Theatre boss defends controversial appointment on BME directors' scheme


The theatre company which gave a job targeted at ethnic minorities to a man who identifies as black, but was apparently born to white parents, has defended its decision.

Michael Buffong, the artistic director of the east London-based Talawa Theatre Company, issued a statement on Thursday “to set the record straight” after a week of debate and, he said, “misleading information”.

Buffong appointed Anthony Ekundayo Lennon as Talawa’s trainee associate director as part of a publicly funded programme to help theatre practitioners of colour. Lennon applied as a person of mixed heritage. It emerged at the weekend that Lennon had described his parents as white Irish.

“I have always been aware of Anthony’s unique and complicated story,” said Buffong. “For my generation, and when Talawa started as a company in 1986, there was a spirit of inclusivity which meant that he was accepted by many, inside the organisation and externally, as a person of mixed heritage.”



Anthony Ekundayo Lennon.

Buffong said he appointed Lennon on that basis. He also took legal advice about whether Lennon was eligible for the Artistic Director Leadership Programme. “From the advice I was given, because of the complex nature of his case, he was deemed to still be eligible.”

The story has triggered much debate about identity politics, something Buffong said he viewed as a positive.

“I welcome the debate around identity and, while I am no arbiter of that debate, surely we must acknowledge that there are nuances and grey areas.”

Buffong expressed concern that the story was being hijacked by people who attack the validity of funding for BME practitioners “at a time when power structures are lurching towards even more exclusion of marginalised communities”.

He says Lennon receives a fee that is standard across the industry for a trainee role, pro rata, for the three days a week he works at Talawa. Buffong stressed that in this “unique” case there had been no attempt to mislead any funders “or to deny anyone else considered more valid a place”.

He added: “Equality and representation do not have fixed parameters, they change over time. Under my leadership, Talawa Theatre Company fights to ensure a diversity of art and artists across the creative industries. We will continue to strive to make a valuable contribution to the cultural life of the UK.”

Lennon’s traineeship has also been supported by Arts Council England, which funds the scheme. In a statement it 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 minority ethnic people within the theatre sector.”

Lennon, an actor with more than 30 years’ experience, has not commented on the story.

He discussed his identity in a scripted episode of the BBC series Everyman broadcast in the early 1990s titled Chilling Out. The synopsis for the show reads: “Anthony Lennon was born in Kilburn, west London. His parents both come from Ireland and are both indisputably white.

“Anthony now earns his living as a black actor, because ever since he was a child he has looked black. When his friends, who are mostly black, find out about his background, fierce debates invariably follow; about whether Anthony really can call himself black, and about what black skin means to those who are born black.”



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