Irish/English | Sierra Leonean/Lebanese
I identify as Sierra Leonean, Lebanese, Irish and English. I’m atheist and gay. My mum is from Sierra Leone and my dad from east London. They met when they lived in the same shared house. My dad used to be a feather weight boxer and my mum was a cigarette girl at the Eve club. She used to hang out with the Rolling Stones and would pretend to be Shirley Bassey’s sister. My dad later became a carpenter and my mum a nurse and cleaner. It sometimes saddens me that they were so young, hopeful and full of big dreams but settled for a quiet life. I grew up in Orpington, Kent.
My four brothers and I had big hair which was always commented on and I was often teased about it at school. Kids at school would also say that my mum was like the ‘big mamma’ from Tom and Jerry. Before then I don’t think I realised she was different from the Orpington norm and so was I. My aunts had all married Irish men, so the two cultures were deeply mixed in my family.
My parent’s aspiration for us to grow up in the very White suburbs meant we lost touch with the past. They were always looking forward to their idyllic home, two kids and a car existence and rarely talked about their past, my grandparents or their homes. They never really reached that goal, so they tried to pass it on to us. This meant there’s always been very little talk about cultures and our greater family. Which I feel incredibly sad about. My dad has died, and my mum is getting older and more reluctant to speak about the past means it may all get lost.
People can never place me. They often see the Lebanese in me or think I’m Mediterranean and they never see the Sierra Leone in me. I’ve inherited Sierra Leone ways just as much as I’ve inherited my dad’s Irish ways.
Theatre is an incredibly White middle-class industry, which is changing slowly. On my first job as a design assistant the designer I was working under was surprised when he met me. ‘Oh, you’re Liam Shea, I was expecting someone ginger and pale, you look like you should be called Muhammad’.
I’m often in rooms which are exploring and promoting diversity. I want to throw myself deep into the conversation for all underrepresented voices not just my own voice, but I do often feel that I can be seen as another White middle-class man sticking his nose in. I struggle with my right to celebrate my parents and grandparent’s voices when I don’t really look like them to the outside world.
I recently sat in a meeting where someone suggested that to document the diversity of an audience you could simply look at an audience and count how many Blacks people, how many Asian people, how many disabled people. I found this deeply offensive on many levels but one of things I thought was you’d miss me, and many others like me. You can’t simply tell someone’s story just by looking at them.
I’d love to speak Arabic. At work we run a project with many young people whose native language is Arabic, and they always shout ‘Sir, do you speak Arabic’ and I’d love to say yes.
I get the question ‘where are you from’ a lot, it can get quite tedious but the other side of it is at least their interested. As a kid I hated the things that made me different, but I now love the features I’ve inherited.
If I had the opportunity to be reborn I would come back the same but with bags more confidence.