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This page was last updated on 02/03/2007 16:27:41

 

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Reflections of a firebrand
02 March 2007

Louis Mahoney - photo by Keith Pattison

Abigail Dunn meets actor Louis Mahoney, currently performing in generations at the Young Vic. A founder of the Black Theatre Workshop, Mahoney has a long history of anti-racist activism.

The London borough of Hampstead is today indelibly linked with a certain type of wealthy, artistically inclined liberalism. That an actor should live among gastropubs, exclusive children's clothes shops and cafés is no surprise: the area is teeming with thespians. Louis Mahoney may not be the most famous of Hampstead's residents, but this actor, writer and activist is very much of the place, having lived there since the 1970s, when it was a fertile home for bedsitting students, writers and actors. It was in Hampstead that Mahoney forged a friendship with writer and Tate consultant Mike Phillips, which led to the establishment of the Black Theatre Workshop (BTW), and it is here that I meet him to discuss acting, his long history of anti-racist activism and his latest play, generations.

Gambian-born Mahoney originally studied to be a doctor, but ditched medical school and instead became one of a small number of black drama school students in the 1970s. Although he achieved success as a performer, Phillips remembers him as being in an 'exceptional' position: he won TV roles, and was also a well-known and forceful campaigner for racial equality within the industry – first as a member of the Equity Afro-Asian Committee (which he renamed from its original title of the Coloured Actors Committee) and later as co-creator, with Phillips, of the BTW in 1976.

Mahoney says they were inspired by the awareness that black performers were being thwarted at every stage of their careers

The BTW was developed to create opportunities for non-white performers and to broaden awareness of African culture. Mahoney says they were inspired by the awareness that black performers were being thwarted at every stage of their careers. 'It was at that period we felt not enough roles were been given [to non-white actors]. Drama schools were saying things like "we can't find them" and careers advisory centres were saying to kids at school that there was no point applying for drama school because there aren't any Asian or black characters on television or stage. So we felt we had to go into the community and at least try and do something and let kids know they could actually do it.'

Phillips believes the BTW was most successful as a lobbying organisation, challenging the Arts Council over the necessity of funding to support black and Asian theatre. It was this willingness to argue a case that defined Mahoney's work as an Equity council member, where he was instrumental in pushing things forward. When casting directors said they 'couldn't find' non-white actors, the Afro-Asian Committee put together a directory of all ethnic minority performers, which is still in place today. As Mahoney explained: 'That meant they had no excuses.'

During the 1970s, Mahoney was also active in the anti-apartheid movement, motivated by his meeting with a delegation from South Africa who wanted to buy BBC programmes but insisted: 'we want BBC programmes but we don't want any blacks in them, and if there are any blacks in them they have to be like they are in South Africa: servants or gardeners'. He worked on the campaign for an Equity ban on performing in, or selling television programmes to, the regime. To achieve this, he helped to form the breakaway group Performers Against Racism, developed to circumvent Equity rules prohibiting political campaigning.

Louis Mahoney - photo by Keith Pattison

With the support of actors like Prunella Scales, Glenda Jackson and Hugh Manning, the group managed to get the ban passed by Equity, but Mahoney feels this activism may have cost him in terms of his career. 'I thought it had some negative feedback as people were looking at me as being political and it might have affected some opportunities I had', he explains. 'But I never worried about that as I came from a particular background which meant that there was no problem for me to say 'I don't like that word' or whatever and I was a bit outspoken.'

It may be the case that being outspoken undermined his career, but it is also noticeable that there are few prominent ethnic minority actors of his generation. This, he claims, is the result of an industry which was largely unwelcoming to them. And he feels there is still a shortage of opportunities for black and Asian performers today. 'Even though there have been better roles and more appearances by Afro-Caribbean characters, there has been no sustaining of it.

'People still see a black person in theatre or films as suggesting some black problem. It has to be about that, he can never just be a very good doctor or a very good teacher who happens to be black.'

where are the role models for [ethnic minority] kids to show them that they too can aspire to become something?

Mahoney believes the lack of opportunities for black actors is a reflection of wider society, which provides only limited options for young black people. Asked if he felt there was a new generation of people willing to fight for equality in the way he and his generation did, he says: 'Kids no longer have playing fields where they could expend their energies. I remember being part of a youth club movement where we would go after school. Similarly, where are the role models for [ethnic minority] kids to show them that they too can aspire to become something?'

In generations, the play Mahoney is currently performing in at the Young Vic in London, three generations of actors explore the effects of the Aids epidemic in South Africa. He is perfectly cast as the grandfather who sees his family decimated, and who is transformed from jovial patriarch to sorrowful old man. But unlike the character he plays, Mahoney has maintained his fighting spirit. There is a fitting circularity to his situation: having previously fought against apartheid, now he is taking to the stage to highlight the new crisis facing South Africa. He hopes the play will 'make sure people in the rest of the world realise how serious this disease is, and make sure they help South Africa and maybe Africa as a whole'.

Mahoney may no longer be a firebrand, but he is still a vigorous believer in theatre's potential to improve society: he thinks it has the power to play an important corrective role in society. Asked if he had a message for young actors, he says: 'Keeping theatre alive means that you have a chance of reflecting on the society you are living in, the things that are happening, whilst you are still alive in that society. Any society that stops reflecting on language or on the mirrors of looking at itself becomes a dead society.

'For young actors, I would say it's tough, it's difficult, but you can survive.'

Like his neighbourhood, Mahoney is a less rough-and-ready version of his 1970s self, but he is still fighting for the same things he was when Hampstead was a maze of bedsitters.

Abigail Dunn is a writer for the Commission for Racial Equality

1 Comment
do u have a play or drama of afro-asian?
marlou joy
23 August 2007


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Links

generations review: Catalyst review of the play at the Young Vic

generations: information on the production at the Young Vic

Theatre: all of Catalyst's theatre-related content


Commission for Racial Equality

Publisher of Catalyst Magazine, the CRE works to create a just and integrated society, where diversity is valued.

openDemocracy

Independent political discussion and debate based on exchange and participation.

Prospect Magazine

A political magazine, Prospect also includes features on arts and culture, science, economics, history, social affairs and philosophy.

Runnymede Trust

The Runnymede Trust promotes a successful multi-ethnic Britain.

Institute of Race Relations

The Institute of Race Relations is a race relations thinktank.

EUMC

The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Social policy research and development.

For more links, see our new links page.

Search Catalyst

Search For:


Promote Catalyst

If you are able to promote Catalyst in your workplace, university etc, please download our poster, a pdf which can be printed at A4 or A3 size.

Small print

Contributor and illustrator information

Articles published in Catalyst do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Commission for Racial Equality.

For advertising or editorial enquiries, please .

rss logo | What is RSS?

This page was last updated on 02/03/2007 16:27:41

 

© Commission for Racial Equality 2007

 

CRE 30 years logo