Young, gifted, and jobless

Saddened and frustrated by the dearth of good parts for black actors, Nathaniel Martello-White decided to remedy the situation. The result, Blackta, opens at London's Young Vic theatre this week

I grew up on Brixton Hill, a child of Thatcher's Britain, in the Eighties. I've always felt slightly at odds with what is considered to be even, and growing up as a young black guy in south London there are many expectations of what you might become, should become or, sadly in a lot of cases, don't become. I was very fortunate in that I came from a tight family of mixed-race heritage and had a mother who told me that anything was possible. Beautiful but dangerous words to say to a young upstart.

Growing up, I learned quickly that people are scared of difference. When you don't conform to what is expected of you people are quick to attack your individuality: Why * dressing like that? What music r * listening to? Why aren't * visibly strong and grunting like an ogre? Where's your hood? Where's your bop that leaves dents in the concrete?

In my late teens I became quite disillusioned with this kind of ignorance, and one afternoon was compelled to write my first street poem – "regular ting". I'd never written anything before, but it just poured out of me:

"I heard on the news Brixton getting trendy - the middle classes are opening all types of bars. Yeah we got bars too, but ours are metal and we got cages you can stay there for ages – just commit a crime – or try and survive. I been in twice now, if I go in again my mum's kicking me out – But that's ok, that ain't a thing coz where I live, that's just a regular ting."

It was a homage to the double consciousness experienced by a lot of young black men as they struggle to define for themselves what masculinity really is, what it means, reconciling all of the pressures that come from the outside world with their sense of self. I went around performing it everywhere, from poetry events to drama school, on street corners even. Friends of mine still quote it today, so I must have been on to something.

Cut to six years later, I'd graduated from Rada and was sitting in the bar at the Curzon cinema with a group of actor friends. One of the guys shared a story of how he had told another actor about a role he was playing in a TV drama. He said: "Oh, you're playing the blackta part. You know, the friend to the protagonist, the sidekick". We all burst out laughing but there was something in it that was all too familiar. We were a group of actors who had come out of the top drama schools and played lead roles for the RSC and National Theatre, but now we found ourselves in a strange limbo. Why weren't there quality parts for us in TV and film?

And that's where Blackta started. From that laughter and then the creeping suspicion and frustration that the playing fields aren't level. Among my group of friends we would often find ourselves auditioning for the same part – and with depressing frequency that part would be the drug dealer or the guy-done-good from a broken home.

Another time, I'd bagged a lead role in a Second World War movie, had my bag packed and was ready to leave home, only to be told by my agent a few days later that they'd written out the part, because the marketing people claimed that there were no black American soldiers in the Second World War.

Around the same time, I'd been writing a lot of film scripts and not really getting anywhere, and a friend of mine said: "You work in theatre – why don't you write a play?". I went home and once again, it just poured out of me. In a frenzy. A 17-page scene in one burst. Blackta isn't just a play about being an actor. Yes, the characters in my play are actors and are competing in something like an audition process, but on the simplest level it's about a group of guys in a competition where there is only one prize and no such thing as a second place. It looks at what those conditions do to their friendships. How friends become frenemies, if you like.

It is also a snapshot of some of the high highs and low lows of being a black actor. It comes from my conversations and frustrations, it revels in the absurdity and the sheer joy of being an actor. I took traits from people I know and took my own experiences of madcap auditions and workshops and vamped them up to the max. I wanted to write a play that I would want to watch at the theatre; I didn't want it to be preachy or whiny. The characters in my play are obsessed with winning, at any cost. It is an amplified, ramped-up version of the competitiveness I saw develop between friends when they realised that they were battling for the one seat at the table.

There is this thing in black communities, a kind of post-colonial syndrome, where people are defined by how fair or dark they are, how soft or tough their hair is, how light or dark their eyes are, how fine their features are. I wanted to get close to this, to really look at it, so I decided to set the play in an abstract world and not give the characters names, but shades – Brown, Black, Yellow, Dull Brown. It allows me to explore the caste system in black communities, which essentially boils down to how much or little white blood is in your heritage. It astonishes me that, for such an evolved race, colour or the lack of it plays such a major part in our psychological make-up.

It also brings themes from my street poetry back to the fore – the disconnect between masculinity and vulnerability. As Black says to Brown in the play: "They took your masculinity from you years ago – they stripped you of that – amputated that shit – decapitated your manhood – and since then – since all them years ago – you've just been trying to get it back – hence why so many of us are mad bent on walking around like caveman – angry caveman – without an ounce of vulnerability."

Sitting on the other side of the desk during auditions was brilliantly strange. Auditioning actors and asking them what they made of my script was terrifying. Pretty quickly I started to hear feedback that they had had the very same conversations as I had. What struck me as tragic though was that actors in their 50s and 60s told me that they had felt like this for years, too. Damn, will the next generation be stuck here 20 years from now?

If there is one key idea behind Blackta it's the idea of self-mobility. If life doesn't show you the open door of opportunity, then it's up to you to create your own thing. For me, it was writing, but some of my peers have gone into directing and producing their own material. It has to go further than this: a collective frustration among black actors in the UK about the limited roles we are offered means that many are making the tough decision to relocate to America (three of the cast of Blackta are going next year).

We can't end up in a situation where all of our best talent is lost. I'm part of a generation who believes that they have a rightful seat at the table. A fiercely talented and intelligent generation of black British artists, writers and actors who want to express themselves with material that not only reflects their complexity but also their eloquence and talent. That stretches beyond the realms of the tower-block estates. London should be a benchmark for the world.

'Blackta', Young Vic, London SE1 (020 7922 2922; youngvic.org) from 26 October to 17 November

Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvMartin Freeman’s casting is a stroke of genius

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival

film
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

    The man who could have been champion of the world

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
    Didn’t she do well?

    Didn’t she do well?

    Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
    Before they were famous

    Before they were famous

    Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

    Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players