Acting While Black: Margo Hall
Tuesday, December 23, 2014
By Rotimi Agbabiaka
Growing up in Detroit with a stepfather who was a respected jazz musician and musical director for The Supremes, veteran Bay Area actress Margo Hall had no shortage of self-confidence as a budding black artist.
"I was always surrounded by very successful artists who seemed to just blend right in," she says. "Everyone loved Aretha, everyone loved Marvin, everyone loved Smokey; so I figured everybody loved me."
Margo Hall, with Marcus Shelby, her collaborator on Be Bop Baby, A Musical Memoir
at Z Space (2013). Photo: Chris Alongi
Having been raised to believe that she could be anything she wanted to be, Hall decided that she would be an actress and headed to acting school in New York—where she learned that the theatre world did not share her belief in black artistic excellence.
When her initial audition tape with an impassioned selection from Ntozake Shange's "for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf" was rejected by Adelphi University, she reapplied in person wearing a white eyelet dress and a white bow in her hair. She replaced her Shange piece with a "very proper" performance of Emily's monologue from "Our Town." And she got in.
Thus began a lifelong quest to answer a question that is all-too-familiar to many black actors: How do you navigate a theatre community that does not always recognize or celebrate the cultural contributions of African Americans?
Do you tone down aspects of your cultural heritage and personality to blend in with the dominant white aesthetic? Or do you stand out as your proud, unapologetically authentic black self and risk being ignored, marginalized, or opposed? In a national and local theatre scene that still falls short of including diverse voices, black actors continue to ask these questions in training institutions, audition halls, rehearsal spaces, or from the sidelines.
Like Hall, black actors entering training programs often find themselves in an environment in which they do not feel truly welcome or understood.
"It was rough," she says of her undergraduate experience. "I had a teacher there tell me that black people shouldn't do Shakespeare because their tongues are too thick."
Hearing assertions like this undermined Hall's confidence in the experience and artistry she carried with her from childhood. She was also disappointed to find that the students of color were shut out from performing on the main stage because the department didn't produce plays about the black experience and maintained traditional casting for the "white" plays. In addition, the curriculum focused overwhelmingly on plays by white authors and ignored the vast majority of black playwrights.
It wasn't until her final year of graduate school—when she got a job at Arena Stage in Washington DC—that Hall learned about August Wilson. In her work today as an acting and directing professor she sees black culture continue to be downplayed in theatre curricula to the detriment of the students.
"I tell [my students of color] it's great that you know how to play Nina in Seagull but when are you gonna do that again?" she says. "You need to learn Naomi Iizuka, you need to learn how to be in The Piano Lesson. If you can play an August Wilson character do you know how amazing you will be?"
Over the course of her career, Hall's exposure to black drama has increased, enabling her to blend her cultural heritage with her classical training—something she believes is vital for black actors who wish to express their full artistry. Unfortunately, she continues to do so in a theatre climate that considers black drama to be limited in scope.
"The psychology is that [black drama is] limited; that you [as an actor] don't have that many roles," she says. "But that's because you don't show us all the roles. If you look over the canon we've got a lot of plays and we're constantly writing more and more and more."
Black actors continue to feel marginalized when they leave their training programs and enter a professional world that often drags its feet when it comes to including diverse voices in its production calendars. Hall asserts that rather than suggesting black actors adapt themselves to fit in, the theatre scene should expand its pantheon of productions to include works that represent the diversity of the world in which we live. She's made it her mission, as a theatre artist, to preach the value of black drama and the necessity of inviting the previously marginalized voices of black writers, directors, technicians, and actors to the theatre table.
"Over time I've tried to make sure that people understood the value of black drama" she says. "Black drama is not just for black people. It is drama like Tennessee Williams and you have to get out there and show people that there is so much more than what they already know."
Rotimi Agbabiaka is a San Francisco-based actor, teacher, director and writer. He's performed at Cal Shakes, TheatreWorks and Beach Blanket Babylon and written an award-winning solo play called Homeless. He is currently a collective member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe.