27 September 2018

Danusia Samal: Reviewing Race

I am writing this to share my perspective and pose a question. I’m curious about people’s thoughts on this.

Reviews. The age-old demon. Artists always have a love/hate relationship with reviews. If they’re good we flog them everywhere as validation of our work. If they’re bad we reject them: “What do they know? I am a TRUE artist, I don’t need their feedback!” Reviews either feed our ego or bruise it, and I don’t find either helpful. This is why I made the decision to avoid them a few years back. On the whole it works fairly well.

That is, until I wrote, staged and took a show to Edinburgh this year. As a new company, we relied on positive press to get an audience. Though I still could not bring myself to read them, I had to be vaguely aware of the critical response to the show.

A bit about the play: Busking It is a semi-autobiographical story inspired by the ten years I spent busking on the London Underground. It’s about the little interactions that give us hope, about reaching out in a lonely city. I play multiple characters I met in London’s Underground tunnels. There is also a thread about my childhood father figure who struggled with the UK asylum process, dehumanised by our government’s ‘hostile environment’. I never mention where this person was from.

A bit about me. I am an actress, writer, and singer of Kurdish and Polish heritage. I’m born here. Looking at me, you might think I am from any number of places. Like many ‘BAME’ artists, I have dealt with the standard nonsense: “Where are you really from? What an exotic mix! You’re so lucky to be ethnically ambiguous! How do I say your name again?” This is partly why I wrote Busking It to be performed by a woman of any race. I wanted the right to tell a story and not have to justify my skin tone onstage. Race is not a topic I mentioned or referenced.

Which is why I was shocked when a friend sent me a quote from a review, which stated the story was about:

“… a young black British woman whose family fractures when her mother’s partner… upped and left.”

… I think they mean me. They mean me, right?

Now, take the obvious lack of fact checking out of the equation (Google my name mate, my ‘cultural credentials’ come up pretty fast!). My race was literally NOT MENTIONED in the play. Not once. So why did this reviewer feel it was important to state? Did he look at me, a vaguely brown (sort of beige really!) woman onstage and think: “This person is different from me. This show must be about the many ways that she is different”?

‘Othering’ a performer because of their cultural background feels very problematic. A reviewer, particularly one working for a leading publication, has a lot of power. They get to decide what shows are hits, what shows are flops, which companies rise to stardom and which disappear without a trace. I think of the countless times I’ve read: “The story of a British Muslim, an Afro-Caribbean woman, a transgender man…” – Is that always what the story is about? Or is it a story about a person who happens to be a minority, and their ‘otherness’ is what the reviewer sees? I think of Quentin Letts’ disgusting comments on Leo Wringer in the RSC’s production of The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich; or the hundreds of quotes describing any female artist who is not Caucasian as ‘exotic’, or ‘feisty’. As we hopefully move towards an era of work that actually reflects the society we live in, doesn’t this attitude of ‘othering’ need to change drastically?

I was uncomfortable with using quotes from this review in any promotion of the show, as I felt the error kind of discredited the writer’s response. But it turned out to be one of Busking It’s better write-ups. From a production and marketing perspective the company had to use it. As I say, we are new and need all the promotion we can get. It’s deeply conflicting. See what I mean about the power?

People may feel I’m overreacting, that this reviewer probably saw a hundred shows and made an honest mistake. This is completely possible. And I am not really offended by people mistaking my heritage. I’m an actor. Kurdish/Polish parts are rare (I know, surprising right?) and I regularly play characters with different backgrounds to my own. But I still question a writer’s motivation for mentioning race in the first place. It’s part of a prevailing attitude in a theatre scene so lacking in diversity the smallest amount of melanin can automatically make you some sort of cultural ambassador. It dictates the kind of work you’re allowed to be in, the kind of work you’re allowed to make, the kind of story you’re allowed to tell. Bit of a shock when you’ve grown up in a culturally diverse city with friends from all over the world. I didn’t really feel like a minority till I became an actor. Suddenly I was in theatres being treated like some sort of rare unicorn because I’ve got a name that’s ‘hard to say’. And I know I’m not the only one whose experienced this.

It’s a complex issue, and there have definitely been leaps forward. I’m not laying all the blame on reviewers, obviously. Nor am I saying that a white male can’t have a culturally sensitive or interesting critical response to a show – of course they can. But I do think categorising plays by the ethnicity of the writer and not the content makes the issue worse. Is more diversity in theatre criticism the answer? It might help. Critics of Colour set up for this very reason. If reviewers were from a wider range of backgrounds, cultures, and sexualities, perhaps we’d have different hit shows, different West End transfers, different unknown actors becoming superstars?

Or maybe not. Maybe good work transcends race, gender, and class? Either way I’d like to find out. Is it time for a revolution?

I don’t have an answer. But I’m intrigued by other people’s stories. Maybe it’s time to share them. Review the reviewer, demand they do their research (seriously mate, Google!) I’ve stayed silent before for fear of seeming bitter or jeopardising my career. But maybe now it’s time to kick up a fuss, like Nicola Coughlan did in her beautiful response to Philip Fisher. I look forward to the discussion!

We’ve since brought the show back to London. I was lucky to have some time to tweak and develop it based on what we discovered in Edinburgh, and I’m looking forward to performing this love song to London in the city where it started. I have also added a line about where I’m from. Partly to aid a story point, partly as a tongue-in-cheek response to this review. Though I wonder – is this is me weakening, feeling the need to explain my background onstage and put people at ease. And if so, is that a real shame?

Danusia is an actress, writer, and singer. Busking It runs at Shoreditch Town Hall from 9th – 20th October

Related Articles

Sign up to our newsletter

To find out first about performances and events