I live in London, a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities. It is a place where anything goes and where people of different ethnicities have always mixed, loved and married.
However, today the binary black and white notion of race is being challenged by the younger generation. They are choosing for themselves where they sit on the colour spectrum and how they self-identify. No longer will they accept other people labelling them.
Many are choosing to self-identify as mixed-race rather than black, which is causing a real debate in the black community here. This has many consequences for individuals struggling to determine where they fit in society, or what side to take.
The debate has been spurred on this week by the announcement of the engagement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who is widely described in the media as being of mixed race.
Every now and again a new play appears on the scene which creates huge excitement and generates great emotion. Hashtag Lightie is one such production, and it reflects a new and emerging zeitgeist.
Lynette Linton’s wonderful play, currently running in the Arcola Theatre in north London, couldn’t have been better timed. This is a quintessential London mixed-race story and, as such, the timing or location didn’t come as a great surprise to me. What did surprise me was the brilliance at turning what is a difficult topic about race into an entertaining art form with plenty of humour.
But why would an Irish man abroad bother to write about this play? I saw the elephant in the room that few picked up on.
At the end of the play, the director Rikki Beadle-Blair led a Q&A session for the diverse audience. When I mentioned, from the seating area, that I was Irish and mixed, I got a loud round of laughter. This happened once again when I said the Irish didn’t get great “press” in this play.
This, of course, was all tongue-in-cheek as I myself laughed along with the crowd. I was being provocative as I wanted to draw out what I saw as an important aspect of the play that was touched on, but not extensively explored.
The play centres around Ella (played by Adele James), the protagonist, who is addicted to social media and selfies. Her mother is black and father is white and from Ireland.
She has an older sister Melissa (played by Grace Cookey-Gam), and another brother and sister who are twins, Aaron (played by Davon Anderson) and Aimee (played by Sophie Leonie).
These four mixed race siblings are second generation Irish. They are part of what we now like to call the Irish diaspora. By virtue of their father, they are Irish citizens. The reality is there are mixed families like this in the UK who are uncomfortable about expressing their Irish heritage/identity. There are even people of mixed ethnicities in Ireland who are uncomfortable. Why?
The play gives us a clue when Aaron, who wanted to express his Irish side, describes being violently abused on a visit to Ireland: “The first time he took us there ... he said we were Irish too. Being up there surrounded by all those ‘yutes’, that was the first time I ever felt scared. I realised that my skin meant I wasn’t safe in a place that was supposedly part of me.”
This reminded me of the story of Chi Chi Nwanoku, the Irish Nigerian double bassist and founder of Chineke Orchestra in the UK, who said in The Irish Times in 2014, “But mother would never bring us back, she was terrified that people would be rude to us because of our skin.”
“She hadn’t been back to Ireland in 36 years, didn’t know how she’d be received: she was kind of abandoned by her family after she met and married my father, an Igbo from east Nigeria, in London.”
It also reminded me of the great work Rosemary Adaser has been doing for years to raise awareness of mixed race issues through the Association of Mixed Race Irish, which she founded.
This play touched a nerve for me on many levels and brought up several poignant issues for the audience.
The danger of social media was excellently played out by the main character Ella. She moved gracefully around the floor in all her beauty, with her iPhone projecting her selfie image on a large screen in the background for the audience to see.
Her online video presence and YouTube channel, called Hashtag Lightie, was used to promote her beauty care products and give beauty tips to her online “friends”. But as time goes by, her obsession with her mixed race beauty becomes divisive and fuels online hatred and abuse.
This puts her life in danger as she antagonises people with ideas of light-skinned privilege. The audience experiences the raw nature of racial abuse meted out online from all sides in response. Be prepared for strong language.
The reality of the online danger for mixed race people was seen in Balbriggan in August 2012 when Darren Gibson-Hughes, a 17-year-old of mixed race, took his own life. His mother claimed at the coroner’s hearing that his suicide was caused by cyberbullying and online abuse because of his mixed race.
This play gives some crucial insights into the everyday experience of being mixed race, from the perspectives of the four siblings, as well as the associated derogatory language and labels used.
There is Melissa’s struggle to advance her literary and publishing career in the face of discrimination and unconscious bias. There is too Aaron’s anger at his school’s failure to acknowledge his fatherhood over his own child. Aimee faces pressure to take sides on the colour line, and her black fiancé labels her “my Caramel Queen”. She is frustrated, too, at being told by him that she is not “Black-Black”.
Then there is David, Melissa’s white boyfriend, who simply doesn’t understand how she feels about her identity and the effect it has on her.
There is plenty of discussion around race, class, identity, marriage and shadism. All this makes for a hugely entertaining, hilarious and educational play about a second-generation Irish mixed race family.
I think the Irish undertones could have been explored and accentuated more. But then Rikki has a real balancing act here.
However, there is the untold story of the father’s emigration from Ireland and how his family treated him on hearing the news of his falling in love with a black woman in London and having mixed race children. He died when the children were young but perhaps this play could be expanded for the Irish audience in Dublin, where I was born to mixed parents.
This play will most likely be difficult for many to watch, especially if given a more Irish slant.
What it could do is to act as a forum for minority communities through the Q&A sessions. It could open the conversation about how women were treated in Ireland for many years (as far back as the 1940s), when they fell in love with a black man, and what happened to them and their children.
It could also explore themes relevant to today’s young mixed communities living in Ireland, particularly school children. It could help illuminate the story of mixed race for white Irish people in an entertaining way.
The 2016 Irish census revealed that ‘Other black’ population increased by 6 per cent and “Other” increased by 73 per cent since 2006. The “Other” non-white community has increased significantly.
This changing demographic is pointing to an emerging zeitgeist in Ireland around diversity, as in the UK, that needs to be tapped into. This outstanding play could act as the catalyst for bring the communities together in conversation, and it would be well worthwhile bringing it to audiences in Ireland.
Conrad Bryan is treasurer of Irish in Britain, irishinbritain.org