Being Black and Irish in Theatre: “I’m Irish, I grew up there, I feel Irish.”

What is it like, being a person of colour in the Irish theatre industry?
Vanessa Manunga

With the new equality-centred criteria for the Oscars, and the anti-racism movements this year, some might have wondered what’s been happening in the Irish theatre industry and if people are experiencing any discrimination there. 

We’ve decided to investigate the issue and reached out to a former actress and a rising star. We also reached out to Irish Equity to check if someone has reported instances of discrimination or racism. 

From the looks of it, people have become more open over the years but this was not always the case. 

Vanessa Manunga, originally from Congo, grew up in Dublin and studied at Liberties College – Bull Alley Theatre Training. She started her professional career in 2008 with Cois Ceim’s dance drama Dodgems during the Dublin Theatre Festival.

“After Dodgems, I kept auditioning,” she said. “I got a few gigs here and there in the theatre.” She also had roles in short movies; however, it was difficult for her to get any lead roles. She worked as an extra in productions. They would call her for that because they didn’t have specific requirements – it was something anybody could do. 

“But then when it comes to lead roles or just roles in general, it’s very rare to have the qualities that I have – required. That was tough in a way of trying to get roles or be the lead in shows.”

Vanessa Manunga

She would go to auditions for big movies and while they would say that they were open for all ethnicities and races, ‘when you get there, you know you’re not gonna get the role’. 

“Ireland is still learning about other races,” she said. “A lot of people have a difficult time accepting Irish people who are black. When I say that, a lot of people would just look at me like that, but I’m like – I’m Irish, I grew up there, I feel Irish.” She feels like Ireland is slowly ‘getting there’.

“They’re trying,” she said, but quickly adds, “they have a long way to go.” 

There’s not much diversity in the industry according to her. “A lot of times I’ve caught myself explaining why I’m Irish because of the colour of my skin. I’ve literally had to explain to producers [who have asked me] why – how do you feel Irish, how long have you been here. I don’t think that should be the case. I don’t think it should be like that. I don’t think that anybody needs to explain their Irishness to that level, before being accepted.”

She doesn’t need to explain herself in Canada where she has recently moved. “And that’s discrimination.”

She hasn’t been intentionally offended by anyone, it’s just that ‘they’re not used to you, your type, your kind’. 

“A lot of my Irish friends – I’m their first black friend. Irish children now have black friends but their parents don’t have that.” It’s only now that society is starting to get used to that. “I felt segregated a lot.”

“There’s a big wall there – unintentional, you know. Irish people are nice people, warm, welcoming but they’re not used to other races and cultures yet. Although they’re nice, they want to, but it’s just there’s that wall that’s making it hard for them to open up and then truly welcome people for who they are.”

They still associate black people with Africa, with developing countries and it’s like they’re a lower part of society – this is what she sensed from living here for 20 years.

That’s one of the reasons why she moved to Canada this spring. She now lives in Montreal and she finds that there are many opportunities for her there. “The doors can be open here in so many areas.” 

She’s long since stopped pursuing her acting career and is working in a bank there. “But I do have the opportunity for more, I also have a media job which I can do in my free time.”

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Edward Dixon, who is still relatively new to the industry, has a much more positive experience. 

When asked what he thinks of discrimination in the industry, if there’s been some progress since Vanessa was last active, he said: “A hundred percent, I think. Thankfully, it’s a lot more open, a lot more diverse now – a lot more accepting. In all my four years, I’ve never once – and I’m so happy to say it – never heard about a bad experience, never had a bad experience.”

Edward has wanted to be an actor since he was a kid but acting hadn’t really been ‘in the script’ until he went to his first year of college and decided to give it his all.

“And I got really lucky, I made a standout.”

Four years ago he got approached and was invited to go to an audition. “The audition was actually kind of scary. It was my first time auditioning for something.” And it wasn’t something small either – it was a play.

“I was really nervous.” He initially thought he hadn’t gotten the role but on the bus on his way home he got a call with the good news. 

The young actor managed to navigate between going to college, studying for exams and going to rehearsals. “But because the passion was there, it wasn’t even hard work.”

He would keep the script in his bag, he had photos of it on his phone, and he would read through it in his free time as well. He was really nervous during the first few rehearsals, especially because he was the youngest (he was around 20 at the time) and everyone was so much more experienced than him. 

But he quickly learned to hold his own. His ‘I have to do this’ became ‘I can do this’. He focused on becoming the best version of his character that he could portray, instead of focusing on how inexperienced he was compared to the rest of the cast.

Edward Dixon.

He’s going into his final year in university now – he’s doing Computer Science and wants to focus on graduating successfully.

“Once I have my degree, I can go follow my acting as much as I want and if – God forbid – if it doesn’t work out, at least I tried and at least I have a fallback plan. But I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be able to make it, if I just keep going for my dream, I’ll achieve it eventually, that’s the way I think anyway.”

He has especially good impressions from working with Smock Alley Theatre. “They were all so lovely – from the second I got in, until the second I left they were nothing but kind to me, always asking if there’s anything they can help with.” When he told them he was nervous – because it was his first break – they helped him feel more comfortable and more confident.

“In everything I’ve done, I’ve never experienced any racism, any lack of rules because of my skin colour. But it might only be me. I’m not saying that the whole industry has changed. Maybe I was just lucky to have those good experiences.” 

Regarding the new Oscar criteria, he said that ‘it has its good and bad sides’. According to him, trying to incorporate equality in everything is the main aim, and it’ll bring more changes and will make it more acceptable for everyone. 

“But, for Ireland, for the areas I’ve been in, I think they’re doing a grade A job. I know some people have felt sidelined because of their gender, colour and background. I feel what they’re feeling but I haven’t experienced it for myself.”

Edward Dixon

Gerard Lee from Irish Equity, the union representing professionals in the live performance and theatre industry in Ireland, said: “I’ve been in touch with other executive members and there have not been any approaches to Equity specifically on racism issues.”

Apparently there was an issue with regard to an actor, Michael Collins, who is a member of the Traveller community, and who was refused service in a pub when in the company of the cast of a RTÉ’s Glenroe, but ‘this was over 20+ years ago, and was not raised at the time with Equity as far as the members can recall’. 

The cast then all left the pub in solidarity and the pub was boycotted in protest. That’s a historical issue. 

“There may be incidents experienced by people who are not members of Equity, and for that reason Equity would not necessarily know,” said the Irish Equity spokesman, “which is why it’s very important for people to join the union and can then get support for any issues that arise.”

Irish Equity will soon release a video promoting diversity and equality and the importance of being a part of a union that would protect your interests. 

We would like to hear your story. Let us know in the comment section below about your experiences with diversity in the theatre industry.

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