I didn't feel like a minority until I became an actor | Danusia Samal

Artists have a love/hate relationship with reviews. If they’re good, we flog them as validation of our work. If they’re bad, we reject them: “What do they know? I am a true artist. I don’t need their feedback!” Reviews either feed our egos or bruise them. This is why I usually avoid them.

Then a friend sent me a quote from a review for my show Busking It, a semi-autobiographical story inspired by the years I spent busking on the London underground. It’s about the little interactions that give us hope. I play multiple characters I met in the underground tunnels. There is also a thread about my childhood father figure who struggled with and was dehumanised by the UK asylum process, the hostile environment our government has honed to perfection.

I was surprised to find that the review referred to the show as the story of a black woman. Was this me? I am of Kurdish and Polish heritage. Looking at me, you might think I am from any number of places. Like many BAME artists, I have dealt with lots of the standard nonsense: “Where are you really from?” This is partly why I wrote Busking It to be performed by a woman of any race. I wanted the right to tell a story and not have to justify my skin tone on stage.

Take the obvious lack of fact-checking of my own heritage out of the equation. My race was not mentioned in the play. Why was it considered important to state in a review at all? I think of the countless times I’ve read things like: “The story of a British Muslim, an Afro-Caribbean woman, a transgender man …” Is that always what the story is about? Or is it a story about a person who happens to be a minority, and their “otherness” is what the reviewer sees?

Busking It is performed by Danusia Samal with Joe Archer and Adam Cross. Photograph: Richard Davenport/The Other Richard

People may think I’m overreacting, that the reviewer had made an honest mistake. This is completely possible, and I am not really offended when people are mistaken about my heritage. It happens fairly often. I’m an actor. Kurdish/Polish parts are rare and I regularly play characters with different backgrounds to my own. But there is a prevailing attitude in UK theatre, which is so lacking in diversity that the smallest amount of melanin can make you some sort of cultural ambassador. It dictates the kind of work you’re allowed to participate in, the kind of work you’re allowed to make, the kind of story you’re allowed to tell. It is a bit of a shock when you have grown up in a culturally diverse city with friends from all over the world. I didn’t really feel like a minority until I became an actor. Suddenly, I was in theatres being treated as if I was some sort of rare unicorn because I’ve got a name that’s “hard to say”. I know I’m not the only one who has experienced this.

It’s a complex issue, and there have definitely been leaps forward. Is more diversity in theatre criticism the solution? It might help. Critics of Colour was set up for this very reason. If reviewers were from a wider range of backgrounds, cultures and sexualities, would we have different hit shows, different West End transfers, different unknown actors becoming superstars? Maybe not. Maybe good work transcends race, gender and class.

I have now added a line in the show about where I’m from. Partly to aid a story point, partly as a tongue-in-cheek response to the review. But I wonder if this is me giving in, feeling the need to explain my background onstage and put people at ease. And if so, is that a real shame?

  • Busking It is at the HighTide festival, London, on 21 and 23 September. Then at Shoreditch Town Hall, London, 9-20 October.

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