Life has taught me that the ability to achieve any goal is determined by how one perceives obstacles. Oxford dictionary defines an obstacle as “a thing that blocks one’s way or prevents or hinders progress.” Nearly a decade ago, I moved to New York City to find work and succeed as an actress on Broadway. I had no connections, no experience to put on my resume beyond college productions, and I had no idea how to get started. I had obstacles. What’s more, I was a brown-skinned, African-American female, who was unwilling to play any role where the character’s primary occupation was working as a slave, a prostitute or a domestic worker. Taken together, these facts hindered my progress.
In the hierarchical structure of traditional theater, an actress is at the bottom. Her access to opportunities is at the mercy of directors and producers who have the power to exclude her from paid work opportunities in an industry that is based upon personal preferences, favors, looks and maintaining the status quo of a racist society in storytelling. Those in power determine what stories will be told and who — that is the artistic talent — will be employed to tell them.
In an article from PBS, “Out of 30,000 Hollywood film characters, here’s how many weren’t white,” the authors discuss the problem:
Researchers at the University of Southern California studied the 700 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2014, excluding 2011, and analyzed the race and ethnicity of more than 30,000 characters to reveal diversity in film. The findings showed that for nearly a decade, filmmakers have made virtually no progress in portraying more characters from non-white racial and ethnic identities.
Of the top 100 films of 2014, nearly three-quarters of all characters were white, the study showed. Only 17 of the top movies that year featured non-white lead or co-lead actors.
Though this data corresponds to the film industry, theater and the performing arts are not different in this regard. Thus, when an actress is black and female, as in my case, the opportunity to work as a professional actress — a storyteller — was non-existant. Considering the types of roles that I was unwilling to play, my choices were greatly diminished. The roles available for black women are often degrading and dehumanizing. Refusing this limitation, I wanted to portray women characters who reflected the women that I knew: resilient, whitty, creative, resourceful, demanding, kind, sensitive, beautiful, God-fearing women. Women like my mother and grandmother. Women like my aunt’s and cousins. Real women not a racist caricature of a black woman. The things blocking me from being, doing and living the life that I imagined seemed insurmountable.
I had subscribed to almost every list you could think of for everything arts-related in New York City. One day in early 2011, I signed up for a workshop called Integrity and Emotion with Isaach De Bankolé at the Museum of Arts & Design. I had admired de Bankolé’s acting work for some time, especially his then-recent work in the film “I Am Slave” (2010). I climbed the stairs to the space where the workshop would be held and squeezed into a seat in the front. As the workshop began, I was struck by his kindness, candor and approachability. For his demonstration, Mr. Bankolé asked me to come to the front to do scene work: we were a couple in a busy train station and having a heated debate. That was the life I wanted. Not the romance, the acting. I wanted to create worlds that I could invite audiences to live in. I wanted to be a storyteller. Afterwards, I asked him what he thought I should do to take my career to the next level. His advice: go to London. I got his email and focused on finding my way to London. I started to prepare for the move.