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The Time For Black Actors To Thrive Is Now

We deserve to play characters who aren’t defined by their relationships to white people

One day I was home, bored out of my mind, channel surfing, when I came across a black-and-white film called Alice Adams, starring an actress I had never heard of before named Katharine Hepburn. Now, up until that point, the only black-and-white film I could tolerate was The Wizard of Oz, so I was not that interested. But I watched it anyway. At age 13, it was the greatest thing I had ever experienced.

The clearest way to describe how that film changed my life is to compare it to that feeling when you’re sitting in a theater right after an incredible performance has finished. There’s a moment of silence before the theater erupts into applause — a moment when the audience is wiping their tears and catching their breath, a moment when they realize that they have just borne witness to something life-changing.

That is how I felt watching Katharine Hepburn. She floated across the screen so effortlessly and with such grace that it took my breath away. I had never seen an actress like her before, and it made me wonder, How can I re-create this feeling over and over, for the rest of my life? How can I give other people this feeling? In that moment I knew: I wanted to be an actress.

To this day, nothing in this world makes me feel more alive or more crucial to society than telling stories relevant to our current state of existence onstage.

But as I continued to immerse myself in the world of theater, I found that there were few opportunities for people who look like me to do so. I found that the experiences of black women — experiences like my own — were not commonly discussed or represented onstage, and I felt left out. Yes, Shakespeare was amazing at writing about the human condition. Yes, Chekhov was revolutionary in his day, and Ibsen is the “father of realism.” But who is William Shakespeare? A dead white guy. Who is Anton Chekhov? A dead white guy. Who is Henrik Ibsen? A dead white guy. (No shade to these guys, though — A Doll’s House is one of my all-time favorite plays.)

Still, I wondered: Where are the people who look like me? Where are the people who can write about experiences specific to my family’s struggles of being black in America? Where are all the black people in this profession?

To 16-year-old me, sitting in Ms. Hand’s 10th-grade Dramatic Literature class, there was nothing more beautiful than finding August Wilson’s Fences. When we began the table read of that play, I thought, Here we go, another play about the lives of slaves and maids and butlers. But by the time we finished, I felt it again — that feeling I got watching Katharine Hepburn as a tween, that moment of sensory overload. I could smell the amalgamation of fried and baked foods from Rose’s kitchen. I could visualize Bono and Troy sitting in the front yard, shooting the shit, drinking and talking about the good ol’ days. I could hear my great-grandparents in Troy, lecturing Cory about anything and everything.

This exchange between Troy, the play’s protagonist, and his son Cory struck me to my core:

CORY: Can I ask you a question? How come you ain’t never liked me?

TROY: Liked you? Who the hell say I got to like you? What law is there say I got to like you? Don’t you eat every day?

CORY: Yeah.

TROY: Nigger, as long as you in my house, you put that sir on the end of it when you talk to me!

CORY: Yes ... sir.

TROY: You eat every day.

CORY: Yessir!

TROY: Why you think that is?

CORY (hesitant): ’Cause you like me.

TROY: Like you? I go out of here every morning ... bust my butt ... putting up with them crackers every day ... ’cause I like you? You about the biggest fool I ever saw. (Pause.) It’s my job. It’s my responsibility! You understand that? A man got to take care of his family. You live in my house. Sleep you behind on my bedclothes. Fill you belly up with my food, ’cause you my son. You my flesh and blood. Not ’cause I like you!

With that exchange, I was hooked. I was transported into this black family drama, thrown into the thick of a black family struggling to stay together, struggling with racism, sexism, infidelity, and mental illness. I followed a young black boy coming of age in the 1950s and was guided through this eloquent, beautiful mess by a larger-than-life black male protagonist.

But the best part about it was that they all sound like me. They look like me. They feel like my home and the people who live there. They embody the stories and lectures I got as a child.

This is Fences. This is August Wilson. This is my black experience.

August Wilson is a black Pulitzer prize–winning playwright famous for writing 10 plays known as “The Century Cycle.” Each play tackles the black experience in America, one decade at a time.

The sixth in the series is Fences — which is arguably the most famous of all of Wilson’s plays, and is the work for which he won his first Pulitzer. The play, which is set in the 1950s, follows Troy Maxson, a 53-year-old garbageman and former Negro League Baseball player, as he tries to raise his headstrong 18-year-old son Cory, take care of his mentally ill brother Gabriel, and be a good husband to his wife Rose — all while dealing with the frustrations that come with being a black man in a racially divided era. Troy’s largess and stubbornness is often in direct conflict with his family’s needs and desires, but Wilson navigates this complex family’s life and their relationships beautifully, while staying true to the language and culture of the times.

Despite Wilson’s pioneering vision, we still struggle to give such stories the spotlight and recognition they deserve today. In 2015, Viola Davis became the first Black woman to win a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her role as Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder. While we all let out a collective sigh of relief that this world-class, Juilliard-trained black queen finally got what she has long deserved — and as Black Twitter collectively acted like every black mom at their kid’s graduation — Davis got on that stage and gave a speech that brought me to tears. One line in particular stuck with me: “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Notably, Davis’s win occurred the year that the Oscars came under fire because all 20 acting nominees were white, despite 2015 being a year that particularly featured brilliant performances from actors of color, such as the cast of Straight Outta Compton (whose white writers received a nomination) and Creed (whose white supporting star received a nomination ... for a film about Apollo Creed’s son). Davis’s simple words, therefore, resonated more than ever: If no one allows us to sit at the table, there’s no way we can eat.

It seems that now, finally, there is a storm brewing. This year alone, black people in film and television have created substantial roles for themselves. Atlanta is unapologetically black; Queen Sugar is showing tenderness between several generations of black men; and Insecure is tackling what it’s like when you’re both black and awkward.

And, of course, there’s the forthcoming movie adaptation of Fences, featuring none other than Viola Davis starring alongside Denzel Washington. When I watched the trailer, I felt like I was back in drama class, experiencing the work for the first time. It is thrilling to watch such an important piece of black theater come to the silver screen to be experienced by millions, to watch Denzel Washington and Viola Davis play Troy and Rose Maxson, to watch them square off in the most intense scene in the play, to watch Viola’s nose running (in case you don’t know, Viola’s nose running = movie magic) while she screams at Troy the “I’ve been standing right here with you” speech. To see this theatrical masterpiece become a major motion picture is almost more than I could have asked for. I cannot wait to see these brilliant, accomplished, world-class actors play the roles they deserve to play, roles more complex and nuanced than slaves, maids, or thugs. To see them be real people with real problems and real complexities that white actors are given in even the shittiest of movies — it’s magical.

Representation matters, and black people are fed up with waiting for our turn to have it. We are ready to say goodbye to the days in which we have to play a drug-addicted mother of four, or a homeless secret genius who is saved by a white teacher and goes on to study at Harvard or Yale / become president of the United States / become an astronaut who saves to planet just to maybe be considered for an Oscar nomination, while Jennifer Lawrence can make a movie about a mop and the Academy loses their minds.

Black people are more than slaves and maids. Our history didn’t start at slavery, and it certainly didn't end with the civil rights movement. We deserve to play characters who aren’t defined by their relationships to white people. And this is exactly why August Wilson has always been a beacon of light. His canon has given black actors a wide variety of roles with rich histories and complexities. I only hope that one day I’ll get to play one such complex character, to honor him for all he’s given me as an actress. I feel so lucky to be alive, to be a black actor, in this day and age.

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