by Velina Brown
Q: I saw the letter you posted on Facebook regarding the show about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. After reading the letter I could see what you and the group of women who wrote the letter were upset about. But honestly, when I first heard about the show I didn’t see a problem with it and really didn’t pay any attention to it. Then it became a big deal. Now I’m wondering, what if I ever found myself in a show that becomes the center of controversy? What’s your advice to an actor in that situation? Quit, burn a bridge, risk harming the rest of their career? Stay and appear to not care about the issue that triggered the protest? There’s a risk of feeling bad and being negatively judged no matter what the choice. And aren’t you burning a bridge by publicly criticizing a big theatre like that? I just don’t know what’s the smart thing to do.
Actor and career consultant Velina Brown.
A: Hmm, what’s the smart thing to do? Well, if the only consideration is the smart career move it would likely be to keep quiet right? In the extremely competitive field of acting, actors are constantly living in fear of “burning a bridge.” It is a tough situation to realize, once you’ve already accepted a role and begun working on it, that “Houston, we have a problem.” I can’t tell anyone what choice to make: accept a role or not, stay in or leave a production. Those are very big and very personal choices based on a person’s situation, mindset, and values. You can poll people for advice but since all advice is autobiographical the advice you receive may not be relevant to your specific circumstances.
This is why Voices Matter (the coalition of black women theatre artists who wrote and signed the letter you saw on Facebook) also wrote a letter to the actors of the production acknowledging what a difficult situation they were in and to express that we were not attacking or judging them at all. The issue we are addressing is not about the actors. I repeat: it’s not about the actors.
Our critique is of those in decision-making positions. This is about the choice to do the play. It is about the dismissal of the concerns that were shared with the creative team all along the three-year development process and the tone-deaf responses to complaints about the way the show was being marketed and about the show itself once it was running. It was about the lack of people in the room who were knowledgeable about the issues when decisions were being made.
In Thomas and Sally, Sally Hemings is depicted as a grown woman with agency and choice vis a vis her relationship with her owner, Thomas Jefferson. To characterize that relationship as a romantic love affair rather than as a middle-aged slave owner taking advantage of a 14-year-old slave girl is irresponsible. Right now countless women and girls who are not slaves are being sexually abused and are feeling like they can’t say anything about it for fear of negative repercussions. Therefore, if women and girls who are not slaves are frightened into silence what chance would a slave girl have for her wishes to be honored? Romanticizing such a situation is just wrong and dangerous to women and girls.
So, to your question: am I burning a bridge by speaking out about this? I say, this issue is bigger than me. The mother who puts herself between her child and harm doesn’t do it because she’s suicidal and doesn’t value her life. She does it because she values her child’s life more.
Those of us who signed and released the letter have knowingly taken this risk because we have decided it’s more important to protect the young women and girls coming up behind us, who will be harmed by the message this piece reinforces in the culture, than to protect our professional connections to a given theatre. But, yes, we know that the risk of retaliation is real.
So my advice to you on what do in a similar situation? I can’t say because I don’t know what makes your stomach churn. I don’t know what keeps you up at night. Those indicators are your guidance. Get quiet. Go within. Consult your emotional guidance system. Choose based on how you feel. You may make a choice that no one else around you understands. But you are the one who must live with it. And the types of choices one makes as a younger actor may evolve over time to different choices that one may make at another stage of life.
In the meantime, if those in leadership positions are responsible and responsive to the communities of already marginalized people who could be harmed by how they are presented on their stage, then by the time actors are invited into the process far fewer of them will be faced with difficult ethical choices. And far fewer will have to weigh the risk of burning a bridge.
Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send her your questions at Velina@BusinessOfShowBiz.com.