The ex­tra­or­di­nary race row that’s far from black and white

He took a grant for black ac­tors – even though his Ir­ish par­ents were white. The lat­est ex­am­ple of story PC mad­ness? and you Read be the his judge... bizarre

Irish Daily Mail - - News - by An­to­nia Hoyle and Jenny Friel

Maybe there was some sort of ge­netic thing that was passed on to An­thony

HE WORE a Rasta­far­ian hat and had an un­equiv­o­cally African name. His hair was curly, his skin dark. He spoke of the big­otry he had ex­pe­ri­enced be­cause of his ap­pear­ance and ded­i­cated his ca­reer as an ac­tor and the­atre di­rec­tor to ex­pos­ing the prej­u­dice peo­ple of colour faced.

Lit­tle won­der that many who met An­thony Ekun­dayo Len­non as­sumed he was black.

In fact, he isn’t black at all, but en­tirely Cau­casian — the blue-eyed son of pale-skinned Ir­ish par­ents, whose own par­ents, grand­par­ents and great-grand­par­ents were also white.

Yet, af­ter be­ing mis­taken as mixed race through­out his youth, An­thony de­cided he felt more com­fort­able liv­ing as a black man.

Proudly de­scrib­ing him­self as an ‘African born again’, he changed his name to Ta­harka Ekun­dayo and claimed: ‘Every­body on the planet is African. It’s your choice as to whether you ac­cept it.’

Now 53, An­thony’s baf­fling ‘tran­si­tion’ might have gone largely un­no­ticed out­side the the­atri­cal world, were it not for the fact that he was re­cently awarded a £100,000 (€115,000) British tax­payer-funded grant in­tended to help the BAME (black, Asian and mi­nor­ity eth­nic) com­mu­nity fur­ther their ca­reers.

He was one of four ‘the­atre prac­ti­tion­ers of colour’ to share £400,000 (€458,000) fund­ing from The Artis­tic Di­rec­tor Lead­er­ship Pro­gramme (ADLP), an Arts Coun­cil of Eng­land-funded char­ity. The money will pay for a three-day-a-week role at Lon­don’s ‘black­led’ the­atre com­pany Talawa for two years.

When the de­ci­sion was re­ported by the Sun­day Times this week, a furore en­sued. Len­non — a trainee artis­tic di­rec­tor — was branded a ra­cial im­poster and ac­cused of pil­fer­ing funds in­tended for those who hadn’t en­joyed the ad­van­tages of be­ing born white.

Writ­ing for The In­de­pen­dentin Bri­tain, Paula Ak­pan, an ad­vo­cate for black women, said his claim of be­ing ‘African born again’ was ‘not how race works at all’, adding: ‘To ac­tively claim space that isn’t yours and pur­pose­fully mis­rep­re­sent your­self goes be­yond ig­no­rance — it’s en­ti­tle­ment. It’s de­cid­ing that this iden­tity and cul­ture is yours for the tak­ing, no mat­ter who it hurts.’

Trevor Phillips, the for­mer chair of Bri­tain’s Com­mis­sion for Ra­cial Equal­ity, said: ‘In­sti­tu­tions are so des­per­ate th­ese days to show how in­clu­sive they are on is­sues of self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion that I’m afraid I saw some­thing like this com­ing. The prob­lem is, of course, that the peo­ple who lose out are the mi­nori­ties.’

Mean­while, black ac­tor Luke El­liot said he was ‘fum­ing’ that Len­non was ‘tak­ing up the lit­tle re­sources’ awarded to black artists.

A cryp­tic state­ment this week from Talawa’s Artis­tic Di­rec­tor, Michael Buf­fong, raised ques­tions about what Len­non, who was given the award on the ba­sis of be­ing mixed her­itage, has said about his iden­tity.

Buf­fong said that a year ago he ‘was made aware of some quotes taken from a book that An­thony had con­trib­uted to about his iden­tity’ that were ‘con­trary’ to what he un­der­stood about him, but that af­ter An­thony claimed he had been ‘mis­quoted’ he was given le­gal re­as­sur­ance that An­thony was still el­i­gi­ble. It is not known what An­thony — who has de­clined re­quests to com­ment — had been mis­quoted on. Buf­fong was quick to add: ‘As our trainee as­so­ciate di­rec­tor, An­thony re­ceives a trainee fee in line with oth­ers in a sim­i­lar role on the ADLP. I want to stress that in this unique case there has been no at­tempt to mis­lead any fun­ders or to deny any­one else con­sid­ered more valid, a place.’

So what pos­sessed An­thony Len­non to as­sume a dif­fer­ent race? Has he shunned his white her­itage to com­pete in the cut-throat the­atre world? Or con­jured up a sense of dis­crim­i­na­tion for at­ten­tion and sym­pa­thy?

The truth, our in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­cov­ered, is al­to­gether more com­plex. An­thony’s be­hav­iour might be seen by some as disin­gen­u­ous, but that his looks have caused him dif­fi­culty in the past and led him, and oth­ers, to ques­tion his iden­tity is un­de­ni­able.

Even more cu­ri­ously, it emerges that An­thony is not the only fam­ily mem­ber to have been born look­ing as if he has black her­itage. A cousin on his fa­ther’s side was also known for his dark skin and hair — so much so that he was, in the Fifties, given the racist nick­name ‘Wamba Womba’ by neigh­bours in ref­er­ence to the fact he looked al­most black.

An­thony’s fa­ther, Pa­trick Len­non, was born in 1937 in Tramore, Co. Water­ford, the youngest of three sib­lings. Pa­trick’s mother Chrissie was a housewife; his fa­ther, Stanis­laus — or ‘Stan’ — a post­man. Known for wear­ing a cra­vat around his neck, Stan was a mem­ber of lo­cal am­a­teur dra­mat­ics group, the Tramore Play­ers.

Although res­i­dents of Tramore de­scribed the Len­nons as ‘typ­i­cally’ Ir­ish look­ing with pale skin and brown hair, they re­mem­ber that one of Stan’s neph­ews — Pa­trick’s cousin — David, who lived in the town, was also known for his atyp­i­cal ap­pear­ance.

As with An­thony, no­body ap­peared to know why David looked so dif­fer­ent from his fam­ily. ‘Maybe it was a kink in the genes,’ said one lo­cal man now in his 80s, whose rec­ol­lec­tion is echoed by an el­derly rel­a­tive of Chrissie, still liv­ing in the area.

She re­calls David as ‘very, very dark with dark eyes’, adding: ‘It was a strik­ing anom­aly. Maybe there was some sort of ge­netic thing on the Len­non side of the fam­ily that was passed on to An­thony. It can’t have been easy for him.’

An­thony’s own ver­dict ap­pears con­flicted. In 1990, he said in a doc­u­men­tary: ‘My par­ents are white and so are their par­ents, and so are their par­ents, and so are their par­ents.’ But in 2008, he wrote a short eBook, called Photo ID, which reads as au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, and in which he writes there was ‘def­i­nitely some­thing in my fam­ily’s gene pool that isn’t as straight­for­ward as most’.

An­thony’s mother, Josephine, was born in Tralee, Co. Kerry, in 1934, to a labourer and a housewife. Be­lieved to be one of around 11 sib­lings, the fam­ily lived on a coun­cil es­tate where un­em­ploy­ment was as high as the de­sire to em­i­grate.

Josephine, known as Josie and now 88, had moved to West Lon­don by her mid-20s, where Stan had also moved his fam­ily in search of work. When Josie and Pa­trick mar­ried in Padding­ton in 1959, she was work­ing as a can­teen as­sis­tant and Pa­trick a sales as­sis­tant.

They had three sons — An­thony, the el­dest, was born in 1965; Vin­cent in 1967 and David in 1974. Born ‘with darker skin, kinkier

hair, higher cheek­bones’, as he wrote in Photo ID, An­thony claims his ap­pear­ance heaped shame on his fam­ily at a time when racism was rife and mixed-race re­la­tion­ships taboo.

‘My fa­ther and my fam­ily on both sides thought my mother had had an af­fair,’ he re­called.

Sus­pected of cheat­ing with a black man, Josephine was spat at in the street. But, when, ac­cord­ing to An­thony, his broth­ers were born with sim­i­lar fea­tures, it ap­peared the sib­lings had in­stead in­her­ited the same ge­netic anom­aly.

As An­thony later re­called in Chill­ing Out, a film about race that formed part of the BBC Every­man se­ries in 1990, ‘it is only now my mum is telling me that, when I was a baby, peo­ple threw stones at me be­cause they thought my mum was with a black man.’ His fa­ther, mean­while, ap­pears to have vented ag­gres­sion phys­i­cally. Dur­ing a stand up ‘com­edy’ rou­tine in 1998, An­thony claimed Pa­trick used to beat him with a strap when he came home from school.

‘You’re try­ing to be brave and not cry,’ he re­called of the ex­pe­ri­ence, ad­mit­ting that ‘one tear would al­ways let you down’.

An­thony’s par­ents’ mar­riage did not last and by 1983 Pa­trick had re­mar­ried and was liv­ing with his sec­ond wife Dorothy in North-West Lon­don. One for­mer neigh­bour, who met An­thony and Vin­cent when they came to visit, told the Mail this week that she as­sumed, judg­ing by their sons’ ap­pear­ance, that be­cause Pa­trick was white, Josephine must be black.

‘An­thony was mixed race. He was not white,’ she says em­phat­i­cally. Nor, she in­sisted, was Vin­cent. ‘Ev­ery­one knew that his kids were mixed race.’ She re­calls Pa­trick, who died in 1999, as a volatile ‘odd­ball’ — a ‘very white’ man with ‘snowy hair.’

It is un­sur­pris­ing An­thony felt un­set­tled; his par­ents’ ap­par­ent am­biva­lence to his ap­pear­ance ar­guably driv­ing him to sym­pa­thise with the mi­nor­ity he was be­lieved by out­siders to be part of. Aged 13 and ‘sick’ of what he de­scribes in Photo ID as ‘racism, big­otry, hate & more’, he bought a Rasta­far­ian hat from Brix­ton mar­ket — a ‘con­scious de­ci­sion’ to avoid the con­stant ‘scru­ti­n­i­sa­tion (sic)’ of his ap­pear­ance.

Af­ter that, he came to think of him­self, in pri­vate at any rate, as black. What­ever Josephine made of her son’s tran­si­tion, she kept it to her­self.

‘My mum’s not ques­tioned it in any way, what’s hap­pen­ing in front of her eyes,’ An­thony later said. As a young man he said he and his mother ‘don’t talk’ and Josie was un­avail­able for com­ment this week.

A cer­tain dis­tance be­tween them was hinted at by a lo­cal in Tralee, who told the Mail that ev­ery sum­mer, David, now liv­ing in Kent and be­lieved to work for the po­lice, brings Josie back to Tralee for the town’s an­nual fes­ti­val — but that she had yet to wit­ness An­thony ac­com­pa­ny­ing them on a visit.

Yet Josie wasn’t in­dif­fer­ent to An­thony’s needs, tak­ing him to drama school so he could pur­sue his dream of be­com­ing an ac­tor.

Aged 15, An­thony stud­ied at Lon­don’s Week­end Arts Col­lege un­der mime artist Adrian Hed­ley, who this week ap­peared sur­prised to learn Len­non was born to white par­ents. ‘I am friends with him on Face­book,’ says Hed­ley, 65. ‘He looks mixed race in the pic­tures that he posts. There is no way he looks like a typ­i­cal Cau­casian per­son.’

An­thony, mean­while, in Every­man, re­calls his brother as be­ing ‘con­fused’ by his own ap­pear­ance. It is not clear which brother he was re­fer­ring to but, in 1987, Vin­cent died.

Those who knew the fam­ily in both Ire­land and Lon­don sug­gested it was a train ac­ci­dent, but An­thony re­vealed on Twit­ter the cause was sui­cide — his brother, he wrote, was con­sumed ‘by neg­a­tive self im­age’.

Yet the tragedy didn’t ap­pear to bring An­thony and his fa­ther closer. ‘He says I’ve got an iden­tity prob­lem and the sooner I sort my­self out, the bet­ter,’ An­thony, who left school with four A-lev­els, said in 1990.

But in­stead of re­vert­ing back to his white roots, An­thony changed his name, ‘shortly be­fore the birth of my first daugh­ter’, he says, adding: ‘I was at a stage in my life where to ad­dress my­self as An­thony Len­non did not ful­fil me, it didn’t seem to al­low me to ex­press my­self as I saw fit.’

He chose his new name from an African name book — Ta­harka is the name of an Egyp­tian pharaoh and Ekun­dayo means ‘weep­ing be­comes joy’ — while mak­ing his stage name An­thony Ekun­dayo Len­non.

By his own ad­mis­sion, pur­su­ing black roles not only gave him a sense of be­long­ing, but boosted his ca­reer. Hav­ing been rejected for a glut of white parts he started work­ing with or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the Black The­atre Co-Op and the African Peo­ple’s The­atre, and was cast in pro­duc­tions such as The Rem­nant and a Nineties all-black pro­duc­tion of the reg­gae mu­si­cal Raga­muf­fin, on which he worked with Jan Ryan, di­rec­tor of UK Arts In­ter­na­tional.

‘He iden­ti­fied as black, and peo­ple called him Ekun­dayo, but I knew he had white Ir­ish par­ents,’ she told the Mail this week. ‘No­body had an is­sue with him and he never talked about his her­itage.’

Len­non later be­came an as­sis­tant di­rec­tor on Bri­tain’s first all-black pro­duc­tion of Guys And Dolls and, 14 months ago, was ap­pointed trainee artis­tic di­rec­tor with Talawa in East Lon­don — a po­si­tion that was ad­ver­tised as be­ing ‘open to peo­ple of colour’ and to which An­thony ap­plied as a ‘mixed­her­itage in­di­vid­ual’.

It is a some­what imag­i­na­tive de­scrip­tion of him­self, although there is no sug­ges­tion An­thony has lied to any­one about hav­ing white par­ents.

‘I have al­ways been aware of An­thony’s unique and com­pli­cated story,’ says Buf­fong, who adds that his com­pany’s ‘spirit of in­clu­siv­ity’ meant that An­thony, ‘was ac­cepted by many, in­side the or­gan­i­sa­tion and ex­ter­nally, as a per­son of mixed her­itage’.

Many of his thes­pian col­leagues didn’t think his back­ground war­ranted ques­tions at all.

‘The ques­tion of his her­itage never came up,’ says Will DanielBra­ham, 54, a train­ing and de­vel­op­ment con­sul­tant who is mixe­drace and worked with Len­non on a the­atre pro­duc­tion.

‘If you have grown up with racism and been sub­jected to ra­cial abuse then you can un­der­stand why you would iden­tify with that ra­cial mi­nor­ity. He was ac­cepted by the pro­fes­sion as a black ac­tor.’

The more ac­cepted An­thony be­came by the black com­mu­nity, the more he seemed to be­lieve he ac­tu­ally was black — at least in terms of the way the out­side world per­ceived him.

As An­thony him­self put it in 2012: ‘Although I’m white, with white par­ents, I have gone through the strug­gles of a black man, a black ac­tor.’

Cer­tainly, his so­cial me­dia pres­ence sug­gests he sees him­self as a cham­pion for eth­nic mi­nori­ties, his Twit­ter feed al­most ex­clu­sively pre­oc­cu­pied with black rights and cul­ture.

And clearly, he felt en­ti­tled to ap­ply for a res­i­den­tial trainee­ship as part of the ADLP to help BAME cre­atives.

It is un­likely The Arts Coun­cil Eng­land ex­pected a white man to be among the re­cip­i­ents. This week, they said they were ‘not re­spon­si­ble for the ad­min­is­tra­tion of this pro­gramme’ but that when ‘Talawa raised their wish to sup­port An­thony with us’ they ‘took into ac­count the law in re­la­tion to race and eth­nic­ity’ adding: ‘This is a very un­usual case and we do not think it un­der­mines the sup­port we pro­vide to black and mi­nor­ity eth­nic peo­ple.’

Buf­fong, mean­while, is keen to de­fend Talawa’s de­ci­sion, say­ing his judge­ment of An­thony’s suit­abil­ity for the ADLP was based on his ac­cep­tance of An­thony as a per­son of mixed her­itage.

‘I wel­come the de­bate around iden­tity, surely we must ac­knowl­edge that there are nu­ances and grey ar­eas,’ he added.

Whether that means a white man should be able to as­sume a black iden­tity — no mat­ter what hard­ships he has en­dured be­fore do­ing so — will con­tinue to di­vide opin­ion.

Ad­di­tional re­port­ing: Stephanie Con­dron

I have gone through the strug­gles of a black man, a black ac­tor

MOTHER

FA­THER

GRAND­FA­THER

BROTHER Alike: An­thony, right, and brother Vin­cent. Above, An­thony now. Far left, An­thony’s mum Josie, dad Pa­trick and grand­fa­ther ‘Stan’

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