For Actors Of Color, Art Reflects Life, for Better and Worse

The cast of Bay Street Theater's production of "A Raisin in the Sun" during rehearsals in 2019. Chauncy Thomas is at left.

As white Americans struggle to accept — or struggle to deny — the parts we’ve played in perpetuating the systemic racism that’s pulsed through this country since its inception, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) have been shining a light on the obstacles they’ve inherited as a result. And, if we resist the urge to look away, we’re faced with the painful and undeniable fact that racist ideologies have been insidiously permeating our every interaction, institution, and industry in ways that effectively prevent white people from discomfort, and BIPOC from equality.

The entertainment industry is, unfortunately, a glaring example.

Lately, many performers of color have boldly taken to social media to share their personal experiences with racism in the TV, theater and film industries. As a white actor for whom race has never been a personal barrier, I was shocked by much of what my BIPOC friends and colleagues were sharing — but my shock gave way to shame as I realized just how rampant this invisible enemy has been within the performing arts, and how often I’d surely witnessed (and likely, unwittingly participated in) racist actions and attitudes without even recognizing them, let alone calling them out for what they were. My silence had been compliance.

To better understand and expose what really goes on behind the scenes, I reached out to five influential and outspoken actors of color — Mark St. Cyr (“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” on Disney+), Toccarra Cash (Broadway’s “The Play That Goes Wrong”), Chauncy Thomas (Bay Street Theater’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Of Mice and Men” and “A Raisin in the Sun”), Cynthia Nesbit (ATC’s “She Persisted”), and Brandon Curry (“L&O: SVU,” and the upcoming “Protector of the Gods”) — who graciously agreed to share their insider-info on how systemic racism has surreptitiously seeped into every facet of show business.

Brandon Curry

Q: How has racism within the entertainment industry impacted your artistic journey?
St. Cyr:
The primary racist attitude that’s affected my journey as a Black actor is the implicit idea that there is “only so much room” for BIPOC in entertainment. Most popular TV shows when I was growing up kept BIPOC in sidekick or supporting roles, and rarely had their own storylines unless the show was explicitly about race.
Curry: I’ve often been told I should be grateful for opportunities that white artists take for granted. As part of my conditioning as a Black man in America, I’ve had to frame many prejudices and injustices against me as obstacles to overcome. For example: the audition process at universities, when several thousand prospective students audition for their favorite conservatories and BFA programs each year. My white counterparts suggested that the only reason I was accepted into some of those programs was because of “diversity” — but the truth was, my dream school had “already filled their Black male quota” before I auditioned.
Cash: Honestly, I could fill an entire book with my personal experiences of racism in the industry. It’s so embedded into every stage of the process. In audition rooms, I’m told things like, “Give us that sassy attitude — you know what we’re talking about,” or “Be more urban!”
Curry: I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked to make my voice sound “more urban.” An urban sound is … a car horn.
Cash: Even when I was playing the only Black, female role in David Mamet’s “Race” at Florida Studio Theatre, my thoughts on my character were consistently dismissed by the white, male director. But these situations are seldom acknowledged or remedied by white theater-makers, because taking accountability would mean upending the stories they’ve told themselves about how liberal or “not racist” they are. And should a Black actor speak up, we risk being labeled as “threatening,” or “the angry Black woman/man.” The gaslighting is endless.
Nesbit: On my first national tour, I was one of only two Black people in the company —naturally, we’d been assigned as roommates. I began to notice that our notoriously genteel production manager was reticent and discreet when giving performance notes to my cast mates but consistently nasty and publicly critical of me to the extent that the entire cast regularly joked about it. Behind her back they called her racist. Six months into my contract I was fighting back tears before every performance.
I called a meeting with management. As I nervously read from a statement I’d written about the ways she had singled me out, our company manager interjected, “That’s a serious accusation about MY staff — do you really want to go there?” Tag-teamed and intimidated, I let it go. Two days later, I was told by HR that she had filed a formal complaint against me due to my behavior in the “disciplinary meeting” I’d apparently been “called in” for. Thankfully, I had proof in writing that I’d been the one to call the meeting, and explained to HR why I had, but HR did nothing. When I told my mom, she said, “This is corporate America, that’s how it works.” Now, I just try to keep my head down.
Curry: I think in general when people are speaking about racism in the industry, they want to hear about actionable offenses, but the truth is, the institution of entertainment works off of the pain of people of color; from the roles that we play, to the roles we’re not allowed to play, to the lack of concern in regards to hair and make-up for BIPOC.
Thomas: If there is a diverse cast, and the design team is all-white, it is imperative that someone understands Black hair. I’ve seen too many Black women be expected to do impossible things with their hair.

Cynthia Nesbit

Q: How has your experience playing roles intended for actors of color differed from playing non-racially specific roles?
St. Cyr:
There are pros and cons to both. I feel great fulfillment playing roles specifically written for Black men, if the role has been written with awareness, compassion, and three-dimensional humanity; but, too often, they’re stereotypical and surface-level. Whereas a benefit of non-racially specific roles is that the character is written without any preconceived judgements. But whenever you cast a person of color, their race becomes a given circumstance of the story, even if your story isn’t about race. If a racial minority gets cast as a series-lead, it’s okay if their race isn’t acknowledged immediately — but if that character goes multiple seasons without their race or culture being acknowledged, it can feel like erasure.
Curry: I can think of once in my whole career when I was asked to audition for a role that wasn’t specifically written for a Black man. Audiences struggle to embrace Black actors in roles that were “not intended” for them. Audra McDonald as Lizzie in “110 in the Shade”? People got so confused. And KeKe Palmer as Broadway’s first Black Cinderella was a big to-do. I’ll never understand how we can be fine watching a conversation between Elphaba the wicked witch and Dr. Dillamond the goat, but somehow, a non-white Ann Darrow in “King Kong” is unimaginable.
Thomas: The person who wrote my favorite play was a white guy with many accolades and an impressive body of work, but I don’t believe he ever wrote a part for a Black character. When I was living in St. Louis, a small theater company there was doing one of his plays. I wanted to audition, but didn’t know if they were open to casting actors of color. Many auditions claim that all races and ethnicities are encouraged to audition, but my skepticism of that is often buttressed when I see the final cast.
This audition notice made no mention of race or ethnicity. Normally I’d have sat it out, but I desperately wanted a chance to speak this playwright’s words. I arrived to the audition and saw no people of color; I wasn’t surprised. A colleague of mine seemed to be working for the company. When he spotted me and — with combination of happy-to-see-you and blunt confusion — said, “Chauncy, what are you doing here?” I was immediately demoralized. It was as if the idea that a POC could be cast in this show never occurred to him. I didn’t want to show my emotional defeat, so with as much excitement as I could muster, I said, “I’m here to audition!” And then I auditioned for a part I knew I wouldn’t get.
I’ve never made that mistake again. Unless I’m specifically told casting is looking for actors of color, I’m not showing up.
Nesbit: I was in a popular kids’ show about puppies, and I played the only Black-specified character: the chocolate Labrador.

Chauncy Thomas

Q: What have you found to be the biggest difference between working with diverse vs. non-diverse casts and creative teams?
When most of the creative team has been Black, I’ve been treated with a respect and specificity that allows me the freedom to be my most creative, authentic self. When the creative team is white, I’ve often found myself navigating their generalizations, stereotyping, and assumptions, which of course impedes my creativity.
When I performed in “Measure for Measure” for the Public Theatre’s Mobile Unit last fall, with an all-Black, female cast and Black creative team, it was the first time I’d ever felt confident doing Shakespeare. With white casts and creative teams, I’ve second-guessed myself due to the implication that I, as a Black actor, was less of a “cultural authority” on Shakespeare. But in the Public production, I thought, “Wow, this must be how white actors get to feel all the time when performing Shakespeare.”
Curry: It’s extremely challenging to truthfully spill your guts for a creative team who inherently cannot understand your point of view. I’ve been in situations where a white director tells me that a choice is wrong, or doesn’t make sense in the reality of the world. But how can you judge the reality of my world when you don’t live in it? When you don’t know how it feels to be a person full of joy and light, but folks still cross the street so they don’t have to walk on the same side as you? Or to not be able to hail a taxi cab in your own neighborhood?
St. Cyr: On sets that are more diverse, I find the leaders are better listeners, and usually have a desire to make a film or TV show with a higher level of inclusion and understanding for all their characters.
Nesbit: It’s especially magical to work with other female Black creatives who can facilitate and encourage a safe space for our artistry and our humanity. Those experiences are nothing short of sacred.
Thomas: People are people; you can form the same bonds and camaraderie with any cast. But majority Black casts feel more comfortable talking about racism in theater or in general — often because, if the cast is primarily Black, the play likely deals with racial themes — but also because we live in a racist world, so it feels as common to discuss as the weather. A unique situation occurs though when a theater that has little-to-no experience producing plays with diverse casts decides to put one on. Many actors of color, myself included, can feel an added pressure that if our production isn’t successful, that theater may never produce a play with so many actors of color again.

Mark St. Cyr

Q: How do you feel about the roles that have been/are being written for actors of color? What sorts of BIPOC characters and storylines would you like to see more or less of?
St. Cyr:
I’d like to see more Black men in roles for gay and trans characters. When “Moonlight” came out, there was a lot of hate from parts of the Black community who felt that Hollywood was trying to emasculate Black men and present us as weak; but gay Black men can be masculine and strong, too. It’s unfortunate that much of the Black community feels more comfortable watching Black male characters murder each than kiss each other.
Thomas: I certainly think roles for people of color are improving, but there is a long way to go. I recently had the realization that six of the last 14 women to win Best Supporting Actress Oscars were Black. That’s wonderful progress. But before those six, there were only two winners: Hattie McDaniel and Whoopi Goldberg. Black women certainly didn’t all of a sudden learn to master the craft. Finally, roles worthy of their talents are being written, and more importantly, greenlighted.
Cash: With more female BIPOC writers, the roles for Black women are becoming more nuanced, complex, and ever-so-slightly more numerous — but white stories and roles are still the vast default, especially in theater. Personally, I want to see more central Black characters in future-based stories. I also really want to see sweeping, epic, big-budget projects centering on BIPOC in pre-enslavement or pre-colonialism eras — like the Queen of Sheba, and Mansa Musa, which I hear might be in the works — and hell, can we finally get an accurate depiction of Cleopatra, not played by a white woman?!
St. Cyr: I also want to see East Asian/South Asian men in leading roles — particularly romantic/sexy roles — because there’s been a history of desexualizing and emasculating Asian men in American culture. I feel Hollywood has just plain overlooked the need to support and develop our Asian/Latinx/Native American/MENASA [Middle East, North Africa and South Asia] talent.
Thomas: Yes! And Indian men need roles beyond doctors. We also need far better roles for Latinx actors.
Also, we need more diverse body types. On TV, the physical standard has always been higher for Black men. How many Black men on TV between 20 and 40 can you name who don’t have a six-pack? I realized if I wanted a better chance to succeed, I had to be in better shape than white men my age — so, four years ago, I altered my diet and exercise and basically put on 25 pounds of muscle. I get so much more work now.
Nesbit: For a while, I was seriously considering plastic surgery, because I’d look at these TV actresses who I almost looked like, and think: how can I look more like them? What nose shape, what cheekbone height, what hair texture would be “acceptable” in order for me to succeed as an actress…?
Cash: In the wake of the current racial awakening, we need stories that reflect the reality of what Black people are dealing with when it comes to the police. Too often, stories portray the officers struggling and conflicted with their violence, or the officer who kills a Black person will also be non-white. No. Tell the truth: the officers who perpetrate these crimes on Black people are rarely remorseful, and almost always white. America needs to see the truth without sugarcoating.
Curry: One of the reasons I love “Insecure” on HBO so much is because it is simply a narrative where the people happen to be Black. That means that we naturally learn about the Black experience by way of these characters that we love. Playwrights like Michael R. Jackson, who just won the Pulitzer Prize for “A Strange Loop,” or Jeremy O’Harris who wrote “Slave Play” to critical acclaim — these are people who are introducing work that not only informs audiences, but esteems the BIPOC telling the stories and using their skills with pride.
St. Cyr: I feel optimistic about the BIPOC roles being created in TV and film right now. After “Black Panther,” Marvel has doubled down with some of the most diverse casts ever; and because Marvel produces some of the biggest blockbusters of all time, their commitment to championing diversity can impact our world in a major way.

Toccarra Cash

Q: What changes can artists and arts organizations be making to actively combat the problem of racism in the arts?
Equity starts with the leadership. So more Black people need to be in leadership positions. Period.
Curry: A lot of the issue when it comes to network television specifically is that there’s all of these people in charge who have to approve everything — so if the board is comprised of a million old white guys who don’t want to see stories about Black families, then it’s not going to happen.
St. Cyr: “Grey’s Anatomy” would’ve been a mostly white cast if Shonda Rhimes didn’t have showrunner power. Look at the Academy Awards: in 2012, the Academy members were 94-percent white. They’ve since diversified with more women, BIPOC, and youth, and I’m hopeful that’ll be a helpful step toward changing the culture of Hollywood.
We need to be honest about what our industry situation is and start aggressively fixing it. We have a scarcity of minority movie stars, and we need to cultivate them. And as much as Hollywood has work to do, Broadway seems to me to be even more behind the curve than Hollywood. Thankfully, TV networks all have diversity talent showcases where each year they intentionally seek out new undiscovered talent and give them a platform to be introduced to the industry. The ABC Diversity Talent Showcase set me on the career path I’m on today. I wish there were more of those kinds of programs, and that theaters and publishers offered similar opportunities to showcase diverse and underrepresented talent.
Nesbit: I think that every production which tackles racial issues should have a cultural dramaturg. I’m also a big proponent of colorblind casting. Whenever a project is non-racially specific, I wish they’d just put every different race in a hat and shake it up and let that decide what parts are what color, because diverse casting shouldn’t be a big deal. Theater is all make believe!
Cash: I want to see us Black artists and creatives continue to speak up as a united front, like we have with the recent “Dear White American Theatre: We See You” movement, without fear that it’ll affect our ability to be hired. I also want more Black artists charting our own paths by starting our own production companies, distribution companies and theaters. But we need white artists and creatives to join in these fights and be true allies by educating themselves on how to be actively anti-racist. These “official statements” from predominately-white companies mean nothing until they are followed up with real, measurable action.

Q: This is an East End newspaper, so I wanted to hear from actors of color who hail from the Hamptons — but I couldn’t think of a single one. That’s… not great. Have you ever gotten to visit or work on the South Fork?
Thomas: I’ve performed in four productions at Bay Street Theater for their Literature Live program. I’ve been able to perform two of my dream roles there, so it’s been artistically fulfilling, and actually most of the work I’ve gotten on the East Coast occurred because of a connection I’ve made at Bay Street. In terms of the area, I’m from the Midwest, and still enjoy peace and quiet, so having a fall show in the Hamptons has been an incredible blessing.
St. Cyr: I was very fortunate to film an independent movie called “Modern Persuasion” in the Hamptons in the summer 2018. The film is a modernized adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” and there are several great scenes in the Hamptons.
Curry: I’ve visited the Hamptons on a few occasions — once, to see a wonderful production of “Equus” at Guild Hall — but I’ve never felt comfortable out there. You ever been to a place where every single person does a double-take when you walk by? Like, I know I’m beautiful, but I’m not Beyoncé.
Cash: I’ve been to the Hamptons once in my life. I remember saying to my friend I was there with, “Wow, not many of us out here, huh?” She said, “Nope; not besides the historically Black Hamptons enclaves, but those are now being gentrified.” That led to a whole conversation about how systemic racism has had a hand in the creation and preservation of the Hamptons.

Q: Will you be celebrating the Fourth of July this year?
The Fourth of July is canceled. America has never been free. This July Fourth, I —like many BIPOC — will be wearing all black, to remind people of our overlooked exclusion. No shopping, no cookouts; we are celebrating Juneteenth. Once our humanity is acknowledged, then we can acknowledge the Fourth of July — but Independence Day has never meant a thing to African captives in this country.
Cash: I’ve always had an issue with the Fourth of July — for Black Americans, the entire idea behind the holiday is a gigantic slap in the face. As the country was celebrating its independence from Britain, my ancestors were all still enslaved. Juneteenth is our Independence Day; June 19, 1865 commemorates when the last enslaved Black people were told they were free. I hope people get honest about Independence Day, and work on dismantling the rose-colored myth of America’s freedom.
Curry: I like to celebrate the American holidays regardless of their foundation, but I think we can interpret them in a much better way moving forward. I’ve often called Columbus Day the Indigenous Peoples day, it has now officially been changed. Over time, I think we can take these outdated landmarks and transform them into something to be proud of.

Q: Do you believe art has the power to heal?
St. Cyr:
I think art can be a catalyst for healing. A lot of pain in this world is caused by people who misunderstand each other on an empathetic level. I think great storytelling can help us empathize with each other.
Curry: The thing I love most about theater in particular is that you can see yourself reflected onstage in the embodiment of someone else. Watching someone handle a circumstance you’ve struggled with before being able to step outside of yourself and see the truth right in front of you, can heal.
Cash: I believe art is absolutely one of the most vital methods of healing, and this pandemic has shown us that. How in the world would we be getting through this mess without music, movies, television, literature, and artistic expression?

Q: What’s next for you — artistically, or otherwise?
St. Cyr:
I’m about to release a short film called “Everything is Fine” that I wrote, directed, and acted in during quarantine, and using the online premiere on June 18th to raise money for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Nesbit: Currently, I’m working on dismantling capitalist white supremacy; that’s my new artistic endeavor. Black people have always been devastated when one of us is killed by the police, but before the pandemic, we’ve had bills to pay and no time to grieve. Now, you take away all the busyness, and underneath you find this impact; this availability for liberation.
Curry: This time has been challenging, but it’s also reminded me that there’s more to life than fancy opening nights. A lot of people are angry right now — and they should be. I’m glad more people are getting angry, and I hope their anger helps pave way for change. But anger is just one way to protest. I protest with my joy. No one can take my joy away from me.
I just hope white Americans start to understand the ways that racism has benefited them. When my ancestors were released from the plantation they’d worked on for their entire lives, where they hadn’t been allowed to learn to read or write or cultivate any skills apart from producing profit for their white owners, they were expected to suddenly, magically catch up to all of the wealth and prosperity that already existed in the country. So I say to you, as a community of people who live in one of the wealthiest beach towns in the world: I hope you’ll consider how events of the past have made it possible for you to sit in the comfort that you do today, and how to best use your positions of privilege to amplify the voices of those of us still calling for equality and justice.