Acting While Black, Part 3: Young Voices
Thursday, February 19, 2015
By Rotimi Agbabiaka
What would young black actors say if given the chance to speak their minds to the Bay Area theatre community? What stories would they tell? What concerns would they raise? Which accomplishments would they recount—and which experiences would they hope to never relive? What excites them most about working here, and what hopes do they have for the future? What do they need in order to feel truly valued and supported by their community?
Photo: "Bettina Bejeweled" by Powell Burns on Flickr.
Used under Creative Commons license.
To answer these questions, I sat down with three actors—two women and one man—to chat about their experiences of acting while black. These actors, who range in age from mid-twenties to mid-thirties, have appeared on various Bay Area stages, from smaller experimental companies to large Equity houses. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, they have shared their thoughts in hopes of sparking honest conversation. While each actor brings a unique perspective to the issues at hand, their answers, taken together, illuminate the various ways in which our community sometimes falls short of nurturing certain voices and talents.
Only one of the three actors is a Bay Area native; each was asked about the experiences that made them excited to work here. Each answer recalls a moment when they felt like the Bay Area might be a place where their voices could be heard.
For one actor, it was seeing Campo Santo's 2007 production of Fe in the Desert, seeing actors who looked like her doing work that was far from traditional. "I was blown away by everybody's work," she says, "and felt a personal connection with the theatre company."
Another actor reminisces about playing classic roles in predominantly black productions. "When people initially think about these roles, they don't think about black people so it's cool to play them—especially [at student matinees] when you get to see black students see people who look like them doing these shows."
For the third actor, it was being cast in a role that wasn't specifically written as a black character.
"I don't want to just be called in for the ethnic role," she says. "I'm happy to be in a 'black' play, but that is not the only thing I can do."
The actors express a common desire for stage directors and casting directors—who, in the Bay Area, are usually white—to be more open-minded. This applies not just to colorblind and nontraditional casting, but also to understanding that there are a variety of black experiences.
"I often have the experience [at an audition] of seeing that there are five white people behind the table casting a black play," says one actor. "And their idea of being black is so specific that I don't fit it because I'm light-skinned, or speak a certain way."
The same actor recalls being advised to learn some "urban" monologues "because people won't know what to do with you...you're too clean to play the street [character] but they're not going to cast you as the lead."
All three actors expressed dismay at one particular practice that makes working here especially difficult for black actors given the scarcity of black productions and the dearth of colorblind casting: hiring actors from New York or LA for local productions.
"It hurt," one actor says about an experience where a locally commissioned play used local black actors for all the developmental readings and workshops—but then cast out-of-town actors of color for the actual production. "It made me feel like this theatre is not committed to the community, that they are not as excited about the community."
"It's great that companies are talking about being more inclusive and diverse in telling these [black] stories on stage," says another actor. "But if you don't hire actors of color from your local community, then that is hypocrisy. It doesn't matter to me that you're telling this story if you're not investing in the practical application of raising up that community."
And to the assertion that theatres are just casting the best actors that walk in, or that, as one actor was told by a local casting director, "There aren't any good young black actors in the Bay Area," one of the actors has this to say:
"When you're always playing the maid, or the ancillary comic role, or you always have three lines, then you don't have any opportunities to grow or to practice different skills. [Casting directors] can't take [an actor's audition] in a vacuum; [they] need to take in the larger picture and put in a little more work to help equalize things."
Production staff demographics at many theatres also contribute to a culture of exclusion; the absence of directors or crew members of color can foster an unwelcoming environment. One actor recounts hearing lighting designers complain about having to light a dark-skinned actor appearing in a play with a predominantly white cast. The same actor also recalls hearing a show hairdresser exclaim, "What the hell am I supposed to do with this?" when having to style her dread locks for a period play.
In discussing their concerns, the actors link their struggles to those of other marginalized groups in theatre: women, sexual minorities, and other people of color. They all speak strongly about how essential it is for theatre to include these voices if it is to remain alive for much longer.
"If you don't embrace a young, diverse audience, then where's your theatre going to be in the next 15 years?" asks one actor.
"Of course your subscriber base is dwindling," another actor adds. "I teach theatre to at-risk kids. Why are they going to come see your shows [when] there is nothing for them to relate to?"
Despite the challenges, these actors are proud of their accomplishments, and hopeful about their futures in the Bay Area—although one of them confesses seriously considering joining the ranks of young black actors that have left the scene in search of greener pastures elsewhere. They shout out Crowded Fire, Cutting Ball, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, African-American Shakespeare Company, Campo Santo, Marin Theatre Company, and Magic Theatre as companies that make them optimistic about greater inclusion in the community. And they believe that a genuine acknowledgement of the problems at hand and honest communication are the keys to meaningful solutions.
"It would behoove the Bay Area to get off its liberal soapbox," one actor says about the obstacles to communication that arise when people get defensive about their progressive credentials.
"As long as we uphold this false identity that there is no racism, there is no problem, there is no privilege, there is no preference, then people aren't free to talk about their issues. Not just [actors] of color, but people on the other side of the table won't be free to say, "I want to find actors of color, but I don't know how to do that, and I need help," if everyone else is claiming that they don't have that problem."
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.