The following is a response to Maya Phillips's essay "Black Bodies, White Writers," published in late November as part of American Theatre's package on the state of criticism.
I often say to anyone who will listen: “Why can’t I play that role? I went to drama school. I can play any role. The source of theatre is imagination. Relax and take the imaginative leap.”
The reality of the situation is that in most cases I am not given this opportunity. As an artist of color, my road has not been easy. I have always supplemented my acting career with a day job, but I have been very fortunate to work consistently in the professional theatre, and I have been fortunate to play a great variety of roles. Some were in plays that directly addressed race; some plays did it in more subtle ways, and some did not acknowledge racial difference at all.
My vetting of and ultimate participation in certain roles is rooted in my belief that every character I choose to play has a soul and a story to share. I seek roles that deal with the human experience. And I am no one’s pawn. If I ever felt that my character was exploited in any way, if there was an issue that I was uncomfortable with in regards to race, or if a director needed to be schooled in race relations or racial stereotypes, I forcefully let my thoughts be known. I have lectured and fought for dignity in productions where the powers that be were ignorant to the realities of what it means to cast a person of color in a non-traditional role. I would never stand for any action where a director or producer would use my race as a joke (as an unbylined critic in The New Yorker wrote of the show, a comment I found highly offensive).
In an article from last year that I read recently, “Diversity on stage: who’s afraid of color-blind casting?”, Alexis Soloski poses a very interesting question: “Do we perceive theatre as a collaborative form in which a play is made new each time a director and actors put it on, or whether plays exist as blueprints for a single ideal staging that each production will realize to greater and lesser extent?” She goes on to answer that if it is the former, “then perhaps we can hope for a theatre that respects the integrity of both new and classic plays while also using them to reflect on urgent contemporary questions of race, gender, and sexuality…. And sometimes even these questions might yield to the excitement of thrilling actors taking on roles written for characters with dissimilar bodies, ethnicities and cultural identities.”
As an ensemble member of Elevator Repair Service, a company that embraces diversity on every level, I have been fortunate to play great roles, and thus agree with Soloski’s assessment. I have been a member of Elevator Repair Service for 10 years. The company, far from traditional, is experimental in nature, and non-traditional casting is the norm, not the exception. I have been given opportunities to play wonderful three-dimensional characters based on my ability, and it has been a joy to work in an environment where I am part of the process and I have a creative voice. One of the happiest days of my life as an actor was when I was told that a Shakespeare play presented by ERS, Measure for Measure, was chosen to be produced in the 2017/2018 theatre season by the Public Theater, based on a reading of a scene that I was asked to do by the artistic director. In the 30 years I have been an actor in New York, this is the first time that something like this has ever happened to me—to have the decision to produce Measure for Measure based on my ability as an actor to connect to the role of Claudio.
The role is an actor’s dream: complex, conflicted, and the center of the play. A true gift for any actor, but especially an actor of color, whose opportunities to perform a pivotal character in a play written by William Shakespeare are typically few and far between.
From beginning to end, an ERS production takes about two years to create. We did several workshops, a residency, and an all-important rehearsal period on the stage at the Public. We discussed every word and action in the play, read all of the theatre criticism about it, spent meticulous care researching, experimenting, and adjusting, and came up with a very clear focus of what we wanted to present with a very strong point of view. Personally, I was excited to investigate and share the human and universal circumstances of Claudio’s plight: being unjustly accused, incarcerated, horrified that I would never see my child or be an influence in his life, facing the prospect of never seeing any of my loved ones again, having to beg my sister to save my life by giving up her virginity, and then dealing with the ultimate shame of having made that request, and finally facing death, steadfast in my acceptance of my fate. I wanted the audience to experience what one goes through when one is made to be an example, to be subject to the whims of power, and most importantly to show what it is like to be on the other side of a trigger, staring death in the face.
During previews we had several talkbacks after performances. We were so grateful to get important feedback regarding a scene in the play which consists of an onstage decapitation of a mannequin depicting a deceased body double of my character. In Shakespeare’s plot, this body double is used to save Claudio’s life. We had a meeting as an ensemble to address the issue of how to be faithful to Shakespeare’s text while taking into consideration the circumstances of casting an actor of color in the role of Claudio in 2017. This involved the tricky task of attempting to both honor Shakespeare’s comic intent and understand the unintended implication that one black body could be replaced by another so easily and then disregarded.
In response to this, we made changes that were instrumental to the growth of the scene and the production. Personally, I was very proud of how we came together as a company to tackle this issue in our present climate of severe unrest and disregard for African Americans’ lives.
That is why I was so disheartened that in Maya Phillips’s commentary about our production, this device—of the mannequin of a dead African-American used to save the life of the wrongly and unjustly incarcerated Claudio—received more focus and attention than the actual saving of the living Claudio’s life. It should be noted that in this production, the black man actually lives, his name is cleared, and it is the people who wrongly imprisoned him who are made to look foolish in the end.
It is important that critics of the theatre comment on issues that need to be addressed in today’s society especially in regards to race, but it is also important to know and not to forget that artists of color are always fighting for better roles so that we can express our specific points of view in society. To imply that we are complicit in any way with the powers that be that are sitting back and doing nothing is to unfairly take away our agency and to undervalue the remarkable strides that we have made. Of course, for every step of progress we make, we may encounter a step back every now and then, but the important thing is that we are fighting from within to be heard and acknowledged.
As a person of color and an artist, I continue to battle to raise the level of consciousness with positive representations through art. The fight continues, and I thank ERS for giving me the opportunity to use my voice to continue in these efforts.