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In the alternative cultural universe that is YouTube, where our children get their daily entertainment fix, tens of thousands of viewers tune in for new episodes of their favourite long-running, web-only series, including Venus vs Mars and All About the McKenzies. These are polished, UK-made comedy dramas with mainly black casts and they reflect the realities of modern urban (read: London) life for many young people far more accurately than the output from terrestrial channels.
In that universe – and, increasingly, in the offline world – a young black British actor called Zephryn Taitte is a rising star. Taitte, 27, plays Dorian, one of the leads in the web series Brothers With No Game (#BWNG). Based on a successful blog of the same name, its storylines focus on four friends not long out of college working in jobs they hate as they try to figure out how to be more successful with women and in life.
It’s funny, heartwarming and clever. It’s also short, pithy and made for modern binge-watching habits. Supported by cash from crowdfunding platforms and volunteered time from actors and creative crew, the series is popular in the US and won in six categories at the Los Angeles Web Series Awards in April last year. In December, Taitte won the Digital-iS Media Award (for black British film and entertainment industries) for “favourite actor in a web series”. BWNG is also being shown on the new London Live television channel (owned by Evening Standard proprietor Evgeny Lebedev).
I meet Taitte outside a south London Tube station and he talks nonstop as we walk to his favourite café. It leads on to a lovely hidden courtyard, one of those unexpected delights that London offers almost every day to those who look carefully. We take our drinks and sit down in the calm, leafy space. Taitte is definitely one of London’s careful observers, seeking out the potential in our shared city. In particular, he sees and appreciates the energy of the young people on its streets. Outside the mainstream culture and power bases, they are creating their own: “You go to Brixton, you go to Clapham – enclaves of the city, even on the South Bank where you have the skateboarders. We are the fabric of society, you can’t ignore us.” Such movements also have great creative potential: “That mental angst is pushing them into a corner but through that comes great art,” Taitte says. Street dance, skateboarding, parkour, street football skills – all require huge commitment and skill and are examples of what he calls “craft”. It’s no longer a word reserved for mainstream artistic enterprise. It’s all out there – on YouTube, of course.
BWNG has also benefited from the demographic shift in viewing habits away from TV schedules: “There was a big debate about BBC3 going online only – but they know young people aren’t watching what’s being screened on television any more,” Taitte says. “Everyone has their mobile, laptop, tablet – and at night they watch on them. That’s how technology is affecting the arts at the moment. They don’t have to sit and wait for their favourite programme to come on.”
A third series of BWNG is “on the cards”. Taitte says that he hasn’t had any direct offers of work because of the series – but when we meet again, a couple of weeks later, he’s come straight from an audition for a show at a high-profile theatre.
What makes him stand out from many other young actors who seem poised for a big break in their career is that the acting is only half of his life. He spends an equal amount of time offstage, running young people’s and community-based theatre groups.
One of Taitte’s early workshopped plays, a citywide youth project, asked its participants to examine what it means to be British. “The general consensus was that ‘I don’t feel British but I do feel like a Londoner,’” he says. While he works with groups of disadvantaged people, Taitte says he has never personally felt marginalised. He was born in south London, the youngest of three children; his parents came to the UK from Guyana, while many other relatives settled in the US. The Taitte family would spend summers visiting them near New York and in Miami; they even went on several cruises in the Caribbean (“It did attract the older people,” he admits). Back in London, his parents “made life a bit magical” for their children, and Taitte’s father, a carpenter and mason, later ran a local arts festival.
Deciding against drama school (“the greatest teacher for acting is life”), Taitte gained a performing arts qualification (BTEC), which combined performance with arts business – “essentially equipping you for the industry on a practical as well as an artistic level”. Afterwards, he went straight into a job, at Ovalhouse Theatre, close to his family home. “My mum said I should go for the audition and I was cast as Romeo in a modern adaptation.” The break changed his life. Ovalhouse has been a hub for political activism since the 1960s and Taitte was chosen to go to South Africa on a British Council-sponsored trip for potential young leaders in the arts.
On his return, he became fired up with the possibilities for social change. He started to work with Pan Intercultural Arts, a small London-based charity where he still does a lot of “facilitation” work. When I call it “teaching”, he corrects me. “I am interested in what you as an individual can bring to a character, bringing the honesty out of you – we are trying to be someone else but at the same time we have this core understanding of emotion and I want to bring that out of people, instead of saying, ‘I teach people how to act.’”
Taitte invites me to come and watch a rehearsal for a Pan project with a group of 10 young people he has worked with for several years. All are from backgrounds where they have come into contact with gang culture or knife crime, and the plays focus on those issues. The group performs in schools, pupil referral units (for children excluded from school) and youth centres. The performances work, he says, as a way to get even the most disruptive teenagers in their audiences to take notice, and take part. “Because the people they see on stage, they see people like them – like their friends and neighbours – so there is an immediate rapport.” In February, the Pan group even performed their latest work in front of judges at the Old Bailey.
I meet Taitte again outside the Roundhouse in north London, where his group is rehearsing. In a windowless room, the performers run through their play – no scripts, no prompts. One member is away, and they have been told to swap roles as an experiment. There’s a certain nervousness and a lot of giggling but Taitte holds it all together, striding in and out of his characters, on and offstage, moving effortlessly in and out of conversation with the director and the young people. One of the group has just won a place at drama school – she’s a standout – but they are all funny and serious and the rhythm of their speech is alien and yet alluring.
I see why Taitte enjoys being with this group. Their energy is infectious. What, though, is he going to do if the acting really takes off? He may not have time to run theatre groups, to change lives. He insists the two sides of his career run in tandem, and he wants to keep it that way. Plus, as he says, “I learn something as an actor from being with these young people.” I believe him.
Isabel Berwick is an associate editor of FT Life & Arts. Pan Intercultural Arts: pan-arts.net.
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