“The Academy Awards [Oscars] have a race problem. It’s big. But the four black actors in Room 4 aren’t particularly concerned with that. They have a much bigger problem at hand. They’ve just realized they’re stuck in a time loop, auditioning for the same “Drug Dealer #2” role over and over…”
Described as the ‘real-life experience of virtually every black actor in America’, Room 4 highlights a very controversial topic in a comical manner – the black actor’s existential crisis. New York based playwrights Marina Tempelsman and Niccolo Aeed conceived this tongue-in-cheek idea heralded as a “funny, but a little angry, but mostly funny” piece of theatre.
“I’m a white woman, and Nicco’s a black man,” says Tempelsman. “We’ve both had plenty of experiences in our lives where we’ve been pigeonholed by these identities, both personally and professionally”. She finds that highlighting the absurd but all too real experience of BAME (black, Asian, minority ethnic) artists through comedy better drives the point home. And the UK could learn from this approach. “We love comedy, theatre, and writing, and diversity on New York stages and in New York writing rooms are things that matter enormously to us. I’ve been in plenty of rooms where I’ve been the only woman, and Nicco’s been in plenty of rooms where he’s been the only person of colour. This just doesn’t make sense.”
The UK’s performing arts industry had an identity crisis following the #OscarSoWhite uproar, determined to prove that wasn’t the case here. Yet the playwrights suggest that the experience is universal. Aeed speaks of the surreal feeling to the process artists go through to be cast, and the magnified version that BAME artists can experience in the same situations. “There’s this messed up feeling when you’re the only black person/woman in the room,” he says. “But the strange thing is, outside the room there’s a bunch of people like you trying to get that only spot in the room. So, even while you’re alone in the room, you know there are actually lots of people who could be in the room with you.”
The self-funded Room 4, performed in May at The People’s Improv Theater in New York City, has made a huge statement. What are the options available for BAME actors and artists? The answer? Not enough. And by exploring this avenue of questioning the establishment through Black theatre, the two writers, hope to change the status quo.
The two writers reached out to A Younger Theatre after coming across our interview with Dawn Walton – who spoke of the need to diversify what’s on stage here in the UK. Extending their hands in solidarity to the growing grumble in the UK over the debate, Tempelsman and Aeed feel it’s important to allow different voices to tell their own stories, and to avoid the general consensus of portraying ‘the black story’ – slavery, gangs, drug dealing etc.
“Just hire more black writers, directors and actors,” says Aeed in a matter-of-fact way. “I think we still feel stuck in this idea that there is a singular black experience because there simply aren’t enough black stories/films/plays being produced and distributed to possibly represent all of us. And when one does get produced, it has this monumental task to hold up the race – which, I think, is an idea we think we’ve moved past but haven’t.”
Tempelsman dreams of writers, actors, and directors becoming “infinitely more mindful” of the hoops that are needlessly – and often unintentionally – created for artists of colour. “I think in theory everyone would agree that diversity in art is good,” she continues, “but there are so many accidental ways today’s narratives draw from decades’ worth of degrading tropes and stereotypes”.
Broader representation on stage begets broader representation. It has to start somewhere. And it looks like the narrative has begun to change. This week, a report by The Stage found that the number of black, Asian and ethnic minority arts workers has surged by 59% over the past five years in the UK. Additionally, around 19,000 BAME workers were employed in music and the performing and visual arts in 2015, compared to 12,000 in 2011.
Coincidentally, a similar push is emerging over the North Atlantic Ocean. The organisers of the Oscars have invited a record number of new people (683) to vote for next year’s Academy Awards following the row over a lack of diversity. The academy, has already pledged double the number of “women and diverse members” by 2020, and is hoping the group of people invited to join – 46% women and 41% “people of colour” – would help spark progression.
Global institutional change is imperative, and the two playwrights stand defiant. “If theatres don’t actively, proactively work on this, change will come extraordinarily slowly”.
“Room 4” will be returning for an extended 12-show run beginning in September at The People’s Improv Theater in New York City. Contact the playwrights for access to recordings of the play – www.marinaandnicco.com