My black actor friends and I sometimes joke that it would be easier to become the first black woman on the Supreme Court than a successful black actor. At least the career path to becoming a Supreme Court justice is a little bit more cut-and-dried. The path to success as an actor is nonlinear and nonsensical, shrouded in secrecy and marked by well-meaning friends and family who love to offer career advice. Why can’t you be on Love and Hip Hop? That’s my show! Don’t you know Tyler Perry?
There is no such thing as a lifetime appointment for any actor. But for black actors, the obstacles we face in auditions don’t magically disappear on set.
I’ve been a professional actor since 2001. I don’t pay the bills by waitressing or bartending, but I’m not wildly successful, rich, and famous either. Most people don’t see those of us in the middle, who look forward to episodic season every fall, who do the Master Cleanse to get ready for pilot season, who go on auditions, and who live their lives as regular people who happen to be actors. Add being a black woman to that mix and you have a whole other dimension of insanity.
I can’t tell you how many auditions I have been on where the character is so obviously written for a white woman. One referred to her blonde hair and lack of a tan, no lie. I called my agents like, Really? The onus is on me, the actor, to go into the audition rooms and make them see the character another way — black. And keep in mind that actors are perhaps the least powerful part of the television production process. But like an anti-racism acting Care Bear, I’m supposed to act so amazingly well, be so pretty, so dazzlingly, so indisputably wonderful, that stars and rainbows and sunshine issue forth from my magical being and make them see a black woman in this role.
So let’s say that my little rainbow trick works and the producers and writers and casting directors all look at each other and go, “She’s not what we envisioned but DID YOU SEE HOW DAZZLING SHE WAS?!?” It’s a wonderful feeling, for everyone. Agents and managers are happy. The powers that be are happy. And as the actor, I’m simply ecstatic.
But then I get on set and I’m the only black face to be seen. No other black actors, no black producers, and no black writers. The onus is still on me to show how the character in their imaginations would be as a black woman.
About five years ago, I was hired to be a play a bartender in a comedy series. Even though it was a supporting role, the producers had wonderful ideas and storylines for the character — including a romance — and everyone seemed to think I was perfect for it.
So when we started filming, I looked forward to each script, whipping open my laptop, devouring every line. But every time, I was disappointed, as it became clear I was the taciturn type of bartender. Here’s your drink; exit stage left. Somebody on set asked me how long I’d been an extra.
When I was growing up in the New York City suburbs, a radio ad for the stage play The Diary of Black Men would come on almost every day. In it, a deep-voiced, dramatic black male intoned “How…do you love…a black woman?” over and over, like a mantra.
That’s kind of how I imagine TV writers (and, let's be real, most of them are white and male) trying to write my lines. How…do you write…for a black woman? Most white male writers don’t have a bunch of black women in their lives. Maybe a black guy friend. But a black woman whom they know kinda well? A real one? Just like a normal, everyday black woman who cracks jokes and has a personality, but isn’t just a stereotype of some black woman they saw on TV?
I can understand the challenge before them, really. Let’s say they write a particularly salty one-liner for a black woman. Is that gonna come out racist, the stereotypical “sassy black friend”? And, more important, who do they ask if it is racist? Their one black friend? Isn’t asking him extra racist?
All actors know that as soon as you’re on the show, your next job is to get to know the writers. You talk, you bond, and then one day you tell them a story about your life and discover they’ve put it in the script. I remember trying in vain to connect with the writers. During table reads, I would go up and talk to some of the writers, but they gave me the cold shoulder.
Since they don’t know me — or, I figured, anybody like me — I wondered how invested they would be in writing for my character.
Most of the time I would get a script the night before a table read with a few lines. Sometimes I actually had a part of the story line, but after the table read it was always cut. Naturally, I assumed it was cut because of my poor performance. I asked what I could do better. But I was always given the excuse of “real estate.” There were so many characters and only so much time, and they needed to focus on the other main, regular characters. Of course, real estate wasn’t a problem when they needed to write for a white guest star.
And then, one week, the writers forgot to put me in the first draft of the script altogether. It was part of my contract to be in every episode, so I was added in after the fact, when they realized my character literally didn’t have a single line. I think I ended up delivering somebody a beer.
My character’s utter lack of personality all season long didn’t stop the showrunner from feeding me the line, “What did you say, mothafucka?” while shooting footage for outtakes. “You know, really give it to him,” he directed. Oh, now you want me to be the extra-sassy black girl? That was just about too much to bear. I was not surprised when I was not asked back for Season 2.
During my season on the show, only one writer tried to initiate a conversation with me, about Antoine Dodson, the brother of the alleged victim of a home intruder rape whose local news interview went viral in 2010. I looked to my right and my left and pointed to myself. Cliché, I know. I started cackling, summoning all my dazzle and thinking, This is it! They actually see me!
The writer awkwardly brought up that he had seen my audition tape, and how good he thought it was. He told me he was just a stand-up from Chicago trying to do the best job he could, and that he wished he could do more for my character. Then he mumbled something about Wanda Sykes and shuffled off. I was left singing “You can run and tell dat, run and tell dat” to no one in particular.
He was just one guy trying to make a difference in a room where nobody was on the same page. But the truth is, if you are a white writer who is tasked with the job of “writing for a black woman,” your first attempts will be clumsy at best. They might be — dare I say — racist.
The difference is that writers can afford to get it wrong, and try again. As an actor of color, I’m stuck doing my Care Bear song and dance. (Hence why I’m writing this anonymously.)
Lots of people are making a concerted effort to make television more diverse — and a handful of them are succeeding brilliantly. My only hope is that writers don’t fail their actors of color out of fear of failing. To that end, I want to let you in on a little secret: A surefire way to prove to yourself you’re not a racist is to stop being afraid of sounding racist. Instead, listen to feedback and be open to change. Too many writers don’t know where to start and so never do.