Doing it for our selves
Pierre-Yves Monnerville (he/him) is a designer and photographer
exploring how urban living, loneliness, identity, body image and
mental health in general affect men. Coming across Mapplethorpe’s
Black Book at 15 inspired him to become a photographer.
About the work:
“Doing it for Ourselves” is an ongoing photographic project
paying tribute to QTIPOC individuals who are helping the
larger community. It’s also meant as a message of hope.As
bad as current events are looking now, these people
overcame remarkable adversity so I find their achievements
and legacy inspiring and motivating to keep going regardless
of what’s happening in the world .The work consists of a
series of portraits and short interviews where each person
answers the same three questions:
1. What made you start?
2. How much change have you noticed since you’ve
3. What’s next for you and/or your initiative?
Reverend Jide Macaulay
Founder of House of Rainbow he/him
What got you started?
I was very conflicted growing up in a heteronormative environment and the Church didn’t portray homosexuality in a positive way. I was also rejected by numerous churches around London, before I was introduced to the Metropolitan Community Church in North London, which was founded in 1968 in America by Revd Troy D. Perry a gay man who felt called by God. This allowed me to reconcile my Faith with my LGBTQ sexuality and I started theological training for 2-3 years. I then decided to return to my native country of Nigeria in 2006 to start House of Rainbow but we soon had major problems caused by colonial laws that criminalises homosexuality. I intended House of Rainbow to be a regular church and fellowship. After numerous death threats, I had to leave Nigeria in 2008.
In London, we started monthly groups in my front room in April 2010. By August 2010, my sitting room couldn’t fit enough people so we moved on to the garden and even more people came! I also began exploring my ministry with the Church of England where I shared my story and the work that had already been done. I don’t want to be a ‘gay’ minister. I want to be a minister to ALL people but I have to be true to myself and honest about my sexuality. So I studied inclusive and Queer theology and was accepted in 2011 for a 2-year theological training at Westcott House in Cambridge.
I was ordained a deacon in 2013 by the Church of England and placed in East London. Within 3 months, issues related to my sexuality and race became apparent. More issues about my being out as well as an activist were not dealt with and I left that placement in 2014 to a secular teaching job. I then had enough time to carefully think about the role of House of Rainbow for the LGBTQ community of Faith.
By late 2014-15, we got some funding for projects focusing on Reconciling Faith and sexuality for the queer communities in Southern Africa. This work lasted for about 4 years and expanded to Central and West Africa. Thousands of people were trained on what the Bible actually says in favour of same sex relationships. The Bible doesn’t condemn homosexuality. It’s the different doctrines and religious leaders that perverted the teachings and invented a punishment for homosexuality. Most of the work include training religious, community leaders and families.
What changes have you seen?
Now there is a global LGBTQ clergy community. Even if it’s difficult to walk away from the ‘gay pastor’ label, I want to be a role model to those other people who feel called to get into ministry.
I returned to the Church of England back in 2017. I was also invited to speak at London Pride 2018 on Trafalgar Square. I always use GAY as an acronym for God Adores You and God Accepts You and this was even published in the Huffington Post UK. That same year though, my ordination to priesthood was delayed for no reason. Last year, it was again postponed for no apparent reason again but I guess the Church of England is uncomfortable with my activism.
My Faith is very strong and I keep telling myself ‘if just one person can reconcile their sexuality with God, then my work is worth it’. Not everyone will agree with what I do but I really believe the Bible NEVER condemns homosexuality. It’s just what we’ve been conditioned to believe. We’ve accepted the status quo, heteronormativity and binary of male/female. I can only imagine what our Bi and Trans siblings go through because they form another complex category that is usually rejected by the Church.
Amplify and reach out more!
My dream is to have a full complimentary staff to do more work across the UK and around the world. We are developing a project to safeguard LGBTQ children under 18 from abuse, particularly in the black community. Most LGBTQ adults have always known when they become aware of their sexual orientation, usually, between 3 and 11 years old, this is why this project is important. I also want to develop an extra curriculum for religious leaders and families and especially create a safe space for LGBTQ people from black communities. Like everyone else, COVID-19 put a massive strain on our resources so we’re looking into how to rebuild, grow and deliver our work differently. Our online work has been very effective and we were invited by UK Black Pride to curate Pride Inside 2020.
Social Worker & Founder of The Black Experience he/him
What made you start?
Some of my makeup of me is masculinity and I felt powerful being masculine but also knowing what I could achieve by being masculine by using my masculinity as a tool to navigate through this awkward and challenging situation of coming out to myself. But recognising as a black man, the strength of who I am and how I can use that to my advantage in the LGBT+ community. And using my visibility as a strength.
The next step was sharing that strength. Recognising that by being out or wanting to be out, you want to be in a space where there are like-minded people you can connect with. I soon realised that people are not all like me. They come with different shapes and sizes, shades of black and different stories. It's the confidence to own and accept ourselves through those stories. There are challenges, and experiences that would put us in a vulnerable situation. I had this strength where recognising vulnerability is something that queer men run away from, but it's part of our experience and it shapes who we are.
And if you aren’t able to confront that vulnerability, you're not able to grow.
So you're being vulnerable, you're exposed to challenges. Some of these challenges could be the experience of being abused, how to love a man, etc.
There are very few spaces we can go to be ourselves, but people at the time like myself were prepared to give up their space, which was their home. It wasn't an open house, though. If you knew me, if you needed my friends, you could come there.
We used to have parties there and just used the name ‘Black Experience’ to promote parties. That's where it started and where it is today. I saw how strong the name was and it's a very memorable name in people's minds. But also recognised from very early on when we had those parties, how attendees felt about having a place where they could play their own music, eat their own food and meet their own people.
How much change have you noticed in the last 25 years?
I notice more confidence within our community, the black queer community. There are more leaders. I won't say many more but there are members who are prepared to take on that extra load. There are more spaces available for the queer community.
What's next, unlike the idea, but 20, 22 now, aren't we, I took over three years ago following, the stepping down of the original coordinator who organised the experience as a private event.
I recognise that these spaces provide a lot for our community. I would like to see black experience develop its network by recording our events and the discussions that take place. I want the black experience to develop a mentoring program and create a platform. And I want to build on that, identify more black queer leaders and have them talk to our members.
I want the black experience to be mobile and take it around the UK. I recognise that not everything has to do just with London. Other areas in the UK where a person of colour may be struggling due to their sexuality or identify as a male and is struggling with it.
Human Rights Researcher she/her
How did you get the idea for the mural?
The real reason for doing this mural is for me. Sarah was an LGBTQ activist but first she was my friend. And I think I'm not recovered yet, even from her. Her suicide really affected me. It shaped me. The only way to save me was to feel like I was doing something for her.
I don't want the Egyptian government to get away with this crime because they killed her. I felt like it's the best kind of revenge. They pushed her away. They arrested her. They tried to suppress her. The only way for her to be safe was to be outside of her country, away from her mum. And when she couldn't be with her mum, when her mum died, I think she lost everything. And the reason for that is this regime. So I felt it's the best way to haunt them. Whatever you do you’re gonna see her. It's not the end of her story. She took her own life. Now her face can haunt the regime everywhere. It will be their crime to point the finger at them. I felt like a part of the reason I commissioned the mural was to keep her alive.
Brighton is the most suitable place for her. This city suits her. I chose her place to be alive again.
Sarah was an LGBTQ activist but she was also supporting people in Syria, people in Canada, supporting human rights everywhere. I think I commissioned the mural because I was afraid to end up in her situation.
Her last message to the world was: ‘You were so cruel but I forgive you’. I respect her for giving the world but I can't forgive. It's so cruel to push someone away from her country. She did nothing. She just waved a peace flag in a concert or she was talking about herself, what and who she was. And for me, why am I away of my family, my son? Why? Just for speaking out or doing some research work on human rights. It’s a very expensive price just for doing what we believe in.
Before she committed suicide, she posted a photo of herself on Instagram, lying on the ground, looking into the camera. She said ‘Earth is good, but I choose heaven’. I knew this is something she's done on purpose. I think what affected her the most was losing her mum. When she lost her she lost everything else. She lost all her ties with the world. She found no meaning to do anything anymore. Even if there is a lot to do.
I could feel her because this is my worst fear too. Losing one of my family while I'm away. I can't be there close to them. So I feel like I know exactly what she felt.
She didn't even pick the date randomly: 14 June 2020. Interestingly right during Pride month. She planned well for everything. I woke up, I had a kind of denial process. I checked the news, tried to go to sleep again, got up again, and then sort of faced what was happening. I was just crying nonstop.
The idea for the mural came from a mutual friend who suggested doing graffiti. We organised fundraising and the university where I work helped me in promoting the project.
How much change have you noticed?
People sometimes send messages to the Facebook page saying they’d never heard of Sarah before and looked her up. They write about how sorry they are for what happened.
I want her to be remembered. I want people to know her, to know what she did. It's just like she's here. Losing the mural would be a second loss. This is how I find my safety and also a coping mechanism.
I want to renovate the mural and register it with the council. I want to get out of the personal space to a common space for people. So people feel like it's something that they want to keep as part of the city.
I want her to be part of this city. I think this is a suitable place for her. And I always say she's here to stay and it's her place.
Founder of Out and Proud African LGBTI he/him
What made you start?
I started a group in 2013 after realising that there were not many groups out there who were authentically helping LGBT asylum seekers from Africa. I realised that most other charities were more about making money than supporting people. We want to be like a family. And the reason why I did it that was to recover from depression being tortured in my country and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
We aim to create a brotherhood or sisterhood. If you come, you become my brother, you become my sister. Because I'm the one who's there for you. You are the one who's there for me. If you go back home and then you face your family, they're castigating you. We can support you. We can get you some accommodation. If you are in the country undocumented, we can liaise with some lawyers.
How much change have you noticed?
We are fighting the UK Home Office system to legalise our status in this country. I've seen many changes. Of course not everything is perfect, but I think it's better than before. For example, someone used to ask ‘What inspired you to be gay?’ I mean, what am I going to say? It's like, oh, this is a habit. Or this is something which you are not. And you run away from your country, from people who are saying ‘No, this is not you. This is a Western thing. You are African. You can't be gay. And when you come to this country, you face a white man interviewing you and say to you ‘What inspired you?’. So it's like you've run out of places to run, people who are going to accept you, but we fought it and today that question has been eliminated. No one can ask you such a question because they're degrading you.
Right now as a charity, funding is one of the most difficult things. You want to help people but your hands are tight because you don't have any funding. I don't have any money. I have to survive. So how am I going to do it? I end up saying ‘Okay, I volunteer two days for the charity and work for another four days. But personally, if I had a choice I would love to do this job full-time.
I’m about to publish a book. I thought about it a long time ago. When you go through the asylum procedure, actually the statement in itself is like a book. Because they want to know everything. From the day you were born to the day when you were applying for asylum. You only need to add small bits to publish a book. One of my members is actually a writer. And then she was like ‘Oh, I can help you to write it and document your story’. I want to put it out there to support people who might be going through what I went through.
And our podcast involves lawyers, legal advisors, HIV campaigners, and people with inspiring stories. One of the people I helped is now a lecturer at a public university. So we want such people to come tell their stories and someone might say ‘Okay, if this person can do it, I can do it as well’. When you tell your story and speak up about what’s happening in the community, people are willing to help.
Co-founder of Loving Men and Founder of Black Connections he/him
What got you started?
Somehow I ended up at my first Black Gay house party, in Brixton, back in 1982. I remember feeling like I’d died and woke up in heaven when I walked into the party and saw a house full of Black Gay Men. Shortly after attending the party I moved to London from Manchester at age 20, determined to live my life as an openly gay man.
When I was about 22/23 years old, I went for a swim at the Brixton Recreation Centre and one day saw a sign at the reception advertising an event,‘Homosexuality & Black Communities’ organised by the Black Lesbian & Gay Centre Project (BLGC). I vividlyremember that you had to pay 20p to attend and I thought it would be interesting. I went in shaking and worried I’d be ‘found out’. You know, it was the early 80’s and I was going there every day.
The debate was very lively and some of the negative things said at that meeting really hit me! I got talking to Robert Maragh, a staff member at BLGC, who told me there was another meeting the following week in Tottenham Town Hall, North London.
That meeting turned out to be the annual general meeting of the BLGC! Before the end of that meeting and even before I realised, I got elected as the treasurer! I had no idea what minutes of a meeting were. I didn’t really know what a chair meant but there I was and it was a very steep learning curve. I remember that much! I guess that’s what got me started in the world of Black Gay Activism.
After a couple of years as Treasurer, I was elected chairperson and stayed, as a member of the Management Committee, at the BLGC for about 5 years.
After the BLGC, I got involved in ‘Big Up’, a sexual health organisation set up by and targeting Black Gay Men. I was on the board of that. I joined the board of ‘Blackliners’, a charity providing services to Black Community members living with HIV. After then, whilst working for a housing charity providing accommodation for people living with HIV, I was elected Chair of Stonewall Housing Association for 5 years.
Then I took a year off and went travelling across the USA. A friend of mine spotted a job at Project for Advocacy, Counselling & Education (PACE), a LGBT Mental Health charity that offered a personal development programme aimed at Gay men. I wasn’t really interested as it was a part-time job and I used to live on a full-time salary but my friend insisted that I would be perfect for the role and I got the job! I worked at PACE with a specific remit to work with BAME gay men. Through that, I met and worked with Alfred Hurst & Tim Foskett. A new director joined PACE and didn’t approve that the workshop program charged participants to attend an annual retreat, held at Laurieston Hall in Scotland, as she felt this was in conflict with the organisation's charitable aims, so we agreed to take on running the event ourselves that let to what is now known today as Loving Men.
How much change have you witnessed?
Such a huge change in the last nearly 40 years I’ve spent in London! For example, growing up I never thought I would live long enough to see gay marriage become legal in the UK. The very first Black Gay venue I ever went to was Sombreo’s in High Street Kensington and the dance floor was smaller than my living room. Last year’s UK Black Pride had thousands of attendees. I never thought I’d get to see so many Black LGBTQ people out in public in such numbers. It blows my mind every I think about it. I remember I used to knock on the door of house parties with a secret code to be let in as we were scared straight people would come in and wreak havoc and attack us. The BLGC was the first organisation in the world to open a Black Lesbian Centre at the time and now there’s a ‘Global Black Men’s Network’ and much more visibility of Black queer people in the media.
The killing of George Floyd is very like to force the wide wider LGBTQ community to seriously question itself. This year, for the first time, multiple Pride event have specifically focussed on the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. As far as I know, it’s never happened before. I expect to see a wider reckoning and I remain hopeful that the current protests will have long last effects and change.
Between the BLM protests and the COVID-19 lockdown, I feel a lot more empowered and will continue to challenge the status qo. Especially considering the significant number of Black and Brown people who have unnecessarily lost their lives due to the virus and systemic racism. I want to use my voice to break down the walls and make the system fairer and more equitable.
Also, the pandemic highlighted the isolation many Black LGBTQ people experience. Especially ones aged 50 and over, so as one of that age group I thought there should be a place that provides some sort of support and networking opportunities. That’s why I created ‘Black Connection’ a positive social network for Black Gay Men aged over 50 living in the UK. I was expecting a very small audience as so many of my generation died during the HIV epidemic. Within the first couple of weeks there were already over 50 men! I started the group a couple of days into lockdown and we’ve hosted several fortnightly online meetings and a small number of social spaces following the end of lockdown. We are currently seeking funding to progress the work of the network. Watch this space!
LGBTQ rights Activist he/him
What made you start?
Well, that probably goes back to being a young, queer person of colour in Trinidad and Tobago. The difference between me and a lot of activists in the global north is the fact that I was born and grew up in a black majority country. So I come to the question of queerness and queer liberation from a very different perspective. My perspective is not clouded by issues around racism and colonisation, et cetera. Those things were not an issue around my queerness in Trinidad and Tobago. So for me growing up in a black majority country as a queer person, what made me stand out was my queerness, not my blackness. So my focus has always been in terms of queer liberation. The focus has always been on what it means to be a queer person.
Only until I moved to the United Kingdom in 1985, when I was 21 years old, escaping intense homophobia. I mean no joke homophobia. You would be beaten in the streets. Gay spaces were attacked by mobs of thugs. This was a dangerous place to be queer. And when I came to the UK, of course, then that whole issue around race intersected with my queerness. And you found on the queer scene this incredible racism particularly back then in the mid-eighties which was the rise of a very powerful queer movement the new romantics, Boy George that whole vibrant queer culture was happening in London at the time. But underlying that was a very pro-white British movement.
The BNP was very active at that point. You had the conservative party being very vocal about race issues. What drives me really has been this awareness of being othered by multiple communities. Trying to find my own way in the world has always been about being denied access to all of these spaces. I suffered racism from my white family. I suffered racism from the black community because I was seen as not being black enough. I've suffered a very weird thing in the queer community the obvious racism but also anti-effeminate, anti-queer discrimination. There are so many tiers of it that you kind of like, where do you start? So one of the things that has kind of coalesced with my work in the last five years has been the creation of a human rights organisation based in the Caribbean.
But we have what we call diaspora desks in London, New York, Toronto, and Miami. These four metropolises have the largest Caribbean populations in the global north. There are over two million Caribbean people living in these metropolises. And these are Caribbean people who live in communities that are very queer-conscious. So you will have a black nurse from Trinidad and Tobago who works with queer nurses in the east end of London. How does that black Trinidadian nurse deal with queerness when she goes back home to Trinidad and Tobago? So the focus of this work will be peer-to-peer work. So trying to engage with that Caribbean community, living in the diaspora who understand human rights, basic human rights for all people, how do they then do that peer-to-peer work back home?
I'm very honoured they named the organisation after me. The Jason Jones People's Foundation. We've been in existence now for just over two and a half years. So far we've raised over a quarter of a million pounds worth of pro bono legal work towards decriminalisation cases in the Caribbean, including my own. We managed to raise US$20,000 for a relief fund for trans people in Trinidad and Tobago to drain COVID-19 because over 90% of trans women in Trinidad are sex workers. So of course with the lockdown, they couldn't work. And over 50% of trans women are HIV positive so they couldn't travel to get HIV medication. We had this really dire situation of people literally not getting HIV life-saving medication because of the lockdown. We were able to hire drivers to pick up their medication and drop it off for them during the lockdown.
We've been doing very quiet work at both communities and at the national level of engagement with litigation, with our courts and very excitingly when I was part of the now historic event at the Commonwealth opening games with Tom Daley where we were able to carry the progressive pride flag into the arena at the opening ceremony. This was the first time in history that the pride flag was flown proudly at a major sporting international sporting event. This is the first time ever. And after that, I was at the pride house in Birmingham where over the last couple of games, very quietly, an organization called Pride House International has been hosting pride houses during these major international games and Birmingham for the Commonwealth Games. They had one and I went to the pride house and it was lovely and they were very welcoming.
And during that day that I spent with them, it was announced that Trinidad & Tobago were going to be the host nation for the Commonwealth Youth Games next year. And I said to the people at pride house Birmingham ‘Well, why can't we have a pride house in Trinidad?’ And they said ‘Why not? Let's do it!’ So the JJPF and myself will be creating a pride house for the Commonwealth youth games next year in Trinidad. And more importantly, with the funding that we are raising for that pride house, we will be buying the building. So pride house building becomes a permanent fixture within a queer community. And this will be the first time in history that there will be a specific brick-and-mortar space for the queer community. So lots happening.
I think when you are born in a bird cage you have no concept of the freedom of flight. Being born and brought up in Trinidad, that othering was just part of my lived existence. It wasn't until I moved to the United Kingdom that I saw queer culture and I saw queer freedom. And I saw the fact that there were rights and freedoms enshrined within the legislation. That's when all of a sudden I thought, wait a minute, what the fuck am I doing? Why am I tolerating less in the country of my birth? And without sounding too kind of Jesus complex, I literally am the only person who could have brought the challenge that I did against the government of Trinidad and Tobago.
And that's because I have dual citizenship. Because I have light skin pressing privilege. Because I have a certain level of education. And because I could knock on doors in the city of London of billion-dollar law firms and say ‘Hey can you please come and work for me for free to take my country to court? Um, thus far my case has cost over a million pounds and all of that has been raised by myself and all of it is pro bono. So, you know, it, it literally could not have been anybody else who could have done this, this, this work. So that also was the motivation, you know, looking at my own privileges and realising, wait a minute, I am the person that could do this. So, you know, get off your ass and do it.
How much change have you noticed?
Whenever I get to answer that question it’s just like night and day. Three months after the judgment, on April 12th, 2018, Trinidad and Tobago’s queer community had their first-ever Pride March public pride parade through the streets of downtown Port of Spain. Three months later it incentivised them that much to not just get active, but to be out in the street and be visible. That had never happened before. And of course, five months after the judgment, there was the judgment of the Indian Supreme Court, which used my judgment to win freedom for LGBT people in India. And we're talking about over 75 million LGBT people in India. So it's that big. This year there was a judgment in Antigua for decriminalisation that used my case. My case is being taught at law schools in the Caribbean, in Canada and in the United Kingdom. The resonance of this is huge. It's an enormous achievement and I'm incredibly proud of it.
The Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago has appealed that victory. So I am at the appeal court of Trina and Tobago in January of next year. And then whoever loses that appeal will appeal to our Supreme court, which is the Privy Council here in London. So I have two more tiers of court before I have a full and final judgment, but most importantly, that final judgment of the Supreme Court, the Privy Council will have legal resonance for 11 countries across the globe. So we have the chance to decriminalise two continents: North and South America, and also a tiny little island in Pacific Mauritius would also fall under that judgment and be decriminalised. So my work will have decriminalised over 125 million people around the world.
It would be pretty utterly shocking for an appeal court judge to overturn a judgment that was used in India. That's been used in St. Kitts and Nevis, that's been used in Antigua. That's being taught in law schools as being one of the fundamental cases around constitutional reformation. I mean, it would be insane for them to overturn.
And more importantly, this case is not centred around LGBTQ rights. What people don't understand about about the constitutionality of my case is the only thing the government of fighting against within my case is what is called the savings law clause. Section six of the Trinidad and Tobago constitution states that all laws that predate our independence from Britain are saved laws. They cannot be challenged in a court of law. My lawyers were able to find a loophole around that savings law clause to be able to win my case. So the only challenge the attorney general is bringing against my case is not LGBT rights. It's not a right to privacy. It's not freedom of expression. He's challenging the savings law clause. He’s saying that the savings law clause should be upheld. Now, this is a constitutional matter. This is no longer about LGBTQ because what will happen is if you have a victory in the Jones case, the savings law clause is now up for review. And that means all laws, everything becomes up for review. So, people who understand constitutional matters, don't see LGBTQ in this case at all. All I say is, oh my God, this is huge because the safe law clause is being challenged.
Well, I mentioned Pride House for Commonwealth Youth Games next year. One of the big challenges of achieving something like this is, you know, how do you get past the legend of it? And it kind of stops the work because people think, oh, well, you got decriminalisation. That's a big thing. Fine. Let's sit on it. For example, if you look at the history of LGBT rights in the United Kingdom, decriminalisation happened in 1967 and then no laws were passed to support LGBT rights for 30 years. For three decades, nothing. So we have to be very careful in seeing decriminalisation as just being one minor step. It's a major step, but it's a minor step in terms of what the progress should look like.
And unfortunately, there isn't a lot of vision in LGBTQ plus advocacy. Most people come to advocacy out of desperation, not inspiration. When you are desperate, you lack imagination because you're constantly on the back foot. You're always reacting to something that's happening to you. So if something discriminatory is happening to you, you respond to that rather than being proactive in creating your destiny. So that's the work that I'm trying to do now, I'm trying to do the work that is much more about looking forward. How do you design your future after decriminalisation? What happens next? So for example, in Trinidad and Tobago, we have 27 laws, 27 pieces of legislation that are discriminatory against LGBTQ plus people from the immigration act which denies entry to overseas nationals, to homosexual to the cinema act where you can't show any films that depict homosexuality, the hotel act which denies the hotelier to rent rooms to two people of the same sex.
So we have a raft of things that need to be looked at. And of course with the rise of the issue around trans people's civil rights, we also have to look at gender recognition. So there's lots of work that needs to happen, but unfortunately there are very few people in the advocacy world that can have that vision. So hopefully my work over the next five years will be about doing that visionary work and also engaging young people and giving them a platform because I am very clear that once I have the victory of the privy council, I will be stepping back and I will be only working behind the scenes with young people to engage with them and to train them to do the work, to continue the work that I've done.
Founder of The Black British Theatre Awards (BBTA) he/him
How did you get started?
I come from a very mixed family. I used to be a chef but wanted to be in theatre because my great-grandmother Annie Barnes was part of Ballet Nègre, the first black dance company.
I was lucky to be in the original Five Guys Named Moe in 1989. The Stratford theatre was always diverse.
5 guys were all black. The most amazing bubble. The show was a big success. I was in another all-black show before that but I quickly realised these shows were exceptions.
That’s why I created the Okai Collier Company with my business partner.
I don’t like the word BAME. It’s like there’s white on one side and the rest in a bucket. I try to reach out to young black performers. So we started the Black British Theatre Awards (BBTA) with Solange Urdang, daughter of the late Leonie Urdang who fled South Africa in the 60s and founded the Urdang Academy. Leonie Urdang was a great activist opposing racism and discrimination. The academy has supported many Black youths by awarding them scholarships.
We assumed not many people would be interested but when we launched, it was so packed you couldn’t get in. So we decided to go ahead with a ceremony. It’s not about winning awards but starting a movement in theatre. Inclusive categories (LGBTQ, casting, disability, best use of technology awards and more)
How much change have you noticed?
We’re often told that ‘it’s not racism, they only pick the best one for the job but how can anyone say that if black people can’t even get their foot in the door to be seen? This is changing now. People don’t want to see an all-white cast for no reason. That’s lazy casting. The creative teams aren’t doing their job. If you can cast the lion king, Hamilton, Dream Girls, Kinky Boots over and over again, it’s because there are black actors ready to work.
There was nobody black in creative roles when I started.
Clint Dyer is the first black British director to direct a west end show. This is 2020! Even not long ago, the Marley musical was going to be directed by a white man.
Over the last few decades, there are now black choreographers, playwrights, actors and other movers and shakers who are out and fully black and fabulous and not scared. Now we have people writing our own stories about being black and gay. There isn’t enough writing about the black trans experience though.
There was a fabulous young black actor, Layton Williams who played in the musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. He’s not hiding. He’s challenging you. He was nominated by the public and won. His speech was about being black, gay, visible and unapologetic. I’ve never seen any out-black gay person at the Oliver awards!
We need to start applauding ourselves. Don’t get into the rhetoric that black people have it harder.
Black Lives Matter & the BBTA seem to have merged and I sometimes feel like I have become sort of an educator. It is affecting my psyche and I don’t want to be exploited as a black person either. It’s not my job to educate people. Some people, though, really try to understand what’s going on. I’ve just taken part in Collective Creative Initiative run online by a casting director. They’re trying to show visibility. I wasn’t there just as the token black director.
Even on tv, there are black news anchors and presenters on daytime shows, not just late at night.
British theatre is about to undergo massive changes. We can’t go back to the way things were before. It would be called out immediately. There was a black American actor called Robert Guion who played the fantom in the Phantom of the Opera. He got death threats from the KKK. People were shocked when Elthaba was played by a black actress. The whole point of the story is about being different…
Outreach programme called young black performers and creatives such as stage, lighting customers designers, etc where they are mentored for a whole term. It’s designed for people aged 12-20. It’s been one of my dreams.
I’m about to direct a show in Cornwall called The Last Five Years about 2 Jewish people. I will cast one man and a woman. And one of the actors is black. It’s a bit of a taboo really but there are black Jews. It’s time to think outside the box where shows are designed and created by an all-white team. My godchildren are Jewish so I can direct that show. If I have questions I’ll ask the Jewish people around me.
I’m also teaching an online audition master class.
My friend, the actress Ms Kimberley is a great advocate and activist for queer theatre.
Celia is a musical about a black trans model who sorts of puts her life on hold to look after her mother who has dementia. Although I’m not black and trans, I sort of identifying with that character. Ms Kimberley is mentoring me to write the script. So far, most of what’s been produced has been about the tough and sad experience of trans people. I’m also mentored by Chelsea Berlin.
I’m trying to get MJ Rodriguez from Pose to play her.