As Margaret in Carrie the Musical, I was hired as a guest artist at my alma mater, CSUF, and color blind casting was part of the decision to use me in the role of Carrie's mother. There are a few black students on the cast and crew, and I find myself having intriguing conversations about race and working in the theater almost every single day. It is fun, and the interest that my colleagues show in my opinion is flattering. Then I received an email from a friend who lives in the south who has student writing a paper on the very same subject. And so, a blog was born! If you like, take some time to read my thoughts on being black and working in the theater, and then click on over to Cal State, Fullerton. and buy tickets for Carrie the Musical, running until November 1st, 2015.
Over the years the roles, as opposed to ensemble work, that I have played have been exactly my type. In other words, the role was intended to be played by an African American. Generally, I do not see a lot of color blind casting in the world of high budget, musical theater. In addition to the opportunities I have had to do Shakespeare, some of the color blind cast roles that I have played include Poppy in Noises Off, Hedy LaRue in How to Succeed, and, currently, I am playing Margaret in Carrie the Musical. It is worth mentioning that all three of these productions were at colleges or not for profit organizations.
As an African American woman there is also the challenge of type. While I believe TV and film is making its first strides towards moving away from this issue, the theater seems slow to catch up. In general, casting directors envision two types of African American women, the Mammy or the Prissy. One being matronly, overweight, and possessing a deep voice, and the other being petite, spunky, and high voiced. It is arguable that this is an issue for all women in entertainment but I think the options for variation on these two themes are much more narrow for African American women. As a 5'11", medium skin tone, average proportioned woman, I often seem to fall too much in the middle of these two caricatures to be easily cast. Not to mention the times that I've been told that my singing sounds too trained. While I admit there are styles that I can only approximate as opposed to sounding completely authentic, I do not believe that Disney's Aida is one of those styles.
Finally, there is the challenge of playing stereotypes. On more than one occasion I have been asked to play an uneducated, presumably poor character who speaks in a very street way when that notion was completely unsupported by the script. On the other hand, twice have unapologetically played a slave character and not shyed away from the vernacular at all. I have no problem telling the stories of people who do not speak the way that I do due to their education or upbringing as long as it is somehow serving the greater story. When I was, for example, asked to find a "ghetto" version of the Lady of the Lake in Spamalot (a role I've not played, but have sung several of her songs in concert) I was absolutely appalled, and replied by calmly stating, "I don't believe that is supported by the text," and swiftly changed the subject.
The more mundane challenges of dealing with designers who haven't taken the time to understand hair textures or really considered skin tone when purchasing make up are frustrating, but eventually I just look at those moments as an opportunity to help someone to do better next time. It may also be an opportunity for me to learn how to concentrate on doing my job, cashing my paycheck, and keeping my mouth shut. Of course, keeping our mouths shut is not something black people are stereotypically known for doing either.
Since the age of sixteen my adventures in musical theater have taken me all over the country. For the next six months I will be coast hopping between New York and LA. Here are my stories.