iNews Weekend

Hooray for Rada – with its dramatic change of leadership

- @CharleneWh­ite

On Thursday morning, my phone pinged with a screenshot from a friend of a news article that genuinely made me squeal with excitement. It was about the actor, documentar­ymaker, campaigner and all-round brilliant human David Harewood – who has just been announced as the new president of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (Rada).

Joining him as vice-president is the insanely talented British actor Cynthia Erivo. She too is a big deal. For the uninitiate­d, Rada is one of the top drama schools in the country (and one of the oldest) at which to hone your craft. If you’ve got Rada on your CV, it makes people sit up and take notice. My excitement over David is biased, though. I’ve been lucky enough to spend time in his company on numerous occasions. Last year, we sat together at a dinner, spending the evening talking about our individual industries and the changes we’ve seen over the years in terms of diversity, as well as our shared love of the best corner of the globe: south-east London.

To spend time in his company is quite something. For me, he’s a giant in the game who has an ease and manner about him that makes you instantly feel comfortabl­e. For Rada students to have him and Cynthia on board makes me feel hopeful about the opportunit­ies ahead for those who have felt invisible, ignored or unapprecia­ted in institutio­ns such as Rada; those who feel as though their faces, accents, background or class left them at a disadvanta­ge when wandering through those hallowed halls.

In its 120 years of existence, Rada has had 16 presidents. Sir Squire Bancroft, an actor-manager, was the first and the

Harewood is well used to breaking barriers and dealing with racism

David Harewood, Rada’s first Black president, seen in Shakespear­e’s ‘Othello’

list that follows includes notable actors such as Dame Irene Vanbrugh, Dame Edith Evans, and Kenneth Branagh.

All heavyweigh­ts within the acting industry (non-actor Princess Diana was president at one point, too), but it wasn’t until the 17th president, David Harewood, that list finally included someone who is Black. One hundred and twenty years. The thing is, they’ve done really well on equality where sex is concerned – the list is overflowin­g with women who were allowed into the upper echelons of drama society. But, diversity in terms of race? Severely lacking.

David is a former Rada student, and one of the finest actors we have in this country, so he comes with a level of understand­ing of how to navigate those spaces, but also the reality of what the industry is like when you’re finally released from drama school into the working world as a Black actor. Especially if you want to stay in the UK, and not jump ship for better opportunit­ies in America.

For example, David was the first Black actor to play Othello on stage at the National Theatre in 1997. So he’s well used to breaking barriers and dealing with the racism that those in the industry are often faced with (although the National is not the worst offender when it comes to Othello – it took until 2015 for the Metropolit­an Opera in

New York to stop black-facing their performers when they took on the role). One can only hope that David and Cynthia taking on roles with such prominence and weight in an organisati­on with a long and rich history within the dramatic arts will have a trickle-down effect in terms of the roles that Black actors are offered within the British acting industry. I’ve had countless friends who, after years of determinat­ion not to, have ended up – as Black actors – having to jump ship to the US in order to get meatier, more highprofil­e roles and better exposure.

If you want something bigger, there’s only so long you can keep fighting for more here when you know the fight is likely to not be as long and soul-destroying if you move your life elsewhere, across the Atlantic. David (Homeland), and Cynthia (the Broadway production of The Color Purple) are clear examples of this.

Perhaps with them both at the helm of the most British of British institutio­ns it can encourage a change in terms of the way that we look at acting talent, both in terms of race and class. The barriers to working-class actors – irrespecti­ve of race – is well known, and they more than deserve for those barriers to be broken down. Because apart from anything else, it does a disservice to us as consumers. We deserve to experience and watch the full range of talent that Britain has to offer. Quite frankly, the industry will be pretty boring, plain and stale without it.

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