Malorie Blackman’s young adult novel Noughts and Crosses that explores racial division is brought to the stage by Pilot Theatre in a new UK Tour. Set in alternative history where black people (Crosses) are at the top of the social hierarchy as opposed to the white people (Noughts).
Sephy and Callum are in love, but Sephy is a Cross and Callum is a Nought. With the racial and social divides, they live in a segregated society. Sephy grows up as the daughter to a wealthy politican, and becomes friends with Callum when his mother is employed as the nanny. The gripping Romeo and Juliet story has been adapted by Sabrina Mahfouz as a captivating drama for the stage. I spoke to Heather Agyepong and Billy Harris who play Sephy and Callum in the show.
“When it comes to Sephy I thought about dominant cultures, privilege, power and status. I wanted to see how I could embody that character, someone who has all this priviledge that they’re unaware of,” Heather said. “I read books like Why I No Longer Talk To White People About Race to get this understanding, because as a black woman from a working class background, Sephy’s life is the complete opposite to mine.”
Billy is excited to be taking on the role of Callum, a white boy living through a racist world, because it will open people’s eyes. “I hope that in the flip of putting white people into this situation, and the fact we are touring it and taking it to the regions, will make a huge difference,” Billy said. “I think people that don’t necessarily see that there is a problem with racism and think it doesn’t exist will realise. For them to see a white boy and a white family in this situation, it can ring alarm bells in their own head.”
Malorie Blackman’s novel was nominated for numerous awards when it came out in 2001. It tackles racial issues in a completely innovative way and it’s a book that was widely read and even on the school syllabus. “I’ve been familiar with the story since I was in secondary school, and it still feels so relevant now,” Billy said. When Heather was growing up, she stumbled across the book, and at 12 years old it was the only book she’d read at that time that talked about race and privilege in the UK.
“It is probably my favourite book ever,” Heather said. “Sephy was a black girl and that was something I never really read about, so it really resonated with me.”
The cast of eight create a very ensemble people, as they all multi-role except for Callum and Sephy. In the book, each chapter is either Callum or Sephy’s perspective and that is something they’ve tried to mirror in the stage show. “I think it’s incredibly symbolic in terms of the set,” Heather said. “It feels very immersive and draws parallels to things that are happening now – it is such a vivid world.”
The book was impactful when it came out, but the play takes it to a completely different level. Heather explained that she thinks bringing it to life on stage brings out the truthfulness of it. “In the book you can read how people move or interact, but on stage you see all the unspoken stuff that isn’t articulated in the book,” she said. “Such as the looks between people about race, things like that are an experience that you have to see or feel.”
“Callum is constantly dealing with these walls being put up in his way,” Billy said. “He has ambition and is gifted, but he has all these obstacles in his way. It is so hard for him when all these things keep getting in his way because of his race, because he is a Nought.”
Heather added: “As a black woman who comes from a working class background, Sephy is so opposite to my character. In the rehearsal room we are trying to empathise, so I am trying to embody that sense of privilege but even the confidence is really tricky to put myself into.”
Billy added: “I find it challenging because we have a ‘B’ word which stands for ‘Blanks’. That represents an equivalent to the ‘N’ word, so as a white boy I feel like I’ve never been called anything as awful and degrading as that word. There are times in the show where my character is talking to Sephy and she calls me the ‘B’ word. So I have to figure out what that must feel like and portray that on stage.
“If you’re from a privileged white background and you’ve never seen a black working class family this will be incredibly thought-provoking,” Billy said. “Or even a working class white family to see a working class black family, there are so many similarities. I am from a working class white family and there are similarities, but there isn’t that heavy oppression so they’d look at that and realise they have to jump over more hurdles to get to where they want to be.”
Billy and Heather both hope this play will be impactful for audiences and start up conversations. “People will really empathise with this show,” Heather said. “I think it can be really impactful in terms of changing perspective and understanding marginalised communities. So I think that’s the beauty of a story like this because I’ve never read anything like that, putting in those reversed roles.
“People really find talking about race the elephant in the room, so hopefully Noughts and Crosses will open up more of an honest conversation. A lot of the themes covered in the show are an unconscious bias’ that you don’t realise you have until you put yourself into that situation. I really want people to self reflect, as it could change their total perspective on everything.”
Noughts and Crosses
Photography by Sharron Wallace