Theatre Is For Everyone
Ext. Football Field—Late 1990s
Even with its brain-wrecking barbarity, or perhaps because of it, football remains an incomparable display of live theatre. America’s game requires athletes capable of superhuman leaps to memorize encyclopedic playbooks. These young, usually Black men, are thinking as fast as they are running; calculating and enacting their own pain as they willfully collide. Each production chronicles the fate of eventual winners and losers. As cleats trudge through painted lawn and hardened bodies crash into and onto one another at warp speed, the melodrama that unfolds during each unscripted tale represents my only starring role as an “actor.”
I began my acting career as a defensive back for a terribly coached high school “theatre company.” In the beginning, parents, teachers, alumni, and not-yet-jaded students filed into encircling bleachers during fall and winter months to watch the company perform various roles as “the forever losers.” I, as one of the company’s few shining stars, was tasked with defending the opposition’s fastest actor. I taunted, pressed, and sped alongside each costar during action-packed scenes. For many of my antagonists, the glow of each Friday night’s lights offered nothing more than a chance to impress a love interest by ripping a torpedoing pass from the sky at its apex: high-risk peacocking thats value persisted off the field. For me, football presented an opportunity to showcase my talents in front of larger crowds and then, if all went right, collegiate ones, and from there a packed arena of opportunity. I played with the weight of knowing that my athletic decisions were also academic and economic ones. All the pirouetting and showboating as muscles ached and bones broke, were well-intentioned gambles to gain the attention of the game’s most notable producers and directors: the decision makers who’d determine whether I’d be invited to play my role at the next level.
Not long after being invited to perform on bigger stages, the behind-the-scenes histrionics of playing took form. First, there was me, standing atop a box next to other young Black men—also standing on boxes—as white men wearing visor hats prodded at each of us with skin fold calipers, clutching clipboards, and scrawling notes onto charts of different sorts. The Visor Hats communicated with one another in an unintelligible syntax that called to mind the slave auctions my ancestors endured.
On the field, we played characters that vehemently despised each opposing team for the benefit of fans who’d long ago decided there was meaning in perpetual war. But our real-world agony made us grapple with ways to use our visibility to demand change. Deciding whether to raise a black-gloved fist after scoring a touchdown, boycott a nationally televised game, write a dedicatory message on our shoes, or kneel during the national anthem, were all met with calls to just play or else. In most cases, I just played because, since I was a kid, catching a last second Hail Mary as tens of thousands held their breath in anticipation was a dream come true. During all my years performing, I caught two such passes and yet never thought of myself as an actor until I started working in the theatre industry.
My acting career ended abruptly by injury, and I felt somewhat relieved. I value my memories of playing the role of hard tackling, trash talking, frequent interceptor—but my voice was too often hushed and more useful elsewhere. Luckily, I was so moved by my first real introduction to theatre that my declining interest in sports felt inevitable. Just as fast as I once tracked and pried spiraling footballs from the hands of contending antagonists, writing stories emerged as a means of coping with the grief all around me. To be an athlete was to act out the plays of others, but to be a writer was to author my own. And so, I exited pressures to stick to the script and accepted a fresh call to write plays that wrestled with injustice.
Int. High School Auditorium—1990s
Along with hundreds of half asleep teenagers, I walked into my high school’s auditorium for an early morning Black History Month presentation—welcoming passing distractions and unaware of what was to come. Each day that week, a mélange resembling the United Nations of ornery youths were crammed into the rickety proscenium and spoon fed the history and impact of notable Black pioneers. Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, Garret Morgan, Althea Gibson, Daniel Hale Williams, Jane Bolin, William Hastie, Madame C.J. Walker, W.E.B. DuBois, Shirley Chisholm, and others were celebrated on screen and from a lectern by impassioned guest speakers. While I enjoyed the learning to the extent that my young mind would allow, years passed before the weight of my ancestors’ pioneering landed on my broadened shoulders. And yet, on this day, I encountered Bert Williams for the first time and my future changed—although I wouldn’t know it until years later.
Just as the crowded auditorium reached a collective squirm—the cast iron and wooden chairs generating a stadium wave of drawn-out shrieks—a demoralized voice entered the room and bemoaned:
When life seems full of clouds and rain
And I am full of nothin’ and pain
Who soothes my thumping, bumping brain?
I, and every other loner with a heartbreaking origin story, seemed to sit up straight. The sound of this man’s voice—the conversant, albeit tragic, tone—felt altogether different from the voices of inventors, athletes, and scholars we’d been introduced to thus far. The now booming voice melded with a montage of videos and images of the voice’s keeper: a Black man performing in blackface.
I was horrified but transfixed.
Until that moment, I understood minstrelsy to be white performers smearing soot on their faces and mimicking racist stereotypes of Black people—particularly, the speech, songs, and dances of Southern Blacks. And yet, here was this Black man donning burnt cork and pantomiming a poker game with undeniable brilliance. Rippling through the medley of scenes from silent films were currents of uncomfortable laughter. I was among the many attempting to swallow slips of uneasy chuckling as the performer’s expressions felt equal parts demeaning and brilliant. Even in the presentation’s silence, Bert Williams told a story that entranced a diverse crowd of wayward youths nearly one-hundred years after the vaudevillian star’s performances were restricted to all-white audiences. This realization wasn’t lost on me. Despite having attended junior high presentations of Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, I didn’t learn theatre’s power until I saw a Black actor performing a part he’d written himself.
Bert Williams broke barriers for Black performers and integrated Broadway. He was a larger-than-life actor, whose deliberate balance of comedic and dramatic power earned him many of history’s “first Black entertainer to…” superlatives. His decision to wear blackface had an ennobling effect on the Black population despite him dumbing down his genius to become Jonah Man: a hapless, dim-witted buffoon with a “watermelon grin.” Bert’s unquestionable virtuosity shone through the humiliating caricature by demonstrating the full range of human emotions with uncanny subtlety—forcing all to acknowledge his gift and the fundamental complexity of humanity. In-between the fits of laughter, Bert’s work challenged assumptions about Black Americans, offering nuanced viewpoints that predated and influenced the introspective candor of Richard Pryor and Whoopi Goldberg. Bert was much more than a boundary-breaking comedic master; he embodied the double-consciousness of the Black experience with unforeseen emotional depth.
Bert’s pioneering sacrifice paved the way for significant change. Yet over a hundred years after In Dahomey became the first-ever musical written and performed by Blacks on Broadway, American theatres still require sweeping change. Recent charges by BIPOC (Black, indigenous, People of Color) theatremakers working at predominantly white American theatres have outlined an exhaustive remedy for years of oppressive working conditions. The unimpeded racism has not only impacted those working in the theatre, but also those who might see it. There have been massive racial disparities in audience development due to exorbitant admission prices restricting access to the many likely BIPOC ticket buyers who can’t afford or justify the expense. This too has been on notice by the theatremakers who are demanding change. The urgency of their demands is amplified by the soundscape of calls to upend systemic racism all over the world.