Character Breakdown by Zawe Ashton

I am in awe of people who can turn their skills to many different art forms, especially if they are young. And there is a bonus when they are female and black. Here is a memoir/fiction from Zawe Ashton. Many people will know her as an actor as well as a writer, a poet and a theatre producer. How had I never come across her name before she appeared in a list of recommendations from Bernardine Evaristo (see below)? 

Character Breakdown is a fictionalised memoir or a biographical fiction or neither: about being an actor, taken from her own experience but fictionalised. The title is a play on her state of mind as well as the resumés sent via agents to actors for their auditions. 

This is a work of fiction.
But mostly fact. [epigraph]

Character Breakdown

Zawe Ashton was Hackney born and bred and educated at two local girls’ schools: Elizabeth Garret Anderson School and Parliament Hill School. She also attended the Anna Scher Theatre School. She began acting very young, and has had a busy career. 

She was nearly derailed from her career by the bullying behaviour of a bunch of girls who befriended her, she thought, when she appeared on tv. But they planned to beat her up after school.

Mum has to come and get me. They can’t send me home alone. I sit and stare at the motivational quote posters for young women.

‘Young women, young futures.’
‘I am strong, I am worthy, I am beautiful.’
‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken.’

I don’t want to be anyone.

On the car ride home, I decide to stop acting for ever. Nothing good comes of being visible. I have to watch my back, and learn to walk in new shoes. (62)

She gives us the life of a young black female actor in a series of character breakdowns and playlets, sometimes phone conversations with, for example, her agent, or a journalist or a director. The breakdowns are followed by conventional narrative that sheds light upon the character being cast and her response to the role. Some of it is horrific, and some cringe-worthy and there are some challenging roles. There are red carpet moments and humiliations too, like the time she thought she had started a very heavy period while appearing in a West End play. And the moment when she loses her voice.

Sexism and racism permeate her account. Her necessary concerns with her appearance emphasise both of these. 

The very enjoyable narrative drive is found in the quick sequence of episodes, her successes and her failures. We are shown her world, where everything is a little distorted, where actors strive for reality through making stuff up. A bit like fiction. 

Character Breakdown by Zawe Ashton published in 2019 by Vintage. 311pp

This book appeared in a list of recommendations provided by Bernardine Evaristo which appeared on the Penguin site in March 2020.


Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, Women of Colour

4 Responses to Character Breakdown by Zawe Ashton

  1. Carole J

    Thanks for the heads-up on this book!! Despite spending far too much time trawling the ‘book review’ pages of ‘The G’, ‘The O’, The ‘TLS’ – plus anything that pops up online – I had missed this. I have seen most of Zawe Ashton’s tv appearances and find her superb, from comedy to heavier works. I will try to get a copy!! Do try to see her work, she is so talented.

    • Caroline

      I’m so pleased this has found a potential reader. I hadn’t seen it before I saw the recommendation by Bernardine Evaristo. I don’t wantch a lot of tv drama so I think I have missed everything Zawe Ashton has done, but I will look out for her from now on. She certainly seems to be multi-talented. I think she may be lost to the US for a while now. (I read the gossip when I was researching the background for this post!)
      Thanks for the comment. Please visit again soon.

  2. This sounds like a very open and honest book – smart, engaging and genuinely thought-provoking. I first came across Ashton 8 or 9 years ago when she played the lead role in Carol Morley’s film, Dreams of a Life – a docudrama focusing on the life of Joyce Carole Vincent, whose body was only discovered in her London flat three years after she had died. It’s such a haunting yet beautifully produced film, a salutary reminder of how some people can just slip through the cracks without anyone realising they have disappeared…I can’t recommend it highly enough.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for extending this post with a film recommendation. I think you would get a lot from this memoir/fiction. She is obviously a very creative person.

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