Stop Asking Black Performers to “Sound and/or Talk Blacker" During Auditions
Kevin Ray Johnson
- Guest Columnist
Now let me start by saying that this is my opinion and you do not have to agree. Also... White people are not the only ones guilty of this. This has happened to me several times in my career from people from all walks of life (including fellow black artist). Unfortunately, the majority have been white who have said this to me.
I was brought up in Brooklyn Park, MN. My mother was raised in Americus, GA. Two very different regions. Throughout my life, the “You act white” card has been thrown at me and to this day NO ONE can give me a thorough explanation of what exactly that means. When I was younger it really used to get to me but now I just really don’t care. I am who I am and if the way I talk or anything along those lines throws you off then sorry.
However, I wanted to explain why this is never okay to say this to a black artist.
- You don’t know the upbringing of this person. You assume the life they lived off of their skin color.
People come from all walks of life and backgrounds (even those with the same skin color), so to ask someone to sound "blacker" only shows your narrow-mindedness by lumping all of us into one vision. It really does come off like “They all look and sound the same”.
- Black isn’t an act.
No one acts black or white or any of that. Being black is who I am not something I am trying to portray. No matter where you come from, we have the same hurdles to jump in society when it comes to racism and discrimination, so there really isn’t a way to act. We all react and act differently. The way I would respond to a situation isn’t going to be the same for all black people.
Just because I was brought up in Minnesota and a majority of my life I was surrounded by white people, doesn’t mean I can’t comprehend the weight or story behind songs such as "Go Back Home" from Scottsboro Boys, "Make Them Hear You" or "Wheels of a Dream" from Ragtime or even "Old Man River" from Showboat.
- It can be perceived as racist.
We are in a very sensitive time in our society. From #BlackLivesMatter to #MeToo this is a period where A LOT of people are really getting exposed. It slowly is becoming a guilty until proven innocent mindset. Though I don’t believe every white casting professional who has ever said this, is a “racist” I do feel they don’t comprehend how offensive it can come off.
- It can turn off the interest of the actor auditioning for you.
Yes, I know. There are a lot of actors waiting in the wings if someone says no. I am by no means putting myself on a pedestal with the silly mind set of “You lost out on me”! But as a playwright who has auditioned his shows in the past, there is a discouraging feeling when you can feel that the potential performer has lost interest in your project. You move on of course, but you don’t want that to become a consistent part of you or your theater's reputation. You truly have other things to worry about.
In conclusion, if you feel you've ever done this, really don’t fret. Check yourself, your white privilege and just don’t do it again. It really is that simple.
I wanted to end this with one of my favorite scenes in Grey’s Anatomy with Maggie and Amelia talking about race. I love what Maggie says about racism which is “It’s like a low buzz in the background and sometimes you don’t even notice it and sometimes it's loud and annoying and sometimes it can get dangerous and sometimes it’s ridiculous."
By no means did I ever feel like I was in danger when it happened. But it is definitely something for you to think about the next time you are casting a show.
Kevin is a writer and actor that currently resides in Brooklyn with his Fiancé Rachael. His writing credits include – The Unpredictable Times (Premiering 2018 at Showcase on Main in Elkton Maryland), Reginald: From Baltimore to Billionaire, The Next Day, Life Inside an Open Kaije, and A Week in the Life of Norah Andrew. His work as also been presented Off Broadway (Davenport Theatre), NY Theater Festival, Manhattan Rep, DC Fringe Festival and Pier One Theatre (AK). For more information about Kevin please visit – www.kevinrayjohnson.com or www.facebook.com/KevinRayActor.
Photo: Craig Schwartz