Actor Ashton Owen's one-man show highlights rural racism in Norfolk
- Credit: Mark Benfield/Sheringham Little Theatre
“This isn’t a TED talk about how not to be racist,” actor Ashton Owen tells me, “it’s a drama about what it’s like to grow up when no one around you knows how you feel.”
Ashton, from North Walsham, knows exactly how it feels to be one of only a tiny handful of mixed race or black pupils at a rural school: and he’s written about it.
Outskirts is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story set in North Norfolk about a fictional character called Aiden and the people he comes into contact with.
While the character may have been invented, the racist abuse Aiden is subject to is drawn from Ashton’s real-life experiences – this is what happened to him, just 10 years ago in Norfolk.
As his character Aiden says: “I live in a rural town in Norfolk. It’s on the outskirts of Norwich. It’s the whitest place you can grow up in. Whiter than Buckingham Palace, whiter than Parliament, whiter than an Extinction Rebellion rally…I could go on…”
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The play, which will premiere virtually on March 22 and was filmed at Sheringham Little Theatre as part of its Rewriting Rural Racism project, is a one-man show written by and starring Ashton.
Now 25, Ashton’s experiences as a pupil at North Walsham informed his writing which was overseen by mentor Nathan Byron, an actor and author who has appeared in ITV drama Benidorm and recently had his first book Look Up! published.
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“I’ve been writing down bits and pieces that I’ve remembered about what happened when I was at school since I studied drama,” said Ashton.
“This has been part of my life for such a long time, and I spent so many years talking to counsellors at school about racism that I am comfortable talking about it.
“When some of my friends heard the stories I use they were shocked, they hadn’t realised it was happening, when I was young I didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that I was different. But I didn’t need to when so many other people did.
“It had been years of these micro-aggressions. Small incidents that people would tell you to brush off, but which built up a picture of you as an outsider.
“Children called me ‘chocolate bar’. They wanted to feel my hair. They assumed that I’d know every hip-hop artist there is and if there was a party and another black child was there, they assumed we’d become friends.”
And then there was the school curriculum itself. Accused of being ‘attention-seeking’ for being upset about “the n-word” being used in a set text without warning, Ashton wished he’d taken his sister’s course of action when the same book was read in class.
“She refused to go into that class while the book was being studied,” he said, “she just wouldn’t be there. I, meanwhile, sat there as everyone looked at me every time that word was used – not cruelly, perhaps, but to see if I reacted when it was said.
“My Mum was hugely supportive and my family have always been behind me but it sometimes felt quite lonely at school.”
After sixth form in North Walsham, Ashton moved to Southend to study drama and community theatre at East 15 Acting School before relocating to London.
A year ago, he was performing in stage show Mr Men and Little Miss On Stage, a Selladoor Family and Rockefeller Productions, an all-singing, all-dancing stage adaptation of Roger Hargreaves’ much-loved children’s books.
“I was in Dubai when the pandemic closed the show and I was scared I wouldn’t be able to get home,” said Ashton, who is back in Norfolk until theatre reopens fully.
“I consider myself lucky to have been able to continue working in the industry during the past year and on a project that means so much to me.”
His new show packs an emotional punch but is also funny, heartwarming and life-affirming: it’s not a stern lecture about race, Ashton stresses, it’s a platform for discussion.
“After the BLM protests the time felt right for me to write this show and to talk about my experiences, but it is not always easy to write about something so personal,” he said.
“It has been a challenge to write and perform Outskirts, not least because it means revisiting some difficult times and immersing myself in them again.
“I have had to be careful. Last week, for example, I chose not to expose myself to the continued negative narrative on Meghan Markle – I saw the interview but I didn’t read any of the comments online. I just couldn’t look.”
He added he hoped the show would eventually be able to physically tour to schools and that he had been heartened by the response to the workshops he has taken part in with high school pupils.
“We talk about what about white privilege, colour blindness, identity and black British history and I have been so pleasantly surprised by what these year eight students tell me,” said Ashton.
“One of the bits of feedback we received was that a student of colour had been really impacted by what we’d talked about and had said there were things we talked about that they’d never thought of and it really helped their self-esteem. That was great to hear.”
There has never been a better time to tackle an issue which is everyone’s problem.
In the past year, there have been more than 76,000 race-related hate crimes recorded by police in England and Wales, up by six per cent from 2019.
The brutal death of George Floyd on May 25 2020 in America is symbolic for black people, many of whom who live daily with the sense of being ‘othered’, disrespected or abused.
And the outrage that followed Floyd’s death led to last year’s Black Lives Matter protests which put renewed focus on racial injustice across the world
Ashton believes rural racism was often overlooked in comparison to that happening in Britain’s inner cities or indeed across the pond in America. As a result, he added, it was often denied, downplayed or ignored: but it exists and it needs to be tackled.
“When I was a kid, I gave up playing football after hearing the monkey noises,” Ashton tells me, “that’s when I started doing drama instead, so it hasn’t done me any harm, but…”
It’s hard and heartbreaking to hear - it’s also clear that the vital conversations sparked by projects like Rewriting Rural Racism need to keep happening.
* Outskirts will run from March 22 to 31 online. Tickets are £5. Following the premiere there will be a post-discussion via Zoom at 8pm with Ashton, the production team and the audience. Buy tickets here: https://sheringhamlittletheatre.ticketco.events/uk/en/e/outskirts
Rewriting Rural Racism
The Rewriting Rural Racism project, which emerged from Sheringham Little Theatre’s desire to reflect the growing Black Lives Matter movement at a local level, won the backing of Arts Council funding in October 2020.
Keen to add more diversity to its work and its existing programme, the award-winning community arts venue hopes the project will help to address the gaps in racism education and awareness in Norfolk and tell the stories of black people in the area.
The project is also supported by Great Yarmouth’s Time and Tide Museum as part of its Kick the Dust programme.
Hatched by a quartet of young performers – Ashton Owen from North Walsham, Tilda Fassih from Sheringham, Daisy Winchester from Thursford and Katie Thompson from Knapton – Rewriting Rural Racism aims to showcase the issues being faced by people from different ethnic backgrounds in the county.
It also shines a light on the multicultural mix of migrants that has populated the county throughout its history and made vital contributions to Norfolk’s past.
At the launch of the project, Ms Thompson said: “Rewriting Rural Racism acts as a pledge from the Little Theatre to do more.
“This is through diversifying its programming, casting and the communities and artists it engages.
“Sheringham Little Theatre prides itself on its work within the community but as part of this, comes a responsibility to combat cultural stigmatism.
“The venue is working with experienced trainer Tonia Milhill to become an anti-racist space. Likewise, Time and Tide Museum is doing work on decolonization.”
A range of different elements make up the project including Ashton’s one-man show, the We are One series of short films on Norfolk Migration and associated workshops in schools and arts venues.