The blue-eyed thespian

A puzzler:

One of the leading lights in British black theatre was wrestling with the question of what makes a person black last night — after it emerged that he has previously described himself as white.

Anthony Ekundayo Lennon has benefited from taxpayer support to aid his development as a black, Asian and minority ethnic (Bame) leader in the arts. But last week some black thespians expressed disquiet that an apparently white man had taken a black person’s place on a Bame scheme.

Lennon was named last year as one of four “theatre practitioners of colour” who had been awarded a paid two-year residential traineeship as part of an Arts Council England-funded programme. Recently he was an assistant director on Britain’s first all-black production of Guys and Dolls.

The thing is, though…he’s not actually “of colour.” The middle name “Ekundayo” is his own self-naming.

He wrote a book ten years ago.

In the book Photo ID, the blue-eyed thespian describes how he was born Anthony David Lennon in Paddington, west London, in 1965 to white Irish parents. His high cheekbones and curly hair set off gossip that his mother had had an affair, but when his brothers, Vincent and David, developed similar features, it became clear it was a family trait.

That’s a deeply weird claim – curly hair and high cheekbones set off gossip? There are no high cheekbones in Ireland? No curly hair? Maybe Paddington was just full of people with nothing better to do.

He claims he was taunted.

Owing partly to the taunts, the boy with the caramel skin had discovered his blackness. He started to wear a Rastafarian hat. “Up until the age of about 13, 14, I hadn’t really thought about it at all,” he later told friends.

His fictitious “blackness”; his “blackness” that wasn’t there.

In 1990 the 24-year-old Lennon appeared in a BBC Everyman drama documentary exploring race called Chilling Out. Viewers were told: “All of us in this programme are actors, but this is not a fiction. All of us are speaking as ourselves, and from our own experience.”

Pressed on his identity by black actors in the documentary, he said: “When I’m alone in my bedroom looking in the mirror, thinking about stuff I’ve written down, thinking about my past relationship-wise, pictures on the wall, I think I’m a black man. I’ve not said that to anyone. And I won’t say it outside.”

Lennon’s father, Patrick, who died in 1999, did not react well to this self- exploration. “He says to me I’ve got an identity problem, and the sooner I sort myself out, the better,” said Lennon in the film.

The actor Lennie James, later to become famous as a star of The Walking Dead, responds in the documentary by accusing Lennon of cultural appropriation. “Sometimes I feel like you are watching me. Watching me to say this equals a black man. Then you’re taking it from me, and sticking it on yourself.”

But Lennon got funding anyway.

Lennon’s residential traineeship is part of the Artistic Director Leadership Programme (ADLP) to help Bame creatives. Arts Council England provided a £406,500 grant to a consortium of theatres to “deliver a comprehensive programme of talent development for future Bame leaders”.

Lennon started as trainee artistic director at Talawa, a black-led theatre company in Shoreditch, east London. The scheme was advertised as “open to people of colour”. Lennon applied as a “mixed heritage individual”.

One black actor said: “When I discovered his background I thought it was unfair that a white man had taken a black person’s place on a Bame scheme.”

Everybody’s of “mixed heritage”; that doesn’t mean anything. Also, how “mixed” can it be when both his parents were Irish and white?

The consortium that awarded the funding said: “We received 113 applications . . . and 29 were appointed to the ADLP. Talawa were satisfied Anthony was eligible for the opportunity as a result of a relationship with him over a number years, in which he has identified as a mixed-heritage individual.”

Ah yes, the magic “identified as” – justifies everything, doesn’t it.

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