The (Tinted) Glass Ceiling…

Kwame Kwei-Armah, the actor and playwright, claims that there is a ‘glass ceiling’ for black actors in Britain.

Really? Shame he said that just as ‘Luther’ returned to our screens…

“There is a strong sense among black actors that there is a glass ceiling and that you can only get so far, which means people start looking for different marketplaces,” says Kwei-Armah, whose work Elmina’s Kitchen was performed at the Garrick Theatre in 2005.

Who elected Kwei-Armah to speak for black actors?

Still, colour-blind casting remains the accepted practice in the theatre, if perhaps less so on television. For instance, Sir Derek Jacobi, as King Lear, sired a black Cordelia in Pippa Bennett-Warner in last year’s celebrated production of the tragedy at the Donmar theatre.

The National Theatre went so far as to have a group of white colonialists played by black actors who had to “white-up” every night to appear in a production of Death and the King’s Horseman.

My good lord, could you imagine the reaction if the opposite had been suggested? There wouldn’t be a theatre left standing…

So, just why is Kwei-Armah having a bit of a strop, anyway?

Still, it is all too little, too late for Kwei-Armah, who is voting with his feet. He is moving to Baltimore to become artistic director of the Centrestage theatre company.

Ah. Far be it from me to say this is deflection behaviour to head off any awkward questions about why he’s leaving…

11 comments for “The (Tinted) Glass Ceiling…

  1. QM
    June 27, 2011 at 7:06 am

    A good actor is a good actor, it doesn’t matter the colour of the skin, something that most racists (and yes I’m calling Kwei-Armah a racist as he brought race into this) forget.
    If you’re good enough, talented enough and yes lucky enough, there’s no ceiling in the acting profession, I suspect that Kwei-Armah is none of the three.

    • Zoe Smith
      July 2, 2011 at 6:27 pm

      This is in response to QM and Julia M: I’m pretty sure that KKA’s remarks were not meant to justify his move to Baltimore as this article suggests suggesting. He is simply speaking from his experience as an individual Black actor in UK who is undoubtedly connected to several black actors both personally and professionally. To suggest that he is not a great talent and brilliant mind who has the choice to stay or go, is grossly myopic and terribly unfortunate you and your readers who have refused to reconcile with the changing multicutural face of the WORLD… in case you are wondering, that includes Britain.

  2. WitteringWitney
    June 27, 2011 at 8:48 am

    And it is a great pity that those others of immigrant stock who are fed up with their life in Britain don’t also vote with their feet!

  3. Jack Savage
    June 27, 2011 at 9:01 am

    I am struggling to see the point of this article, unless it is just to be rude about the man himself.Anyone who believes prejudice against black people has been completely eliminated in the acting or any other profession in GB is living in a dream world.
    He has never claimed to be a representative of black actors, he is just telling us his personal experience.

    What is the significance of hinting that there is some other reason for him to be leaving other than attempting to further his career? And then leaving it hanging?

    I am not at all comfortable with the tone of this article. Please clarify.

    • June 27, 2011 at 9:40 am

      As QM points out, a good actor will be welcomed no matter the colour of his skin, and Kwei-Armah has had the misfortune to give his little whinge to the media at a time when a black-actor lead drama comes back onto our screens to prove him wrong.

      I also find it rather amusing that black actors can ‘White up’ without a fuss. Don’t you?

      And I find it rather strange that this outburst is made in the media as he’s leaving for pastures new. Don’t you?

      • Jack Savage
        June 28, 2011 at 9:46 am

        Yes, I do find it amusing that black actors can white up without any fuss…but it is far from surprising. The sad bit is that white actors can no longer “black up” without controversy. However, I am not sure that this state of affairs has much to do with the subject of the post.

        And no, I do not find it strange that this “outburst” should be so timed. It would hardly be very good for his career prospects over here if he were to become reknowned as an actor with a chip on his shoulder,justified or not. Telling it like you think it is on departure is a British workplace tradition, surely!

        It just seemed to me that you were castigating a bloke for expressing his opinion that it was disproportionately hard to get an acting job in this country if you are black. I am no bleeding heart liberal. Au contraire…but this assertion strikes me as quite likely to be true and I can understand a certain amount of justified frustration if one had been on the receiving end of it.
        So all in all…I am not artificially “outraged” but I just cannot join in the finger-pointing. It only makes sense if you thought that all vestiges of racial prejudice have been eliminated from show business.
        Good Luck with proposing that debate!

  4. June 27, 2011 at 9:51 am

    It is surely normal in any society, that when watching plays and films, patrons will be more interested in those which deal with issues pertaining to their own society, background and traditions.
    As the history of the UK is predominently centered around fair skinned Celtic and Anglo-Saxon races it follows that I would not expect many black actors or actresses, especially in important roles. In Africa I would expect – and no doubt find – exactly the opposite. This is as it should be.

    • Yep
      June 27, 2011 at 7:34 pm

      Nail. Head. Hit.

      I went to an opera in Sheffield a few years ago (one of my favourites that I’d booked well in advance and was very excited about) and they had replaced one of the lead white male roles with an Indian or Muslim (can’t remember which) woman dressed as a bloke in period costume. Might have ticked all the pc boxes and had the luvvies clasping their hands in joy but it ruined what should have been a great performance as it was completely obvious she was a foreign bird and was totally unbelievable in the tough male role. I felt ripped off. We, the mere customers were not advised of this when parting with hard earned cash. My wife, two guests, and myself slid out at the first break and I have never gone back to Sheffield for any event. No racism here. Just that this excessive PC ruined an evening for 4 peeps and cost me well over £100. Oh, the opera received public fund grants. Surprise, surprise then… 🙄

    • Jack Savage
      June 28, 2011 at 9:56 am

      Absolutely agree. But this pretty much goes without saying?
      I must admit I am giving Mr. Kwei-Armah the benefit of the doubt when I assume he is claiming that prejudice exists notwithstanding the historical and cultural influences on drama production you,quite correctly, set out.
      If it is indeed the case that he is miffed at not being considered to play Inspector Morse or General Gordon of Khartoum ( and I am struggling to think anyone could be that daft) then I withdraw my mild criticism of the article.

  5. June 27, 2011 at 10:22 am

    There’s probably a glass ceiling for all kinds of people in all walks of life. Life is hard. You just have to get on with it.

Comments are closed.