In the fifth of multi-talented writer, Emma Bentley’s series of personal articles, she talks about desperately wanting to write roles for people of colour and the worries she has about being the person to create them.
In her best-selling 2018 book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race (Chapter 4, para.2), Reni Eddo-Lodge writes: “Fear of black characters is fear of a black planet.”
I am a writer who wants to write brilliant black characters. Well-rounded; interesting; surprising; multi-faceted; motivation driven; professionally researched – I want them to bounce off the page into the mouths of black actors, but I am afraid. I am afraid as a white person, who grew up in the Cotswolds with a handful of people of colour at my secondary school, that I won’t be able to do it. Now, as a London dweller, I have several black friends, who I know pretty well, and living in South East London, I am surrounded by Jamaican and Nigerian cultures. I read Zadie Smith (Swing Time is one of my favourite novels), have recently raced through Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other and at Uni, I took an archiving course where we had a series of guest lectures by Connie Belle from Decolonising the Archives. What I am trying to say is that I am not ignorant to black history and the present day social/political/economic factors of being black in the UK. However, is sitting down to read a book, or watching Three Sisters at the National Theatre, ever going to equip me with enough knowledge to write a role for a person of colour, without having truly felt the experience of being black myself? Black people face enough misrepresentation on our television screens, stages and even media without another white, middle class writer adding to the mix.
The counter argument that usually gets put forward at this point is that Shakespeare didn’t have to be a murderer to write Macbeth, and yes, I have written white roles where the character has a lived experience that I have not. My second solo show, What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors told the story of a homeless teenager, and although I was nervous in the early stages of development, deep down I was always confident that with the right research I would be able to write a role I was proud of. However, when it comes to writing a black character, no matter the amount of thought put into the role, I still feel uneasy putting it out there; that someone will say the play was good but the black characters weren’t thought-through.
Perhaps what is really happening here is my own white fragility rearing its ugly, sensitive head. If I were to give in to these concerns about being criticised for my black characters so much it stopped me from writing any at all, I would only really be protecting myself. Plus, the need to reflect the world in which I live would not be important enough to risk the prospect of messing up. I’m not saying it’s a case of, “well, at least I tried, isn’t that enough?” but I think as white writers we must put ourselves out on the line to write black roles, and if – and when – we make mistakes (whether that is during the drafting process or later), we must listen to voices of colour if they tell us how and why we could have done better. In addition, and this is the really important bit, we must not question those voices with comments such as “that’s just the way I saw the character”, and WE MUST NOT cry. Yes, we might feel shame and yes, the hurt we feel for any failings in our work can run deep, but by giving into tears, all we do is make ourselves the victim and the person of colour who has shared their thoughts seem the perpetrator of an unjust attack. It is important to acknowledge that we are working from a point of being on the powerful side of a colonial history, and it takes a lot of work to undo the mindset we have been brought up in, so therefore, we must listen, take stock, and work to improve on our next attempt.
Although I could not find many in my research, there are a few white writers in the UK taking the lead in creating well-written black roles. The title of this article is taken from Adam Brace’s play They Drink It In The Congo (Almeida, 2016), in which the protagonist is white but there are many black characters; all with their own agency. Brace’s play is a reminder that city-led work should include characters from an array of backgrounds. The term BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic), is ill-placed and misleading particularly in our industry because in London, there is no minority about it; it is 44% of the population. Knowing that They Drink It In The Congo was workshopped at the NT Studio, I would like to imagine that Brace took on ideas from the black performers in the room during this process. I would certainly want to work with a black dramaturg or actor in the writing process of black characters, in fact, I already owe a huge thank you to my friend, actor Chioma Nwalioba, who always helps me to make my British-Nigerian characters better. Equally – and I hope this is obvious – but if I ever get to work at a higher level, my prerogative would be to properly acknowledge and pay black actors for their dramaturgical support in creating a role.
Many of us will be struggling with our creative writing at the moment. I don’t know about you, but my head is for the most part a piece of sludgy, scrambled mess that can barely put together a recipe from Bon Appetite let alone pen a new play. However, I write this piece (in between many snacks), with the hope that when I do return to my work with some kind of renewed energy, I will continue to write black characters, but confidently, taking on guidance from my black peers who can help me to broaden my understanding. Talking to actor and writer, Lekhani Chirwa on this topic she reminded me of an important phrase: “be the change you want to be … White people do have the power and the more they get used to including black characters with a VOICE the better they will become at writing them, accepting any errors or mistakes to then just try again.” We also have the power to turn away any offers to tell stories where it is not our place to tell them, that way we can ensure that there is not only a shared black and white planet in our plays, but also in our industry.