Brits browned off by white ‘racial imposter’ director
'African born-again' benefited from grant meant for 'theatre practitioners of colour'
A white theatre director, who describes himself as an “African born-again”, has come under fire after securing public funding intended to help ethnic minorities develop their stage careers.
Anthony Lennon, 53, who was born in London and whose parents are Irish, won a place on a two-year Arts Council-funded scheme after a leading black theatre company accepted his claim to be of “mixed heritage”.
He was one of four “theatre practitioners of colour” to be awarded part of a £400,000 talent development grant.
But Lennon has been accused of being a “racial imposter” after it emerged that despite changing his name to Taharka Ekundayo at one point, he is unquestionably white.
The company involved, Talawa, one of the UK’s leading black theatre groups, last night defended its position, insisting Lennon was an “exceptional” person for the role.
In a statement, a Talawa spokesperson said: “As an artist of mixed heritage, he is not only eligible for the position, but his experience, work and achievements make him an exceptional person for the role.”
But Trevor Phillips, the former chair of the UK’s Commission for Racial Equality, said allowing people to self-identify on matters of race inevitably meant members of the black, Asian and ethnic minority (Bame) community lost out.
Lennon was born in Paddington, west London, in 1965 to Irish parents who emigrated to Britain in the 1950s.
His father, Patrick, was born in Waterford, while his mother Josephine O’Brien was raised in Tralee.
He had two brothers, and despite their white Irish heritage, they all had dark complexions and curly hair.
Writing about his experiences as a child in the racially tense London of the late 1960s, Lennon claimed he was regularly subjected to misdirected racist abuse and, as a result, began to identify with black culture.
After launching his career as an actor, Lennon said he struggled to get parts for white characters and had more success landing black roles.
In the book Photo ID, he argued: “Everybody on the planet is African. It’s your choice as to whether you accept it.”
He later wrote: “Some people call themselves a born-again Christian. Some people call me a born-again African. I prefer to call myself an African born again.”
He has also talked about going through the “struggles of a black actor”.
But he has at times also acknowledged his true ethnic heritage, telling a BBC documentary in 1990: “My parents are white, and so are their parents, and so are their parents, and so are their parents.”
There is no suggestion Lennon tried to mislead anyone. A spokesperson for the Arts Council said: “Talawa raised their wish to support Anthony with us. In responding we took into account the law in relation to race and ethnicity.
“This is a very unusual case, and we do not think it undermines the support we provide to black and ethnic minority people within the theatre sector.”
But critics have blasted the decision, accusing Lennon of taking up a position that should have gone to someone from the Bame community.
Trevor Phillips said: “Institutions are so desperate these days to show how inclusive they are on issues of self-identification that I’m afraid I saw something like this coming.
“The problem is of course that the people who lose out are the minorities. White liberals are so desperate to show how lovely they are to minorities that they do things that end up causing more harm.
“We should be doing more to help individuals of talent from black and ethnic minority communities, and we cannot do that if the few opportunities that exist are going to white people who are self-identifying as something else.
Habeeb Akande, a writer on race issues, said: “Many of us are becoming sick and tired of racial imposters who are commodifying blackness for their own financial gain. You cannot wear the cloak of blackness when it suits you.”
Lennon could not be contacted for comment.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited