danny sapani’s closing speech at tiata delights

Danny Sapani closed tiata delights ’15 – a festival for artists and audiences – with a thoughtful reflection on his life and his work and a call to action for us all.

“Good afternoon to you all! I really hope you’ve had a brilliant a day and are feeling as excited as inspired as I am having learnt so much from some incredibly talented people.  I am honoured to be closing today with my thoughts and also conscious that I’m the only thing standing between you and a party. So, I will do my best to to build on this sense of opportunity and hope and have you out of here within the hour.

For those of you who don’t know me (apart from in today’s programme!) my name is Danny Sapani and I am an actor. I was born in London in 1970 (I know… it’s hard to believe I am actually that old!) to Ghanaian parents who had moved here in the late 60s and set up home in Hackney. I grew up with middle-class Ghanaian aspirations in a working class British area.  At the tender age of 8, my love of drama was first piqued by my primary school teacher Mrs Hyams who, in seeing a potentially wayward young man decided I should try channeling my passion and energy into something that wasn’t going to get me in trouble and put me in the school play. It was my first experience of the stage – I played the laughing policeman in Pinocchio, had to recite a monologue, sing a solo…. and I was hooked. Shortly after I was to star in another school play as the Terrible Discord in the Phantom Tollbooth and thus sprouted the beginnings of a 35 year love affair with the arts. 

The secondary school I went to was actually formerly a Jewish Grammar School with such prestigious alumni as Harold Pinter, Stephen Berkoff and Arnold Wesker. Who knows whether unconsciously these great theatre makers were to be my inspiration!

Whilst there I joined an after school drama club and soon became obsessed with performance in all its forms. When a fellow drama club friend suggested I join him in auditioning for WAC (the Weekend Arts College) in Kentish Town, I never imagined I would actually get in and I was overwhelmed when I was offered a place.

WAC was to become the birthplace of a deeper love of the dramatic arts, making dreams reality by putting children from diverse backgrounds with the same desire and passion and nurturing their individuality and their talents.

WAC was – and still is – run by Celia Greenwood, an ex-drama teacher from a local secondary school who recognised that arts education should be a right not a privilege and that when young people engage in the arts it gives them a sense that anything is possible. That’s particularly important for people who grow up in ghettoised areas to hear, to believe it and to know. It doesn’t have to stay this way. There is a way out.

At WAC we paid £1 a lesson to be taught by an amazing team of highly skilled working professionals. We honed our skills and an appreciation for all the performing arts disciplines (dance, ballet, mime, contemporary, jazz, drama, music…. which helped me understand that being a performer meant being conscious of every part of my body). It also taught me that the arts is a powerful way to positively question the status quo.

WAC (now Wac Arts) is still going today, leading an ongoing renaissance in British culture and spawning such talents as Courtney Pine, Marianne Jean Baptiste, Martina Laird and Che Walker, and possibly some of you in this room.

I then went on to train at Central School of Speech and Drama, which gave me the specific foundation and an understanding of the variety of disciplines to become a professional actor.  Although much like when you pass your driving test and then have to learn to drive, some of that teaching I had to “unlearn” in the years that followed. 

In my final year at Central we were engaged in a fight with the Principle and Governors, who were trying to turn it into a university and switch the drama course into one focused on musical theatre; a cynical commercial imperative. Anyone challenging the changes was sacked and replaced with administrators, less experienced and less qualified – ‘yes people’. The artistic director at the time was Mark Wing-Davey, an actor. When he went we had to rally, lobby, protest and fiercely challenge to protect the quality and integrity of our course, for us and for the years below us. This experience really made us appreciate the fight; students making a stand for what we knew were the essentials in a good drama school education – i.e. like at WAC, to be taught by practitioners; by actors and directors who have an understanding of the craft. I firmly believe the best way to learn is from the experience of others.

This is why when Natalie and I met she told me about the format of today I was 100% supportive.

British Drama schools are funny… the training hasn’t changed in 100 years – you will be taught via a Shakespeare, a Chekov, a modern piece (usually American) and a Restoration so all the characters you play are usually based on what the powers-that-be deem as “important”.  Based on a European antiquated model. All of these characters are white. I had learnt to play refined, slightly effeminate men and actually taught to mask my “African” physiology. It wasn’t until we did Othello that there was a question around which of the two black actors on the course was going to play the part. I lost. I ended up playing Billy Flynn in Chicago instead! An adaptation with lots of strange boxing references because the director wanted to make his show relevant. When We Were Kings – a film about Mohammed Ali had just been out and Mike Tyson had just lost to Evander Holyfield with notorious ear biting incident. These were the most powerful black men on the planet. So he wanted to reference them. It was my first taste of the strange concerns of the professional commercial world. People trying to shoehorn their interpretation of current affairs into old overdone plays. God forbid they could consider choosing to write new ones instead!! 

So… when I left drama school I actually had very little experience of playing a person of colour. Although, interesting to note that in my head every character I have ever played is a person of colour – because it was me playing it! Playing roles so different from myself was however great training. The upside: I learnt how to strengthen my belief and convince others irrespective of my physiology. To serve the needs of a character. Become a vessel for anothers truth. Greater versatility follows. It’s what is inside that counts and informs the out. The downside was I had forgotten who I was before I went to drama school and it was in this somewhat confused vein I was pushed into the professional world. My first job playing a thug in The Bill – “a black man in trouble with the police” and weirdly I felt completely unprepared for this role. And that continued to be an issue as most of the roles I was being asked to play – on screen nessecitated that I knew what it was like to be BLACK!  

I remember when Guy Ritchie was quoted as saying he struggled working with black actors who had been to drama school as they were too “white”, which is why he preferred to work with untrained talent. Maybe he had a point but taken out of context. It had taken us so long to get there – wherever that was – and we still weren’t good enough.  

So I went back to Shakespeare. The classics. To what I knew. Because I loved it. Roles that – through the poetry, the “rap”, the epicness, my traning, the stories and characters – enabled me to bring my own cultural experiences as a Ghanaian British person to the fore sometimes and at last to feel a bit more comfortable in my own skin and body. When I played Macbeth, I did it in an African accent and I felt that this was the culmination of everything I had been trying to achieve in terms of me reflecting a all parts of what I had become. The fact that it also was critically acclaimed gave me a sense of achievement. We had been authenticated here and around the world with our tour. It was much more complicated when we performed it in Nigeria. We may as well have been from another planet by how un-African we were. So British it was embarrasing, but that was ok. 

Since those early days. I’ve played Othello, Marc Anthony, Macbeth and Iorek Byornison, Jason of the Argonauts, an SAS soldier, a zombie social worker, as many gangsters as I have detective inspectors and Lenny Henry’s biological Dad.   

I have been lucky enough to work with some incredible talent: Declan Donellan, Sam Mendes, Max Stafford-Clark, Dominic Cooke, Mark Rylance, Nick Hytner, Danny Boyle, John Logan. All of these men are talented in different ways, yet they have one thing in common. They are all men and they are all white.

I want to interject my story briefly with a caveat on me talking about “white” or “black”. Sometimes I am talking about people and sometimes I am referring to a political state of mind. We are not white or black. In reality we are Ghanaian, Jamaican, Jewish, Scottish and the differences in all those cultures is as varied as anything else we might try to name. We all come from diverse backgrounds. When we put things into categories of black and white the only thing that black people have in common as a collective is the oppression by white people (and that we all eat rice, hail more recently from Africa!)  White then represents the dominant culture … the single minded perspective that anything else sits outside or beneath “the norm” and hail more recently from Europe. As a result Black theatre, Black music, Black art, Black history can only be counter culture. Because white is the norm. So how do we share the centre ground? We first have to get rid of and re-educate ourselves because the current models don’t serve anyone. What does it feel like to be British? For the privilaged and millions of people around the world it is Pride and Prejudice because we are all taught that this is what it is in our schools. Imperialist models that don’t serve anyone in this room. Imperialism was a lie used to prop up racist ninteenth century thinking – why are we still using it? Where are the new stories that counter, subvert or add to this art?

And this is part of the problem. Not only because it means that the stories being told are coming from the same narrative, with the same insights and the same deletions and distortions. The shorthand, I mean the lazy assumptions about race, or gender or class, nationality or religion do not serve: black people are physical, base, aggressive, victims, subordinates. White people are cerebral, manipulative, strategic, masters.  Asian people are hard-working, submissive, introverts. Chinese people do Kung Fu… and so it goes on. And this doesn’t serve anybody. It’s not presenting an accurate reflection of reality then or now. I suppose all art is a shorthand. Merely ‘representative’ of real life. However, the lack of diversity in our art is because the shorthand is too short. For black, Chinese, Asian, woman, disabled it is even shorter.

This lack of depth in artistic representation has meant I’ve watched the careers of people like Norman Beaton, Rudolph Walker, Oscar James, Carmen Monroe,  before me – great actors whose carreers never got the recognition they deserved. 

More latterly, Eamon Walker, Adrian Lester, Marianne Jean Baptiste, Lennie James, Idris Elba, Kwame Kwei-Armah… all had to make their way to America to succeed.  

Recently, at the launch of Mobo’s Rise with Us Season, David Oyellowo spoke about how he actually briefed his first agent – straight out of drama school – that he wouldn’t go up for parts that were specifically written for black actors in the hope that he would be able to break through the glass ceiling. Black actresses who feel invisible. Debbie Tucker Green asked if the black female lead character she had written could be of mixed parentage. “She is a black woman”. “Yes, but, could she be mixed?”  Chinese performers ignored at the RSC.

And if we look at that list of incredible directors and writers I have worked with all who produce incredible theatre, film and television but who all cannot help but recreate their own experiences, representations and realities in their work.   

Whilst the vast majority of the people at the top of our industry come from the same privilaged cultural background, the repetition of that cultural experience in our media and art and promotion of that particular imperalist shorthand will be the the norm.

This is not reality but it has become a truth in our media with our representation of life today and how we see the past.

Anyone who didn’t bother to look further and who learnt only from how the media representation would think that black people didn’t exist in this country before the Windrush. Yet there are so many incredible figures, people of colour who changed history in this country who are not taught, discussed, celebrated or admired. A perfect example is Robert Wedderburn – how many of you have heard of this man? Well let me tell you that he was a Jamaican/British writer and activist who came to this country in the 1700s and who was one of the first promoters of black power by revolutionary force and whose incredibly rough, rich and creative political expressions aimed to liberate the (black and white) enslaved in the West Indies and Britain. He fought for the freedom of speech and for human rights. Perhaps, the first of his kind in London but he was not alone – he in turn paved the way for the likes of Marcus Garvey, Huey P Newton, Bob Marley, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X Che’ Gavara, Ghandi, Kwame Nkrumah, Paul Robeson, Michael Collins, Marie Curie, Karl Marx, Winstone Churchill, Mary Seacole, Arthur Scargill, Nelson Mandela, Emily Pankhurst, Frederick Engels, Margaret Thatcher, JFK … he should have a plaque in Soho where he ran the Hopkins Street Chapel and delivered most of his revolutionary speeches. He should have a thousand books written about him, whole lessons dedicated to him, plays, films and mini-series made about him…. yet he has been all but eradicated from the history books.

This is the whitewashing of history is the mainstream. His life and story is outside the norm. 

And THIS is what is changing. 

It is down to us to ensure we are in a position to take our seat at the table. To break free from the shackles of our education and conditioning with a renewed sense of purpose, determination and belief that now is the time to tell better stories. To create the space and time to make detailed work that goes beyond the shorthand. We have a responsibility to further each other’s narratives, to rewrite an accurate depiction of our collective history, present and future. We need many voices to do it properly and that is only the beginning of our cultural evolution.

If I was standing here a year ago I’m not sure I would have actually believed it possible but the conversations about diversity in this country and across the water are happening in a way in which they can only be the beginning of something big. We are standing on the precipice of huge change in our world, an opportuinity to challenge years of inaccuracies and distortions. A chance to go deeper into our collective psychology, express the range and scope of our physical inner space and outer. Research, rewrite and correct our collective story.

Act for Change, the D Word, The Creative Diversity Network, the investment in diversity that the BBC, ITV, Sky and The Heritage Fund, the Lottery Fund; across the entire spectrum of our industry, people are talking about how to change and putting their money where their mouth is. Last month MOBO ran a season called Rise with Us which was all about creating mainstream platforms to spotlight diverse talent. It included a stream of films within the London Film Festival, plays at the National, The Tricycle and Theatre Royal Stratford East, events at The Tate, the British Library and the Guildhall Gallery. Part of the ambition was to create real opportunities and as a result 27 apprenticeship and fellowship roles ringfenced for diverse talent have been created (including 4 Executive Fellowships within the London Theatre Consortium to try and find Executive and Artistic Directors of the future).  It was all put together in 3 months with no sponsorship or investment and I know this because my wife was leading it. And if she was standing here now she would tell you that every door she knocked on during that time didn’t just open, it flew open. Every theatre, broadcaster, ad agency, brand or institution get that change will not happen by osmosis. And the desire for change is not simply driven by the cultural dependency – there’s a sound economic one too. The BAME community will increase their spending power by 10 fold in the next 5 years. By 2020, 50% of London will be non-white. This is an absolute imperative for most businesses and there is money to invest for the right ideas and for the right talent.

So now is the time; the time for us to prepare our stories, to find our voices, to take the stage and to inspire the next generation of artists to dare to dream further and to know that they can achieve what they need to achieve.

In front of us we are creating a generation of multi-racial multi-cultural technically savvy young people who will inevitably create change. My wife is British Jewish, I am British Ghanaian, and we are actually fairly boring in our local community – Brazilians and Japanese, Thai and Congalese, Albanians… let the generation we are creating see themselves and their lives reflected back in the stories they see, read and hear.

Robert Wedderburn’s last words before he died was “I thank god that through a long life of hardship and adversity I have ever been free both in mind and body and have always raised my voice on behalf of my enslaved countryman” He believed the abolition of slavery and the liberation of the British working class were inseperable causes. He fought for both. 

Let us deepen the understanding of each other and through understanding each other’s lives ensure the most important nuanced aspect of our lives becomes visible, shared and celebrated. By telling each other’s stories we all become authenticated, verified and visible for future generations.

We can then say… “These were our times. We were here!”


Revisit tiata delights

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