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  • Writer's pictureAugust Sorenson

The Actors Society Celebrates: Black History Month

The Actors Society has put together a roundtable in honor of Black History Month. Participants were asked to respond openly about their experiences as Black artists in the entertainment industry.

The valuable insight they provided can’t be understated.

Participants featured are as follows: veteran of television and Class of 1976 grad Robert Gossett ("The Closer", "Major Crimes" “The Young and the Restless”), the comedy-specializing actress and Hollywood descendant Hayley Marie Norman ("Hancock", "Our Family Wedding”, “Fired Up!”), Broadway actor and Class of 1986 grad Keith Randolph Smith (“Jitney”, “Fences”, “Malcolm X”), Shakespearean actor and 1985 grad Timothy Stickney (“The Tempest”, “King Lear”, “Romeo and Juliet”), up-and-coming actor and Class of 2013 grad Xavier Watson (“Shameless”, “Hairspray”, “High School Musical 2”), and theater artist and Class of 2007 grad Jennifer Fouché ("Chicago", "Freedom Train”, “Pinkalicious & Peterrific”).

1. Which Black artists/influencers have been an inspiration to you and why?

Robert: The writer August Wilson comes to mind. I get inspiration from him because he has been able to find the musicality, poetry, and wisdom of everyday working-class Black speak. Denzel Washington just because he is so damn good. My mother and father, their perseverance and innate goodness have always been an inspiration and a guiding force.

Jennifer: I could name so many incredible Black artists who have inspired me. However, the two who spring immediately to mind are Ruby Dee and Ozzie Davis. In addition to their immense talent, they were fierce activists. Their art was not divorced from their fight for social justice, and I was able to see examples of what it means to be a socially and culturally conscious Black artist.

2. What role do you think artists should play in regard to the furthering of social justice issues within the industry and in the world in general. Please give some examples.

Hayley: I think black people should just live, enjoy life and make the art they want to. That's revolutionary in and of itself. If the work has a social justice theme, amazing, but we've had to do so much of the heavy lifting for so long while being shut out and silenced that it shouldn't solely be on us to also transform the industry. White artists, executives, and gatekeepers need to do the work too.

Timothy: It is our job to speak truth to power and to shine a light on ignorance. Now that more people have been forced to see what is really going on; we have to tell more stories and reclaim our hidden and distorted histories. I just watched a screening of Emperor. The true story of an enslaved Black man who fights for his and his family's freedom and helps start the civil war. Last year's Harriet was important. I tend toward heroic positive tales, but we also need the rougher and darker stories to be told too. That has long been our job. Now we should have some new helpers and hopefully a smoother path to creation.

3. What measurable, meaningful changes within the industry would you like to see in regard to racial equity, and in what ways do you think we as individuals can bring these changes about?

Keith: I would like to see more theaters take chances on new writers and develop relationships with them that can last years. (Yes, this is being done at some theaters.) Writers get commissions to write plays—and playwrights appreciate the funding—but they also want to see their work on-stage and not just as a staged-reading. Performative activism is smoke and fog, unwelcome, and easy to smell. Is it what the board will get behind and what the subscribers wish for? If board rooms and subscriber rolls are mostly white, will they be interested in a Josh Wilder play? A Jireh Breon Holder play? A Cori Thomas play? Do we only do plays by playwrights whose names we know—O’Neill, Williams, Miller? Theater affords us opportunities to view the world that we know and the world that we don’t know. We can look through the window or we can look at the mirror. Both views can lead to learning and discovery. Let us all be more curious.

Xavier: There needs to be more diversity and inclusion in “The Room Where It Happens.” Initiatives to hire BIPOC cast and crew on current and future projects is a great step forward, but the ultimate goal is ownershipand maximum influence. We need more BIPOC people with powerful voices deciding which projects get produced, marketed, and released. In other words, BIPOC Studio Executives and Network Executives. BIPOC Department Heads. BIPOC Presidents, CEOs, and COOs.


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