Shifting the spotlight: Performer’s big boost for artists of colour

"Activism has always permeated my work as an artist and it will continue to do so for the rest of my life." Picture: Leigh Lothian
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Ghanaian-Australian performer Tarik Frimpong's new project – the Artists of Colour Initiative – is helping to create a better future for minority artists in this country. Jamila Jalloh reports.

As the Black Lives Matter movement gains more and more momentum, people of colour are calling out the institutionalised racism they face in their everyday lives.

Ghanaian-Australian performer Tarik Frimpong, 26, is trying to change not only the discrimination he endures as a man who is black, but a man who is black in the performing arts industry.

Tarik, who last year had a role in the Disney film Mary Poppins Returns, is now helping young artists of colour “get a leg up and a hand up to the table so they can be a part of the conversation and pursue their career to chase their dreams”.

Tarik’s tweeted image of the Mary Poppins Returns cast.

On August 24, Tarik founded the Artists of Colour Initiative. It’s “designed to provide financial assistance and industry support to 6 young, exceptionally talented theatre performers, based in Australia that identify as Bla(c)k, Indigenous or People of Colour”, the initiative’s GoFundMe page says.

It has almost $30,000 in donations.

“I think that globally, it is definitely a predominately white space, so I think there’s additional difficulty for … any performer that identifies as a person of colour,” Tarik says.

His move came just four days after Australia’s largest musical theatre scholarship organisation, the Rob Guest Endowment, faced a chorus of condemnation for having no people of colour among this year’s semi-finalists.

“This is a microcosm of … the Australian theatre industry at large, most likely the global theatre industry at large, and industries outside of that,” Tarik says. 

Born to two professional dancers and raised dancing at his mother’s dance school in Melbourne, Tarik was destined to be on the stage.

Landing his first professional job at just 11 years old playing the role of young Simba in the Australian premiere of The Lion King Musical, young Tarik said it was then he realised “you can make your passion your job”.

“From then I just didn’t stop.”

Tarik in the film Mary Poppins Returns.

Tarik recently made his feature film debut last year as Angus in Rob Marshall’s Disney film Mary Poppins Returns, alongside Broadway royalty Lin Manuel Miranda and Hollywood star Emily Blunt.

The professionally trained dancer has also performed on stage with big names such as FKA Twiggs, Justin Bieber and Missy Higgins, as well as being in the cast of Aladdin the Musical on the West End and recently touring with the cast of Madiba the Musical, about Nelson Mandela.

“Putting one foot in front of the other and hoping for the best,” is how Tarik describes his secret to success. But aside from all the lights, camera, action, and success, the reality behind the curtain can be “brutal”.

“I feel for my community, because it is hard, and we should be able to step away and take a breath,” he says.

After arriving back in Melbourne after living in London for three years, and hearing the commentary online about the state of his industry getting louder and louder, an idea that Tarik had been developing in his mind suddenly became clear.

“It was at that moment that I knew … the exact way in which AOC was going to manifest at the according time.”

Tarik says the panel of people brought together for the AOC was “incredibly inspiring and incredibly powerful”.

The members of the AOC Initiative panel.

The 2020 panelists for the AOC Initiative are Barry Conrad, Bree Langridge, Callum Francis, Cessalee Smith-Stovall, Chenoa Deemal, Daniel J Puckey, Dean Drieberg, Fiona Choi, Kurt Kansley, Laura Tipoki, Leah Howard, Miss Cairo, Olivia Vasquez, Ruva Ngwenya, Sello Molefi, Sophia Laryea, Steph Tisdell, Tarik Frimpong, Thando Sikwila, Tim Omaji, Tyrel Dulvarie, Vidya Makan, Will Centurion, Yasmin Kassim and Yvette Lee.

It’s more than just a scholarship program. “It’s an attempt at breaking the cycle,” he says.

“This is a reach out to all up-and-coming black, Indigenous, and people of colour performing artists to say ‘hey look at these incredibly beautifully talented powerful individuals, look at who they are, look at what they’re doing, and look at what they stand for’.

 “They are you, you are them, this is for you, by us.”

Critically acclaimed actor, singer and composer Vidya Makan, recently cast as Catherine Parr in Australia’s premiere of Six the Musical, is one of the panel members.

Growing up, Vidya remembers having no one who looked remotely like her when it came to Australian musical theatre, film and television, so to see Tarik have such success globally, felt “amazing”. 

Vidya on stage as Catherine Parr.

“It was one thing seeing Tarik take the initiative to do something amazing like the AOC Initiative, which this country has been in dire need of for many many years, but also to see people rally behind it and support it.”

“I mean, the panel are incredible, many people of which I have looked up to for my entire life,” said Vidya.

As someone with an ever-growing platform and name, Tarik is beginning to understand his influence and that he “may inspire … some little kid that is mixed-race and has an afro and is not sure where they fit in”.

“I am putting my hand up in saying, here I am, and I am representing, see me, be inspired, continue to work hard, continue to fight against the systems of oppression and marginalisation of work against you, and I know that it is possible for you to chase your dreams.”