Theatre: Wanted: a brand new caste

In America, legislation has ensured that non-white faces abound on stage, television and film while over here black actors struggle to land decent roles. Why, in multi-racial Britain, are so few black faces treading the boards and gracing our screens?

WHEN ADRIAN Lester was in his last year at drama school, news went around that Merchant Ivory Productions were looking for actors for their next film. Students rushed to send in their CVs and photographs.

"I was going upstairs to photocopy my CV when I stopped in my tracks," he says. "I suddenly thought, what am I doing this for? What am I going to do in a Merchant Ivory film? Take somebody's coat and say, `Would you like some more tea, sir?' I mean, please!"

Adrian Lester happens to be black, and there are few, if any, black faces to be seen in Merchant Ivory's costume dramas. He also happens to be an extraordinarily successful young actor. He played Rosalind against gender, as well as colour, in Cheek by Jowl's all-male production of As You Like It to great acclaim, and took the romantic lead in Stephen Sondheim's Company, the first black actor to do so.

True to form, it is only in America that he has been able to achieve major success: he stars in Mike Nicholl's Primary Colors, to be released here next month, as Henry Burton, the campaign manager to John Travolta's President.

"I knew that if I wanted a film career, I'd have to leave the country in order to do it."

With the last episode of Windrush barely off our screens, celebrating the arrival 50 years ago of the first wave of immigrants from the Caribbean, few people can have failed to notice that Britain is rapidly becoming a multiracial, multicultural society.

Yet turn on the television and, with a few exceptions, we are back in the all-white world of the Fifties. The same goes for commercials. And as for the vaunted renaissance in the British movie industry, how many black faces are to be seen in recent British films?

For black British actors, what this means in practical terms is a dearth of jobs, stereotypical casting and watching their white drama school contemporaries climb the career ladder while they wait more and more impatiently for the rare "black role" to come up.

There have also been what look very much like snubs, most famously in the case of Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who won an Oscar nomination last year for her part in Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies. A few months later, 20 young actors were invited to Cannes for the festival's 50th anniversary, to represent the best of the budding British film industry. She was not among them.

David Harewood, who until very recently was playing Othello at the National Theatre, says: "I took it as an incredible slap in the face - most black people did."

In fact, Marianne has gone on to create a very successful movie career - in America. Recently she decided to move back to England. "Once again we're asking, `Hello, is there anybody out there?'." says her agent, Stephen Hatton.

A couple of weeks ago, the Commission for Racial Equality recognized what black actors have known for a long time; namely the "unjustifiable under-representation of ethnic minorities in theatre, opera, cinema, television drama, etc." The Commission announced that it will press for legislation to close a loophole in the Race Relations Act which allows directors to use "authenticity" as an excuse for all-white casting. A black Nelson Mandela or a white Winston Churchill will be acceptable; but an all-white production of Hamlet will be in contravention of the act. In this, Britain is merely catching up with the USA, which has had a quota system long enough to ensure that black faces are now run of the mill across the media.

"It's a slow business," says Humphrey Barclay who, as Controller of Comedy at LWT Productions, was responsible for Desmond's, the successful black sitcom which ran for several years on Channel 4.

"The absorption of black people into the middle class community hasn't yet started to manifest in our cultural life," says Barclay. "I'm finding it elusive to achieve the mixed-cast comedies I'd like to see which reflect 20th-century life today."

Quite apart from the lack of roles, when a "black role" does come up, it tends to be for a cipher, a token black. When Patrick Robinson went for the part of Ash in Casualty, which he played for six years, "The bio[graphy] was non-existent. He was just a black character. I thought, `Are you casting me in this part or just a black face?'."

The one area where directors are prepared to experiment with so-called integrated casting is theatre. In the Pinter trio at London's Donmar Theatre recently, the character on whom The Collection pivots is played by Colin McFarlane. "That part wasn't written for a black actor," says Anne McNulty, the Donmar's casting director. "But the director, Sam Mendez, was very keen to explore that possibility."

Casting a black actor, after all, should not be simply a question of installing a token black or filling a quota. Playing a character black creates entirely new resonances in a production. As David Harewood points out, black actors are clamouring to be used more, not simply in terms of their own visibility but also in terms of livening up the theatrical scene here: "In America, they've been playing with the whole notion of integrated black casting: `What would happen if we cast this person because they are black; because they bring to the play their blackness?' It would be very exciting to see that done over here."

For black British actors, it is still very much an uphill struggle. Casting directors, who submit selected actors for casting, acknowledge that their brief is all too often colour-specific.

Nina Gold, who specialises in casting for commercials and films, says: "You quite often get a brief saying, `Interesting, Attractive Man, White, Early thirties'. If you say, `would you consider a black guy?', 90 per cent of the time they say, `I'm sure the client wouldn't go for that'."

Directors argue that the second that they cast a character black, they have to address the whole issue of race, which may be irrelevant to the story. But that is assuming that the old stereotypes still apply. Despite the fact that parts for Asian women are desperately few, says Adrian Lester, his wife, actress Lolita Chakrabarti, "is adamant that she will never play in anything that has to do with corner shops, or the terrible effects of being forced into an arranged marriage".

Hugh Quarshie, a classical actor who has worked at the RSC and the National Theatre, and has a leading part in the new Star Wars film, argues that the problem is largely to do with lack of funding for the arts, which means that producers and directors cannot afford to take risks. There was a time when the RSC made a real commitment to casting black actors, under Trevor Nunn. "But when you work in the marketplace... then you're not going to find many black faces on stage or on screens." To put it bluntly, a black face will not sell a movie.

For black British actors, there are two ways out of this scenario. One is to go it alone. Lenny Henry has his own company, Crucial Films, as does Patrick Robinson; his first film, Monument, went out on HTV in Wales earlier this summer.

But for many more, America is the promised land. There are over 20 million African Americans, forming 10 per cent of the population, as opposed to 3-4 per cent here.

Joseph Marcel took that road 25 years ago, "to get the theatre work which I could not get in England". He has done most of the things actors want to do - Othello, Brutus - and had a play, Kreon, written for him by Stephen Spender. But his real claim to fame is that for six years he appeared as Jeffrey the English butler in the enormously popular NBC television series The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which starred Will Smith; though, he says, it was tough to convince middle America that "there are blacks who speak with pukka accents". "Americans accept that black Americans are Americans," he says. "But blacks in Britain will always be foreigners."

Adrian Lester and his contemporaries, however, are very unlikely to sit back and accept that. Patrick Robinson, for one, is convinced that the British film industry is running out of ideas.

"I do believe it'll become fashionable soon to have the brothers in mainstream," he says. "You can only have so many period pieces with Anthony Hopkins playing the butler again. How many more World War II films can there be with no black regiments? In the US, Samuel L Jackson and Denzel Washington can take any role. In British movies, they have to make it credible that this black guy is there. In the US, you don't have to explain it."

When he was growing up, says Adrian Lester, his parents always told him: "Don't argue, don't complain, don't be unhappy. Just be three times as good as your white counterparts".

"That was true for them," he adds. "I'd like to think it's not true for us now."

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