By Kate Miller
Growing up, Brianna Woods was told that being an actress was something she just couldn’t do.
A black 21-year-old woman from Overland Park, Kansas, she remembers sitting down in high school with a high school mentor who she says was trying to be helpful. Woods, who at the time was deciding what she wanted to study at the University of Kansas, was young and impressionable. Her mentor said, “’You have a lot of talent, but it would be wasted,’” Woods remembers. “‘No one is looking for you. No one is going to hire you at this point.’”
Because of that conversation, Woods, who had been acting since third grade, chose to enter college studying business. She kept that conversation secret, even from her family, who had supported her love for the performing arts since the beginning.
Woods eventually dropped business and changed her major to theater in her first year of college—and has since been cast in both traditionally “black” and “white” productions both at her university and in professional companies. Despite her success, she knows the road ahead of her will be filled with obstacles other actors don’t encounter simply because of the color of her skin.
“Growing up it was ingrained in me, my parents would say, ‘Being who you are, you have to work twice as hard, twice as fast, be twice as strong and be twice as hungry,’” she says.
The path to becoming an actor isn’t easy for anyone. It’s a career largely ruled by who you know and the talent you’re born with—plus years of training, relentless auditions and harsh rejections. For a young black person, it’s even harder. Theater is full of traditionally white roles, and for the actors who don’t fit the bill, there isn’t much opportunity. Black actors have long been pigeonholed into “traditionally black” roles and shows, such as subservient characters who serve as comic relief—but seldom the lead.
For Diadra Smith, a black University of Kansas student studying theatre and psychology, this was the case all through high school. She recalls never having been asked to look at any roles outside of “black plays” and remembers serving as a stereotype for her culture in her school. After auditioning for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which she considered a pretty race-resistant show, she was shocked when she wasn’t cast, joking that she could have instead played the chocolate river. Her directors said, “‘Well, you can always do something for Kwanzaa,’” Smith remembers. “And that really threw me back because, I was like, do you think that’s all I can do?’”
However, Smith and Woods are part of a new generation of black actors demanding more visibility and opportunities in the theater world. A new show with an entirely multiracial cast, “Hamilton,” leads the blockbusters this Broadway season. The show, which follows the life of the first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, casts black and Latino actors as the founding fathers, including a black George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The University of Kansas theater department’s most recent season includes three shows that focus on diverse casting and culture, compared to just one in the 2014-15 season and none in the year before that.
So what does this mean for the young black actors trying to make a name for themselves? It’s clear that black theater has come a long way from blackface and Jim Crow characters, but even after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it took 72 years before the first interracial couple danced together on a film screen—Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in their famous stair dance in 1935. Even though racist characters and blackface are no longer accepted in today’s media, it doesn’t mean it’s a welcoming field for black actors.
According to a study released in February 2016 by the University of Southern California, speaking roles in film, broadcast, cable and streaming are only 12.2 percent black. Of the black roles present on screen, only 33.9 percent of these are female roles. “Overall,” the study says, “the landscape of media content is still largely whitewashed.”
While the study didn’t include theater roles, the results aren’t that different across all fields of media, says Tony Bolden, a professor of African-American Studies at the University of Kansas. And when black actors have representation in film, it’s usually within the stereotypical roles and characteristics existing since slaves were emancipated in the 1870s. “There is a suggestion [in characters in film] that people of African descent are either unintelligent by nature or immoral by nature, given to criminality by nature,” Bolden says. This can come in the form of stereotypical casting— such as blacks playing the roles of criminals, subservient workers or just serving as a culture point in an otherwise “white” play.
Woods knows the struggle of being seen just for her skin color and nothing else. Growing up in Overland Park, her friends from school were mostly white, although she had a community of black friends through church and her community. When she and her friends would play a game where they imagined they were the Cheetah girls (the popular Disney characters from the early 2000s), Woods was always told she had to be Aqua—the “black one.” Even though she was only eight years old, she spent a lot of time thinking about what it meant.
“I grew up never feeling like I truly fit in,” she says. “I wasn’t white but neither group thought I was really ‘black’ either. I spent a long time trying to figure out my identity and trying to figure out why being black was both something my white friends thought was cool but also complimented me on not being submersed in.”
Smith says it’s hard for white people to understand how much harder she has to work to be on the same playing field as other actresses. These challenges range from hair and makeup people not knowing how to correctly do her hair to people asking her to do her lines in a “black” accent. “Just little things like that…As an actor, you have to show in your real life that you deserve to be there,” she says.
Even though being black in a predominantly white industry is hard enough, Bolden explains there are several other breakdowns within race that make acting difficult. It’s not just that actors are black; an actor’s gender, socioeconomic status, politics and birthplace all factor into the roles available to them. Simply by being female, Woods and Smith have a harder path ahead of them than a male black actor does.
Despite the difficulties of her field, Woods had a recent breakthrough when she was cast in a new production as the lead. In January, she performed in a staged reading of Moulin Rouge!, the 2001 film starring Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman, at the Buffalo Room in Kansas City, Missouri. The show is set in Paris during the turn of the 20th century, and she played the lead of Satine, a courtesan originated by the fair-skinned, redheaded Kidman.
While a black Satine may have been a big deal, the Buffalo Room in Kansas City, didn’t use that to publicize its production. At the end, Woods asked the directors why she had been chosen, to which they had responded that she was simply the best who auditioned. “I just started crying and said, ‘Thank you for not making me a gimmick. I wanted to thank you for letting my work speak first in a world where my skin color speaks the loudest,’” Woods remembers.
The co-producers of the show, husband and wife team Vi Tran and Mackenzie Goodman Tran, said using Woods’ race as a promotional tool was never an option. But it did factor into the casting decision—made by Goodman Tran and the other producer, Katie Glichrist—mainly in a discussion as to whether or not Woods would be up to the potential backlash from the decision and the monumental responsibility from being the face of a “black” Satine. Tran, who is an Asian American actor himself, knew the importance of the casting decision.
“It’s very important that performers like Bri have casting directors who are willing to see her in that role,” he says. “It all comes down to the more that happens, for performers like myself and for performers like Bri, that it becomes normative. Casting directors are doing themselves a disservice if they’re walking in with preconceived notions.”
Sometimes, that disservice begins early, especially in the spaces where actors are learning their skills. But Mechele Leon, the chair of the Department of Theater at the University of Kansas, is hoping to change that. She has seen more opportunities for Woods and Smith develop under her guiding eye. She was chair when the University Theater produced both “A Raisin in the Sun” and “Detroit ’67,” in which Smith and Woods had lead roles. But she says she’s not satisfied with the “simplified formulaic” presented at many university theaters today. Instead of falling back on the old manner of filling a diversity slot in a season by producing a “black” play or a “female” play, she wants to reflect the diversity seen in real life—where those characteristics intersect. For example, instead of producing a “Hispanic” play, she would want to produce a show that explores what it’s like to be a female, lesbian Latina—therefore, exploring several different diversities at once.
She’s pushing for an explicit statement from her department about its role in promoting diversity, especially in the light of the University’s recent racially-charged discussions on campus. “It’s time for us to say what we really think needs to be the shape of the season, for us to feel comfortable about its inclusivity and diversity,” she says. “It feels sometimes like it’s hit or miss. It hasn’t been a commitment; [now], it has to be at the top of our thoughts.”
This isn’t news to actors like Woods and Smith. Both agree the theater through which they learn has taken steps to make them feel more included, but neither is quite satisfied yet. Woods says the recent push towards more diverse theater comes from minority actors being fed up with the lack of representation—and the only option left is for them to take those steps themselves.
“Minorities are realizing that some people are stuck in their ways,” Woods says, “and they’re not going to write parts for us as lead roles and they’re not going to put us in the front seat, so we have to put ourselves in the front seat.”
Photography courtesy of Brianna Woods