Coloring outside the script lines: Are audiences able to look beyond race for acting roles?
The wait seems like hours.
My heart races a million times fast. My stomach flips like an acrobat.
Though I’ve done this a million times, each time feels like the first.
The list gets shorter. My name gets closer. All of my anxiety and nervousness becomes more intense.
The pressure is crushing me like a ton of bricks.
My name is called and I’m shaking. I walk into the auditorium and try to retain slow and steady
One more deep breath.
Monologue, singing, maybe some dancing. The process usually takes about three to five minutes.
The next day or two the list is posted. I scroll down the names.
Lead roles: white girl, white boy. Supporting role: white, white, white. Oh hey, supporting role: sassy black girl, Amira. That’s me!
I jump for joy and my heart is racing like it did at my audition.
But in the back of my mind there’s a fire. I wonder, “Why can’t my name ever be at the top of the list?”
I genuinely might not have been the right fit for a lead role. Maybe I didn’t hit all the right notes or pick the right monologue. Right kicked when I should have sashayed.
I always make sure to work on improving my skills for the next audition. I try to be realistic. But as I look back on my life in theater, I feel like I’ve been typecast. I’ll forever be a character who is sassy, hopeless and with lots of attitude.
I’ve wanted to be an actor ever since kindergarten. SteppingStone Theatre in St. Paul would perform shows at my school, and from then on, I was hooked.
My first show was in sixth grade. I played Adriana in “The Black Snowman.” Later, in eighth grade, I played Frog in “A Year with Frog and Toad.” It was the lead role and one of my brightest moments.
In the summer before high school, I played myself in a musical, “Here’s Where I Stand,” with Project Success. Entering my freshman year, I thought to myself, “This is my thing. This is what I love.”
And I was determined to continue this in high school.
In my first year, I auditioned for “Little Shop of Horrors.” I landed the role of Chiffon from the trio. They’re a feisty group of girls, all about attitude and hip shaking. It was fun, plus I was the only freshman in the main cast, which felt great.
That same year in the “Music Man,” I played Alma, an uppity, obnoxious smart aleck. Sophomore year, I was Lorraine in “All Shook Up,” the hopeless romantic with lots of spunk and attitude. “Les Miserables”: girl number five, the mean and jealous one with a lot of attitude toward others. And this year, even though I dropped out of the show to focus on school, I was cast as Lucille in “Once Upon a Mattress.” She’s a member of the sassy and stuck-up trio.
I’m not saying that I’ve never had good roles. I’m grateful for all of the experiences I’ve had in theater. But there comes a point in an actor’s career when you think, “Is that all I have to offer? Is that all I’ll ever play?”
And when the time comes to audition for a new role, I feel like I already know the verdict.
“What does he or she have that I don’t?”
As an African-American actor, I can’t help but think that for most roles, since people already picture a character as white, that’s all it can ever be. Or conversely, maybe I was only picked for a certain one because of my Afro.
Historically, there’s been a double standard. Natalie Wood famously played Maria, a Puerto Rican, in “West Side Story.” Mickey Rooney played Mr. Yunioshi, a Japanese man, in “Breakfast at Tiffanys.” White actors pretend to be everything from Native American to Asian to African-American. I could go on and on with recent examples.
Yet it appears that some viewers have problems with black actors playing key roles, which is devastating and counteracts any progress that has been made in the Hollywood or theater community. Take “The Hunger Games.” There were race controversies over the black characters Rue, Thresh and Cinna—with some fans on Twitter claiming that Rue being African-American “ruined the movie” or didn’t make her death “as sad.”
Can the color of someone’s skin really ruin a role in a movie, TV show or play? Does skin color really affect the connection you have with a character?
The book even describes the characters as having “darker” skin tones and eyes. The whole district is also primarily black with working conditions that are compared to ones found during slavery.
Sadly, I’ve come to learn that it’s all about how the audience mentally pictures the character and less about telling a good story. Give the people what they want, right?
Except I want to be the damsel in distress. I want a story that ends in happily ever after. I want to inspire and represent other ethnic actors by landing a lead role.
I want to grow.
But apparently because of my skin color, it’ll take a lot for that to happen. And even if it does, someone will probably still say that they can’t connect with me.
Q&A WITH SIDDEEQAH SHABAZZ
What’s it like being an actor of color? Amira Warren-Yearby sat down with Siddeeqah Shabazz, an actor and teen programs specialist at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis, to talk about casting issues related to ethnicity. Check our our interview here.
MORE FROM THE RACE ISSUE
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 21 students participated in a ThreeSixty multimedia project centered on microaggressions—or as defined by Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue, “the daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile or negative racial slights toward people of color.” Check our our photo display here.