"They Told Me I Can't Play Peter Pan..."
Before I get started, let me stress that I'm not an expert on this, but it's all from my observations and articles I've read. When I was younger, I found myself playing all sorts of roles, without any awareness of the color of my skin. If there was ever a time where I was the tiniest bit self-conscious of what roles I could play, it was when I went with my Girl Scout troop to see Disney on Ice. After the show, we were all talking about which of the Disney characters we could be. There was Mulan, Cinderella, Snow White, Belle, Aurora, etc. When they came to me, there was a problem. None of the characters that we saw looked like me. The closest they came to was Nala from The Lion King. I didn't think of it much then. I didn't think much of race at all, to be honest. I believed that I could be anyone that I wanted to be, regardless of race. It never crossed my mind that my opportunities could be limited due to race. I even tried to shy away from Black history because I was made fun of because of my passion. It was definitely a confusing time. When did that change? Only in recent years. Why? When I was growing up, I went to Catholic schools all my life, right up until college. And for the most part, there were more white kids in my class than minorities. But I didn't see that as a problem. In fact, I relished being part of the crowd. Sure, there was some embarrassment of living in a rough neighborhood, but then we moved to a better neighborhood with more diversity. Twice. It made my life so much better. When I lived in a rough city, many of the people there were black. And they were also narrow-minded and pessimistic for the most part. Many of the people who came to the city were originally from the South, where they experienced so much hatred that it hardened their hearts. And it passed onto the next generations after that. When my mom and her family moved from Brooklyn to that city, they were already considered odd because of how much lighter their skin looked than most of the black people. And because of how they spoke clearly and didn't use slang. (It wasn't an option in their upbringing.) And how they kept on moving forward despite the obstacles that came their way. And that identity, diction and lighter skin color were passed onto me. You have to understand, when I was growing up, "ain't" wasn't allowed at all. (In most cases, it still isn't.) Speaking clearly was hammered into my memory at a young age. And accepting limitations wasn't an option for a better life because of the color of my skin. Okay, you're all probably all wondering where I'm getting at with this and how does this relate to my career as an actress. Well, I'll tell you in a minute, but first, let me tell you about a book I read as a child to illustrate this conundrum.
One of my favorite books to read, when I was a kid, was called Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman & Caroline Binch. The story is about a young girl named Grace who LOVED to tell stories and play characters. She played all of the lead characters, whether it was Aladdin, Mowgli, a doctor, you name it! When her class was planning on putting on a performance of Peter Pan, naturally everyone wanted to play the lead role, including Grace. As she raised her hand, one of her classmates told her that she couldn't play Peter Pan because she was a girl. Another one told Grace that she couldn't play the lead because she was black. That part always troubled me. Why couldn't Grace play Peter Pan? She had just as much of a right to play the lead as anyone else. Putting race aside for a moment, there are times when I would go to auditions thinking that I would be perfect for the role. When I was starting out, I would get upset that I didn't get cast at all or get the role that I wanted. I always felt like it had something to do with the way I looked or if I did my audition better or personality. Nearly four years into my career, I realize that it could be a number of reasons why I didn't get chosen, and none of it had to do with who I was as a person. The main reason is that it has to fit the director's overall vision and sometimes I may not be the missing piece of the puzzle. I forget this frequently after doing so well at or blowing an audition. I think we can all agree that we've been in this position before. But there is an even sadder truth to auditions for minorities than I initially realized. And I found it in an article from OnStage Blog. The author was at an audition for a performing arts school and began a conversation with an Asian actress. He asked her what her "dream roles" were, and her reply took him by surprise. "Do you mean my real list? Or my 'White list'?" What is the 'White list?' Basically, these are the roles that she knew could get cast in because of her race, and then there is the list of roles that she could play if only she was white. Sadly, I thought about this for a while, and I can say that there are times when I had my own "White list." I always see myself doing the classics like The Importance of Being Earnest or Tartuffe, or even adaptations of novels for the stage, such as Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice. I would love to play the principal or supporting roles in these classics, but I have a sinking feeling in my gut when I go these auditions that I may not get cast because of my skin color and the need to stay true to the story and the time. Another problem I've faced when I would submit for auditions or roles? Not enough variety of roles for minorities. Case in point: whenever I would go out for auditions for black-based productions, I would always have to attempt to read slang or speak in a different way than I normally speak. For someone who has been taught from a very young age to enunciate, that's very hard to do! Or even see roles that are the general stereotype of that particular race - uneducated, poor African Americans, drug dealer Latinos, terrorist Muslims, you name it. (sigh) Can I make a quick suggestion to my fellow actors, writers, directors, and any and every creative type? STOP WITH THE STEREOTYPING! There are plenty of minorities out there who may not fit the stereotypical roles that is being presented on TV, film, or even the stage. For instance, there are blacks out there who speak clearly and don't slang at all. There are blacks who enjoy classical music and opera, which is WAY different from what many blacks enjoy. There are blacks who geek out over Dungeons & Dragons or other fantasy realms. There are blacks who are crazy about anime. There are blacks who eat healthily and not eat fried chicken all the time. Same with all of the other minorities. There are plenty of us who don't fit the stereotypical mold that is being presented in the media right now, and that's okay. These are the kinds of stories that should be told. Representation does matter, but what good is it if you don't represent EVERY KIND of person in that race, regardless of whether or not he or she or they are seen as commonplace or normal. I would love to be a part of a project where who I am should be represented, not just my skin color, but also my personality and how I speak and how I look physically. I may not enjoy or do the things that some blacks do which is seen the most in the media, but should that stop the storytellers from telling that story, even if it doesn't fit the stereotype? Certainly not! I'm all for representation in the media by ALL races, but I also believe that EVERY person should be seen. Even those who aren't what is defined stereotypically as "black," "Latino," "Indian," "Muslim," or even "white." There are plenty of stories that should be told for everyone to see, and it should include EVERYONE.