Last fall, while playing an overworked research assistant in a reading of a new musical, my introductory line had me referring to myself as being, “handed over in chains”, which was accompanied by the stage direction, “bowing his head, good-naturedly”. The implications of this flippant reference to slavery would be problematic regardless of the identity of the actor saying it, but the optics grow even more grim when that actor is the only Black man in the ensemble.
I remember reading the line on my way to rehearsal and immediately getting anxious at the thought of saying it — especially in a room of predominantly white people. I reached out to the writer (a white woman) to communicate my discomfort. She apologized profusely and explained that it was an actual quote from the person I was playing (not that anyone in the audience would know). Not only did I then have to assuage her white guilt but I helped come up with a new, less problematic line (“at your service”). In this one instance I was an actor, diversity and inclusion consultant, and dramaturg. All for the hundred dollar stipend the project paid. What a bargain.
The writer’s failure to glean seemingly obvious racial and hierarchical rhetoric and imagery put me in a precarious position. On a micro-level, it was taxing on me to facilitate an uncomfortable conversation and, on a macro-level, if I had been too afraid to say something or if the writer had not conceded, then the line would still exist thus becoming the responsibility of another actor or group of actors.
In January of 2020, I got called in for a musical about Emmett Till.¹ I was immediately leery of the audition as well as the project itself. I didn’t think that musical theatre, as both a medium and an industry, could handle such an important story with the proper care it needed. My instincts were proven right when a quick Google search revealed that the project’s entire creative team, with the exception of its Black male director, was white. The music and lyrics were written by a white man, the book was written by two white men, the music director was a white woman, the artistic director of the theater was a white man, the casting director was a white man, and the casting associate was a white woman.
As if a musical about Emmett Till written by white men and led by a nearly all white team wasn’t nauseating enough, my audition appointment was for an ensemble track that played multiple colorblind roles throughout the piece. Yall, these people were using colorblind casting to tell the story of the brutal lynching of a little Black boy that became a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. What’s more is that one of the roles I was expected to read for was Roy Bryant — the white supremacist who murdered Till for allegedly whistling at his wife. The caucasian fuckery of it all.
I emailed my agents — two white women — to let them know that I was deeply uncomfortable and would be passing on the audition. I got a one word response: “okay!”
The following month I was called in for an understudy track in a new musical with a high profile director which was being produced at a prominent theatre. It was set in the late 1800s and the audition side had me saying the lines, “[I] kept the coloreds in line down the Carolinas, killed so many Indians out in the Oklahoma territory I couldn’t track so many scalps I had on my belt”. Apparently violent, racist, white supremacists of yesteryear was my new type. I tried to find some justification or rationale as to why I would be saying such lines. I even came up with a scenario in which the character I was reading for was a self-loathing Black man who oppressed others as a means of bartering for his own survival.
I reached out to my agents for clarity but there was none to be had (shocking) so they contacted the casting associate essentially to check in and make sure they knew I was Black.
Fuck a fact-check — this a Black-check!
Casting’s response was that they were indeed aware of my race but that it hadn’t occurred to them….
They thanked my agents for bringing up the “script discrepancy”, sent over new audition sides, and said that they’d still like to see me come in. I did not go. It was a set-up. I use this term “set-up” not to imply some nefarious plot specifically orchestrated against me (though isn’t being Black in America to have one huge nefarious plot against you?) but rather in the sense that I was literally not set up to succeed. I knew the casting team would not disinvite me from the audition out of fear of looking discriminatory and I also knew they would never hire me for the job because of how inappropriate I was for the role. I later found out that the person I would be understudying was a famous, extremely caucasian actor.
These are just a handful of my experiences within the industry that have forced me to expend my time, energy, and dignity making sure due diligence is performed for everyone else’s jobs in order to reduce the risk of finding myself in a compromising or potentially traumatizing situation. The gag is that working to prevent such trauma is traumatizing in and of itself. And this is all before I have even stepped into an audition room or a rehearsal. It’s an institutional breakdown that I can’t even really call a break “down” since that shit has always been broken. And it’s always been the job of Black people to patch it up.
This due diligence I speak of is not unique to the Black experience solely within the musical theatre industry — not in the slightest. It is the work we are forced to do in all areas of our lives. We have to look out for ourselves because, as the case so often is, no one else is looking out for us.
Even my agents, the people whose literal job it was to advocate for me, did not have the where-with-all to do so.
I ended my relationship with them this past June.
The musical theatre industry has arrived at an incredibly fraught, unprecedented juncture. The Broadway shutdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic has precipitated an environment in which the conversation and examination surrounding the exploitation and mistreatment of Black lives is finally getting its proper due. I sincerely hope that the social action being taken during this time will make it a more inclusive environment for Black actors as well as all actors of color, but I have a feeling that due diligence will remain an invisible special skill on our resumes.