White ‘born again African’ theatre director at the centre of controversy for receiving funding meant for people of colour

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A man whose parents and grandparents are white is being criticised after he received significant theatre funding meant for black and minority ethnic (BAME) people.

A report from The Sunday Times’ Grant Tucker found that a white theatre director called Anthony Ekundayo Lennon chose a Nigerian Yoruba name and accepted a chunk of funding, worth more than £400,000, which was meant for ethnic minority arts leaders.

Lennon, who was born to Irish parents, calls himself a “born-again African” and once said in 2012 that he had “gone through the struggles of a black man".

Born in Paddington, he said he was bullied as a child because people assumed he was mixed race, and a caretaker of his school once called him a “n****r” and threatened him with a dog, Lennon revealed in a book about race.

The collection of essays is titled 'After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing and Religion', and in one particular piece he talks about being assumed to be of mixed ethnicity. He cleared up that he isn’t.

Of his parents, he said:

One was born in County Kerry, one in Tramore [are both white] and so are their parents, and so are their parents, and so are their parents.

During a discussion about race documented in the book, Anthony admitted that “his adoption of a sartorial blackness was prompted by earlier experiences of pheneticization".

When my hair was shorter, it looked like a little Afro, and people just assumed, ‘You’re half-caste, I’n’ it?’ And when I was younger, I used to go ‘No,’ and try to explain. And after a while I just got sick of it – the explaining, and ‘Is he this?’ and ‘Is he that?’ and the scrutinizaion, and ‘You’re lying, man!’

One day I’m walking through Brixton and there’s this man selling hats. I stood there for a second. And I brought one. And since then people don’t question it. I mean they see a shape being cut on the street and they just do not question it.

“I’m not walking around to fool,” he added in the book. “When I’m alone in my bedroom looking in the mirror…I think I am a black man. I’ve not said that to anyone. And I won’t say it outside.”

People, especially those belonging to the BAME community, have expressed discomfort and anger at the fact that he was awarded a portion of a £406,500 grant as part of a two-year residential traineeship on an Arts Council England funded program meant for people of colour.

Others recognised the work Anthony has done for BAME actors and his involvement with the Talawa Theatre company - but argue that his decision to identify as black is cultural appropriation, and wrong.

Coco Khan, columnist for The Guardian, wrote:

Anthony ‘Ekundayo’ Lennon is the epitome of white entitlement, to be at centre of everything, to have access to every word, every culture, every community. That’s not being an ally (esp when it might end up destabilising BAME arts funding). Ant, some things ain’t yours fam? Ok?

According to the consortium that awarded him the funding, they said they were “satisfied” that Lennon was eligible because he had identified as mixed heritage for “a number of years", the Mail Online reports.

The Arts Council England 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.

Anthony Ekundayo Lennon has been contacted for comment.

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