Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Why a Teacher Oughta Be Rich

Recently, a former teacher friended me on Facebook. She taught me theatre in high school. In other words, she instilled my work ethic, discipline, and a love of the rehearsal process. She supported my ambition and drive while teaching me how to set a goal and work toward achieving it. On her lunch hour, she would help be practice for auditions. She gave me the one and only A+ of my academic career for a monologue I wrote based on a painting. Most importantly, she saw my talent, not just the color of my skin which was black amongst an almost all white student body. She was Caucasian as well.

Mrs. Barry cast me as Miss. Hannigan in Annie my sophomore year. The boy who played my brother Rooster was white. Nothing in the script was changed. No questions were asked. My junior year she cast me in The Wiz as the Wicked Witch; not Dorothy. The Wiz is the all black musical version of The Wizard of Oz. At the time I was horribly disappointed and indignant. “How could she not cast the only black girl as Dorothy?” I railed to the heavens. I wasn't right for Dorothy. That was how. The character Evilene better suited my comic timing and ability to play broader characters. I wasn't the ingenue then or now. Never will be. Them's the breaks kid.

My senior year, she cast me as Mame. I was playing a musical theatre icon immortalized respectively by Rosalind Russell and Angela Lansbury on stage and Lucille Ball in film.

The character of Mame is a high class Manhattinite with a white nephew. The story is set during The Great Depression and World War II. As Mame, I had white servants and fell in love with a white man from the South. Colorblind casting in traditional LaGrange, Illinois; 1987. Mrs. Barry was not going to let the color of my skin prevent her from casting who she felt was the best candidate for the role. She was a pioneer.

I’d experienced losing a role because I was black in grade school. Nobody told me as much, but I knew. My grade school had four black kids at the time I attended; me, my sister, a girl named Melissa and a boy named Earl. Every year, my grade school did an all-school production. Each grade performed and a group of kids served as narrators tying all the sketches and songs together. The narrator characters were siblings. The conceit was that they found various items in their attic that inspired the scenes they introduced.

I was the only student of color who auditioned for one of the siblings. I kicked some grade school-ass. That’s not ego, I swear. Only a handful of kids auditioned at all. Some were inaudible, others not quite right. I didn't get cast.

After the teacher announced the names of the kids who would play the siblings my face fell and I caught the teacher’s eyes. I caught the teacher, really. Her face was full of shame. Clearly embarrassed, it’s almost as if I could hear her say, “I know. I just can’t. I don’t know how.”

There’s this thing about prejudice or racism that can be hard to understand unless you’ve experienced it, personally. When you feel in your gut that there is a form of prejudice taking place then hands down there is some form of prejudice taking place. It’s the same as thinking you smell gas in the house. You can’t see it or touch it but it’s prevalent. It is there.

The fact that Michaellene Barry, unlike the grade school teacher, did "know how" and didn't go with the safe choice, empowered me. I am no longer an advocate of colorblind casting which asks an audience to overlook the color of a person’s skin. I advocate non-traditional casting which encourages diversity and creativity in the casting process. What matters, though, is at a crucial time in my development, I had someone who did not choose to limit me because I was not white. I had a teacher who took her time and nurtured me. Her attention single-handedly enabled me to believe that hard work mattered; that I mattered. What a priceless gift.