“It’s Michael Jackson. ‘Black or White’,” says Rafiq Richard, gesturing towards the speakers playing music in the marquee outside C Eca. The song choice is disarmingly appropriate and Richard smiles in approval. Both title and singer are pertinent to the themes of Richard’s new one-man play, Walk Like A Black Man. Clad in a bold hoodie whose design screams the message “AM I BLACK?”, Richard talks to me after his show. Walk Like a Black Man introduces its audience to a schoolboy version of Richard, who is “50% Black, 50% Asian and 100% confused”. Semi-autobiographical, it draws upon Richard’s own experiences at school, and his teenage struggle to approach his identity.
The show was conceived in an acting class, where Richard and other participants were invited to write and perform a monologue about a particular experience in their childhood or teenage life. But Richard was deprived of any good stories about pet bereavements: “I decided to perform about the time when I met the black side of my family.” The younger Richard was keen to be seen in a favourable light, to be accepted under the same identity. “Walk like a black man, walk like a black man…” he mutters to himself in the play, as he psyches himself up to this pivotal meeting. From this early gestation, the show grew as an interesting approach to a much talked-about topic. Richard performed the show in Camden around a year ago, and has allowed it to develop since into the production now at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Richard’s is a show about youthful naïveté, about the pursuit of a racial ideal that exists in the mind of his teenage insecurity. “I’ve got to go back to my mindset as a 15 year old,” explains Richard. Audience members expecting something that indulges and celebrates a black stereotype will be left disarmed and unsettled by Walk Like A Black Man. The production is built upon the ironic distancing between Richard’s more mature sense of his individual identity and the perceived collective identity to which his persona in the show aspires.
I put to Richard the often-used criticism of race-related performers, often levelled at comedians such as Lenny Henry or Shappi Khorsandi – that by making race such an explicit part of their performance they do more harm than good to desensitize their audience to superficial difference. Richard defends the approach, explaining that it’s other people that make it into the issue. “I just want to talk about normal stuff, you know – ‘did anyone see The Bill last night?’ – things like that.” But whilst people keep on bringing up the issue of race, it must remain something to make theatre about. “The number of people that keeping asking me, ‘Where are you from?’” Answering “London” doesn’t cut it for Richard. It’s just a pretext for ‘You must be from another country because of your skin colour.’
One of the most interesting elements of the production is the manner in which this naïveté is brought alongside the racism Richard has experienced. Rather than rejecting it, hurt, his younger self sees the slurs and insults as welcome labelling, stamping him with the same identities as the other targets. In both cases, the problem lies in oversimplification of racial identity, of trying to group people under one unhelpful collective term. Richard was at school during the Stephen Lawrence murder and O. J. Simpson trial, in a year group that was 80% black. The racism that he experienced finds its way into the show. “I was called a Bounty,” says Richard, explaining that the crude conceit of the chocolate bar was used to explain why, despite his skin colour, he still behaved himself and did his homework on time. “Black had to be all the negative things”: the world of the bewildered teenager, as well as the world of the racist, becomes constructed upon an ensnaring system of binaries.
Walk Like A Black Man also emphasises the inconsistency of rules which isolate people from religious and cultural groups. “Some people can be rejected on the really small things,” he says. He gives me the specific example of Muslims who are happy to drink and lead promiscuous lifestyles, but who baulk at the idea of eating pork. This manifests itself in the show as a bizarre and over-long section about the boy Richard’s love for sausage rolls. Though the way in which this section works is odd and one of the weaker moments of the piece, the point it raises is itself particularly interesting. Eating habits and other rules, unlike drinking or sexual behaviour, are something to which we are conditioned from an early age. The inconsistency of those who stick to one ostensibly trivial rule and choose to disregard others highlights how the way we make cultural decisions shifts as we grow older.
Richard tells me that he hopes the show isn’t simply for people of mixed race, or, in fact, for anyone in particular. “Whether you’re black, or have blond hair, blue eyes and white skin” – I shift a little self-consciously in my chair – “my show should apply to you in some way”. And, I suppose in its broadest sense, he’s right. Richard’s is a show that reminds us that understanding our identity and notions of who we are go beyond the simpler labels of skin colours, nationalities, or ethnic origins. We’re not just a ticked box on a census form.
Richard’s project is part of the constantly changing debate about race and identity. Its content reflects this; last year, during the riots, he referenced David Starkey’s controversial reaction to the part race identity played in the violence as part of the show. Though the discussion has moved on since Richard’s youth in the nineties (“Racism was different back then,” he remarks) it remains an ongoing issue. The way in which the show develops reflects this. Richard wants to take it into a new medium – film perhaps. He wants it to remain as it should be – “blunt, up front, in your face”. Though the present show takes the form of a monologue, its chief value is in the subsequent dialogue which it inspires, provoking conversations like the one we had afterwards, but also remaining in conversation with the social context out of which it has emerged.
Image credit: Raf Richard