We know that ‘white silence is violence’ so this is my attempt to show solidarity and raise my voice in honour of this movement. It is meant with huge respect but I understand that the reaction to it is not in my control. I can only hope that by speaking up I am making a positive contribution to a conversation and a change that has been a long time coming. That is all I ever want to do. Thank you to iCARE for allowing me the platform to share at such an important moment in history.
James Baldwin said: ‘When a child puts his eyes on the world he must use what he sees’.
In my own industry, I have consistently seen the undermining and exclusion of black people in productions and at award ceremonies over many years. The excuses given (if any) to support these decisions when challenged have been desperately hard to take. Hearing the words ‘we’re here to celebrate the DIVERSITY of London theatre’ at an awards show while not seeing a single black woman’s very-deserving performance recognised in the category of best actress (or I think in any category) gave me some small experience of the gaslighting laid upon black actors and actresses (and indeed all actors and actresses of colour) constantly. The host used the word DIVERSITY so loudly and so often that I had to ask my sister that night if I was wrong in my calculations that the ceremony and indeed the industry was biased towards white people. Had I missed something? Surely if they are saying DIVERSITY so often that must mean they’re speaking truth right?! But when 26 actresses who had played a famous part in a musical over the course of 26 years walked out at the end of the show to sing and only ONE was a black woman (the great Sharon D Clarke) it was clear. The industry I love had then and still has now, a long way to go.
This is not to say that I haven’t seen some examples of effort to make changes since then and I have gratitude for that, but it seems to me that there is also an expectation that people of colour should share that gratitude and to me that is a problem. Being represented and claiming their rightful places in an industry and a society that profits massively from their talent and their contributions across the board should not be rewarded with gratitude but with a resounding ‘IT’S ABOUT TIME!’. Seeing film and tv crews (in particular hair and makeup departments) and backstage staff also filled with black women and men and all people of colour should not be the exception it should be the rule.
We have a responsibility now to educate OURSELVES - not to ask the very people who are marginalised and under threat to ease our conscience and help us to feel better about what is happening. It is our turn to play the supporting roles. It is our turn to show up and speak up in support. It is time to give space and have respect, particularly for those out there whose rage is such that it means they have to burn the house to the ground. Expecting that years of oppression and exclusion and scapegoating and murdering and undermining and patronising should result in a tidy little expression of unhappiness is just another example of the need to control and dominate. The rage is real and rightfully placed. It is not going away. It has found a way to be seen, recorded and shared all over the world and looking away will do no good. Look at it and bear witness. Find ways to support the movement and push for change. And if you can’t do that then stay quiet and try to listen in the hope that we can all learn something about how we can do better. Recognise privilege for what it is. Being white makes me privileged. Whatever I achieve as an actress I can guarantee that a black woman will have to work five times as hard to be awarded those same privileges. This is unacceptable. And certainly whatever my struggles are they do not include fearing for my life and my mental health because someone else decides I don’t matter because of the colour of my skin.
I hope now that votes and voices all over the world can be used to ensure that all people in positions of power and privilege across all industries worldwide are called upon to meet a better and much higher standard of operating. There can no longer be racism and dangerous ambivalence in our governments, our industries or in our societies. It is poison.
I cannot possibly understand nor will I ever claim to understand what it is like to fear for my life, my career, my family, my sanity because of my skin colour. So I can only commit to bearing witness and to giving freely of what is needed of me now. I can offer solidarity, respect, space and support. I will speak up, I will listen, I will hear you. I will donate. I will educate myself. I will seek and own my part and where I have failed I commit to doing better. I will march with you. I will kneel with you. I will rage with you. I’m angry too. I will stand with you and for you. I hope every person will. It is time. It has been time for a long time. Dr. Maya Angelou said: ‘When you know better, you do better’. We should have known better and now we need to do better.
Black Lives Matter.
Denise Gough is a two-time Olivier award-winning actress and TONY Nominee for her turns in National Theatre’s People, Places & Things, and Angels in America. In film, she starred in The Other Lamb, and Colette. Soon she will be going to a galaxy far far away, in the Disney+ Rogue One prequel series.