BiasAug 9, 2019
In 1987 I was an eager energetic young man with dreams of performing on Broadway. In the spring of that year I was coming to the end of my first year at The American Musical and Dramatic Academy. From the beginning of our training at AMDA we were encouraged to strive for greatness. All of our instructors pushed up to learn technique to absorb choreography to find proper placement for the sounds we spoke and sang. Each of knew that we were going to take the musical theater world by storm, once we were allowed to audition. The spring of 1987 I did my first regional theater and summer stock auditions.
The audition was a cattle call audition, where hundreds of young singers, dancers and actors were gathered together herded into a room where they were given the chance to show their stuff. To one side of the room was a long table with many people sitting behind it. The people behind the table were the directors or choreographers of the different theaters represented. The audition process sorted out the singers from the dancers and the actors so that the people auditioning could be seen in the best way. I chose to go with the dancers who could sing group. In the room we were given choreography to learn. Each of us knew this was a crucial part of the audition. The folks behind the table were checking to see who was picking up the choreography and who wasn’t. They were checking to see who asked questions and who did not. They were looking to see who hung at the back of the room and who moved up front. After we had learned the dance combination the choreographer sat to the side of the room and let us show the dance to the folks behind the table. We were rearranged around the room and told to do the combination again. We were then asked to sit along the walls as groups of three and four dancers were called to show the combination. Some dancers were given a polite “Thank you” as they were ushered to the door. I got up a few different times with new combinations of dancers and each time allowed to sit back along the wall. The day went on and more and more dancers left the room. We were given a new combinations. Our groupings were changed. When there were about a quarter of the original dancers left a man sitting behind the table said “Congratulations” you made it through day one, We are going to need you to come back tomorrow 10am and we will do some vocal work and some more dance.” What and exhilarating sensation to make it through all those cuts and to be asked back. This was the first step to having someone hire me to perform in their theater. The following day I returned to the audition hall excited and ready to knock some socks off. We were called in individually. When it was my turn, I entered the room and greeted the folks behind the table. There were not as many people behind the table as there were the previous day. I was introduced to the guy sitting at the upright piano, whose name the decades have erased from my memory. We vocalized though some scales where the folks behind the table had a chance to hear my voice, my range and whatever else they needed to hear. I sang my uptempo audition song, then was asked if I could come back for the afternoon dancer call. I replied with a big smile and a resounding “Yes”.
At the afternoon dancer call there were only about half of the people who were asked back from the previous day. There may have been twenty of us in total. We were all called into the room where the people behind the table introduced themselves to us. They said their names and what theater they were from. I thought “wow!, I made it”. Why else would they be introducing themselves if these were not the folks I would be working with? We were given new choreography and I danced like I was on Broadway. After each time we did the combinations they would call one of us over or call out one of the dancers numbers and say “Thank you”.
When there were just three of us left one of the folks behind the table said “thank you so much, I think we have seen enough. You have all done an amazing job I wish we had spots for everyone.” This fella looked at the other people sitting behind the table and each gave wordless shake of their heads punctuating the negative. He then spoke to me directly “Next year we are planning to do Carousel and Huck Finn and I know we love to have you in the company. This year we just don’t have anything that would showcase you well.” The translation of that comment was “We don’t have any Black parts for you this year.”
I spent two days dancing my butt off and singing from my heart only to have no black roles this year. Many of my friend left that audition thrilled beyond belief. My friends had gotten gigs at theme parks, renaissance festivals, regional theaters, summer bus and truck tours. I had one Black friend who got a summer stock job performing in Dreamgirls and Little Shop of Horrors. I was pissed to say the least yet I was not going to let anyone know just how pissed I was. This is not how life is supposed to work. I worked hard to get the skills necessary to go to work. I did everything my teachers had told me to do to prepare for life in the theater and I was not prepared for this. I was prepared for rejection, I was not prepared for exclusion.
I hid the only way I knew how. I hopped onto my bicycle and rode far and fast. Every day I would hid my disappointment in my workout. Riding a bicycle through NYC traffic tends to narrow ones focus. If I was not riding my bicycle I was running or swimming or taking Afro-Brazilian dance classes. Essentially I was trying to run away from the theater with each workout and yet the theater was where I felt the most alive. That summer I did run away. I was hired by the National Park Service to be an ocean front lifeguard. I chose to be stationed at Great Kills National Recreation Area in Staten Island, NY. Technically I would still be in NYC, Staten Island is one of the boroughs, so not fully running away. I continued to take dance classes in the city when I could. I was working as a lifeguard because the US. Department of the Interior had an initiative to give minorities access into the National Park System and I was running from the theater where being a minority excluded me from the bulk of the work available. Getting the park service job took the same tact of preparation that the performing did. To prepare for the lifeguard job I ran, swam and worked out in the gym to make my body ready for what would be needed. I went to multiple tryouts over two years before I exceeded the requirements necessary to be hired. I applied the same logic to my theater training, I measured my training growth and progress off of me and did not compare my performance to anyone else. As I watched show after show on Broadway I began to see the shows differently. I did not look at the shows and think I wish I were in this show. I looked at the shows and noticed how many people of color were in the performance. I constantly looked at each performer and wondered if that character could be me? Rarely could I see me on the stage. I love musical theater and thoroughly enjoy great performances on the theatrical stage yet died a little with each performance seeing stereotypical performances by people of color….