Anthony Ekundayo Lennon: White theatre director who described himself as ‘African born again’ given job meant for people of colour

Actor who won paid traineeship as 'theatre practitioner of colour' said he 'went through struggles of a black man' despite being born to white Irish parents

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Sunday 04 November 2018 18:10 GMT
'Chilling Out' Everyman : Anthony Ekundayo Lennon addresses his white heritage 25 February 1990

A white theatre director who was given a job intended for artists of colour has found himself at the centre of a debate around racial identity.

Anthony Ekundayo Lennon, who has worked on all-black productions, is among four people who won a paid traineeship as a “theatre practitioner of colour” last year.

The opportunity was funded by a £406,500 grant from Arts Council England to "deliver a comprehensive programme of talent development for future Bame leaders".

The actor reportedly applied on the basis of his “mixed heritage”, having previously claimed he had “gone through the struggles of a black man” despite being born to white Irish parents.

Growing up, Mr Lennon’s high cheekbones and curly hair led people to see him as mixed race, making him the target of racist slurs, according to an ebook he wrote 10 years ago, unearthed by the The Sunday Times.

He talked about his racial identity when he appeared on a 1990s episode of BBC series Everyman, the synopsis for which says: “Anthony Lennon was born in Kilburn, west London. His parents both come from Ireland and are both indisputably white.

“Anthony now earns his living as a black actor, because ever since he was a child he has looked black. When his friends, who are mostly black, find out about his background, fierce debates invariably follow; about whether Anthony really can call himself black, and about what black skin means to those who are born black.”

Critics have described the decision to award Mr Lennon with “crucial funding dedicated to artists of colour” as a “kick in the teeth” for black aspiring actors and artists.

Writing for The Independent, Paula Akpan, an advocate for black women, said his claim of being “African born again” was “not how race works at all”, while black actor Luke Elliot said he was “fuming” that Mr Lennon was “taking up the little resources” awarded to black artists.

The case has revived discussion prompted by Rachel Dolezal, a white American woman and former civil rights activist who for 10 years pretended she was black before being publicly outed.

But although Mr Lennon has adopted a black identity – changing his middle name from David to Ekundayo – he has remained honest about his white ancestry.

The then actor told an audience in 2012: “Although I’m white, with white parents, I have gone through the struggles of a black man, a black actor.”

In an account of his heritage he gave in 1990, he stated: “My parents are white and so are their parents, and so are their parents, and so are their parents.”

Mr Lennon reportedly found his love of acting when he was sent by his mother to the Cockpit theatre in west London. But as he grew older, he struggled to get white parts, and found success with groups such as the Black Theatre Forum.

In 1990, when Mr Lennon, aged 24, appeared in a BBC Everyman documentary about race called “Chilling Out”, he said: “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.”

Actor Lennie James said in the documentary: “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.”

Talawa, the black-led theatre Mr Lennon works for, said: “As an artist of mixed heritage he is not only eligible for the position, but his experience, work and achievements make him an exceptional person for the role.”

The Artistic Director Leadership Programme (ADLP), the consortium that awarded the traineeship 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.”

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The Arts Council, which provided the grant, said: “Talawa raised their wish to support Anthony with us. In responding we took into account the law in relation to race and ethnicity.

“This is a very unusual case and we do not think it undermines the support we provide to black and minority ethnic people within the theatre sector.”

Mr Lennon has not responded to a request for comment.

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