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