Pin It
Anthony Ekundayo Lennon
A still from Chilling OutCourtesy of BBC

The winner of an arts grant for people of colour isn’t actually black

The UK theatre scene has its own Rachel Dolezal in Anthony Lennon

People say that lightning doesn’t strike twice, yet here we are, talking about someone who was born white but identifies as black, and it’s not Rachel Dolezal.

Anthony Ekundayo Lennon was awarded a job designed to increase the representation of people of colour in British theatre and applied as a candidate of “mixed-heritage”. This is a man that has a decent tan, and had coarse hair when he was more hirsute, but he is indisputably white. Both of his parents are white Irish, and he’s described himself as white in the past. Yet, he saw fit to apply to the full-time residential traineeship funded by taxpayers via the Arts Council England as a part of a £400,000 grant to aid “talent development for future BAME leaders”.

Having worked in theatre for decades, Lennon has made a name for himself in black circles. He even worked as the assistant director on the all-black adaptation of Guys and Dolls, recently. In the past he has been open about his identity struggles – growing up, people made comments that his mother must have had an affair because of how he looked and they called him ‘nigger’ as he walked by in the street. When he went into acting, he found it impossible to secure white parts.

As uncovered by The Times, in 1990, then 24-years-old, the actor starred in Chilling Out. where he explains to a group of black actors that he is white Irish but thinks of himself differently. The voiceover tries to unpick the heavily dramatised conversation for viewers: “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.”

In the clip, he tells his friends: “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.”

But, even then, Lennie James (of Walking Dead fame) expresses a discomfort in how he feels Lennon is stealing parts of his identity. “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,” he remarked.

A decade later, he wrote an e-book in which he argued: “Everybody on the planet is African,” he said having adopted a Yoruba name, Ekundayo. “It’s your choice as to whether you accept it,” he wrote. This is in stark contrast to the account of his heritage he gave in 1990 when he stated: “My parents are white and so are their parents, and so are their parents, and so are their parents.”

In the search for nuance, it cannot be denied that if he had remained truthful, and had never taken opportunities meant for real black creatives, we would be having a different conversation. Where Dolezal made a more radical transformation from a blonde child to a black woman, Lennon grew up visibly different from those around him. She sent herself hate mail, while he experienced hate speech and a struggle to get jobs. We could have had an in-depth look at how one should identify when they’ve been othered by their own race in light of the fact they look like another. We could imagine a world where we unpack race as a construct, as a divider, and unpick the relationship between skin colour and hair texture and arbitrary labels dished out by divisive white people. Instead, he stole the money, the opportunity for an actual person of colour, and therefore the chance for intelligent debate.

In what feels like a year of endless scams, Lennon’s intentional looting of the black experience for financial gain almost feels like the last straw. That a white man could receive funding intended to widen the field of theatre beyond the white gaze has understandably riled up many black people in the creative industries – including me. Even if he has the right to identify how he pleases, or call into question the validity of his white label despite the fact he feels he is treated otherwise, that does not mean that he gets to take the helping hand intended for real minorities.

Watch the throwback documentary below.