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Tackling racism

Actress, director and producer Melissa Dean told David Hennessy about the new theatre-to-film project Me You Us Them that deals with real stories of racism in Northern Ireland and her own experiences of ignorance from people there.

Melissa Dean’s mother is from Belfast and her father is from Guyana.

Yet one Belfast man she met told her she was more Caribbean than Northern Irish due to the colour of her skin.

It is ignorances like this that Me You Us Them seeks to tackle.

Melting Pan Productions Me You Us Them comes as a personal response piece to the Black Lives Matter Movement.

The theatre-to-film project explores real stories of racism, identity and sense of belonging in Northern Ireland.

Based on the original stage play by Andrea Montgomery, Me You Us Them is based on hours of off-the-record conversations with people across Northern Ireland about race and modern relationships.

Characters from various cultures in Northern Ireland are brought to life, including voices and experience from Nigeria, rural Armagh, Belfast, China, Jamaica and Donegal.

Informed by conversations with real people from across Northern Ireland, the piece was curated through Terra Nova’s ethical intercultural practice.

Melissa Dean, who acts, directs and produces, boasts screen credits such as Doctors, Eastenders and Line of Duty.

Me You Us Them was originally staged with two actors: Melissa and Stefan Dunbar, nephew to Adrian Dunbar, on tour across Northern Ireland in February and March 2018.

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“It’s been challenging,” Melissa Dean told The Irish World.

“It started out as a tiny project in lockdown.

“I rang Andrea, who I’ve worked with before.

“We have a really lovely relationship and she’s a very talented writer/director.

“I’d seen what was going on with Black Lives Matter.

“I saw other artists that were making their own response pieces, their own response work.

“And I thought, ‘I want to do something’.

“Racism in Northern Ireland isn’t talked about very often.

“Northern Ireland generally isn’t talked about very often over here.

“People tend to not know Belfast other than the place with the bombs or the place with the Catholic/ Protestant issues.

“So I called her up and just said, ‘What if we find a way of doing a small little version, a lockdown version of Me You Us Them?’

“We came out of lockdown. We decided to apply for 15k from the Arts Council.

“It was initially the initial production, which was me and Stefan Dunbar and the two of us were multi-rolling 12 characters.

“So I think we were hoping that we would just bring the production to life again but it would be a filmed piece.

“But then we kind of thought we should cast more appropriately.

“So as much as I was playing a Jamaican nurse, a Nigerian character with a Northern Irish accent, we thought the piece would be stronger and tell a better story if we actually did hire a Nigerian actress and a Chinese actor and a Sudanese or an East African actor to play other parts.

“So then suddenly, the 15k that we had, we were taking it and going..” Melissa motions something blowing away there.

“We had a much bigger team so it just became a much bigger project, and so became a lot more exciting, but just a lot more work than we were expecting.

“It just meant that perhaps our time was stretched in 100 directions.

“It’s a very different piece of theatre that’s now on film.”

What was your emotional reaction to the killing of George Floyd and all that came after it?

“I watched the video and cried, I was emotionally sad and moved.

“But I also think that the way that we are shown trauma, it’s second hand trauma that you watch on the TV, it does remove us.

“So many people will have watched that around the world and just shrugged their shoulders or gone, ‘Oh, that’s sad’.

“What I think was brilliant about the awfulness of the situation was that it happened during COVID because the world couldn’t switch off.

“And although people thought, ‘This is ridiculous, people are marching when COVID is going on’, I thought that it was a godsend for this man’s life to be lost during a time when the whole world had to watch.

“It was amazing to see the protests happening throughout the world and every continent in support.

“I think it’s important for black and brown people to recognise that they aren’t being ignored and their stories are heard throughout the world.

“How many of us learn about the Holocaust in school, World War One, Henry the Eighth?

“I learned about Henry the Eighth at least seven times in education. Who cares about Henry the Eighth?

“Yet, I learned absolutely nothing really about slavery, or about who abolished slavery.

“We didn’t really learn about any black history when I was at school.

“It’s like black people have been eradicated through history.

“You watch Oliver Twist, I don’t know that there’s any black people.

“You hear about World Wars One and Two, I didn’t know that black people fought in the war and then I remember going to the Churchill War Rooms and reading that a million people came over from India to help fight in the war.

“And Churchill apparently said, ‘If you send these Indians over, we’ll give you your independence’.

“And they didn’t give independence.

“And they weren’t given appropriate clothes so when they travelled from India to England, a lot of them died.

“There’s just so much history that we’re not taught.

“So I think it was really, in a way, a miracle that that man died George Floyd died when he did because people couldn’t stop watching.

“And I think it was necessary.”

Me You Us Them deals with racism in Northern Ireland and that is something you have encountered, isn’t it?

“I lived in Belfast for a wee bit.

“I worked in a secondary school where there was open racism.

“There was an Indian teaching assistant and I remember she’d walk into classes and some of the students would sing a kind of cliche, Indian theme tune or make noises that were racist.

“And when it was taken to senior management, nothing was done about it.

“That was saddening.

“I found that when we toured the piece in 2018 when we went to schools, a few students would say- And they didn’t mean it to come from a racist place. It’s just a general ignorance, I think- ‘Oh, how does it feel, Melissa, to be the only coloured person or to be a coloured person doing a tour to places where you might be the only person of colour?’

“And the word colour is not something you’d use anymore.

“You wouldn’t say ‘a coloured person’, you’d just say a black person.

“I just think there’s a lot more to be taught about language.”

While she was teaching in Northern Ireland, Melissa encountered racism.

“I guess I found that there were two sides to the coin. So working in that school, I felt very much like an ‘other’.

“I heard some of the kids say things against Catholics that were very hateful.

“I worked with children that had a lot of hatred, and it made me feel sad, because I thought ‘These children have so much hatred and it’s been taught to them’.

“We’re not born with hatred but then at the other side, and you could feel within the staff, there was a lot of ignorance.

“I remember listening in the staff room to a teacher saying, ‘You know, one of the kids said to me today that black people are from the devil. Hahaha, it’s so funny’.

“And I just thought, ‘Why is that funny? And did you laugh like that when that child said that?’

“Hearing a white teacher repeat that story, think it’s funny and not disgusting and hearing the other two teachers that were listening to that story laugh- I just found stuff like that really shocking.

“I guess I found a lot of disparity and sadness working in that school and realising that there’s so much work to be done and the people that you want to watch Me You Us Them and to have the workshops that Andrea puts together are not always the people that are going to get the opportunity or want to watch art.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar described it as a real shame that Gymnastics Ireland took so long to deal with an alleged racist incident that made headlines not so long ago.

“Look at the story that came out of the Irish girl at the gymnastics.

“It was a gymnastics tournament and a group of girls, this girl was 10 years old, they were all being handed a medal and when it came to the black girl standing there, the woman just skipped her by and continued giving the medals.

“It’s a very sad video actually when you see her the girl’s reaction of kind of looking like, ‘Where’s my medal?’

“And that happened a year and a half ago but it’s in the news now. The association only offered an apology now because it’s come out.

“I think things like that show that there is still deep rooted racism.

“My mum’s Northern Irish, all her side of the family live in Dublin and around Dublin and there’s this kind of acceptance that people from Ireland are really friendly and it’s ‘grand’, but actually I think there’s just a lot of work to be done which is why things like racism happening towards a 10 year old girl is acceptable and is denied when it’s brought up.

“I think we can all make mistakes but it’s saying, ‘Sh*t, I’m gonna hold my hands up. That was really bad what happened and we do have to apologise and we do have to give our staff training’.

“But until people are willing to look at the issues or their own ignorances, it’s never gonna stop.

“I’ve had my own ignorances.”

Melissa was once working when she encountered someone else’s racism.

“I was working at an event in a big sports stadium so I hear a man with a Northern Irish accent and I said, ‘Oh, are you from Belfast?’

“And he said, ‘Yeah, I am. Yeah’.

“I said, ‘I used to live on…’ a particular road.

“And he said, ‘Oh, what part of the road did you live on?’ Which I knew was him asking me, are you Catholic or Protestant? Which is mad in 2023.

“Then he said, ‘Oh, Where are you from?’

“And I said, ‘My mother is from Northern Ireland and my dad’s from Guyana’.

“And he said something along the lines of, ‘Well, you’re not really from Northern Ireland, look at the colour of your skin. Obviously, you are from the Caribbean’.

“And it is mad that therefore what he’s saying is England is white, Scotland is white.

“If you’re black, you must be from Africa or the Caribbean.

“It just puts up walls and if we are remaining in those walls, then why don’t white Americans leave America in that case and give it back to the people that lived there originally?

“Why don’t we take the white people out of Australia if people believe that and give it back to the aboriginals who lived there?

“That’s not the way the world is.

“We have been mixing cultures for so many years so to be ignorant enough to say that ‘this colour represents this country’, it just shows where people’s thinking is still at.

“I play this character Janice, who is in her 60s, and wants to retire soon.

“And there’s a scene where she says, ‘You know, I’ve been here for so long. I’ve been working in this country for so long taking care of people. Yet, I don’t really belong here. But yet I’ve been here for so long that if I was to go back to Jamaica, I wouldn’t really belong there either’.

“So it’s this sense of like, ‘Where do I belong? Where do I feel loved?’

“I think a lot of people like her story, the storyline of her and Samuel.

“Samuel is this old man who lives in a care home, and she’s looking after him.

“People are willing to take this help from foreigners.

“The NHS are willing to take the help from the Filipinos and from the African nurses, but then at the crux of it, a lot of the people that are receiving that help don’t like immigrants.

“They want them to go back to their countries but without them being here, we wouldn’t have those people taking care of us.

“It’s just really sad.

“I was living in Manchester while I was producing this and there was a mural of Marcus Rashford.

“And I think it was during the Euros that he missed one of the penalties, and racists in Manchester went and defaced his mural.

“You like Marcus Rashford when he’s scoring goals for you, but suddenly you want to bring up the racist slurs when he misses a penalty?

“People want to have everything and nothing at the same time.”

What were the reactions when you performed it before in Northern Ireland?

“You could feel the audience were completely switched on.

“And at that time working with Stefan Dunbar, he was just exceptional at bringing alive the language and the characters and the hatreds.

“There’s a line in the play where his character Samuel says to Janice, the black character, ‘You’re dirty, I don’t want you touching my things. You’re dirty. Get off’.

“And you feel the audience (wince).

“It’s a disgusting thing, a shocking thing to listen to. And you could feel that in audiences.”

Me You Us Them, a theatre-to-film project presented by Terra Nova Productions and Melting Pan Productions, is available here.

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