Young actress Keisha Atwell reflects on her career so far, calling for the same opportunities to be given to all BME performers.
When I was a child, my mum took me to see Dance Theatre Harlem. She wanted to show me that there were black ballet dancers and black performers of a very high standard, and that if I wanted to make it as an actor myself, nothing would stop me.
Thankfully, I had a parent who always taught me that no matter a person’s social background, colour or gender, if they have the right opportunities they can succeed. I’ve been lucky to be a part of some great shows here and abroad, and soon I’ll be singing opera at the legendary Hackney Empire – something I never thought I’d do – playing a role not commonly associated with my type of casting. I’m working with a great team at Brolly Productions who made the whole process easy and welcoming, from the first auditions straight through to the first days of rehearsal.
I do not think I would have ever performed opera if I had not been pushed towards it
But we are in a time of change, and there needs to be an increase in the amount of opportunities made available for minority groups. When that happens minority actors can be judged more fairly on their work, awarded for their achievements and stretched in the same way I have.
I do not think I would have ever performed opera if I had not been pushed towards it. I do not come from an operatic background and my experience is mostly in dance and musical theatre. When a singing teacher at college said I would be good at opera, I didn’t even know any black female opera singers! A performer in a show I was in introduced me to a few people and then I came across Audra McDonald – now a real hero of mine.
Put simply, if it had not been for the opportunities given to me by my singing teacher, an informed colleague and the forward-thinking directing team of Dominic Hingorani and Rachana Jadhav, I would not be performing opera right now. I would not have left my comfort zone and I would not be singing in a style that is completely different to anything I have ever done before.
Both Hackney Empire and Brolly are building a great and diverse platform of work by putting on exciting shows with Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) casts, which in turn encourages a BME audience to attend new work. I can’t speak for all audiences, and I would hope that opera is something experienced by all ethnic backgrounds, but I suspect it is an art form a large proportion of BME audiences wouldn’t think of attending. I only hope that audiences from all ethnic backgrounds come and enjoy the show; art in whatever form should be enjoyed by everyone.
And when I do perform, I like to think that there will be a little girl watching me who will be just as inspired as I was watching the Harlem dancers all those years ago.
Keisha Atwell is an actress and opera singer. She will be starring in Clocks 1888: the greener at CAST, Doncaster from 15-16 April and Hackney Empire from 20 April – 22 April.