Being Black in Theatre: Proving Your Value While Simultaneously Fighting Imposter Syndrome.
Seeing Black people slay the game on stage leaves me with this heart-warming and proud feeling. Tears in my eyes because “we did that”. The struggle in me recognizes the struggle in you and when we hug at the stage door I know there’s all kinds of meaning in that.
I know that you had to convince a lot of people get to where you are. Regardless of your talent, regardless of your training. They still didn’t believe you. And perhaps, for a while, it felt like no one wanted you there.
One step forward and two steps back as you affiliated yourself in these white spaces hoping people would just see you as a performer and not a diversity spot.
Sometimes being black in the theatre confines you to just that”. Yes I am Black, I love being Black, and I love all the musical theatre cannon that allows me to revel in that. But can I tell you that I love classical music? That I also identify myself as a Disney princess in another life? Do I become less black if I share these dreams with you? Why do Black actors have to constantly convince our peers, our directors, and our producers that black humans have the same thoughts and emotions and feelings as white humans do? That if you give us the chance to play a role that doesn’t have a Black stereotype, I promise you, you’ll still be able to relate.
It is an ongoing test of humanity and serious imposter syndrome. I’ve already been hired yet I feel like I am steps away from a misconception about me becoming the only thing you see.
As someone who understudies a predominately white role there are two things I think about. When I go on stage will people be disappointed that I’m the understudy? When I go on stage will people be disappointed that I am Black?
It’s the blessing and the curse of being proud of where I am but terrified of not being seen for all that I am and all that I am worth.
The longer you stay in theatre as a Black person the more you realize the theatre was not created for us. When there’s no one directing you, doing your hair, helping with your costume, moving the sets, playing in the band who looks like you. It becomes alienating, disorienting. There is no person on the other end who will be able to agree with me when we both felt that something was inherently racist, or clearly unfair. No one who can makes sure i’m getting the proper makeup that makes my skin glow on stage or no one making sure they find nude tights for my actual skin color or no one making sure i’m wearing clothes that flatter my curves and compliment me. No one back there really identifies with the Black experience so how can I be sure i’m being taken care of and treated with the same kind of respect as my white actors? And if I feel the slightest bit like I’m not, I don’t feel like i’m in the kind of space that would hear me. Or I’d feel like I don’t wanna be the Black girl who speaks out. So I behave myself and I say please and thank you a ton and make sure they will always label me as “easy to work with” after all, I am so lucky to be where I am.
But all that does is a disservice to the company and of course a disservice to me. Instead of being honest with you I am taking the punches and telling myself that as a Black person in this show ill take what I can get. That my smile will not falter when you call me “aggressive” when I do the same thing my white counterparts do in the scene and they don’t get the same note. I will take what you can give me and by that I am telling myself that I am not as important or as deserving of respect as my other peers are. And years of that allows you to talk to me and refer to me in the way you do and then I start to believe you. Thus creates this system where Black actors are not looked at in the same way and its becomes “just the way things are”.
Shining a light on these kind of stories is important because its time we stop throwing Broadway a bone for doing the bare minimum. It goes beyond hiring black bodies. Its about giving Black bodies the space to tell their story. To feel as worthy as any other actor in the room. To trust us with telling these stories because we are fully capable of doing so. I think its my responsibility as a Black woman who is fortunate enough to be working, to use my voice to say what isn’t working and how we can better fix the racial discrimination surrounding this art form that we love. And what isn’t working is making your actors feel like you’re not seeing them as actors. When you hire Black actors you are hiring our hair, our skin color, our body, everything. Instead of trying to make us feel uncomfortable about who we are or trying to change it, why not listen? If we can be in a space that feels comfortable, safe, and allows our energy to flourish, we can make magic. And there is so much beautiful Black talent that is just waiting on the other side of the gates. Its time for the Great White Way to get over being uncomfortable and make room for something new.