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Anthony Ekundayo Lennon remembers the moment his life spun out of control. It was late morning, Friday 2 November 2018. The actor and director was giving a talk about the performing arts to university students, and his phone kept flashing. It was so incessant that the students suggested he’d better take a look. He told them it wouldn’t be anything important, turned the phone over and got on with his lecture. When the class broke for lunch, he saw missed calls from Talawa theatre company, where he had been working for the past year, as well as several unknown numbers and messages.
One text stood out. It was from a journalist at the Sunday Times, asking for a comment on a story the paper was preparing to run about Lennon’s place on a prestigious scheme – the artistic director leadership programme (ADLP) for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) theatre practitioners. Lennon had been awarded an 18-month residency with Talawa, Britain’s best-known black-led theatre company. He scrolled down the text.
“It does seem striking that neither the ADLP nor the Talawa has ever made clear that you are a white man,” the journalist wrote, adding: “Why has neither Talawa theatre or the ADLP programme made clear that you have received BAME funding as a white man with Irish parents?” Lennon decided not to respond. It was true that his parents were white, but this was no secret; nor was the fact that he believed he had African heritage. He had always been treated by people as mixed race, and so identified as a person of mixed heritage. “I didn’t think I had anything to answer,” he tells me now. We’re sitting in a pub in north London. “Talawa knew about my being of mixed heritage while having white parents. I’ve never not spoken about it.”
Two days after Lennon received the text, the Sunday Times published its story, accusing Lennon of “passing” as black. “A theatre director who has won funds meant for ‘people of colour’ has admitted his parents and grandparents were all white,” ran the introduction, going on to quote one unnamed black actor who had expressed disquiet: “When I discovered his background, I thought it was unfair that a white man had taken a black person’s place on a BAME scheme.” The article compared Lennon to Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the US, who claimed she was black despite having white parents, and when challenged in 2015, argued that “the idea of race is a lie”.
Lennon was floored. “I call it the hit,” he says. “It really did feel like an assassination – a character assassination.” But there was more to come. The story was picked up by other journalists, and Lennon was portrayed as a conman who had cheated his way to the top at the expense of people of colour. As a dramatic plot, it appeared to have everything: hubris, nemesis, mistaken identity, even the occasional hint of comedy.
The Sun suggested that Lennon had chosen to identify as black because he had “curly hair” and had struggled to find decent parts as an actor. The Daily Mail pointed to the £406,500 Arts Council grant shared between the four recipients of the ADLP award and suggested that Lennon had cheated the taxpayer. The Mirror said he had won the grant “because he believes everyone is African”. It was true that British theatre, like much of the arts world, was, and is, disproportionately white: the Independent published data showing that, in 2016-17, people from BAME backgrounds made up just 8% of chief executives, 10% of artistic directors and 10% of theatre chairs; Lennon’s award, it argued, was “a kick in the teeth” for practitioners of colour. Trevor Phillips, former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, told the Telegraph: “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.”
Apart from the friends and colleagues closest to him (both Talawa and the Arts Council stood by Lennon, arguing that they had never been misled), he found himself damned right across the political spectrum. He was hardly a household name, but as an actor with 30 years’ experience – much of it with black theatre groups – he was well-respected within the industry, and starting to show promise as a director. But overnight he had become a pariah.
Lennon wrote a column for the Guardian, explaining that the Sunday Times had misrepresented him – but refused all other requests for comment. The controversy was taking its toll. He went to ground, took time off work, and came very close to taking his own life.
Ten months on, Lennon has chosen to tell his story for the first time. Rather than trying to “pass” as black, he says, he has spent a lifetime failing to pass as white – from babyhood to the present day. And many years ago he decided to embrace that – to live with the identity the rest of the world persisted in giving him.
Lennon first calls me out of the blue in July. We have never met, but a mutual friend has suggested he get in touch. He outlines his story, and says he has just received information that sheds new light on his racial identity. He sounds nervous, and asks if we can meet.
A few days later, we get together for a coffee. Lennon, aged 53, has an extraordinary face – sculpted cheekbones, caterpillar eyebrows, flared nostrils, piercing blue eyes. These days his head is shaved, but as a child and young man he had an afro; that was the way his hair grew naturally. He shows me a series of photographs. Here he is with his younger brother, Vincent, aged six and four – two cute, gap-toothed, mixed-race boys, or so you would assume. There he is at 18, body-popping with his all-black crew in London. And in his early 20s, as a politicised young man with a big afro worn under his black leather beret. Sometimes he looks black, sometimes mixed race. The one thing he doesn’t look is white.
We agree to meet again in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile he emails and texts me regularly, almost obsessively – notes, mini essays, childhood recollections, most of them painful. He remembers being with Vincent in a cupboard upstairs, hiding from the prying neighbours who had come round for a nosy at the two strange children; friends asking where his black parent was; the school caretaker threatening to set dogs on him and telling him, “Run, nigger.”
Almost a year into his stint at Talawa, Lennon says he was warned by the company’s artistic director Michael Buffong that a number of people weren’t happy about him winning the award, but he didn’t think much about it. Nobody had said anything to him, and he assumed any mutterings would subside.
When the story broke last year, Buffong released a statement saying, “I have always been aware of Anthony’s unique and complicated story. 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.” The Arts Council backed this up, arguing: “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.” Forty-eight prominent black artists and activists wrote to the Guardian in support of Lennon, including Michaela Coel, Clarke Peters, Roy Williams and Lennon’s friend, the actor and writer Lennie James. Lennon shows me a text he recently received from James: “I just want to check in to make sure you’re good and looking after yourself. Remember you don’t have to say, answer or justify yourself to anyone. Those who know you know you. If people aren’t ready for the nuance of the conversation, you may just have to wait for them to catch up. Don’t get dragged back. I’m thinking of you, my friend. Be strong.”
Lennon was anything but strong, though. The allegation that he was a fraud was devastating. All his life, he says, his mother had worked to instill in him her core values: don’t lie, say please and thank you, don’t bring police to my door. And here he was, accused not only of living a lie but of making money out of it.
His first worry was the impact the accusation would have on her. “I saw a look in my mum’s eyes when she was telling me about the reporters knocking on her door or loitering around the back. I’d never seen her looking so frightened and so confused. I felt completely helpless and I wanted to take it all away.” His voice rises, and he starts crying. “From the moment I was born, I used to feel I’d damaged my family – that my arrival was like a bomb had gone off.” It had taken him so long to feel OK about himself, and now he felt he’d done the worst thing possible: he made life difficult for his mother.
When I ask Lennon why he is so sure that he is not the result of an affair, he smiles and says he knows his mother. But there is more to it than that; his two younger brothers also looked mixed race, the youngest less strikingly so. But Lennon asks if I really believe that his mother would have such a long-term affair, given the hostility she faced. She told him that when he was a baby, people would stare at the two of them in the street – if they were lucky. “Some would shout at her from the other side of the road, some would spit, some would throw stones at the pram. But we’re talking the 60s – Enoch Powell, teddy boys, skinheads,” he says. Even his grandmother told him he was a curse on the family, and sent him to bed clutching rosary beads so he could pray for forgiveness. A Sunday school worker chastised him for using a light brown pencil when drawing a picture of himself and Vincent; maybe they looked the way they did because they had been bad when they were younger, he said.
His mother hated talking about “it” – the bewildering appearance of her boys – so she didn’t. As an adult, Lennon discovered that his father had accused her of having an affair. He says his appearance must have created such tension, he is amazed they stayed together for so long – until he was 12. “How do you apologise for accusing your partner of having an affair when they didn’t?” he asks. “And if you’re the mother of this child and you’ve got all these fingers pointing at you, the pain that must have come with that…” He trails off. While he and his brothers looked mixed race, they also resembled their father. Lennon says he doesn’t like to use the word, but can’t think of another that does the job: he believes he is a “throwback”. Yes, his family is white as far back as he can go – but he is sure that there is African ancestry somewhere.
At school, Lennon says, most of his friends were black or mixed race. He doesn’t know why he always gravitated towards people of colour – and they towards him. Back then, he didn’t have either the language or perspective to describe what was happening. He has some happy memories of that time: the school friend who snuck him an afro comb in solidarity; the neighbors who cooked him and Vincent African-Caribbean food and sorted out their hair on Saturdays; the ticket collector at the underground station letting him sit on the tall stool inside his ticket box, because he looked like his son; the friends who called him “Sidders”, after Sidney Poitier, when he told them he wanted to be an actor.
As teenagers, both Lennon and Vincent developed nervous tics. He says that Vincent struggled with his identity, but in a different way; he couldn’t understand why Anthony embraced his “blackness”. Vincent became a skinhead and petty criminal, and suffered from depression. At the age of 19, he died after a terrible incident on a train: a door opened and he fell on to the tracks. That day, he had phoned their mother to tell her that he loved her – something he rarely, if ever, did. An investigation into Vincent’s death (in which a witness described him as “half-caste”) concluded that there was no fault with the door, and Lennon has always been convinced that his brother intended to take his own life. “I was devastated by his death, and still am.”
As a teenager, Anthony found his home in drama classes. He loved acting and decided he was going to make a career of it. But as soon as he turned professional, he realised the range of roles he was being offered was limited. “Casting directors often told my agent that there were no parts for mixed-race characters,” he says. Again and again, the same roles came up: loud, aggressive men, running into trouble or away from the law. Often the characters were criminals; occasionally, they were victims of a miscarriage of justice.
He started to turn down roles because of the negative stereotypes. One part he did accept was in The Bill, playing a young man falsely accused of robbery: “The only reason I did it was because my character wasn’t guilty.” He watched the clip again recently and was reminded how many of the characters he played were the butt of racism. “At one point the police officer says to my character, ‘We know it’s you because we’ve got a set of prints.’ I say, ‘Fingerprints?’ and he replies, ‘No, lip prints.’”
Lennon says that, more than anything else, it was the prejudice he experienced as a child and young adult that made him want to identify as black. The Sunday schoolteacher and his own grandmother may have thought his appearance was something to be ashamed of, but he didn’t. If their attitudes were representative of being white, he was happy to renounce his whiteness.
In 1990, Lennon appeared in a TV play called Chilling Out, as part of the BBC’s Everyman slot. He sends me a link: it’s a brilliantly nuanced exploration of race, class and identity, in which seven young actors – including Lennie James – talk about the “experience and spirit of being black” in Britain. Although the actors played themselves and the scenes began with improvisation, the end result was a scripted docudrama. When Lennon is asked about his backstory, he says he is from Ireland. The other actors nod approvingly, and ask which island. “No,” he says, “Ireland, Ireland”, and goes on to explain that both his parents are white. The others look at him astonished and suggest he is in denial about his blackness; there are jokes about his mother and the milkman.
The conversation moves on: if it is true that his parents are white, is he in denial, his fellow actors ask. Is race an objective truth, or a construct based on what others see in you, and what you see in the mirror? Lennon is asked how he himself identifies. He looks bashful, and says he has never talked about this before. “When I’m alone in my bedroom looking in the mirror, thinking about stuff I’ve written down, thinking about my past, relationship-wise, pictures on the wall, I think I’m a black man. I’ve not said that to anyone. And I won’t say it outside.” James tells the group he has seen Lennon changing over the six years of their friendship, and is puzzled by it. “Sometimes I feel like you are watching me,” he says. “Watching me to say, this equals a black man. Then you’re taking it from me and sticking it on yourself.”
When the Sunday Times story appeared, Chilling Out was cited as evidence that Lennon was a fraud, with James quoted as a witness for the prosecution. For Lennon, this was a deliberate misreading – of him, of James, of their friendship. At the time the drama was made, James had known about Lennon’s parentage for years. Perhaps more importantly, Lennon says, it should be obvious to anybody watching Chilling Out that the other actors were eager to help him make peace with his complex identity, rather than accuse him of cultural misappropriation.
Soon after making Chilling Out, Lennon decided to change his name formally. Anthony David Lennon did not reflect who he was, he thought, so he became Soweto Alkebulan Ekundayo: Soweto because his friend and mentor Paul Kinch had a son called Soweto (now a celebrated saxophonist); Alkebulan because it is said to be the earliest name for Africa; Ekundayo because he liked the sound of the Yoruba name, and discovered it meant “weeping becomes joy”. He started reading literature about black culture and politics, withdrew from the acting world and moved to Manchester, where he dedicated himself to developing his political consciousness. He read up on the history of British imperialism. “I’d be lying if I said all the literature I read was about loving black culture – some was derogatory about white people. I just wanted to read stories by black people, about black culture and history.”
He had two daughters, who are now in their 20s – one is a dancer, the other works in the film industry – and named the oldest Soweto, too. Lennon’s mother continued to call him Anthony, but quietly embraced his African identity. His father, who died in 1999, thought Lennon had lost the plot. “One of the last conversations I had with Dad was him saying, ‘As far as I’m concerned you’re white and I think you’ve got an identity problem.’”
Some time after changing his name, he met the educational consultant Paul Wilson-Eme, who went on to have a huge influence on him. Wilson-Eme asked him why he had called himself Soweto. Lennon mentioned the obvious: the associations with South Africa, black pride, the uprising. Wilson-Eme asked him if he knew what Soweto meant. “To my shame I had no answer. Then he filled in the missing gaps – it stands for South West Township. Then he said, ‘I love you, my brother, but I think you need to check in with yourself as to why you have named yourself that.’” So he simply became Ekundayo. Then he changed his name legally again, choosing Taharka as a first name.
His agent got in touch and said that directors were still keen to hire him, but there was a problem: if he returned to acting as Taharka Ekundayo, there would be too much explaining to do. “She said, ‘Why don’t we compromise – bring Anthony Lennon back, and put Ekundayo in the middle? Casting directors will know it’s the same old Anthony Lennon, but Ekundayo is there out of respect for your ancestry.”
And so began his fifth, and happiest, incarnation – as Anthony Ekundayo Lennon. He returned to the theatre, working largely for black-led companies, and segued from acting to directing. For two decades, he lived easy in his skin – a man with white parents, unknown African ancestry, and many friends, none of whom questioned his right to be who he said he was. When I ask if he ever considered he might not meet the criteria for the Talawa award, he says no: “To doubt my eligibility would be akin to doubting my existence.”
After the story broke, Lennon tells me people pointed at him in public places. I can’t help thinking of the little boy and his mother who were demonised in the streets 50 years ago. “It was surreal and scary, and the start of many panic attacks and sleepless nights,” he says. His worst childhood memories returned.
He says he reached his nadir soon afterwards. “I’m going to be totally up front with you. There’s a little part of me that knows I don’t want to say this next bit, because I worry about what family and friends will think.” He sips from the pint of strawberry and lime lager he’s been nursing for two hours. “I went to a tube station. I took myself to the mouth of the tunnel and looked at the tracks. I just felt I didn’t want any of this any more. I didn’t want the toxicity, the pain, the accusations. I was imagining everything my dad went though, my mum, my brother. I came so close.”
In the end, he says, what stopped him was thinking about his mother and his daughters. He sweeps away a tear. “And this is a message for anybody else thinking about it: force yourself to think about somebody you love, or who would desperately miss you if you are no longer there. Find a reason not to do it, then don’t. Let the next morning arrive.” He repeats the last sentence, more to himself than to me. “Let the next morning arrive.”
He returned to work and saw out his contract at Talawa, which ended a couple of weeks ago. During his final months he mentored young artists, directed a reimagined Othello called Men Are Not Gods, and continued to learn the craft of running a theatre company. It’s been a tough year, but he says Buffong and other staff have always been supportive.
Would he have qualms about working for a black-led theatre company in the future? “No!” He sounds appalled. “I’ll work with anyone who wants to have a conversation with me, anyone who’s interested in telling stories. I’d really like to direct plays, please, and lead a company. That’s why I was put on the artistic directors’ programme in the first place.”
I ask him about the news he mentioned when he first called me a couple of months ago. Lennon smiles and whips out an envelope containing the results of an ancestry DNA test he recently took. It shows his genetic makeup, country by country: 46% Irish and Scottish, 22% from England, Wales and north-western Europe. He points me to the last stat: 32% West African. The science of ancestry DNA testing is not infallible, but it feels like a significant result. Does he feel vindicated? “All it’s done for me is confirmed in data what I’ve always known.” Some time in the future, he will trace those African roots right back through his family. But for now only one thing matters to him – that they are there.