in Year 5 when I had moved from North London to South East London I told everyone at school to call me Andrew out of embarrassment at having a Nigerian name. At the time I was 9 years old and had already been taught probably from the playground or football that my name was difficult, a burden to everyone else to say, and a burden to me that I didn’t want.


Fast forward a couple of decades, and as an actor I find that although I know my identity, the industry at times has also made it clear what I should identify as. I am Nigerian. I am British Nigerian, I am a Black British Nigerian man. These are the facts, however in which order these facts are listed is down to how I identify with myself and cultural upbringing. At times it has changed depending on who I’m around and with. Now I accept I am who I am and although it doesn’t change, the order can change, but I am always all of the aforementioned.


When I first started acting I almost started calling myself Godwin Anteyi, but soon realised Anyebe was my name and the name everyone pre-acting knew me by, so I settled on Anyebe Godwin. This wasn’t a deed poll change, just a change mentally and in terms of how I was to be introduced and effectively marketed.


As an actor, you see people who look like you, and people who don’t. I am Black and I am an actor. At times when you see castings, they will specify they are looking for a Black, Asian or Bi-racial actor and at times they won’t specify. I have played roles where me being Black was needed for the story we were telling, whether it was about a Nigerian family with British Nigerian grandchildren, or whether the characters were black in order to talk about the Black British experience. I have played characters where there wasn’t a specified race but I happened to be cast. I have also played a character in a show where traditionally the family are white and I was cast as the son and brother to two white women. As someone who lives in London and has seen colourblind casting in a lot of productions, I see this as normal; however I was quickly reminded on tour by the digs owners or in some reviews that not everyone understands colourblind casting.


One review stated: ‘Abraham who is white, also plays Katherine’s daughter Lucy. Anyebe Godwin, who is black, plays her equally young brother, Charles. Colour-blind casting is generally a good thing, but a play set in Victorian times really needs a line to cover the distracting lack of family resemblance.’ That review reminded me that identity is something that others can put upon you, even when you know who you are. The fact that a reviewer could buy into a middle-aged man physically transforming into a younger more dangerous individual (this was in Jekyll and Hyde), but couldn’t believe that I could be the son and brother of the two women mentioned earlier, said a lot.


Ultimately, identity to me is your true naked self plus layers of clothing given to you by others. The vest given to you by family, the shirt given to you by education (teachers and friends), the jumper given to you by family again, and the coat given to you by yourself, friends and society. And that clothing is interchangeable depending on who you’re around, and who you decide to reveal those layers to. It is complicated and it is not one thing.


I know now that I love and choose to wear the layers given to me by myself and loved ones. And I hope that as we move towards the future, the industry as a whole gets better at understanding these layers, and styles us with nuanced clothes that compliment our complex and layered identities.

Updated: Feb 13


The theatre world, along with the rest of the arts, is waking up to this evident diversity problem we have, and we are now starting to see lots of new, original work on important stories from voices that have previously been silenced. The subject of diversity and representation in the arts in general is a hot topic, as well as the main focus of many artistic organisations plans for change in their programmes and work.


Don’t get me wrong, this problem is nowhere near solved. I would be here forever if I were to list all the reasons why, but I can name a couple that are particularly important to me. Firstly, there is still a lot of work to be done to make theatre fully accessible for disabled people. Most theatre spaces are completely unequipped for those with any kind of disability or impairment, meaning that disabled people are completely shut out from these spaces. Another, more complicated issue that theatres have, is finding a way to create programmes that reach out into disadvantaged communities, genuinely managing to engage and gain the trust of the people that live there. This is not only challenging but often unaffordable, as organisations that create these projects have to secure funding to pay those who cannot afford to take the time off work, and so on, which is maybe why they don’t happen as much as they should. There are so many brilliant projects that have been successful in this, such as The Grenfell Project, which was stunning. However challenging these projects may be, I really believe that these kind of projects are the key to true representation in the arts, much more so than what I have been experiencing, which seems to be a lot of ‘box ticking’.


No one wants to feel that they have been given an opportunity simply because they are in a ‘disadvantaged’ category. It’s offensive, it feels wrong. You didn’t get the opportunity because you are talented, you are there simply to tick a box. But that’s only one part of the problem. Implementing these box-ticking quotas personally make me, as a deaf writer, feel very restricted and frustrated. I often feel that my ‘disadvantage’ seems to be the only way (or makes it much more likely) that I will be recognised for my talent in the industry.


I don’t want to write about my deafness. Of course, it affects me emotionally and is something I struggle with in my everyday life, but the stories I want to tell are nothing, or at least consciously, to do with this part of myself. I am not defined by my ability to hear, I am shaped by my experiences, my morals and opinions, my itching frustrations about the world. As any writer is, right? So why do I feel like the only thing worth writing right now, in terms of my success as a playwright, is play about my struggles as a deaf person? And it is, because in a way, at the moment, it is true. It’s what the industry want. And it’s suffocating, being in this box.


It’s not just writers who are affected. I have spoken with BAME actors who tell me that they don’t look asian enough to get an ‘asian role’ and they aren't white enough to get a ‘white role’, so where do they fit? Where do you go if you don’t fit into any box? Similarly to myself, I am not completely deaf or completely hearing so I am somewhere in the limbo of the hearing world and the deaf world. I am hearing, but not fully, and I am deaf, but not fully. Do I tick the deaf box, or not? Is it worth feeling like I get the opportunity because I am deaf, or do I take advantage of this backwards box ticking system to ensure that I get an interview?


This has all come from good intentions, and in a way, this box ticking system has ‘worked’, according to stats. The stats show that higher numbers of BAME and disabled people are working in the industry. Well, as long as it looks like we are making progress on paper, I guess it’s all okay. (It is not okay). A bunch of numbers could not possibly accurately portray the progression of diversity representation in theatre. I think another point worth mentioning, something numbers can’t show, is the issue of how these groups are seen in the arts. From what I have seen, it is nearly always in a show about how their ‘disadvantage’ affects them. What we should be asking is: why aren’t disabled or BAME actors on stage in roles that aren't defined by their race or disability? I can’t wait to see the day where BAME and disabled people’s ‘disadvantage’ is absolutely nothing to do with the plot, where there is more to their characters than their suffering. To me, it seems we are all a bit boxed in, confined to our race, our disability, or even our absence of one.


As a writer, I feel as if barriers have been put up around writing about people whose skin I have not been in and issues that I have not personally experienced. I have rebelled against this in my writing because this idea that we should only write about what we know to such an extreme extent, limits so much creativity, and is a ridiculous thing to ask of a writer. This constant worrying about what is okay to write about or not is detrimental to the productivity and mental health of a writer. It is our job and responsibility to properly research, so the characters we create are fully realised, and I can assure you that if the greatest writers of all time had only written about “what they knew”, we wouldn’t have the incredible stories we have now.


The beautiful thing about writing for me, is that you don’t need to have experienced the life of your character, because of the beautiful gift of empathy. This feeling of being boxed in actually makes us more divided, and more fearful, it generates a lack of understanding, of empathy for one another. I feel like there is a weird, unspoken rule, an elephant in the room, about who gets to tell which stories, based on our identities, and which boxes we fit into.


So I guess the question we should be talking about is, are we waking up to this diversity problem in the right way? Perhaps this issue is a bit too complex to be solved with simply ticking a box. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had true diversity, where the BAME, disabled and working class communities are fully present in the arts, where they can break out of these boxes and tell stories that are about something other than this one part of who they are?