In the spring of 1995, I embarked on a series of audiotaped conversations on the art of acting (from a black perspective) with Douglas Turner Ward, co-founder and artistic director of the famed Negro Ensemble Company. They took place in Ward’s corner office when the NEC was located on 46th Street on the fifth floor overlooking Broadway. I always assumed the role of the novice or beginner seeking advice, information or direction. —G.E.
All right, so I want to be an actor. It is the profession that I have chosen to dedicate all my energies and time to. I want to be an actor, a star, or just somebody who earns his living doing this full time. I want to interpret and reinterpret some of the great parts and perhaps even create a few new ones before I’m through. But first things first. I need to get training. Where should I go? And what should I, an aspiring black actor, look for?
The training of black actors today in academia and in acting schools is ass-backwards. I mean, most of the schools don’t even use black material. Could you imagine a bunch of actors going to college for four years and not even studying a piece of their own material? Not one character that might be remindful of their own experience or somebody they might know? And yet they’re asked to do everybody else’s characters. Can you imagine getting some kids out of the ghetto and they start out by doing Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie? Can you imagine it? That’s almost laughable. But I’ve seen it done in so many places of supposedly higher education that the laugh sort of sticks in my throat.
But it’s a problem that has to be addressed, and has to be addressed now. Black students have to demand works that come out of their own specific background and culture: black American literature, black American dramatic literature. And if the teachers don’t know it, they have to make them aware of it. And if the teachers refuse, then they have to look elsewhere for their education and training. It’s as simple as that.
Let’s talk about acting and being black or African American. Is this something one should be consciously aware of, or something one should ignore? Is it an advantage or a disadvantage? One hears so much about searching for a universality that makes us all share common, thus recognizable, traits. Also, one hears a lot about color and colorblind casting. What is your take on all of this? And how should a black actor use or not use this in the business of creating a character and playing a part?
My contention here, and I’ve been on a mission about this for awhile, is that the natural route to learning the craft of acting involves your imagination. Do whatever else later, but first start out and deal with what you know and have experienced, what you’ve heard, things like that. Don’t start out fantasizing as a beginning step. The route to opening your imagination is to first access it through the concrete specifics of the known, the heard, the experiences, and so forth. What you start out with in acting is basic. Yourself. The only vehicle for acting is you—your body, your mind, your experiences in life. No agency other than yourself. And since you will start from there, you have to start from that which is most familiar to that self. What you know, what you experience, what you’ve heard.
Black actors exist in broad, various ways, crossing many lines of class and circumstantial experience, but essentially, in our American context, we have been shaped by a unique experience that happens to be common to other black people in other parts of the world because of the diaspora. Having some earlier link to Africa is a common historical/cultural experience that transforms itself, that crosses boundaries. I mean you could say those blacks brought to the West Indies, those brought to Brazil, those brought to the United States, all share a history of subjugation, disfranchisement, etc., that has created a common existential background. That is what’s closest to us, whether we like it or not, whether we try to escape it or not.
What I’m talking about is first dealing with the known. If you want to be an actor you’re going to have to deal with self. You’re going to have to deal with that particular history of self. There’s no way that one can represent, interpret, any experience except from the nature of one’s consciousness. And one’s consciousness is not a blank slate. It is based on what one has experienced. And what we have experienced in the Western hemisphere in particular is the primacy of the historical black experience. You will have to start with those ingredients that go into that as a temporal experience and ultimately get to its roots historically.
If a black person wants to become an actor, the route is an exploration of self. And exploration of self is to explore the roots of your day-to-day experiences within the family, within the context of your environment, within the psychology of your personality and whatever goes into that. That is the starting point. That gives you the access to the commonalty of how to relate to everybody else. But the first thing you have to start from is that self, and that’s not a blank sheet.
Now this is not a precious possession in terms of some mystical blackness. That’s not what I’m talking about. No. It’s a very concrete historical experience. Take me, for example. I come from Louisiana. I was born in Louisiana, and I was born in a particular context; in my instance, it was a plantation. The people who are my relatives run the gamut of a particular kind. But the commonality that is on both sides, my mother, my father, my grandparents, their historical experience—all of it goes back, as far as we can trace it, to slavery, if you want to put it that way. And to whatever has been inherited culturally, the food, the religion, the music. All of these things are components of that background. So if I’m going to learn how to be expressive, first and foremost I have to investigate all that is common to that past, that shaped it, that shaped my consciousness, too. I have to go into that first if I’m going to try to be truthfully expressive through interpreting what constitutes that legacy. In very definite ways, I have to deal with that first and foremost.
We also have to understand that when it comes to something like speech, all actors are going to use the same muscles. They have to be flexible of tongue, appreciate the nuances of tonal modulations, etc. All actors, white, black or green, have to deal with those basics. But when you talk about interpreting characters, there will be a particular rhythm to the cultural experiences. I am not going to be believable playing a Russian before I can first play my grandfather. That is going to give me closer access to the character of my own experience. I will come to find out after playing my grandfather that my grandfather’s experience might be similar to those of the peasants of the Gulag, or pre-Czarist Russia, during Turgenev’s time. But I’m not going to be able to do anything with Czarist Russia, I’m not going to be able to do anything with Chekhov, until I know what those peasants down on the Southern American plantation were like. I can’t skip over that experience and say, I’m going to be a Chekhovian actor. I can’t play Chekhov worth a damn unless first I come at it through the route and particularities of my own subjective personal/historical experience. It is not separate; it is related. It gives me access. It is first things first.
But I know that, unfortunately, in a racist society, things get turned ass-backwards. All over the country, including the place where I taught most recently, you see this error being compounded. You wouldn’t believe how many young blacks are being taught to be everything else but themselves first. It got to the point at the school where I was that even a member of the debate team came to me and said that when they participate in these debate competitions, the white teachers tell the black actors they don’t want them to do anything from black works, because that’s too easy for them. They want them to do something more difficult. So I asked, do they ever tell the white kids at the same competition that they shouldn’t do white works because it’s too easy for them? They told me no. It never occurred to them that it’s the same thing.
They tell black actors not to do A Raisin in the Sun. Again, because ostensibly it’s too easy for them. Do they tell the white actors not to do Tennessee Williams because it’s too easy for them? No, they don’t. That’s not the same thing as far as they’re concerned. In the first place, this view is a misapprehension. Nothing is easy for an actor to do. Creating or developing a character in a dimensional way and then communicating it to an audience is a very difficult task.
None of this would be worthy of comment if its negativity wasn’t so destructive, if things weren’t so turned around. It is assumed that black people should be exploring everything but who they really are. Because deep down underneath, there’s a devaluation of black life and black history. That’s the bottom line. And this devaluation then infests and infects the thinking of even blacks themselves. Therefore they devalue themselves, they devalue their own material, they devalue their own lives, they devalue their own characters. And psychologically this cripples their being able to interpret anything. Because denial cannot empower you to do anything well.
Any black actor out there saying “I want to play universal characters,” meaning white people, before they play themselves, is sad and painfully misguided. It’s an absurd undertaking, because it’s not possible. They’re not going to be able to do others better than they are able to do themselves and the people who informed their own direct experiences, especially during their formative years. Anyone with any knowledge of what interpretive work is all about knows this is true, white or black.
The smart people all over the world, even those in Eurocentric cultures or power centers, would want me to play their czars and their kings and their peasants, their broad spectrum of characters, because they see me playing the Johnny Williamses and the Russell B. Parkers and the Bob Tyrones of The River Niger, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men and The Offering. They will want me to play those roles because they see what I’m best in. They’re not going to come and get me to play their roles because they hear me acting out some silly rhetorical imitation of a character to whom I have no cultural ties. I would dare say right now as an actor they would hire me to play Ivan the Terrible, not because they want me to play some artificial imitation of a Russian, but because they see the power, skill, anger, irritability, frustration or whatever that I bring to play Johnny Williams in The River Niger, and say, God, that would make a great Ivan—and they would be right.
When you heard Paul Robeson sing, it was obvious that Paul Robeson, in a nonracist environment, or even if he had been able to live in Russia, would probably have been one of the greatest interpreters of some of the great Russian operas—Mussorgsky, for instance. I once heard Paul do an excerpt from Boris Godunov, and it was great. Just like it’s now been proven with Leontyne Price and Shirley Verrett and all those divas. You think that it’s any accident that the majority of major opera divas in the world today are black? Do you think they were really hired to be the divas in all of those great roles because somebody came and saw them try to be something they weren’t? No. It is what those singers bring to those roles out of the depth of their own culture, despite the fact that they’re singing basically European modes of art. It is the deep-down element of the artist coming out of her roots and the whole life experience that Leontyne brings to her roles. It is what the best of them bring. That’s what causes them to match their talents to the requirements of whatever they sing. They are not being some whitewashed, whiteface version of somebody else or some other culture. No, they are being who they are and tapping into where they come from. So the source, the starting point of acting is not a mystical thing, but something very pragmatic. You start from the basis and the concreteness of your own life and your own experience. From there, you have access to everything else.
Culture is very specific, creativity is very specific, artistry is very specific. It’s not some vague, evanescent sort of liberal nonsense about colorblind casting. There’s no such thing. As I’ve said often, I guess when you don’t see color, the only color you see is white. If you’re colorblind, then the only color you’ll see is white. There’s no such thing as colorblindness. Not in my view. Awareness of differences doesn’t make things superior. There’s no experience that’s superior to another. But at least in order for everybody to be equal as a starting point, one has to acknowledge the primacy of one’s own specific cultural background.
Can you elaborate on this for me please?
Sure. The special thing that the black actor has to tap into—and it has to be a conscious act, because unfortunately everything about the history of the society he lives in is designed to devalue it—is his own experience. Organically he shouldn’t even have to think about it. Unfortunately he has to—a black actor almost has to make a conscious, willed decision to be himself, if you want to put it that way, to use his own life and his own experiences as the starting point of whatever he bring into his training and his work.
He has to use and explore his own background. Now, in a lot of instances, he doesn’t have all of these nice little neat bourgeois contexts to draw from. The white kid comes to class and does an exercise about, let’s say, cleaning up his room. His momma told him that if he didn’t clean up his room he wasn’t going to be able to go to a ball game. That white actor is thinking about a room that he got at 10 years old, by himself, because his sister’s got one next door. In cleaning up his room, he’s dealing with a space and room full of toys and everything else.
Okay, now you take the black actor out of a shack, housing project, or inner-city ghetto somewhere. When he does that exercise, he might say he didn’t have a room. Take me. I don’t remember having a room to myself until I was almost in my twenties. I grew up in a household where there was an old woman living in the same space I had. She was in the bed and I was on the cot. So cleaning up my room or doing that exercise when I was at that age requires a different sense of how I will do it and use it. I have to bring to the exercise the reality that I didn’t have a room full of toys to be dealt with. I had specific things I had to do because of the class, the context, and the economic factors that were a part of my youth. All of these factors have to be accepted and used in creating circumstances and scenes around one’s own life and experience.
Black actors or aspiring black actors have to investigate their particulars to the extent I’m talking about. And they have to relish doing it in every way. Because they have advantages, in the sense that certain elements of their life experiences may have given them one-up-manships in some of the actor’s expressive tools. They may have been brought up in the backgrounds and environments where music was so pervasive, surrounded their everyday life to such an extent, that they’ve not so much been imbued with natural rhythm but achieved a musical sensitivity by osmosis. They’ve already been sensitized in certain areas because of the nature of their culture. They’ve already been conditioned in very special ways because of economic circumstances or the circumstances of the world they inhabit.
Maybe it’s the threatening element of the world that surrounds them. They can’t take safety for granted like a bourgeois white kid. Walking on the street or going to certain places, they are conditioned to develop a second set of ears, keep a second set of eyes trained behind them. There are all kinds of elements of reality that give them different sensitivities they have to employ and use.
But they must rid themselves of the incrustation of ideas about their inferiority of their lives, their experiences and their relationships that has been superimposed on them. They have to throw that shit out and do the opposite. Since their actual experience equips them to be more in tune to the palpable reality of their world, they have to glory in starting to use and empower themselves from that premise. They should accept the fact that, if anything, the accident of their own personal background and experience already gives them greater sensitivities to real life that maybe some of their white compatriots, who most likely, through class advantages or ignorance, have more illusions about both life and their place in the world.
Again, this is not some mysterious advantage. Every advantage I’m talking about that a black actor or black interpreter can bring forth is provided by the concrete reality of life. Like it or not, we have seen throughout the history of art that very often those put into an existential relationship with life and its hardships, who have already faced difficult realities imposed on them, whether through dominance, oppression or what have you, have been provided with a depth of comprehension and feeling they merely need to tap into, explore and let prevail through their art.
This is all that I mean when I say that black actors, potential actors, have natural advantages if they will use them. The problem is that the advantage is being turned into the opposite. They have been overwhelmed and self-devalued until they tap into and believe the opposite. In other words, they see their background and experiences not as an advantage, but as a disadvantage. And therefore they don’t explore or take advantage of what rightfully could and should be advantages in a particular field, acting, where you are supposed to represent and interpret life.
Who is better equipped to do that than those who have already faced the reality of life at its sometimes most negative point? People who only see life through rose-colored glasses are less equipped to see it in its real dimension, because they are drawing on their illusions about it. Generally, those who have faced life in its negative realities have no illusions about what we call human behavior and experience. We know what it can be at its worst and also at its best. And when you know what it is at its worst, it’s such a relief to feel some elements of it at its best, until sensuously and intellectually you understand both sides of it and can communicate those feelings in vital and urgent ways.
(From the book ‘Advice to A Young Black Actor: Conversations with Douglas Turner Ward’ by Gus Edwards. Copyright © 2004. Reprinted in arrangement with Heinemann, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.)