Writing About People Like Us: Part 1
The world I grew up in is not the world that’s out there now.
Every year there’s a competition among young BAME actors in America to perform the best monologues by August Wilson, whose ten-play ’20th century’ cycle is the gold standard by which black actors are judged. Although not well-known in the UK, his polemical plays contain powerful speeches grounded by authentic voices hitherto unrepresented. Inevitably the monologues cover big themes; childhood, family, love, God and history.
In the documentary ‘Giving Voice’ some of the young black US actors chosen to represent their schools explain what Wilson’s monologues mean to them, and it’s clear that many feel their hopes, dreams and opinions are being expressed for the first time in voices that they recognise in life.
There’s a move away from fantastical escapism at the moment in favour of realistic drama featuring characters the young can relate to. The nominations list for this year’s British Academy films is a triumphant vindication of the decision to shake things up, as films like ‘Rocks’, ‘Sound of Metal’ and ‘His House’ bring diverse experience into the big awards for the first time.
As writers mature they inevitably lose touch with life’s early simplicities. We can stay relevant but it’s harder to find the right voices. I’ve always been a fan of non-naturalistic writing, especially in plays, but it’s very much out of fashion these days and I have trouble relating to the new realism, partly because I have no dealings with the young, how they speak and feel.
An example; An Ipsos MORI poll of sexual orientation across generations recently found that 84% of baby boomers (aged 55-75) described themselves as heterosexual. The figure was 72% for Gen X (41-55), 60% for millennials (25-40) and 54% for Gen Z (under-25). But how can you talk to the young about that? How would someone of 19 be comfortable talking to a 67 year-old stranger? The world I grew up in is not the world that’s out there now.
I was raised in a time when the only black male you saw in a film was a pimp, a junkie or Sidney Poitier. As for gay representation, we were stuck with the sinister killers Mr Wint and Mr Kidd, sexless John Inman and Larry Grayson. We were told that to be artistic was to be feminised and rendered useless. There were just two acceptable careers for a writer; you could go into advertising or journalism, both of which I tried.
On balance there’s more I like about the new Britain I see around me, although I abhor its inequality and the grotesques who promote it. But to write about it now from the sharp end? That will take a new generation of young writers who have the confidence I utterly lacked at their age.
(To be concluded)