Where the Grass Isn’t Always Greener

The Region IV Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) hosts a plethora of zealous minority groups who gather annually in order to pursue their passions in the various field of theatre. I find it astonishing that though there are hundreds of talented, dedicated colored artists in this region alone, there are only a limited amount of roles designed to the fit the vast frame of these performers. Instead of chalking this up as an irrational “racial conspiracy theory”, I instead want to hone my focus in on the experiences of minorities in the performing arts.

Richard Yingling, a current musical theatre major at James Madison University (Class of ’15), discusses the adversities he’s encountered as an African-American in an already intense line of business. “Being of African-American descent in theatre is a double-edged sword”. Not only is it practically impossible to obtain a lead in show, Richard goes on to say that a majority of the roles that are accessible to him are either minstrel stock characters like Jim Crow or stereotypical slaves like good ‘ole Uncle Tom. “There are many complex stories that don’t deal with the topic of slavery; it is a story that needs to be told but there are other stories about our race.” Current playwrights and screenwriters automatically attribute a specific race to a character regardless of its necessity, forcing a “token minority” to break any pre-conceived notions a director may have during the audition process. “It forces me to work harder than other people. I want the ability to have more color blind casting to help keep everything equal.” Though Richard appreciates the effort of many African-American based theatre companies, he hungers for the day where racial specialization is obsolete. “It’s getting a lot better but there is still a long ways to go”.

Andres Ponce, a Puerto Rican musical theatre major from James Madison University (Class of ‘16), feels increasingly alienated as one of the only Hispanic actors in his department. Due to the minuscule amounts of shows with roles designed for actors of his ethnic background, Andres foresees a trying career ahead of him. Regardless, his foremost aspiration as a performer resides in opening doors for the future youth of his culture who desire to pursue the arts. “I want us to push harder in this field so these playwrights and screenwriters create more roles for us. As a Hispanic, we need more shows like In the Heights.”

In the in-depth segment entitled “African-American Women in Hollywood”, Oprah Winfrey sits down with a few of the most powerful black female actresses of our time, including Tony recipient Viola Davis, Alfre Woodard, and Phylicia Rashad. In this interview, the topic revolved around the hardships of rising to fame as a non-white actor. Though there is an excess of talented African-American artists residing in Hollywood and New York, according to Alfre Woodard, most of these actors have only had three or four successful films in their lifetime. When compared the number of prevalent films starring young, white actors such as Jennifer Lawrence, a serve question must be asked: why are there so few minority characters in modern theatre and cinema?

Tyler Perry, a renowned black writer and director, provides us with a response: “I feel like the [white] story-tellers are telling stories that don’t necessarily include a lot of us [minorities]. What we need is more story-tellers.” Rationally, it is safe to assume that people can only write about what they know, witnessed, experienced. It is equally as sensible to assume that a majority of Caucasian men and women have had little to no experiences that can be deemed as “universal” to non-white communities. It is apparent that the only way to ensure the incorporation of minorities into the performing arts is to enthuse said minorities to recount their life narratives onto paper; only then can there be an authentic understanding and expression of the countless cultures within our society.

Though the journey towards racial impartiality on stage and on camera will be an extensive and serrated one, I ache for the day that race and artistry are no longer synonymous terms, ensuring that emphasis be placed on the magnitude of one’s talent instead of on the color of one’s skin.