So you want to be an ally...a message to those in the theater
Updated: Jul 22, 2020
With more and more black people coming forward with their stories of discrimination they’ve faced in the theater, the harder it’s become for me to keep biting my tongue. So I tried to sum this up with as few words as possible. If you read this, just please, please read it to the end.
My first job as a professional actor was the best and one of the worst experiences in my life. It was a theater for young audiences job where I was able to perform at elementary and middle schools throughout the state of New Jersey. One of my favorite things about this job was that I got to perform a musical about diabetes and healthy eating to primarily black and brown schools where we know health disparities exist in these communities. I loved that we performed this message to communities who needed to hear it the most. Yet not everyone in my cast felt the same.
As the tour went on, two of my cast mates would make derogatory comments about the children we performed for on a regular basis. One of them, would SPECIFICALLY make them whenever we visited the schools with black and brown children. She referred to them as “little pieces of shits, little fucks, fucking jackasses.” What hurt the most, was the day she looked me in the eye when we visited a school and said these kids are acting like a bunch of FUCKING ANIMALS;” that happened to be the day, where those students gave us each a standing ovation during our talkback. She made these comments about children who were between the ages of 5-13…and why? because they were loud. They were applauding at the wrong time. The kids spoke over her solo. They laughed when she didn’t deem it appropriate. One day, another cast mate, said, “Just shoot the kids!” in front of my stage manager who responded by saying, “Welp, that escalated quickly…” she awkwardly proceeded to say, “alright guys, lets…uhh, go unpack the set.” Another day, my female cast mate put in our group text, “I would like the inappropriate kids in the front to be smashed in the face with the basketball.” She was referring to the three little black boys who sat in the front row and laughed while she was singing. They even extended these comments to the kids with special needs, who according to my cast justified it by saying those kids had behavioral problems, therefore they were bad kids already.
I spoke to my stage manager about three times privately about my issues with my cast mate, she never took a stand in front of my cast to say, that’s wrong, that’s not right, we will not talk about our audience that way, not ever. I wasn’t asking her to report it, or fire them, but I knew if she had just addressed it, it would make the remarks stop.
The conversations were not limited to when we were in the privacy of our touring van, it was while we were onstage, backstage, where school officials could hear.
One day, we brought our musical to another community of color, around the time of the Parkland shooting. As my stage manager left the van to check us into the school, the principal of that school met us outside. The principal, you could say “profiled” us. He saw a group of people in an unmarked white van, in plain clothing, with nothing that indicated we were performers from a widely recognized regional theater, sitting idly in his school’s parking lot. He “rudely” (according to my cast) asked us “who are you and what are you doing in front of my school?” The principal had no recollection that there was supposed to be a performance that day. I’ve never personally witnessed a group of people whose egos were so badly bruised before. My cast mates said, “Who is this man? How dare he ask us, who are we and what are we doing here?”…. This is white privilege, the idea that white people like them are not allowed to be questioned, even if it is in regards to someone else’s safety. We finished the performance. We received no compliments, no questions from the students during the talkback who were older than our typical audience. They showed no enthusiasm for the performance whatsoever and this frustrated THE HELL out of my cast mates. My cast mate is complaining like every other day while we are backstage, referring to our audience as “shit kids” as per usual. As we drive back to our home theater, my stage manager mentions that her ipod is missing after one minute of searching. My cast mate says, “ I bet you one of those shit kids stole it.” Immediately, I call her out on it (because I knew my stage manager wouldn’t), and said we shouldn’t assume that. It became a screaming match with her raising her tone, her voice, and cursing every.other.word.at.me, threatening me, telling me I’m self centered, these fucking shit kids are not kids, they’re adults- I said some of these kids are at least 8 years old, her voice enraged and said those kids were at least 13(similar sentiments to when 17 year old Trayvon Martin and 12 year old Tamir Rice were gunned down, they weren’t boys, they were young men), and ends with her favorite line, “Rachelle, Go fuck yourself!” Lol. My stage manager did nothing to intervene but just told us to be quiet. In fact, immediately after, she asked us to play a game on Snapchat. Additionally, she had us drive to a Shoprite to get her a pie and she left my cast mate and me in the car alone together.
The next day, my stage manager’s statement to us was, “You guys are all beautiful people with beautiful minds and opinions that should be allowed to be expressed whenever you want, however you want…but no, you guys cannot curse at each other.” So in other words, her sentiments were, ’There were very fine people on both on sides of this argument,’…sound familiar? To my surprise, my stage manager actually reported this argument to my directors and my female cast mate and I had to “have a talk” about the whole situation.
My director facilitated the conversation, and I loved and respected her because she was the type of woman who would call out white privilege for you, but I didn’t appreciate how the conversation was handled. For the majority of the conversation, my cast mate was not sorry. Her apology was to my director for getting caught. Most of this conversation was that we were two girls who just can’t get along and as women we need to be standing together and for one another and a bunch of other stuff that was completely irrelevant. I knew this would happen. The night before, I typed out three pages and took screenshots of our group chat and made a three-page complaint indicating the dates, the schools, and what was said about our audience over the past couple of months being on this tour. I said, “This was not some petty little cat fight,” and pulled out this letter and pulled out the theater’s handbook highlighting the page where it exemplified that the way my cast mate spoke to me was considered harassment and that was supposed to be reported to the artistic and managing director. Guess what’s next! My cast mate let out a pool of white tears talking about how sorry she was, how she just hates herself, and doesn’t know how to deal and somehow, she became the victim in this whole conversation. She all of a sudden became polite when speaking to me and said she wish I had just asked her nicely to not say these things- which I ALREADY did when I asked the whole cast to have patience with the special needs students. What I didn’t appreciate was that apparently, my attitude, was a part of the problem and was something I had to apologize for. My attitude, the way that I responded to her when she cursed at me and defended her right to call those kids criminals- how dare I have an attitude after seven months of sitting next to people curse and discriminate, criminalize, and talked about wanting to hurt students that we are paid to perform for, - how dare I have an attitude? How dare I an attitude when I asked the adult in the room to deal with it, on multiple occasions and she said let’s get pie instead! This is literally the same way people criticize riots and burning buildings despite knowing what happened to Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Gardner, etc. how dare we burn down a building. Well, when we expressed our pain to you the peaceful way and took a knee, no one did anything about the injustices happening to black people. Similarly, when I spoke to my stage manager on three occasions nicely, with my high-pitched voice and with my big joyous smile that I plaster everyday so no one feels like I’m threating him or her, my stage manager did absolutely nothing.
We then had another conversation, amongst the whole cast, where all my cast mates threw me under the bus, said they didn’t know what I was talking about. They said they couldn’t recall any of these instances, in fact they did not know where any of this was coming from.
Some reading this, may think I’m pulling out my handy dandy “race card,” or am race baiting. One day we visited a school-with almost all white children, my female cast mate misplaced a sentimental ring her boyfriend had given to her. She was literally on the ground heaving, getting ready to vomit, crying, and sobbing, because of this ring. We took almost two extra hours to search for this ring to unpack our entire set at the end of the performance day, checked the whole auditorium, checked every bathroom, called the principal, everyone you could think of to help us find this ring. Turns out, the ring was sitting in our costumes, but NOT ONCE did she say the ring was stolen. We go to a black school, my stage manager, for sixty seconds, looks for an ipod and immediately, that same cast mate says it was stolen. Turns out the ipod was in my stage manager’s bag the whole time. She just didn’t look for it well enough. Imagine if my cast mate lost her ring in that black school. Imagine what she would have done. She wouldn’t have called the principal, she would called the cops, and imagine what would have happened next. No, not all white women are a “KAREN” but my cast mate is. This is what you call implicit bias, that yes you can have even if you have black friends, black children, even if you are nice to your black neighbor.
What infuriates me about all of this, three years later, is that I recently found out that same cast mate was rehired. That stage manager doesn’t work for that department, but still works for that company. I’m illustrating this to show you how racism, white privilege and discrimination works. Three years later, its not my cast mates that bother me, it is my stage manager, the authority figure in the room. She could have just said, we don’t allow this type of language to any of our audiences, that’s unacceptable and that’s inappropriate, and if it is done again there will be consequences. What infuriates me, are my directors who both agreed with me and said they were just as upset by all of this and wish they had known sooner, but one told me my attitude was part of the problem and the other rehired her. What still infuriates me, three years later, was my one cast mate who never once called any of our audiences out of their name but instead, laughed and agreed with my cast mate who did. He sat there and laughed when my cast mate would mock me, and make fun of me when I was flat at 7:00am during sound check. He lied and said to my director, I don’t know what Rachelle is talking about we never said anything about these kids. Ever. He didn’t even defend himself. He chose to defend her.
The lesson I am trying to bring here is that it’s not, just the police officers that killed George Floyd that are the problem. It is the law. It is the system that has the authority to change it and CHOOSES not to. IT IS NOT MY CAST MATES MAKING NASTY COMMENTS ABOUT THE AUDIENCE THAT WAS JUST THE PROBLEM, IT WAS MY STAGE MANAGER aka THE AUTHORITY FIGURE WHO SAT THERE AND TOLD US THAT THESE OPINIONS ARE VALID AND IT IS ACCEPTABLE TO EXPRESS THEM WHENEVER WE WANT.
I don’t write this to badmouth my cast, my directors, or the theater. All black people who are boldly telling their stories are putting their careers on their line with the fear of getting blacklisted. Part of this is for closure for myself, from bottling how I really felt about all this inside for so long. I left names out of this for a reason- for everyone else reading this, the “want-to –be- allies” who saw something similar happen in their own rehearsal room, or their own production and decided to do what everyone else in my production did. You did not say the N-word, but you didn’t stand up for the black person in the room who has hurt by it. Maybe you were the stage manager, the dance captain, production assistant, who had the authority to stand up and say this is wrong and did not or said let’s change the topic, ignore what just happened and talk about something else. I wrote this so you new allies, who never spoke up before, but are HEAVY with social media activism now, can be reminded of the time you got in trouble for saying something racist and victimized yourself, just like my stage manager. After my stage manager got “in trouble”- trouble meaning my director gave her the cold shoulder everyday after that situation- she complained to my cast about it everyday because she didn’t believe any of this was her fault and she thought she wouldn’t have a job next year. This is for the people who said something racist and when the black person in the room called you out for it, you started crying and said he or she was yelling at you. Understand that black lives matter is not just a phrase to say when a black person gets gunned down by police. It also includes the micro- and macro-agressions and stereotypes that we face in the workplace as well. Y’all wanna be an “ally” and go so hard for Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd-the black lives, you don’t know and that are so far away from you, but wanna sit silent and “get pie” while doing NOTHING for the black lives sitting right next to you.