I’M A BLACK CREATIVE – Mercy Phillips

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Studying a Drama and English Literature degree, I’m always contemplating whether or not I will be able to secure a relatively financially stable creative job after I graduate. No one has to remind me of how fierce and competitive the film and performing arts industry is. Doing years of research and practical training within the creative sector, I’m aware that ‘making it big’ is extremely small. However, when you love something so much you’re prepared to give anything and everything for a chance of success. I still believe in my abilities and I’m determined to make something of myself. Still, saying this, it still bothers me that despite the skills and experiences that I will grasp along the way, I could still be hindered by one enormous factor that is being a black woman. It’s hard enough that I will be competing with thousands of the same gender; thousands who were fortunate to go to an accredited drama school or even the thousands with same level of knowledge but to add to this, the chances of me landing an acting role outside the typecast of “foreign, ethnic, street or urban” is incredibly slim.

In the most non-pretentious way possible, drama is much more than a form of entertainment. The art enables the audience to see the world from every possible perspective, and even aid those who partake in it to truly understand themselves in this world. Drama is escapism and somewhat a therapy. When you really immerse yourself in theatre then you can comprehend what it means. As dramatic as that sounds, diving into theatre teaches the individual about confidence within themselves something the vast amount of people lack today. We get a heightened sensitivity to other people’s emotions and feelings. It teaches us about sympathising and empathising with others different from ourselves. There are actors that tell stories about all types of subjects from cheerful traditional fairy tales to heart wrenching war tragedies all of which have audiences longing for more.

Honestly, the art is instinctual. One friend even stated that the Greeks discovered story telling was essential the same way they discovered democracy was essential. It came completely naturally to us as a species.

From this, you can understand why there are a large number of people, especially young folks, who are beyond eager to study the art in further education, whether it be through work experience, drama school or in my case, university. Still, it frustrates me that being a triple threat in this industry could mean nothing if you’re a black woman. I sometimes believe that this is possibly the worst combination statistically – being black, limited roles, and being a woman.

I read an article a while back whereby even “black and Asian drama students at LAMDA have voiced concerns their race will hinder them in securing leading roles”. Discussing this issue with one of my friends, he argued that my argument was a little nonsensical and in fact my background should be seen as an advantage. He pointed out that because the creative sector is filled with slim, white, blonde women, for example, surely casting directors and drama schools might be looking for ethnic minorities to take on board instead. Although I respect his opinion, I totally disagreed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m absolutely proud to be a black woman but he was missing the point. Yes, the industry may be full of blondes of a similar look, but there is definitely a higher chance that a white woman with brunette hair will be chosen for a role over an ethnic minority with the same talent and credentials.

In an article from The Stage, one Bangladeshi LAMDA student claimed his chances of landing a major Shakespeare role were almost non-existent. “I don’t see actors who look like me playing characters that I can relate to; usually they’re playing stereotypes. I go to the theatre a lot and rarely see people onstage who are my colour.”

Sometimes I think I am overreacting and say to myself if black actors trained harder then maybe we would be getting those roles we so desperately desire for. However, David Oyelowo declared himself that “opportunities for black and minority ethnic actors in Britain are worse now than before”. In The Guardian he stated, “I felt pushed out of the UK because of the glass ceiling I could feel my head bobbing against it. I could see that actors, my peers, those who had a similar trajectory to me were going on to do movies, to play leads. I started to feel I was going to go round in circles. Nice TV, back to the theatre, nice TV.”

Even Idris Elba called on British broadcasters in The Telegraph saying, “black actors are too often cast as ‘petty criminals’ on British television, with women condemned to play ‘the love interest’”. Both Oyelowo and Elba admitted to moving to America in order to launch their careers. Oyelowo stated that “I [had] to leave and have success elsewhere in order for my ability to be validated.”

Personally, I hope by the time I’ve graduated there will be more opportunities for BAME students in the creative sector in the UK. I mean, I plan to work abroad in the foreseeable future but how great would it be if I were to establish something of myself in the place I’ve considered home?


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