In the summer of 2002, during our yearly trips to Blytheville, Arkansas, our family, my aunts, uncles, and a host of cousins gathered in my Grandma’s living room. It was the day before my 16th birthday. Amidst the laughter synchronizing with adult conversations and kids playing, I sat next to my Grandma with my eyes fixed on the very first season of American Idol. The stage, the colors, and lively music eventually cut it’s way through the room and won everybody’s attention. My Grandmother turned to me and barely above a whisper asked,
“When am I gonna see you on that stage?”
At the time, my Grandma saw something in me, her shy 15 year old granddaughter, that I didn’t see in myself.
This post is dedicated to her.
I’m in between shows at Up Comedy Club in Chicago preparing my mind for the 11:00pm show for The Second City Presents Holidazed and Confused. Fellow cast members have calmed down from our sea of backstage bits and we have retired our faces to our 4.7 inch display screens. We just got five minutes to places and after watching Shonda Rhime’s acceptance speech for the Hollywood Reporter’s Sherry Lansing Award, I really feel like sitting, reflecting, and thinking about the career I’ve decided to go into. Instead, I have to make sure my black suit is lint free, my forehead is shine free, and double check that my props for Act 2 are set when all that’s going through my head is the repetitive phrase in the prologue to Misty Copeland’s autobiography, Life in Motion.
This is for the little brown girls….
I stumbled into the world of comedy and improv. After graduating from acting school in LA, I began a life in theatre in Chicago. With a journey that began in 2012 – a mixture of building relationships and being invited to the right audition at the right time – I landed me a pretty cool gig in 2014. Like every audition I brought the essentials 4 things: 1.) My headshot which I refer to as the 8×10 platter to serve my face 2.) a resume that finally excluded college work to make room for names of known directors from recognizable theaters, and finally 3.) my brown skin accompanied by 4.) my gender.
Industry’s thirst for African-American female comedic talent in a very white and very male arena, suddenly grew to dehydration. One day somebody looked up and said, “hmph, there’s no color on that stage. Like at all. Uh, we gotta do something about that.”
I participated in several programs that specifically requested “people of color,” such as Diversity Week this…Diverse chance that. Finally, everybody who is not white for 1 out of 52 weeks can be invited to participate. I’m thankful for all these opportunities. I’ve participated in several outreach programs set in place specifically for people of color from childhood throughout my college days and I’ve benefitted from them greatly.
But the older I got, the more I wanted the “regular” stuff. The “regular” show. Not the show created for “urban” people like me.
When I first joined The Second City National Touring Company, I was and am still in the learning- as-I-go-mode. Does one in comedy ever stop learning? Watching. Learning. Retaining what I need. Discarding what I don’t. Staying true to myself. Finding my funny.
Just trying to find my place in a world where I sometimes feel like it doesn’t know what to do with me.
Shonda Rhimes was awarded The Hollywood’s Reporter Sherry Lansing award and at the 23rd Annual breakfast to honor the Power 100, she questioned why she earned the award and after being edified as a pioneer in the industry, she was also recognized because they considered her to to be responsible for breaking the glass ceiling as a black woman. Shonda Rhimes speaks on the invisible glass ceiling that she has not broken through. She informs the crowd that to receive an award based on gender and race is merely like receiving a participation award for showing up to the pageant while your beautiful peers are being crowned for actual achievements.
Watch her speech here:
So I say to us Blactresses:
Others will come after us. During one of our Bob Curry sessions, I’ll never forget what comedian Shantira Jackson said,
If it just so happens that some black kids from the south side come to see a show and you happen to be in it, you can’t be shit. That’s probably the only time they’ll see a black person on a stage.
When I see young black girls who tell me they want to actors, I tell them I am on stage working as hard as I can so when it’s time for them to be in the audition room, they won’t be limited or have to wait to participate in programs for people of color. They will be given opportunities because they are qualified. We have to earn trust in institutions that are not used to working with “us.” That sounds messed up it is true. We have been qualified. We know that. We have to show the people on the other side of the table that we do this work and we do it brilliantly.
2. Don’t worry about why you’re hired.- Outside of being necessarily typecast, like my role for The Mountaintop, when I get a job that a white girl or heck, even a white man could have filled, I used to go home and ponder, “am I even talented? Is it only because I’m a black girl?” That may never be my answer to know. Which brings me to…
3. Just do your job extremely outrageously well. – For all the days I tour frightful to a town where I’m not sure if the majority of the inhabitants are racist and I can’t help but ignore that I’m the only black woman I’ve seen since the plane has landed, I concentrate on doing my job extremely well. For all the she-doesn’t-deserve-this murmurs of colleagues and all the check avails galore, I keep showing up. Off book. For all the times I hid in the bathroom and cried over a friggin’ hairdo, I celebrate my unknown lineage.
We plan. We pray. We plot. How do we get to the next level? By concentrating on being brilliant. Aim high. I can dream to host The Tonight Show. I can dream to do whatever I want to do. If I’m doing this so that in 50 years a little brown girl that I don’t even know hits the mark that I’m fighting for – it’s worth it. And all this – this constant desire to prove our place in this world of make believe where all things SHOULD be possible while battling our own insecurities as black women while fearing for the lives of all the black men in our life – it will be worth it when I see my grandmother in heaven, I’ll be able to tell her “I did it. I was on stage grandmama.”