In this blog post, writer and actor Naomi Denny talks about her experience at drama school and how the past two years have affected the development of the show Essentially Black.
In my final year of drama school I got the opportunity to pitch a new show. And I didn’t have a clue what to do. I knew I wanted to write my own script, and I knew I wanted it to be about something I’d experienced, but aside from that I was lost.
So, I decided that I wanted to make a piece about the thing I knew the most – being mixed race. I had seen ‘Hashtag Lightie’ by Lynette Linton, and it was the first show I had seen that spoke to the ‘me’s’ in the world – those who are mixed race, stuck between two different identities.
I also wanted to frame it around the idea of who is allowed in protest spaces. A couple of years prior, during some BLM protests, I had been told by a peer of mine (who was Black) that I shouldn’t go (due to me being mixed race). At the time, it reinforced my core belief about my Blackness, which was that I ‘wasn’t Black enough’. Having been raised in a very white village outside Brighton, I didn’t feel like I knew what it was to be Black, at least not in the way that my mixed race peers who were born and raised in London did.
Whilst researching protests, I came across the Rhodes Must Fall movement. I knew of the South African movement, but I had no idea that it had also taken place at Oxford University. An idea struck me – a mixed race student at Oxford, deemed to be the acceptable face of a movement, both isolated and in the spotlight. With this tiny idea, we headed into rehearsals.
The scratch version went extremely well. Once graduation was done and dusted, I picked up the script and set myself a challenge to finish what I had started. I realised that the story couldn’t just be about one mixed race character – it needed to be about the differences between the Black and mixed race experience, putting lightskin privilege under the lens. When we talk about institutionalised racism and microagressions, we need to talk about the different ways in which these things are perpetuated – and the ways that different ethnic groups experience them.
Jump to 2020, and the project was accepted onto the Pleasance LABS programme. It had become quite a lot for me to carry so I put out a call on twitter as a part of OV connect, and that’s when our producer Imogen came on board. Our family was growing.
Our LABS week went so well. We all learned a lot, the script lost 15 pages, and we had a sell out audience for our WIP showing at the end of the week.
This was 10 days before lockdown 1.
The dreaded C-word. Our scheduled run at Camden Fringe 2020 was pushed back, as with a lot of things. I was obviously gutted, so I put the script to bed for a while, knowing that we had over a year until the next production.
Then, George Floyd happened. Summer 2020 was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Still in strict lockdown, feeling unbelievably helpless, and feeling like I needed to be the voice for lots of people whilst not even knowing whether anything I had to say was valid. I was receiving a lot of messages from my white counterparts – all incredibly well meaning but laced with guilt over past incidents. Debates started being raised around statues and about whether or not we needed them. At this point, I realised that I had unknowingly written a play about something that had now become very topical in the public eye.
We watched the news articles and debates around Cecil Rhodes’ statue carefully. We wanted it removed, and wondered at the same time what it would mean for us and the play we had created if it were to be taken down. However, due to a complicated array of issues raised by Oxford in response to the proposal to take it down, the statue of Cecil Rhodes still stands above the entrance to Oriel College. And probably will for many years to come.
We’ve just finished our rescheduled run at Camden Fringe, where we sold out every night and were turning people away by the final show. I’m so excited and proud to now bring the show to Camden People’s Theatre and be a part of CPT’s Black History Month programme.
I hope the show serves as a gateway for some people as to learning more about what Black and mixed race students face at elite universities, and I hope that for others, it is a moment of visibility for their lived experience.
The people in these stories exist. And I hope this play goes a bit of a way towards making them seen.