I am very pleased to write in support of Equity’s campaign to produce a Manifesto for Casting. As the industry develops in line with changing markets and technology it is essential to review practices at all points of production.
As an actress of colour, I realise that many of my experiences and reflections on the industry will hold resonance for all actors who experience ‘otherness’. As one friend of mine put it, “the invisibility of impairment” can affect all of us and I hope I can in some way speak to that as well by sharing my personal experiences.
This same friend spoke to me of accepting the realization years ago of the casting box that she had been put in. She shared this reflection with casting directors she met who in turn congratulated her on basically knowing her place. She explained to me that she could accept ‘the box’ if within that box she was able to tell her story and be in control of the box.
This box has become what another actress of colour friend of mine calls “the caring professional”: you know- teachers, care workers, parole officers, nurses etc. Anyone whose role is to basically care about what is happening to our white central protagonist. We are not interested in their individual lives just how they serve our hero/heroine. This fact makes them, in my opinion, contemporary manifestations of the caring ‘mammy’ role, the Help.
The other thing that I know many black actors will also have experienced is the expectation to be “street”, the requirement to make the character “more black”- the definition of which boggles the mind and could take pages of exploration.
We all know that one. I even had the experience of being refused a part as a mother sending her son off to Oxbridge because when a slight Trinidadian came through in my accent (I should really have gone full on Trini in my opinion) the director could not understand how I could then have a child going to Oxbridge and worried about the political implications of casting me. Again we could spend hours dissecting that one.
This classism is something that is often overlooked in terms of race. I had a beautiful young actor become very emotional in a workshop that I produced of a Trinidadian adaptation of The Three Sisters by Mustapha Matura. This young man was cast as a lovelorn soldier off to fight in WWII. He was emotional because so far he’d only been cast professionally as Thug 2 or the like. He has since left the business.
Which brings me to issues of mid-career invisibility. Of course every director/casting agent wants to discover the newest young thing and young black actors can get caught up in this excitement of discovery only to then find that as mature adults there is no room for them in the industry. The invitation to participate needs to include people who come with experience as well opinions and expectations otherwise there is no real equality.
What I call the “invite back” is often lacking: actors who serve the production house/company well deserve to be invited back as valued parts of the success they have brought to productions. This is what happens to white actors and how careers are sustained. But my own experience is of successful performances being seen as a one-off, somehow explained by the role suiting my “background” (again we could discuss just what that might mean) or something of the like. Our senior statesmen and women are often not seen beyond their colour or ethnicity to the accomplished performers that they are.
I celebrate Equity’s focus in this campaign of not just building but maintaining careers within the industry.