May I preface this article by saying that I love the performing arts to an indecent degree: I have four or five Broadway Pandora stations; I spend my last dime to attend ballets, symphonies, and musicals; I have blown off relatively important meetings or classes to view a free play a time or two. There is nothing better in terms of entertainment, in my humble opinion, than to be in the audience as someone brings something to life. For me, the act of creation is a facsimile of the glory of a divine entity. Few can do it, and fewer still can do it well.
For someone like me, the last few months have been something out of a dream. Misty Copeland, my absolute favorite ballet diva, and one of a few ballerinas whom I have followed closely over the years, has been getting the shine she has deserved for so long. There is very seldom a week that goes by that I don’t see something about Misty. And I love it. She is talented, she works hard, and better still, she’s brown. A brown ballerina! Historically rare, Misty’s melanin has caused her to stand out equally as much as her talent. There have been a handful before her, notably Lauren Anderson of the Houston Ballet, but none have achieved the levels of pop culture notoriety that Misty Copeland is receiving lately.
|Photo Credt: Naim Chidiac Abu Dhabi Festival. Author: Gilda N. Squire.|
To further deepen my excitement, I received an email from one of my Broadway site subscriptions about the casting of TAYE DIGGS (!) as HEDWIG in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Mind. Blown. Hedwig has traditionally been played by a Caucasian person (since the character is German in origin), and this cross-color casting gave me the greatest excitement I have experienced in a very long while. However, my excitement is met with what seems indifference mostly (and occasionally, outright hostility) from my peers.
|Photo Credit: New York Daily News|
These are young, educated, relatively culturally appreciative Black Folk. Broadway, the operatic arts, orchestras, and ballet are equated, in their opinion, ranks on the fun scale somewhere around “root canal.” I have never understood this, but until recently, I did not question it. After all, I am the girl who liked comics before they were blockbuster, pop culture staples; I liked anime when my peers were watching 106th and Park; I read books for fun when my friends were stealing Cosmopolitan from the local hair or nail salon. I was called “White,” “nerd,” “geek.” I was used to my tastes being disparaged; I was used to feeling different.
This kind of outsider feeling as a fan had to be even more difficult for the friends of mine that had blossomed into full-fledged performers. It became an obsession for me, running to shows here and there to try to support the performers of color who shared my skin, my culture, and most importantly, my love for the arts. I saw some great things; I saw some performances that were mediocre, at best (yes, Stickfly, I am looking you dead in the soul). I always wondered how it must feel to look out into the audience and see yourself reflected back at you, or to tell people what you do and field some of the questions you must inevitably receive. In that vein, I asked a few of my friends on the stage about their experiences as a performer of color and how they feel supported or otherwise by the people of their own community.
Paloma is an opera singer, currently a PhD candidate and intercontinental performer.
AJ: What are some of the reactions you get when people hear that you are an opera singer for a living? And how do you feel the business side is different between the places (US and EU) that you’ve worked?
PALOMA: I get questions about classical music being a dead white guy thing… but most people think it’s cool or unique. Most of the interactions are positive opportunities for teachable moments. As far as the [opera business] systems, they are different in the US than abroad. In the US there is a farm system; they range from “pay to sing” programs to “sing for pay programs”, which are like apprenticeships and have varying levels of exposure. From there you have ‘cover’ contracts and finally, mainstage gigs. Once you reach apprentice level, you are getting real field training and working with mainstage artists. Where schooling and apprenticing is the norm in the US, in Europe, you require an agent to get you the most desirable auditions.
AJ: Do you find that in the opera world, the audience and participants are more concerned with talent and ethnicity?
PALOMA: No. Point blank. You have to look like your role. The larger the character, the more stuck we get on the physical appearance of a person. Opera has a terrible history of putting black face on a character, even to this day, and denying people a role because of their appearance. There is a line for the sake of believability, and I understand that… but there is a line for taste and decency as well.
AJ: How does your immediate community support you in your creative endeavors, and how can the community at large be more supportive and engaged in the fine arts?
PALOMA: Education. We don’t expose our community to the [fine] arts and we have no idea the contributions our ancestors made to the field. We don’t see our faces in its history so we can’t envision ourselves in its future.
MELANIE P. :
An international operatic performer who hails from Baltimore, she sent in her testimony. Here is an excerpt:
Melanie P: My experience as a young black opera singer has been a challenging but very exciting experience. I’ve had the opportunity to travel abroad and live in Italy and Brazil performing opera in international summer festivals as well as singing locally in the states. I’ve studied this beautiful art form for years and most of my mentors have advised me to spend a significant amount of time abroad establishing my career. Historically, most black opera singers have excpetional career opportunites in Europe.
Perhaps it is because we offer something unusal or exotic in our appearance and the rich quality of our voices that intrigues opera buffs from other countries. I haven’t personally dealt with any discrimation as far as my performance experience is concerned. The first time I traveled abroad to sing in Italy, I sang with people from Russia, Brazil, Switzerland, Italy, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and the US. I was the only black person in the entire festival. I was obviously aware that no one around me looked like me but that is what made me feel even more inspired. There are so many black opera singers that paved the way for me to have access to the opportunites for young singers today, fighting for their voices to be heard in any venue. I sometimes wonder what the panelists/administration of opera companies are specifically looking and listening for in the American audition process because it is highly competitive and frequent rejection can be discouraging. Often after auditioning, the feedback is minimal and it’s difficult to pinpoint the reason why I wasn’t selected for the role.
People of all ages seem to show some form of interest when I tell them that I’m an opera singer. In this case, I believe it is more intriguing because I’m young and black…specifically as it relates to my peer group. I’m always asked, “Why opera”? The misconception is that opera is only for an elite group of society appealing to the middle-aged and senior citizen demographic. However, this is so far from the truth. All art forms are beautiful and accessible for people of all ages. There is a sophistication associated with opera, ballet, and orchestral music that might be intimidating for people who have no familiarity with these genres of art. But, I think that is what makes opera so exciting! Yes, it is an intellectual genre of music, causing one to think beyond the the surface and uncover the composer’s vision through visual and musical art. Opera is a combination of all of the major classical art forms. The foreign languages simply offer more of a connection to the storyline and allows the vocalists’ phrasing to be more beautiful.
If people are excluded from this art form because of the color of their skin, it’s really ridiculous at this point. I’m sure that it still happens in some opera houses but the singing should speak for itself. If the artist has a gorgeous instrument, emotional depth, seriousness about stuyding opera, and commitment to inspiring the next generation of singers, there is absolutely no reason why there aren’t engagements and roles available for the singer. The major issue for me most likely has to do with my vocal fach. I’m a full lyric soprano and there’s an immeasurable amount of lyric sopranos around the world, all competing for Puccini, Mozart, and Verdi roles. It’s of the utmost importance to remain focused on the greater goal. All of the other flailing issues are simply distractions. If the door is open and I’m prepared, I will walk through and overcome any obstacle that comes my way. If the focus is always on race, weight, economic background etc., it shifts the audience’s focus from the artistry and gift that the singer has to offer the world.
A NYC actress with numerous credits, both on and off-stage, to her name. Here is her testimony:
KIM EXUM: I would say my greatest challenge would be in understanding that I am enough and that I deserve to be here. The roles directed toward the black woman are scarce and the roles that we do have are typically held by [film or music] stars or those with Broadway credits. Aside from coping with a lack of resume, it is difficult to deal with the fact that no one wants to see us in a lead unless we are talking about being black or belting for Jesus. As a lighter woman of color I am praised for my ambiguity from the casting couch, insinuating that my hue of melanin makes me "more versatile" or "more commercial.”
Though these attributes may work in my favor it is disheartening to know that through some eyes a darker woman is not "commercial" simply because she is darker or a larger woman cannot be on television simply because she is not a size 4. When you look at the theatre community, you would typically think you're viewing a large group of progressive, liberal individuals who are dedicated to social change. This is a [generally] correct assumption, but in the case of racial equality, this community lacks the fervor needed to propel truly diverse work onto the public, and never addresses that there is a major issue. So, when I say I'm challenged by understanding that "I am enough", I'm saying that the work doesn't dictate that I am. The work provided doesn't allot me the same opportunity as others and has the potential to box me into a shell of myself. Due to the fact that I cannot depend on what's out there to validate me, I must always work to actively validate myself.
My greatest reward would be being able to work and create. I remember hearing from a source I can't remember that "my presence is revolutionary”. Me just standing here, employed, being a creator of color is a revolutionary act that evokes emotion and change and love... my presence is a present as Kanye West said. Every time I get on a stage I'm very aware that if I'm the only black woman there's probably a child out there who sees herself in me, who's watching my two step a little more closely than everyone else's simply because she looks like me... and that's why it's such a big deal. You don't think you're promoting change when you walk stage left, but if you honor it as something magnificent you may just put that spark in a child, a spark that causes them to change their life and to say, "hey world! I can be whatever I want to be and I don't have to look like everyone else to do it!"
A black male contemporary ballet dancer from Harlem who has performed in touring companies in the US, Europe, and Asia.
AJ: What has been the greatest challenged you’ve faced as a Latino male ballet dancer?
JAMISON: In my culture, dance is life. People dance all the time, whether it is in the kitchen, in the street, at wedding, or in a ballroom. The ballet is what throws them. Only the dudes though (laughs). The dudes think I’m either gay or pulling in women. I went straight from a performing arts high school to a ballet company, so most of my friends have known me for ten years or more and they are also dancers or performers, so the stereotypes don’t affect me much from inside my circle. As a kid they bothered me, but not so much now. I have a fiancé and she loves that I’m “ballet strong” (laughs).
AJ: Do you feel adequate support from your community?
JAMISON: Eh, kind of. No one is vehemently opposed to it in my family. My mother is really supportive, she loves being able to point [on stage] and say, “that’s my baby." My father doesn’t care about ballet at all so long as I don’t have to move back home (laughs). He says that he is proud of me, [ballet] is honest hard work and he is proud of me, even though he can’t understand how a kid from Washington Heights ended up in tights. It’s our thing (laughs). The guys in my family, fathers, brothers, and uncles call me “Boy Wonder.”
AJ: And the community at large?
JAMISON: You know, some people love ballet and some are made uncomfortable by the idea that I prance and dance in nut-hugging nudes (laughs). I guess it’s all about what you enjoy; no matter what, people aren’t gonna like the same things…I don’t get mad when people don’t get ballet. I don’t get hockey so I hope nobody comes after me for that (laughs).
AJ: Do you feel that it’s important to get the Latino community or other communities of color involved in ballet or fine arts?
JAMISON: I don’t think they need to love it, but I think there is a distinct lack of interest and education in ballet especially. You read plays in school, you participate in orchestra or band or chorus… you’re just not exposed to ballet if a parent doesn’t sign you up. We aren’t all Misty [Copeland]; almost no one could become the kind of star that Misty is if beginning their craft at thirteen. Misty is a dance goddess. But honestly, if you don’t get into those classes at a young age, even if you are interested, it’s difficult. Competition is fierce and there isn’t a lot of money in it at the professional level unless you’re employed by a large touring troupe or a famous company. In other countries that may be different, but in the US, people aren’t bum rushing the theater to see me in tights (laughs).
In hearing the testimony and experiences of the people who literally create things that I love every day, I feel that the overwhelming issue within the Black community is a lack of education and opportunity in the fine arts. What would our neighborhoods look like if children weren’t only congregating on the basketball courts, but also on the stage? How would the world treat our community differently if we produced more Audra McDonalds rather than reality show celebrities? How would we view ourselves differently if we could actively depend on seeing ourselves create, rather than the mass marketed images of decay and destruction that are force fed to us in our communities and in media? Everyone isn’t going to bust into show tunes tomorrow. But we could all use more Porgy and Bess a maybe a tad bit less Meek Mill.