How diverse is the British entertainment industry?
Though the entertainment industry has certainly come a long way in terms of diversity in the past five years, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure equal representation of all ethnicities. With this in mind, Gen-Z Talks magazine interviewed Alison Boateng (@alisonboateng_), an aspiring actress and BRIT School alumni, to talk about her experience in the British entertainment industry as a dark-skinned black woman.
What was attending the prestigious BRIT school like for you?
I went from being in a town that wasn’t very diverse to going to a school that thrived on diversity, so it was quite a culture shock to be around other people of colour that loved theatre. It was interesting being around people who had similar home lives to mine, compared to being at a school in Surrey where it wasn’t diverse at all - I was the only black girl in my year from Year 9 to Year 11.
How have you found the auditioning process?
My agent is in charge of every audition that comes through. Before I got an agent, I was just relying on any audition that said ‘open to all ethnicities’, so I was just praying that they would want an actress of colour for the role. I had an audition for a play in May last year, where they purposely wanted an actress of colour. They hadn’t specifically wanted a black actress, they just wanted someone who wasn’t white. So, I went to that audition because I thought they could want a black person, but they could also want an Asian person, they could want a Latinx person. ‘Everything but white’ doesn’t necessarily mean what people think it means. As an actor, you’re meant to adapt and fit any role, which I get, but I’ve had so many auditions that have been quite stereotypical. For instance, I’ve had a couple of auditions to be a character that sells drugs or is dating someone who sells drugs. A lot of them are set in South East London, to do with gangs and rivalry and so on.
How does that make you feel?
I’ve struggled a bit, but I’ve always struggled with identity, especially growing up in Surrey – feeling like I’m outnumbered. It’s interesting to see how most of the auditions that come through to me are for poor black girls from London. I’ve not seen a single audition come through about a posh black girl, or a middle-class black girl. It’s not necessarily disheartening, because I’ll gladly take any role and do the best that I can with it, but I could love to see a narrative that isn’t stereotypical.
Have you ever experienced any colourism or racism during auditions?
There was one audition I went to just after I left BRIT, where the description was literally just ‘good-looking woman, playing age 18’. I applied and they got back to me, and said ‘You don’t fit our description.’ But the only part of the description was ‘attractive’. Later, I remember seeing an advert and it was a white woman who got the role. She was beautiful, but I remember thinking - what does ‘attractive’ mean? Why say attractive instead of saying the word ‘white’ or ‘Eurocentric’? I didn’t like the use of the word ‘beautiful’ and then you see a white woman. In terms of colourism, according to a study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, 80% of black female characters on screen are of light/medium skin tone. It’s a little disheartening, because I’ve always dreamt of playing a love interest, but only 19% of leading ladies in the past decade have had dark skin. The way that colourism plays a part in this industry is crazy. To think that already, as a black woman, you’re not going to be in as many things and if you’re a dark-skinned woman, you get even less. And that study was for America, so in the UK the figures will be even lower.
Have you ever had any racist experiences while performing?
In a performance I did, one of our main props for the show were skin coloured face masks. We were given our masks on our opening night - these face masks were specifically meant to be skin coloured, so they would blend with your skin. I was given a white (beige) mask, and I just felt so outnumbered. And so alone. I was the only black person in the main cast. I was trying to be professional because I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, but even the other cast members noticed the issue. I said to the director, I have foundation, do you want me to paint the mask before we open? And she said no. So, for the first two or three shows, I had to wear a white mask, even though I had the means to change it – I wasn’t allowed to. She didn’t give a reason as to why.
These were paper mâché masks, made specifically by someone for the show. And there were just twelve white masks. They had pictures of me and the cast. Even if it was jet black, it would have looked better. I remember after that genuinely contemplating if I wanted to act anymore, because I thought if this is how it is, I don’t want to do this. Because I was in this cast, excited about being in this show, and all I could think about was: ‘I’m going to have to go on stage in front of an audience, wearing a white mask that just looks ridiculous.’
How has your experience with the entertainment industry been different to that of your white counterparts?
I have quite a diverse group of friends, especially from BRIT. In terms of my white actor friends, there is a clear difference. Obviously, as an aspiring actor, you can’t be picky with what you get and there’s going to be white people who don’t like the roles they’re getting either. But I find it quite interesting to see the range of stuff that they’re getting. Fantasy, historical drama, typical dramas, romcoms. Some of my white friends have played teenage love interests. It’s just so interesting to see the difference.
As the child of immigrants, how have your family your family reacted to you pursuing the Arts instead of a more traditional, academic route?
It’s been drilled in since I was young that education is very important - because obviously, when you are the child of an immigrant, things are more difficult. You don’t have the same level of privilege as someone whose family has been here for generations. I don’t like to use the word ‘disappointed’, because I know my parents aren’t disappointed in me, but a part of me wishes that I had gone down an academic route, because there’s no certainty with acting. I understand why my family are nervous and worried about my future. It’s not that they doubt my abilities at all, it’s just this industry literally is not for everyone, because the success rate is low. With African family life, there’s the whole idea that ‘you go to uni, you find your husband, you get married, you have kids by a certain age.’ But for me, there’s no rush on a timeline as much.
What do you think about colour blind casting versus colour conscious casting?
Colour blind casting is when the role is given to the best person, regardless of ethnicity – we see this in shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Bridgerton. Colour conscious casting is when ethnicity is taken into consideration when casting a role.
I’ve gone up for colour blind casting roles before, so I don’t mind it. But I do feel like you have to factor in the fact that a character is black, because it changes the narrative to an extent - there’s some things that black women, black girls, black boys do that’s slightly different. I think that colour conscious casting is better for diversity and representation, because it removes the feeling of tokenism. I prefer colour conscious, because sometimes I read scripts and I think, ‘have you ever met a person of colour before?’ I don’t like the term ‘person of colour’ because to me, I’m black. I like to be referred to as black, because that’s what I am. I prefer to know that the person had the idea that they wanted a black person in the role. For example, I did a short film last year called Control Alt Delete, and the writer purposely wanted the characters to be black in it. I was talking to the director, who’s incredible – she’s called Visuals by Lolly. She’s Nigerian and I’m from Ghana, and we were talking about part of the script and how it reflected part of our upbringing. My character is talking to her best friend’s father and we were discussing how in our culture, respecting your elders is so important, so it was nice to know that that was incorporated in the script and that there was a level of understanding into who we are as people.
What do you think about when POC characters are written by white people?
A lot of the time you can tell. Diversity is more than just the characters you see on screen. There should be black writers, black makeup artists, black directors. I find it so interesting, especially seeing how white writers write mixed race or black characters. I don’t want to name any examples - but you can tell, because they make race their whole personality. And we’re just people. For me, being black isn’t all I talk about, it’s not all I am: I’m an actor, I’m a daughter, I’m a friend, I’m a sister – there’s so much more to me.
And what black actresses do you admire, or did you grow up looking up to?
As a child, I often looked to American media to see black shows or black family life, because growing up in the 2000s, we didn’t have Black British sitcoms. The main black British actress I admire is Michaela Coel. I look up to her so much because I see her as a trend-setter. Every show she’s done, she has written or produced or has been the focus point of the show, which makes it so authentic because I know that she has written it from her heart and her soul. She had a show that came out last year called I May Destroy You, which was about sexual assault and her personal experience. It felt incredibly authentic and real because it was based off of true stories. She’s just so unapologetically black and British and I often write scripts with my friends, because of Michaela Coel, because I love when people are able to write their own stories.
I wrote my first script when I was 13, and it wasn’t any good, but it was just an excuse to write about a black girl. In every script I’ve written, the main character is a black girl, because I’m a black girl, that’s the type of role that I would want to play. I would love to play a love interest one day, because I don’t think people understand how important it is for young black girls to see that they can be loved, on-screen. TV and film are, in most cases, our most accurate depiction of life: you can see what it’s like for pregnant women, or sick people, all of this stuff, because Art imitates life. So, I want it to imitate my life. There’s an American film called Akeelah and the Bee, staring Keke Palmer, that came out in the early 2000s, and it’s about a black girl that does spelling bees. Because I watched that show, I wanted to learn how to spell big words. I remember as a young kid, thinking that I could be a spelling bee champion after watching that. But you think you can do stuff if you see people like you doing them. Similarly, in 2016, the West End musical Matilda hired a black Matilda – her name is Zaris-Angel Hator– and when I saw the video of her performing, I cried. If I had seen a black Matilda with an afro growing up, I would probably have the Nobel Peace Prize by now! I would be a genius. Purely because seeing a character that was a black girl and likes to read and to study and was magical would have shifted my whole entire narrative. Seeing her playing Matilda, which was a book that I loved as a kid, was just so incredible, and if you go on the comments, so many people were saying ‘representation matters so much’.
Can you describe your experience when trying to find an agent?
When looking for an agency, I purposely wanted to find one didn’t already have someone who looked like me, because we would be against each other for every black teenage girl role. I was looking at websites and I thought, ‘okay, if there’s a dark-skinned black girl with braids, I won’t apply for this agency.’ This does play into the issue of tokenism though. I remember when I was
doing a performance, one of the other cast members made a comment that the only reason I was in the show was because having an all-white cast to this festival would have been a bad look. A part of me does feel like a ‘token’ – like am I here because I’m talented, or am I here because having only white people in something is a negative in this day and age? I always have that at the back of my head – am I talented or am I just black?
Any final comments?
I love this industry, and for me, anything TV or theatre was my thing growing up, that was the space where I felt the safest, where I felt the most included, so I would love to be part of this industry for years. I want to help thing progress – I want to be that Akeelah and the Bee, I want to be that Michaela Coel that someone looks up to and thinks, ‘Oh my gosh, they were able to do it, so I’ll be able to do it.’ As they say, the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow, so hopefully, we will be able further the work of those who came before us, and create a safer, more colourful world, where everyone can grow up feeling seen and represented.
Tasha Johnson is frequent contributor at our magzine and a BA Arabic & Spanish student at the University of Leeds. She also writes for The Gryphon newspaper and is the social media manager for Croydon Refugee Day Centre. She writes pieces on social justice, travel, fashion and the arts and is currently working on the manuscripts of several novels. Her Instagram handle is @tashwritesx.