We're nearing the end of February, and it has been a celebration of love of affection. But more importantly, it's Black History Month, a celebration of the black lives that made an impact on our U.S. History, with many of these stories and the people forgotten over the years due to not enough exposure in history courses and books. Black History Month was first proposed by black educators and the Black United Students at Kent State University in February 1969. The first celebration took place a year later at the university, from 2 January - 28 February. It was officially recognized by President Gerald Ford in 1976 during the nation's bicentennial, with a decree to "seize the opportunity to honor too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history," after over six years of celebration in educational institutions, centers for Black culture, and community centers. Its precursor was first celebrated in 1926 as Negro History Week during the second week of February, which coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (12 February) and Frederick Douglass (20 February). It was founded by historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History as a way to acknowledge the recognition and importance of black history. As eloquently stated by Woodson: "If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization." From there, Negro History Week grew in popularity in the decades that followed. As you can see, more and more stories of the black men and women throughout history became known to audiences. Many of their accomplishments and contributions were left unheard of and forgotten, but no more. Since its inception, little known facts and tidbits of history attributed to black individuals came into light, along with a deeper appreciation and respect for all that they've done. For me, black history is a very prominent part of our discussions and ever-growing knowledge. In fact, when I was in middle school, our class had the opportunity to be a living museum where people can walk around and get to know the people we researched. What's different about this is that we dressed like the individual and recited a speech about that person's history and contributions to our U.S. culture. Both times I did two incredible black women - Marian Anderson and Ella Fitzgerald. And they both revolved around the arts. In case you haven't figured it out, the arts is practically my life at this point and may well continue to be my life for however long I have left on this earth. In recent months, there has been a rallying cry of "Black Lives Matter!" heard from coast to coast, city to city, and even continent to continent. It hasn't died down yet, nor should it be silenced. But it's not just heterosexual black lives that matter. It's also black trans lives, black gay lives, black women, black children, and yes, black artists. It is true that each life is important and sacred on this earth, but if you only focus on one group of people based on the color of their skin as being more important than another, what's the point in saying "All Lives Matter"? If all lives truly matter, why do you isolate certain groups of individuals because of their differences? Each and every life matters on this planet, no matter how different we are. We may find ourselves to be more alike than we realize. I thought for this week's blog I would focus on some black artists that have inspired me, and I continue to look up to. Some are living legends, some are rising stars, but all of their stories matter. I will share with you how I came to first know of these incredible human beings, what I've discovered about their history, and how much of an inspiration they've become to me as a human being and as an actor.
First up, Ms. Pearl Bailey.
Pearl Bailey was born in Newport News, VA, on 29 March 1918. She was raised in the Bloodfields Neighborhood of Newport News, and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk, VA, which was the first city in the region to offer higher education for black students. (Blues singer Ruth Brown was one of her classmates.) Ms. Bailey made her stage singing debut when she was 15 years old after her brother suggested she entered an amateur contest at the Pearl Theatre in Philadelphia. She won the contest, and Ms. Bailey was offered $35 a week to perform there for two weeks. However, the Pearl Theatre closed during her engagement, and poor Ms. Bailey wasn't paid at all. Later on, she won a similar competition at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, and it was there Ms. Bailey decided to pursue a career in the performing arts. Her career spanned for six decades, where she was a vocalist performing with the USO during WWII, and an actress who made her Broadway debut in 1946 in St. Louis Woman. Ms. Bailey won a Donaldson Award as the Best Broadway newcomer. Between her acting career, she continued to record and perform with some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, including Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Perry Como, and many more. In her later years, Ms. Bailey earned a degree in theology at Georgetown University in 1985 at 67 years old. She also wrote several books, and was appointed as a special ambassador to the United Nations by Gerald Ford. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1988 from President Reagan. Ms. Bailey died on 17 August 1990 of arteriosclerosis. Where did I first hear of Ms. Bailey? As a kid, it was the 1981 Disney animated film, The Fox and the Hound, where she was the voice of Big Mama the owl. It was specifically the Disney Sing Along Songs (great stuff for the kids if you want them to enjoy the great Disney classics prior to 2000!) when I heard Ms. Bailey sing "Best of Friends." The one thing I noticed about her voice was how soothing it was. She put so much warmth and kindness into the song, and I always enjoy hearing it from time to time. Plus, Big Mama has always been the voice of reason, which in these days, is sorely lacking. Later on, I discovered that Ms. Bailey was the first black woman to play Mrs. Dolly Levi in a Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! I was in awe of the performance when I discovered it on YouTube. The performance was filmed during the 1968 Tony Awards, and she was absolutely delightful as Dolly. And from what I saw in the comments section of various social media sites, Ms. Bailey was a hit on stage and brought so much laughter and mirth to audiences who flocked to see her. What's especially special about this production was that it was the first time an all black cast recorded a second cast album of the beloved show that was made popular by Carol Channing years earlier. To see someone who looks like me in a show that I've come to love makes quite an impact on one's life. For me, it was seeing Ms. Bailey as Mrs. Dolly Levi. I only wish I could've seen the who show because I would've been one of the first people to get her autograph! Next, Marian Anderson.
Ms. Anderson was born on 27 February 1897 in Philadelphia, PA. Her entire family was active in the Union Baptist Church, and Ms. Anderson's aunt, Mary, was particularly active in the church's musical endeavors. Mary encouraged her niece to join the junior church choir at age six, where Ms. Anderson got to perform solos and duets with her aunt. They both would go to concerts at local churches, benefit concerts, and other community musical events throughout Philadelphia. At 10 years old, Ms. Anderson joined the People's Chorus of Philadelphia, under the direction of singer Emma Azalia Hackley, and she was often the soloist. In later years, Ms. Anderson would credit her aunt as the reason for pursuing a musical career. After her father's death in 1909, Ms. Anderson and her family moved into the home of her father's parents. In 1912, she graduated Stanton Grammar School, but unfortunately her family couldn't pay for her music lessons, so Ms. Anderson continued to perform wherever she could and learn from anyone who was willing to teach her. She was still active with the church, and with the help of her pastor, Reverend Wesley Parks, the church helped raise funds for Ms. Anderson to get lessons with Mary Saunders Patterson and attend South Philadelphia High School, which she graduated from in 1921. Ms. Anderson tried to apply to the Philadelphia Music Academy (now the University of the Arts), but was turned away because of her skin color. "We don't take colored" was the reply from the woman working the admissions counter that day. But she wasn't deterred. Ms. Anderson pursued her musical studies privately with Agnes Reifsnyder, and then Giuseppe Boghetti. In 1925, she got her big break winning a singing competition, which led to Ms. Anderson performing with the New York Philharmonic on 26 August 1925. That performance was a success to both the audience and the music critics. From there, Arthur Judson became her manager, and she continued to perform across the country, though hampered by racial prejudice. Her first performance at Carnegie Hall was in 1928. From there, she received the Rosenwald Fellowship during the fall concert season in 1929, where Ms. Anderson received $1500 to study in Berlin. She launched a highly successful European singing tour, and didn't encounter any of the racial prejudices that she received in the U.S. After returning to the U.S. in 1934, she continued to sing throughout the country, but was once again hampered by the Jim Crow laws and was often turned away from restaurants and hotels because of her skin color. Albert Einstein (yes, that Albert Einstein) hosted Ms. Anderson on many occasions. And the rest, they say, is history. How did I first hear about Ms. Anderson? This time, it was part of a research project in sixth grade where we would all become part of a living museum. As people would come by our stations, they would push a button and we would come to life and recite a memorized speech about the individual we are portraying, and after each speech, we would freeze back into place like a statue. It was actually quite fun! I chose Ms. Anderson for this project because I was in awe of her talent and legacy. There was one story in particular that took my breath away. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) denied Ms. Anderson permission for a concert at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC, on 9 April under a "white performers only" policy effect at the time. What happened next was a chain reaction of events that pushed Ms. Anderson into the spotlight unexpectedly. Following the announcement from the DAR, the co-founder of the NAACP and chair of the DC citywide Inter-Racial Committee held a meeting of the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee. This included many organizations, church leaders, and activists in DC and more. On 20 February, this group picketed the Board of Education, collected signatures on petitions, and planned a mass demonstration at the next board meeting. If that wasn't enough, thousands of members, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, resigned from the DAR. As Mrs. Roosevelt said in a letter, "I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist... You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed." This controversy grew to the point where an overwhelming majority of Americans supported Ms. Anderson's right to sing. At the First Lady's urging and instigation, President Roosevelt, Walter White (then-executive secretary of the NAACP), and Ms. Anderson's manager, Sol Hurok, persuaded Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes to arrange an open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The concert was performed on 9 April, to a crowd of over 75,000 people, with the radios having more than over a million listeners. Isn't it funny? It had to take ignorant minds from the DAR for others to truly see how wrong it was to deny someone the opportunity to do what they were born to do because of their skin color. And what's especially sad is that it's still going on to this day. None of this would've been possible without people who saw the talent, grace, and spirit Ms. Anderson had, and color wasn't an issue. Is it still wrong to deny individuals opportunities because of their skin color? YES! The biggest reason this is still going on is because of two important symptoms of racism - fear and ignorance. No one is willing to take the time to get to know and learn about people who are different from them because of their unwillingness to step outside of their comfort zone. That needs to change. It shouldn't have to take moments like this realize how much alike we all are as human beings. Getting back to Ms. Anderson, I was struck by her grace and talent, and how much of the opportunities were made possible because of the community who respected her and admired her as a human being. It truly does take a village to help others in need, and compassion and kindness does matter no matter where you are. Another part of her career I was enthralled by was how she became the first African American to sing with the Metropolitan Opera Company. Although this was later on in her career, it would help pave the way for other artists of color, such as Leontyne Price, to perform at the Met, and we have Ms. Anderson and the open-mindedness of those at the Met to thank for that. Needless to say, Ms. Anderson received much accolades and awards throughout her career, including the University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit in 1973, the United Nations Peace Prize, New York City's Handel Medallion, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1977, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, the George Peabody Medal in 1981, the National Medal of Arts in 1986, and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1991. Throw a few honorary doctorates from Howard University, Temple University, and Smith College, you can't deny that she lived a well-lived life by the time she died on 8 April 1993. Quite a lady, indeed. If you want to see her truly out of her element, check out an episode of What's My Line?, where she was the mystery guest. If you want to find out if she stumped the panelists, watch the episode. It's a great one! Next up, Ella Fitzgerald.
Ms. Fitzgerald was on born on 25 April 1917 in Newport News, VA. Her parents were unmarried but lived together in the East End Section of Newport News for two and a half years after her birth. In the 1920s, Fitzgerald's mother and her new partner, Joseph Da Silva, moved to Yonkers, NY, and Ms. Fitzgerald began her formal education at six years old and was an outstanding student while moving through a variety of schools before attending Benjamin Franklin Junior High School in 1929. Sadly, her mother died from injuries sustained in a car accident in 1932, and Ms. Fitzgerald lived with her stepfather until 1933 when she moved to Harlem to live with her aunt. Biographer Stuart Nicholson described rumors of "ill treatment" by her stepfather, which poses the possibility of abuse. Because of this, Ms. Fitzgerald began switching schools, her grades suffered, and worked as a bordello and with a Mafia-affiliated numbers runner. By the time she was caught by the authorities, she was placed in the Colored Asylum in Riverdale in the Bronx, and was later moved to the New York Training School for Girls, a reformatory school in Hudson, NY, when the orphanage became too crowded. Ms. Fitzgerald survived between 1933-34 by singing on the streets of Harlem, but her big debut came on 17 November 1934 during one of the earliest amateur nights in Harlem at the Apollo Theater. She initially wanted to go on stage and sing and dance, but was intimidated by a local dance group called the Edwards Sisters, and chose to sing instead. Ms. Fitzgerald won first prize by singing "Judy" and "The Object of My Affection", and had the opportunity to perform at the Apollo for a week, but because of her disheveled appearance, the theater never gave her that prize. In January 1935, she won the chance perform for a week with the Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House. It was there she met the drummer and band leader Chick Webb, and although Webb had his doubts because Ms. Fitzgerald was "gawky and unkempt, a 'diamond in the rough,'" he offered her the chance to test with his band at a dance at Yale University. She was met with approval by both the audience and the band members, and Webb asked her join the band officially. They gained acclaim as part of the group's performances at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Ms. Fitzgerald recorded several hit songs, including "Love and Kisses" and "(If You Can't Sing It) You'll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini), but it was the 1938 song "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" that brought her public acclaim. This song was a major hit on the radio and was one of the best selling-records of the decade. Chick Webb died on 16 June 1939 of spinal tuberculosis, and the band was renamed Ella and her Famous Orchestra, with Ms. Fitzgerald taking the role of bandleader. From there, the rest is history. Throughout her career, she became one of the biggest vocal pioneers of jazz and popular song. Even as the swing era ended and big bands touring were decreasing, Ms. Fitzgerald never stayed rooted to one spot. She openly adapted to new jazz ideologies, including bebop. She incorporated scat singing into her repertoire, especially evident in the 1945 recording of "Flying Home" and the 1947 recording "Oh, Lady Be Good!" One thing she was especially known for was her recordings of songs from the Great American Songbook with Verve Records throughout the 1950s and 1960s. She earned much respect from fellow artists and critical acclaim from fans. Throughout her career, Ms. Fitzgerald won a whopping 13 Grammy Awards, and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967. She was also awarded the Kennedy Center Honor, the National Medal of Art, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the George and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement. You can definitely say she deserved all of those awards and more throughout her lifetime. She died of a stroke at her home in Beverly Hills on 15 January 1996. How did I first become acquainted with Ms. Fitzgerald? Well, if you recall from our discussion about Marian Anderson, my school had the living museum project, and it was such a hit that it was decided to be put on for another year with different individuals from history. I chose Ella Fitzgerald for my research and living museum project. I even got to sing "Blue Moon" when someone pressed my button on the table to get to know more about Ms. Fitzgerald. That was fun! My mom was lucky enough to get a CD so I can listen to her, and when I first heard her, WOW! I was blown away. There's a reason why she was called "the First Lady of Song." Ms. Fitzgerald's voice is nothing short of beautiful, and she did all sorts of things. She did the hits from the swing era, she did bebop, she did the Great American Songbook, and she even did country! (There is an album of her doing country songs, and it's out there on the market.) But one thing I was also struck by was how Ms. Fitzgerald was a civil rights activist. She fought hard for equality for the black community, and she used her talent to break barriers across the country. This wasn't always easy because there was a time when she was arrested for performing for an integrated audience. But she never backed down. She stuck with it, and many artists along with her did the same. Nowadays when someone famous takes a stand for a cause they believe in, we often get people telling them to "shut up and sing!" or just plain "shut up!" Need I remind you that we're all people, no matter what our status or career is. At the end of the day, we each have something to fight for and believe in. It's never okay to tell someone who wants to use their talents and power to help those in need to not get involved because they don't understand ordinary people. I hate to break this to you, but we're all ordinary people. And we get the chance to do extraordinary things that inspire, help, challenge, and change other's lives and the world. We shouldn't have to pit ourselves against each other when it comes to causes we believe in because one person makes more money than the others. We are all called to make a difference, and we should put aside our pride and be willing to help everyone. Many famous people don't use their money on the latest cars or gadgets or fashion (though that does seem to be the case). They would rather use it to help others because they were taught before there were famous that kindness and helping others out is a good thing, and it makes you feel good. Many artists feel this way, and we shouldn't have to regulate them to just "doing their jobs" in order to please us. Ms. Fitzgerald certainly didn't. Why do we keep continuing to do so when all that's going to do is have those with the wealth only speak up louder and with more urgency? We're all people, and each and every cause is a worthy one to fight. Don't tell us artists that it's not our fight because we're only here to entertain you. That couldn't be further from the truth. Our job as artists is to challenge your thinking and behaviors as human beings, inspire to be a better person and respect who you are on the inside and outside, and create something wonderful to remind us all how much alike we are, no matter how different we believe each other to be. I get the feeling you're all saying that this is nice, but don't you have anybody who is NOT dead who inspires you as an artist and a person? As a matter of fact, yes! Let's start with Andre De Shields.
Mr. De Shields was born in Dundalk, MD, on 12 January 1946, and raised in Baltimore, MD. He was the ninth of 11 children (WOW!). Mr. De Shields attended Baltimore City College, where he got his high school diploma in 1964, and then attended Wilmington College where performed in a production of A Raisin in the Sun. He later transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and earned his B.A. degree in English Literature in 1970. Mr. De Shields earned his M.A. degree in African American studies at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study in 1991, and currently serves as an adjunct professor. He began his professional acting career in the 1969 Chicago production of Hair, which led to a role in The Me Nobody Knows and participation in the Organic Theater Company. Mr. De Shields was in a number of Off-Off-Broadway productions at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in the East Village of Manhattan throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. He would not only act, but also co-write and direct several productions, including Judith and the Cohen Sisters in the Midnight in Manhattan (1984), The Adventures of Rhubarb: The Rock and Roll Rabbit (1985), and Saint Tous (1991). Mr. De Shields made his Broadway debut in the 1973 production of Warp, which led to a short run of Rachael Lily Rosenbloom (And Don't You Ever Forget It), and led to his title role performance in The Wiz in 1975. From there, he performed in the musical revue Ain't Misbehavin', which ran for 1,600 shows and earned Mr. De Shields a Drama Desk Award nomination. He's had quite a long and illustrious career in theatre, film, and television, with appearances in Another World, Cosby, Sex and the City, Law & Order, and Law & Order: SVU. And he's not stopping any time soon. How did I first become acquainted with Mr. De Shields? Well, it was actually seeing him in at the 2019 Tony Awards, where he was in a little show called Hadestown. Perhaps you've heard of it? Bottom line: I was blown away by the performance and the story, and now I can't wait for Broadway to open back up so I can finally see it. But it was Mr. De Shield's performance as Hermes that struck me. Mind you, the only Hermes that comes into my mind is the animated version from Disney's Hercules, where Paul Shaffer from The Late Show with David Letterman voiced the messenger of the gods. There's one particular line from the Hadestown album which shook me down to my core, and it comes from the song "Wait for Me." The meanest dog you'll ever meet He ain't the hound dog in the street He bares some teeth and tears some skin But brother, that's the worst of him The dog you really got to dread
Is the one that howls inside your head It's him whose howling drives men mad And a mind to its undoing. Wow. If that's not heavy, I don't know what is. And to think, night after night, he takes Anaïs Mitchell's lyrics and make them something haunting and awesome is a work of art. No wonder Mr. De Shields won the Tony Award for his performance that year. If there was something that made me respect him on an even deeper level, it was his acceptance speech. And here's what he had to say: “One, surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming, two, slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be. And three, the top of one mountain is the bottom of the next. So keep climbing.” It's a message that we should all be constantly reminding ourselves each and every day, no matter how old we are. After being in the business for over 50 years, the 73 year old took the lessons of this business and what he's discovered in life to heart. And need I remind you that he is also an openly gay man, and that can be especially difficult these days. But I also need to remind you that he never gave up or gave in because not everyone liked him. Mr. De Shields stuck to it, and it made his life truly blessed. And he's still going strong! Next, Audra McDonald.
Ms. McDonald was born in West Berlin, West Germany (aka Berlin, Germany) on 3 July 1950. Her father was stationed with the U.S. Army in Germany at the time of her birth, but the family grew up in Fresno, CA. She graduated from the Roosevelt School of the Arts program at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Fresno, and got her start in acting with Dan Pessano and the Good Company Players. Ms. McDonald knew she wanted to get into acting when she had the opportunity to work with the Good Company Players in the junior company, and credits Pessano and her mother have had the most impact on her life. She attended Juilliard School and studied voice under Ellen Faull, graduating in 1993. By the time she was 28 years old, Ms. McDonald was a three-time Tony winner for her performances in Carousel, Master Class, and Ragtime. From there, she would go on to win four more Tony Awards for her performances in A Raisin in the Sun, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, and Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grille. Ms. McDonald is the first person to win all four acting categories, and that is not an easy feat to accomplish. Not only is she a renowned stage actress, but has also performed in opera productions, as well as film and TV. She is currently with The Good Place as Liz Lawrence, a role she reprises after being on The Good Wife in season 4. Ms. McDonald has won many awards alongside the Tonys for her career, including the National Medal of Arts and being inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. How did I become acquainted with Ms. McDonald? This may sound odd, but it wasn't from seeing her in theatre, but rather in a 1999 TV movie production of Annie with association with the Wonderful World of Disney on ABC. (They need to bring this back, by the way.) She was Grace Farrell, and I was in awe of her voice. It was simply beautiful, and she embodied Grace in her own wonderful way. But as I will mention later on, it made a monumental difference in my life to see her in a role that's normally played by a white woman. In fact, Ms. McDonald is well-known for defying racial typecasting of African Americans, most notably playing Carrie Pepperidge in Carousel and Lizzy Curry in 110 in the Shade. She knows what African Americans are capable of, and it's more than just being stereotyped because it sells and it's "what's expected". And in today's society, that's a big leap of faith. She knows what she wants and what she doesn't want. And not settling for playing roles that demean African Americans in anyway makes a world of difference in my life. Here's an interesting story about Annie that was revealed in a 2017 interview by Ms. McDonald, which was released in 2019. There was a reshoot of the ending scene with Daddy Warbucks and Grace, and it is assumed that the heads of Disney and ABC were "a little uncomfortable" with having a black woman engage with a white man. The other members of the cast and crew were furious to have to do the same scene over again, to say the least, and Victor Garber intentionally performed the scene so poorly and Rob Marshall, the director, only did one take of that scene, and edit was not made into the final cut. Take that! It's a shame people can't see past color, and it's still going on to this day. Before I go into how Ms. McDonald inspires me, I thought it would be nice to introduce one more person who inspires me as an actor and a person, and the two are connected. Here's Aisha Jackson.
Ms. Jackson was originally from College Park, GA, and studied at the University of Northern Colorado. She came to NYC in 2013, and was one of the original ensemble members of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical as a swing replacement from 20 January - 27 September 2015. Since then, she has performed in Waitress and Frozen. How did I first learn about Ms. Jackson? It was actually an article my mom shared with me about her becoming the first African American to portray Anna in Frozen as a standby. I was fascinated, and hoped that there was a chance I could see her perform in the role on Broadway. I didn't get to see her once, but twice. And both times she hit it out of the ballpark. Ms. Jackson's enthusiasm, positivity, and love as Anna shined through both times I saw her perform. And I even got a picture of her along with her autograph on my playbill. But here's a story that is simply heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time that came from Ms. Jackson herself back in June 2020. When Disney first announced the casting for Frozen, which included the standbys and understudies, many people were appalled at the number of black people in the cast, particularly for Ms. Jackson being a standby for Anna and Jelani Alladin playing Kristoff. They've made it known in the comments section of the social media pages of Frozen. A few weeks later, a small publication decided to list and publish all of the names all of the people of color, and they said that it was wrong for Disney to defile the show and put these people of color in these roles. Not nice! As Ms. Jackson performed Anna on Broadway, more comments came in. "Norwegians can't be black!" "A black woman shouldn't be playing Anna." "Why is her hair not red?" "I came into the theatre and saw a person of color playing Anna, and I'm like, 'what's going on?'" Do you what's sad about this? Disney didn't stand up against the racist attacks made at the blacks in the cast, and the entire industry as a whole gives the white counterparts more opportunities to be front and center in the roles that so many people of color want so badly. When people of color do get the chance to perform in the leading roles, audiences say "that's wrong" because of how the industry painted the picture of people color as only being the sassy best friend or the loud belter in these roles. What can be done about this? Two words: OPEN MINDEDNESS. Allow yourselves to be open to the possibilities of what blacks and people of color can be capable, and that is more than what is typecast over and over again. Don't shy away from seeing color, but also be willing to look at the talent of each individual, no matter what their skin color is. It's clear that much needs to change, and with voices like Ms. Jackson sharing her story to her audiences, it needs to happen sooner rather than later. Now, about that connection Ms. McDonald and Ms. Jackson have in common. They both played in roles that were played by white women, and they didn't bow down to the pressure or criticism, no matter how severe it was. It hurt both of them deeply, but they never gave up or gave in. Both ladies saw themselves in these roles, and they weren't about to let their skin color stop them from going for their dreams. And by doing so, they showed a generation of black girls and women that it is possible to be whoever they want to be. Brandy paved the way with Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella in 1997, and Ms. McDonald followed soon afterwards as being Mr. Warbucks' personal secretary (and later wife-to-be). In other words, I saw myself in both of those roles, and that has made such a difference in my life. And I'm pretty sure many black men, women, and children who saw these incredible actors in roles that are so unlike the stereotypical black roles the industry gives us were proud, happy, and relieved that they don't have to settle for what is expected of them because it's what sells. I repeat, things need to change, and it needs to happen sooner rather than later. Both Ms. McDonald and Ms. Jackson spoke openly about their struggles, and how the arts has made that much of a difference in their lives. For Ms. McDonald, it was her parents encouragement to get involved with the arts after a wild childhood. (Many of her acceptance speeches make a point of being repeated the seven times she won the Tony.) For Ms. Jackson, it was in light of the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arberry, and Breonna Taylor to talk about her experiences as a black woman in the theatre, and how much change needs to happen going forward so that the same things don't happen again. They weren't willing to be silent, and they took on their critics with their talents and proved them wrong time and time again. That is a big lesson worth learning right there. (Much appreciation to Wikipedia for the information on each of these individual's histories and details that were not evident before. I also thank sources like Playbill, BroadwayWorld.com, EverythingZoomer.com, and more for their assistance as well. Like many things, these are my observations and experiences on Black history, and you are welcome to disagree with if you want to. But I will not tolerate any racist attacks of any sort, let alone any trolling or criticism of the sort. If you can't say something nice, don't say anything. It's that simple.) Are these the only black artists who inspire me? Not quite. I'm also inspired by so many others who paved the way for black performers to do what they love. People like Lena Horne, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington, Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong'o, Misty Copeland, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Ava DuVernay, Javicia Leslie, and the list goes on and on and on... You see my point. Not only do these artists inspire me to be creative, but they've also proven that the best person to be is MYSELF. Even the color of my skin shouldn't stop me from pursuing my best life, and it's times like these where it's important to continue to break down the barriers that have hampered black artists for so long. The only way we can truly move forward as a nation is if we look past the colors (but not be colorblind) and only see each other as PEOPLE. We're not meant to be typecast for money or for the expectation of society. We deserve to be seen and treated as human beings like so many of our white counterparts are. We want to have stories told that celebrate black history, the struggles, and the successes that came from the journey to being well-known. We want to be considered and cast in the roles that we want so badly that are seen and performed by our white counterparts. But most of all, we just want a chance to shine. Give us that chance. Don't count us out because of color. Black artists lives matter. Black trans lives matter. Black gays lives matter. Black lesbians lives matter. Black children lives matter. Black women lives matter. Black men lives matter.
BLACK LIVES MATTER. Period. No ifs ands or buts about it.