Silence Isn't Golden
On 25 May, a black man named George Floyd was arrested for suspected counterfeit in Minneapolis, Minnesota. What happened next would be best described as criminal. He was pinned down by one of the officers, Derek Chauvin, with the officer's knee on his neck. Mr. Floyd repeatedly said, "I can't breathe," while the other three officers stood around and did nothing. This went on for eight minutes and 46 seconds. He later died at the hospital. What happened next is hell boiling over. Three weekends later, the protests are still going strong, with calls for the end to systemic racism, police brutality, racial inequality, and even defunding the police. Now, the calls for those responsible for the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery to be held accountable and charged are insistent and loud. The cries for an end to racism in the U.S. and across the globe are now a rallying cry. The anger over countless innocent black lives taken by those who are supposed to protect us is now a call for justice. The marching to the government offices and across streets have now stirred up the movement yet again. As a lyric from a famous show so eloquently states, "it's not a moment, it's a MOVEMENT." This movement has done more than amplify our voices loud and clear. It's releasing so many centuries of pent-up frustration against racism and inequality. It's expressing our hard-fought struggle for acceptance and respect. It's reminding us that silence is no longer an option. In fact, it's forcing us to see what being quiet does and how that needs to change. And I mean NOW.
In a matter of weeks, black performers, directors, screenwriters, and more described their experiences with racism in the workplace. You'd think this wouldn't be going on in 2020, not in places where open-minded people are encouraged to be there. But as I've heard time and time again, racism is EVERYWHERE, and it is a learned skill. People aren't born with it but are rather taught to think of themselves superior to one or more races that don't look like themselves. Where have I seen or heard these stories? Primarily on Instagram and Facebook. But I also listen to a great podcast called The Ensemblist, hosted by Mo Brady, which chronicles the life of the ensemble members of the Broadway theaters in NYC and on tours. In light of what's going on right now, they're sharing a series entitled "Black Lives Matter," which describes the racism many of the black and people of color ensemble members faced for so many years. What's sad about this is that it is just now coming to light. For a long time, they've had to be silent or risk losing their jobs if they complained right to the top or informed whoever's in charge. A job in this business is hard to find and keep, and the fear of losing it because of one's discomfort over a racist joke or saying was very severe. But no more. They've had enough. They're realizing that this CANNOT continue, not well into the 21st century. And in hopes of speaking up, they may inspire others to do the same. This shouldn't have to continue in a space where new ideas and stories are told on a regular basis, and the theatremakers shouldn't have to relegate blacks and people of color alike to roles that are generally stereotyped. What are some of the things that blacks and people of color have experienced while working on a show? I will tell you. (NOTE: I'm keeping the names of the people who spoke up about this anonymous out of respect, plus copyright issues.) *One Asian performer describes going to a "colored dance call," where many dancers of color are invited to audition for a show. Usually, there would be blacks, Asians, Indians, and at least one white person in the room. They would choose the white person out of the dozens of individuals of color for their show. *During Motown: The Musical, one performer stood backstage wearing a hoodie, and a stagehand came up to him and said, "Hey, Trayvon." *At a new gig, one performer decided NOT to learn the name of the new performer who was replacing the one that was leaving, and decided to call him "brown." This went on for a month. She did it because "she thought it was funny." *A coworker touched a black performer's beard, and said, "It feels like pubic hair. Is that how all black people's hair feels?" *A supervisor told a performer to deal with a certain situation because he could relate to it. "You're black," he said. *Countless white performers would tell black performers, "They won't hire me. Black is in right now. You're lucky." *"You know black people tend to be off-pitch when singing. It's true. I have no idea why, but they're always flat." *"You can't read. You're black." ~A white performer to a black performer signing the call sheet at an audition *"You aren't full nig. You're half-nig, so that's okay." *"Black women aren't really good at the ballet because they can't be delicate." *"You only got that job over me because you're ethnic." *"You don't sound black." "What do black people sound like?" "Ghetto." *"We have 'rich' and 'black female.' We don't need any others." *"I do Broadway, not sloppy street tap like you." ~A performer comparing their dance experience to Shuffle Along *"I have no idea what to do with all of that hair she has. How am I supposed to put that under a wig?" ~Costume designer *"It just wouldn't make sense for black people to play any of these roles." ~Casting directors for classic theatre pieces *"Look at my black girl booty. It is so FAT!" ~A white performer during a show *"You aren't really black. I'm surprised you got cast as a black person." ~A friend who came to see the performer in the show I know what you're thinking. Seriously? Yeah, seriously. I didn't want to believe it, either. But it's there. And it broke my heart and made me angry. But what also made me feel so many emotions is that so many white performers, casting directors, choreographers, and more didn't realize that this was racist, and didn't even stop to think about how the black people would feel about hearing all of these things. And that's only a small sample of what we experience on a regular basis. One performer I admire greatly is a young woman named Aisha Jackson, who was the standby for Anna in Frozen: The Musical. She became the first black woman to play the role, over a hundred times. When they first came out with the cast list for the show, Ms. Jackson wanted to see what was said on Facebook since she was being tagged by all of her friends. Unfortunately, she made the mistake of looking at the comments, and they were downright harsh. Things like "I'm sure she's good, but..." "Anna's not supposed to be black." "Really, Disney?" "Norwegians can't be black." Several days later, an article was released listing all of the names of the black performers in the show. It wasn't out there to celebrate the talent but to criticize and put them down. They accused Disney of ruining the beauty of Frozen by adding colored people to the show. And it didn't stop there. Ms. Jackson wondered if Disney would say something in regards to the comments blasting her and her fellow black performers. But they didn't. They kept silent. An organization known for celebrating talent and diversity on Broadway kept their mouths shut. Why? And do you know what's really sad? It's not just happening in professional theatre. It's also happening in community theatre as well. Case in point: (I originally posted about this on my Instagram page, but since there are so many characters you can use, I didn't go into depth as I would like. Here's what I originally wanted to say.) I'm probably one of the few black people who love to read the classics - Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Louisa May Alcott, you name it. I just love reading books in general. It's so nice to escape into another world for several hours. Whenever there's an announcement of a stage adaptation of a classic novel or story, I get especially excited at the endless possibilities of what can be done on stage. When there are auditions for the classic plays and adaptations from novels, you bet that I will be there. I always get excited to try out for a role for a show in the classics. But I'll have you know right now that my track record for getting cast in the classics hasn't been all that good. And I'm realizing that it may be more than just my talent that's not getting me cast in the classics. There was one instance where a theatre I adore working with was doing an adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, and I signed up for a chance to be cast in the show. In the audition room, there was me and one other black person there. We both gave our pieces and I thought we both did a nice job. But here's one thing that made me think after the auditions were over: neither one of us were asked to speak in a British accent when all of the other actors, who were white, were asked to do so. It was as if the director and the creative team assumed that black people couldn't speak in a British accent when we should've been given a chance. Needless to say, neither one of us got cast in the show, along with any other minorities who auditioned for the show.
Here's something that's also bothering me: when you say "all ethnicities are welcome," and yet when I see the production photos of shows with an all-white cast, there's something wrong with this picture. And it makes me and countless other blacks and people of color wonder if it was their color that was the reason they weren't cast. Why won't you consider minorities for roles in the classics, when you encourage "all races and ethnicities" to audition? We're meant for more than just being servants, the sassy black friend, a sex symbol, or other two dimensional characters. We deserve the chance to play vulnerable, strong, and multi-dimensional characters. You shouldn't have to settle to have a "black" or "Asian" or "Indian" shows just to appease those who want diversity in the season line-up. Every race and ethnicity should be considered, let alone cast, in roles that are generally reserved for white actors. Screw the critics and purists who want to have it their way. They weren't meant to be supporters of the theatre in the first place if they can't accept that different races can play important characters like Elizabeth Bennett, the Great Gatsby, Eliza Doolittle, or even Lady Bracknell. You shouldn't have to judge on the basis of color if they're right for the role. You should be basing your casting on TALENT, and there continue, not well into the 21st century. And in hopes of speaking up, they may inspire others to do the same. This shouldn't have to continue in a space where new ideas and stories are told on a regular basis, and the theatremakers shouldn't have to relegate blacks and people of color alike to roles that are generally stereotyped.
This is especially for the white American theatre. It's high time for you to change your thinking, and start crediting the BIPOC for their contributions to the arts. Need more information? Here's the link below for you to read and sign: https://www.weseeyouwat.com Do you know what's sad about this whole thing? It had to take the killings of three innocent black lives to make us realize that silence isn't golden anymore. It shouldn't have to come to that. It didn't have to come to that. When we spoke up about the racism we've experienced in our workplace or in daily life, you should've listened to us and not played with our emotions or forced us to choose between keeping our jobs or being quiet. Each and every one of us has a voice, and now it's time to use it. Especially now. For CHANGE. I hope you hear mine loud and clear.