Achieving your dreams often comes with a day job, and those day jobs can be soul-destroying. Unless, that is, they’re in the hands of Adjani Salmon, writer and star of BBC sitcom Dreaming Whilst Black – who makes their despair hilarious. Aspiring film-maker Kwabena (played by Salmon) is trapped in a drab career in recruitment. He spends his days polishing the CVs of people who list “cooking dogs” as an interest (“you’ve missed a comma”) or who boast about never having quit a role: “It sounds like you’ve been fired from 14 jobs,” he says. “Unfairly!” they shoot back. While he fantasises about his true calling, directing on a movie set, his colleagues confide about their penis size (“I’m not a shower. Nor, to be fair, a grower”) and drag him on stage at karaoke after work to fill in each mention of the N-word during a rendition of Busta Rhymes’s Break Ya Neck. More often than not, his colleagues’ awkward interactions with him are because Kwabena is Black.
The joy of spending time with a show such as Dreaming Whilst Black – first created as a popular web series that earned a slew of awards, including a Bafta – is that it is charming and very funny even when pointing out uncomfortable truths. When Kwabena decides to follow his dream and finally make a short film, he applies to a scheme for underrepresented voices where the overseeing producer jokes to all the applicants that it’s not “your first time in front of a judge”. We also meet his film school pal Amy (Dani Moseley), a video producer who is asked to take the fall for an educational video that justifies the transatlantic slave trade – after all, it ultimately led to cricket.
Salmon himself started out editing reality TV, such as the fashion talent show Mission Catwalk in Jamaica, but has since moved in front of the camera. He starred alongside Aisling Bea in Doctor Who’s 2022 New Year special Eve of the Daleks and played Sarah Solemani’s husband in her and Steve Coogan’s star-studded Channel 4 comedy Chivalry. Given Salmon’s real life as an actor and film-maker, then, it would be easy to assume that Kwabena’s struggle is autobiographical.
“It’s not,” he says, speaking before the Hollywood actors’ strike. “It’s a compilation of all my friends. He’s definitely not like me.” There’s a warm, carefree charm to Salmon that seems miles from Kwabena’s anxious self-doubt. He cites Insecure and Master of None as inspirations and says casting himself as a brilliant but insecure underdog came down to “serving the comedy. If Kwabena was this superconfident ladies’ guy, it wouldn’t really work.”
Capturing the spirit of his original web show was paramount. “My agent signed me from the web series and said: ‘I really love your clever jokes,’” says Salmon. “So from then, it’s always been our brand. We’re the smart, funny show.”
But there were boundaries in place when it came to serving the comedy. A rule on the original series was that “we don’t make up racist jokes”, and although some of the better-known microaggressions appear – such as touching Black people’s hair or praising them for being “articulate” – Salmon drew a lot from the stories and discussions in the comments section. “The great thing about YouTube is because I’m online, I’m accessible and people will just tell me stuff. So when we’re writing and we need a joke, I remember those stories. That’s why I like to say it’s a compilation story.”
Within the show, Kwabena faces pressure to make his work grittier and draw from others’ trauma. While Salmon didn’t have to deal with such interventions on the sitcom, he’s seen how it could happen. “In film school, you think drama, it needs to be dramatic. That’s the building blocks of storytelling – stakes, plot twists, higher stakes,” he says. However, that can become a slippery slope as “it’s very easy to say: stakes, they’re Black. Stakes, they’re poor. How can we make it even worse? He’s doing drugs. His mum is on crack. She has Aids. Then all of a sudden, you have this mad thing. It’s not like people went in to show Blackness or Black women in this terrible, strung-out way.”
Having spent most of his life in Jamaica, Salmon has a different relationship with Blackness to many of his Black-British colleagues. “In Jamaica, you hear about racism and what’s happening in America and England. But it doesn’t have anything to do with me. We have police brutality, but it’s Black police who stress us out!” It wasn’t until much later that he experienced it first-hand: “I was in England for uni, and we couldn’t get into a club, and my British friend told me it was racist.” Salmon feigns being shocked. “I was like: this is that thing! Oh my God! I thought he was just being an asshole. There was very much a re-education coming here into understanding Blackness from a perspective of otherness.”
It was important for Salmon that Dreaming Whilst Black include the perspective of Black women, too. Donald Glover’s Atlanta and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None were criticised for underserving their female characters, while Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick was accused of making all but one of its Asian women into punchlines. Salmon’s show has three central female characters, all with fully realised stories: up-and-coming producer Amy (Moseley), bougie love interest Vanessa (babirye bukilwa) and the quick-witted, heavily pregnant Funmi (Rachel Adedeji), who is being smothered by her husband and Kwabena’s best friend, Maurice (Demmy Ladipo).
Maurice is determined that his wife have the healthiest pregnancy possible, memorising hypnobirthing books and ridding the fridge of non-pasteurised cheese. While this leads to plenty of silly back-and-forths, as the show goes on it becomes increasingly unnerving. Black women are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women in the UK, and Salmon uses humour to touch on the terror. “We have an opportunity on the BBC: what do we want to bring to the national consciousness?” he says. Ladipo plays Maurice’s paranoia for laughs, but Salmon had to show how “they’re not listened to, and what does an advocate look like? Maurice is an advocate, but it’s rooted in fear, and that fear evolves when you know the data.”
One of the scenes that terrified Salmon the most to make seems at first to be less heavy. In Kwabena’s meet-cute with Vanessa, she is getting off a bus, only to have her long wig ripped off her head by the closing door. Salmon and his team were keen to avoid humiliating a Black female character. “That was the most rewritten scene!” He consulted with bukilwa and the female writers at length, and they decided that Vanessa should look just as gorgeous, if not more so, without the wig.
One area where Salmon and Kwabena’s lives overlap is the awareness that talent isn’t always enough. In the show, everyone who reads Kwabena’s script thinks it’s brilliant – “That was important because if he’s not good, why root for this guy?” – but he still struggles to get it made. They also share a belief in the stories they want to tell, be it Kwabena’s romantic period drama about two people from the Windrush generation or Salmon’s meta-sitcom about succeeding as a film-maker. But while Kwabena feels imposter syndrome, Salmon says: “What I feel is survivor’s guilt. Man, I’ve done the hours. You get taught to work twice as hard. So when you do get it, you’re surprised it actually worked because you’re so used to forces holding you back. Survivor’s guilt is the impulse, because there are film-makers who I believe are better [than me], but [their] opportunities just never aligned.” Judging by how great Dreaming Whilst Black is, those other people must have been quite the film-makers.
Dreaming Whilst Black is on Monday 24 July on BBC Three and iPlayer at 10pm.
Adjani Salmon is pictured at The House of Koko. Main image: Wool Coat: Lanvin; Brushed Mohair Cardigan: Lanvin; Brown leather trousers: Tods; Shoes: Tods; Jewellery: Cartier; Glasses: Moscot. Stylist: Mariamu Fundi. Make-Up Artist: Sam Lascelle. Grooming/Hair Stylist: Heide Hawthorne.