Dreaming Whilst Black's Adjani Salmon on who we're really laughing at

Abby Robinson
·7-min read
Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

For all of the praise that Oscar-winner Daniel Kaluuya (Judas and the Black Messiah) received for his stint as host on Saturday Night Live, there were some who questioned the motives behind one particular sketch.

Will You Take It? was a riff on the archetypal gameshow, where Kaluuya's Dr Tevin Jones attempted to convince his family to take the Covid vaccine. But it proved divisive.

"No. No. No. @nbcsnl, how did this skit even make it on air?" tweeted Uché Blackstock, the founder and CEO of Advancing Health Equity. "It's deeply problematic – making fun of Black folks declining the vaccine, esp without any context – past and ongoing racism within and outside healthcare institutions. You all should know better by now."

It left many asking: who, exactly, were the laughs for?

Photo credit: Samir Hussein - Getty Images
Photo credit: Samir Hussein - Getty Images

Writer, director and actor Adjani Salmon was hyperconscious of exactly that when crafting Dreaming Whilst Black, a 25-minute comedy-drama that began its life as a web series, before being snapped up by BBC Three's Comedy Slices output.

Salmon plays Kwabena, a man who desperately wants to earn his crust making films, but is trapped in his own personal hell: a recruitment consultancy where the walls are plastered with motivational prints that make the jaws of death seem appealing. But an opportunity presents itself that could whisk him away from attrition rates and change the course of his entire life.

There's a universality to his story. We will all, at one point or another, arrive at a crossroads that dangles new prospects before us. But alongside that central narrative strand, Dreaming Whilst Black holds a mirror up to what it's like to be Black, or "other", in traditionally white spaces.

"We couldn't talk about trying to make it in this industry, or any industry, and not acknowledge the fact that he's Black," Salmon told Digital Spy. "It changes the landscape of how he has to play the game."

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

Kwabena is dealt a thousand daily cuts by his white colleagues and those beyond the walls of his office, who use his Blackness as a stick with which to beat him at every turn.

There's the bartender who assumes that he's with the only other Black man in the vicinity. There's the colleague who unloads the grisly details of his sex life on Kwabena, the lone Black male in the office, and insists on giving him a history lesson on Coolio and West Coast hip-hop during work karaoke.

"Okay," nods a wide-eyed Kwabena after a brief but stunned silence, once again blindsided by his colleague's desperate display of faux allyship.

That same colleague then drags him on stage to rap, Kwabena's contribution to which is to intersperse his lyrics with the N-word as the rest of their co-workers wave their hands in the air, the nightmarish display drawing strong comparisons with Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You.

How you experience those moments – whether you nod in grim recognition, your jaw tight, watch it through splayed fingers or find it hilarious – will depend on you and your lived experience. But regardless of those diverging responses, Salmon's intent was entirely singular: the Black characters are not punching bags for cheap laughs.

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

"What I was nervous about was portraying people's real lives in a way that they felt championed or validated, and they felt was true, but not taking the piss," he explained. "So we were very conscious and combed through the script multiple times to make sure that we were completely aware of who we are laughing at, where the joke lands, is this the right way? Whose perspective is this from? Are we mocking anyone? And if so, if someone's going to be rubbed up the wrong way, who? And do we care if they are?

"We interrogate all elements of the script so we're not laughing at the wrong person or the wrong thing because it's people's lives on screen. We were very conscious about telling the narrative of a Black protagonist, and that the joke's not on us. That was very important, even though there are jokes that spill all over the place. That was the key: let's have fun, but let's not mock anybody."

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

British television doesn't typically concern itself with racism in the workplace. Cast your mind back over what you've watched recently and Line of Duty's nod to institutional racism within the police is probably the only example you can recall. To a white viewer, the office that Kwabena works in appears non-threatening. But as Salmon explains, to a Black person walking into a space largely populated by white faces, a fear response, or certainly a sensation of discomfort derived from being "the outsider", would doubtlessly kick in.

"Depending on your access to the protagonist's perspective, you clock on to certain things before other people," said Salmon.

We discuss one particular scene involving Kwabena's lunch. "Smells very... interesting," one of his colleagues remarks, referring to his stew peas. "I tend to eat cooked food in the kitchen though, you know just out of a courtesy to everyone else."

Despite the rest of the office tucking into their lunches at their respective desks, her only concern lies with him. On arriving in the kitchen, the only other person relegated to those quarters is a woman of colour who we had not met until that very moment.

"I've even seen someone say as soon as they saw the close-up of the microwave, they knew something was going to go down, even though he just showed us a microwave " Salmon laughed. "On the surface, it does seem like an unassuming place depending on how you understand the office."

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

At the end of the pilot, we're only at the beginning of Kwabena's story, which begs the question: are we going to see more of him?

"I hope so," said Salmon. "We're waiting to hear [about a full-season order]. But I am hopeful. I feel like we've done a good enough job."

As for what we can expect to see if it's given the thumbs up: "There were intentionally two dreams in the pilot, which is one he dreamt himself being a filmmaker, and the other is he dreamt himself with this woman. And the pilot ends with him taking actions towards both of those dreams, so I do think that we would expect to see both of those dreams be explored, whether successfully or not, we don't know.

"But those are definitely two of the major storylines that we'll be running."

Dreaming Whilst Black is available to stream now on iPlayer.

We would encourage anyone who identifies with the topics raised in this article to reach out. Organisations who can offer support include Samaritans on 116 123 (www.samaritans.org), Mind on 0300 123 3393 (www.mind.org.uk) or Black Minds Matter (www.blackmindsmatteruk.com). Readers in the US are encouraged to visit mentalhealth.gov.

Readers can also donate to the UK anti-discrimination group Stand Up To Racism, and the Unite Families & Friends Campaign, which supports those affected by deaths in police, prison and psychiatric custody. For more information on how you can support Black Lives Matter, please visit its official website or donate here.

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