By: Rachel Mutombo
"I'd love to see you play a Hamlet one day, or Macbeth or any role you want and deserve, regardless of gender or race or anything else." One of my mentors said those words to me with an undeniable spark in her eyes as we spoke about the state of theatre in Toronto.
That spark is one of hope and romantic optimism. I think I have that spark in my eye at times as well, although sometimes it can dim.
Casting is like Christmas for actors: one season it's excitement, surprise, and exhilaration. And then the next season it's a lump of coal and you don't know why.
"What did I do to deserve this?" A question I asked myself when I received my final casting for my graduating show at my theatre school. I was cast in a role of a servant to a family of white Puritans set in the 1650s. This character not only was an unpaid worker depicted as a savage who was left to fend for herself in a jail, but there was also a scene in which the father of the house sexually assaults her. The play itself was not about race, any woman of any race could have played the servant role. But by casting a black woman in a stereotypical servant role to a white family, it became a recounting of a tired narrative in which black people are perpetual victims of oppression. It became yet another account about the exploitation of the black body by white people with no resolve for said servant character. When I chose to speak up about it I was met with some resistance.
Ultimately, I had to request that my role be switched, which is unorthodox. As students, we don't audition for roles but rather are cast in roles that should best suit our growth in our training. I was labelled as an actor who was afraid to take risks rather than seen as a black woman standing up for herself and taking ownership of her representation onstage. I had to justify my arguments and try to persuade an authority figure that was blind to my struggle. For some reason, when it comes to race, these issues are still up for debate. My feelings still need to be justified. No number of words can make someone truly understand the experience I have had the last 23 years in this skin. No number of words can explain what it's like to be looked at as "other" every single day of one's life. That casting decision was an assault on my humanity. It diminished my personhood and my representation as a black woman.
It hurt me to realize that this situation, though it was a first for me, might not be the last. Progress is being made in certain areas of the arts and entertainment industries, but there is still a lot of work to do in terms of equity and inclusion. And in the meantime what does that mean for me and other young artists of colour? Do my gender and my race mean that I will constantly be vulnerable to exploitation onstage or on screen? Constantly seen as less than human? Forever categorized as "other"? If so, then I am living in my own genetic prison.
As a black woman, I have to be aware of what my body represents on a stage or on a screen.
This is why it is crucial to challenge those at the helm of the training institutions in this country to take a look at how their practices and pedagogies can conflict with our humanity. Especially if they consider themselves to be an ally to people of colour. Change needs to begin in the schools that are forming the future theatre artists. If our training institutions can set the bar higher for a standard towards colour conscious casting, then perhaps we can start to see a change. Not only is it problematic that young actors of colour are being assigned to roles that demean their representation on stage, but also it is being done in institutions that we are supposed to believe support our careers.
Young actors can have a hard a time saying no. We spend three to four years training in conservatory programs, preparing us for the "real" world, but also learning that we will spend a lot of time auditioning as opposed to working. We learn that we will struggle between jobs and big opportunities will be few and far between. We learn that for every one of us, there is another cohort at "X" number of theatre schools filled with our competition. It's scary. So of course when any offer comes up, how can we say no? But sometimes we have to. Or at least I have to.
As a black woman, I have to be aware of what my body represents on a stage or on a screen. We are not yet living in a world where my skin and gender don't matter. They matter immensely and there is a pressure I constantly feel to make sure I am represented in the correct light. For that very reason, I have to be aware of what I say yes and no to.
Anyone who knows me knows that my career is aimed at elevating and celebrating the stories of black women. History has stripped black women of their voices and as an actor and writer, my goal is to create a space for those voices to be heard again. Therefore, playing a servant to a white family and being discarded as less than human is not the kind of role I would ever choose. In fact, in my limited time in this industry, I have been very outspoken about issues of race in the theatre. I have embraced the responsibility I feel as an artist with a historically marginalized voice. There is no point in railing against a system without taking action. I am here to talk about it, open up the dialogue in order to help provoke change.
I turned down that role because I do not want to participate in perpetuating any more negative stereotypes about my race. There is a long history of black excellence that is often ignored. Those aren't the narratives that we usually see. When we delve into the past of black people, we delve into a past of pain and shame and suffering. Occasionally we pick out the few anomalies--like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X--and champion them. But then we slide right back into our comfort zone: where black is savage, black is other, black is less than. White is always the victor, the saviour.
Our society is accustomed to black being on the bottom and perhaps that is why my being cast in the role of the servant didn't faze anyone until I said something. But I did say something and my small, one-woman protest made a change. And that is where the hope and romantic optimism has to come in. I am committed to pursuing a career in this industry and so I have to believe in it. I have to believe that somewhere in the Canadian theatre landscape there will be a place for me, among my peers, and not beneath them.
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