Mark St. Cyr
Cassia Thompson and Chauncy Thomas in "A Raisin in the Sun" at Bay Street Theater in fall, 2019. MICHAEL HELLER
Chauncy Thomas and Erin Margaret Pettigrew in "A Raisin in the Sun" at Bay Street Theater in fall, 2019. MICHAEL HELLER
Chauncy Thomas and Joseph Pallister in "A Raisin in the Sun" at Bay Street Theater in fall, 2019. MICHAEL HELLER
The systemic racism that’s permeated American industries since the country’s inception makes no exception for showbiz. Five inspiring actors of color — Mark St. Cyr (“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” Toccarra Cash (Broadway’s “The Play That Goes Wrong”), Cynthia Nesbit (ATC’s “She Persisted”), and Brandon Curry (“L&O: SVU,” and the upcoming “Protector of the Gods”), and Bay Street favorite Chauncy Thomas — provide insight:
Q: How has racism within the entertainment industry impacted your artistic journey?
St. Cyr: The primary racist attitude that’s affected my acting journey is the implicit idea that there’s “only so much room” for BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] in entertainment. Most TV shows when I was growing up kept BIPOC in sidekick or supporting roles, rarely having their own story lines unless the show was explicitly about race.
Curry: I’ve had to frame many prejudices and injustices against me as obstacles to overcome. Like the audition process at conservatories/universities; my white counterparts suggested that the only reason I was accepted into some of those programs was because of “diversity” — in actuality, my dream school had “already filled their Black male quota.”
Cash: Honestly, I could fill a book with my experiences of racism in the industry. In auditions, I’m told things like, “Give us that sassy attitude!” or “Be more urban!” When I was the only Black actress in David Mamet’s “Race” at Florida Studio Theatre, my thoughts on my character were consistently dismissed by the white, male director. But these situations are seldom acknowledged by white theater-makers, because that would mean upending the stories they’ve told themselves about how “not racist” they are.
Nesbit: On my first national tour, I was one of only two Black people in the company — naturally, we’d been assigned as roommates. I began to notice that our production manager was reticent and discreet when giving performance notes to my cast mates, but consistently nasty and publicly critical of me to the extent that the entire cast called her racist behind her back. Six months in, I was fighting back tears before every performance.
I called a meeting with management. As I nervously shared the ways she’d singled me out, our company manager interjected, “That’s a serious accusation about MY staff — do you really want to go there?” Tag-teamed and intimidated, I let it go. Two days later, I was told by HR that she’d filed a formal complaint against me due to my behavior in the “disciplinary meeting” I’d been “called in” for. Thankfully, I had proof in writing that I was the one who called the meeting, and explained to HR why I had, but HR did nothing. When I told my Mom, she said, “This is corporate America; that’s how it works.” Now, I just try to keep my head down.
Q: How does playing roles intended for actors of color differ from playing non-racially specified roles?
St. Cyr: I feel great fulfillment playing roles specifically written for Black men, when they’re written with three-dimensional humanity; but, too often, they’re stereotypical and surface-level. A benefit of non-racially specific roles is that they’re written without preconceived judgments. But whenever you cast a BIPOC, their race becomes a given circumstance of the story — if a minority character goes multiple seasons without their race or culture being acknowledged, it can feel like erasure.
Curry: Audiences struggle to embrace Black actors in roles that were “not intended” for them. They’ll be fine watching a conversation between Elphaba the wicked witch and Dr. Dillamond the goat, but somehow a non-white Ann Darrow in “King Kong” is unimaginable.
Thomas: The person who wrote my favorite play was a white guy with many accolades, but I don’t believe he ever wrote a part for a Black character. A theater company where I lived was doing one of his plays, but I didn’t know if they were open to casting BIPOC, since the breakdown made no mention of race or ethnicity. When I arrived at the audition and saw no BIPOC, I wasn’t surprised. A colleague who was working for the theater spotted me, and — with a combination of happy-to-see-you and blunt confusion — said, “Chauncy? What are you doing here?” I was immediately demoralized. Then I auditioned for a part I knew I wouldn’t get. Now, unless I’m specifically told casting is looking for actors of color, I’m not showing up.
Nesbit: In a popular kids’ show about puppies, I played the only Black-specified character: the chocolate Labrador.
Q: What’s been the biggest difference between working with diverse vs. non-diverse casts/creatives?
Cash: When most of the creative team has been Black, I’ve been treated with a respect and specificity that allows me the freedom to be my most creative, authentic self. When the creative team is white, I’ve often found myself navigating their generalizations, stereotyping, and assumptions, which of course impedes my creativity.
Thomas: Majority Black casts feel more comfortable talking about racism — often because, if the cast is primarily Black, the play likely deals with racial themes — but also, because we live in a racist world, it feels as common to discuss as the weather. A unique situation occurs, though, when a theater with little-to-no experience producing plays with diverse casts decides to produce one. Many actors of color, myself included, can feel an added pressure that if our production isn’t successful, that theater may never again produce a play with so many actors of color. Also, if there’s a diverse cast, and the design team is all-white, it’s imperative that someone understands Black hair.
Q: Thoughts on the roles historically/currently written for actors of color?
St. Cyr: I feel optimistic about the BIPOC roles being created in TV and film. Marvel has doubled down with some of the most diverse casts ever; their commitment to championing diversity can make a major impact. But, I’d like to see more Black men play LGBTQ+ characters. When “Moonlight” came out, there was a lot of hate from parts of the Black community who felt Hollywood was trying to emasculate Black men; but gay Black men can be masculine, too! It’s unfortunate that much of the Black community feels more comfortable watching Black male characters murder each other than kiss.
Cash: With more female BIPOC writers, roles for Black women are becoming more nuanced and ever-so-slightly more numerous — but white stories/roles are still the vast default, especially in theater. I want to see more central Black characters in future-based stories, and sweeping, epic, big-budget projects centering on BIPOC in pre-enslavement or pre-colonialism eras — and can we finally get an accurate depiction of Cleopatra, not played by a white woman?
St. Cyr: I want to see East Asian/South Asian men in leading-men roles, because there’s been a history of desexualizing Asian men in American culture. I feel Hollywood has just plain overlooked the need to support and develop our Asian/Latinx/Native American/MENASA [Middle East, North Africa and South Asia] talent.
Thomas: Also, we need more diverse body types. On TV, the physical standard has always been higher for Black men. How many Black men on TV between 20 and 40 can you name who don’t have a six-pack?
Curry: One of the reasons I love “Insecure” so much is because it’s simply a narrative where the people happen to be Black, so we naturally learn about the Black experience through these characters that we love.
Q: What changes can artists/arts organizations make to actively combat racism in entertainment?
Curry: A lot of the issue is that there’s all of these people in charge who have to approve everything — so if the board is comprised of a million old white guys who don’t want to see stories about BIPOC, then it’s not happening.
St. Cyr: There’s a scarcity of minority movie stars, and we need to cultivate them. Thankfully, TV networks have yearly diversity showcases where they intentionally seek out undiscovered talent and give them a platform for exposure. I wish that theaters and publishers would implement similar opportunities.
Nesbit: Every production which tackles racial issues should have a cultural dramaturg. And whenever a project is non-racially specific, I wish they’d just put every different race in a hat and let that decide what parts are what color, because diverse casting shouldn’t be a big deal. Theater is pretend.
Cash: I want to see us Black artists continue to speak up as a united front, like we have with the recent “Dear White American Theater: We See You” movement, without fear of affecting our ability to be hired. I also want more Black artists charting our own paths by starting our own production companies, distribution companies, and theaters. But we need white artists and creatives to join in these fights and be true allies by educating themselves on how to be actively anti-racist. These “official statements” from predominately-white companies mean nothing until they are followed up with real, measurable action.
Q: This is an East End newspaper, so I wanted to hear from Black actors from the Hamptons — but I couldn’t think of any. That’s … not great. Have you ever spent time on the South Fork?
Thomas: I’ve performed in four productions at Bay Street Theater, and played two of my dream roles there, so it’s been artistically fulfilling. Actually, most of the work I’ve gotten on the East Coast occurred because of a connection I made at Bay Street.
St. Cyr: I was very fortunate to film an independent movie called “Modern Persuasion,” a modernized adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion,” in the Hamptons in the summer of 2018.
Cash: I’ve been to the Hamptons once. I remember saying to my friend with me, “Wow — not many of us out here, huh?”
Curry: I’ve visited the Hamptons, but never felt comfortable there. Ever been to a place where everyone does a double-take when you walk by?
Q: Will you be celebrating this Fourth of July?
Nesbit: The Fourth of July is canceled. America has never been free. This July Fourth, I — like many BIPOC — will be wearing all black, to remind people of our overlooked exclusion. Once our humanity is acknowledged, then we can acknowledge the Fourth of July.
Cash: I’ve always had an issue with the Fourth of July — for Black Americans, the entire idea behind the holiday is a gigantic slap in the face. As the country was celebrating its independence from Britain, my ancestors were all still enslaved. Juneteenth is our Independence Day; June 19, 1865 commemorates when the last enslaved Black people were told they were free. I hope people get honest about Independence Day, and work on dismantling the rose-colored myth of America’s freedom.
Q: What’s next?
St. Cyr: I’m about to release a short film called “Everything is Fine” that I wrote, directed, and acted in during quarantine, and using the online premiere to raise money for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Nesbit: Currently, I’m working on dismantling capitalist white supremacy; that’s my new artistic endeavor. Black people have always been devastated when one of us is killed by the police, but before the pandemic, we’ve had bills to pay and no time to grieve. Now, you take away all the busyness, and underneath you find this impact; this availability for liberation.
Curry: Lots of people are angry right now, and they should be, but anger is just one way to protest. I protest with my joy — nobody can take my joy away from me. I just hope white Americans start understanding how racism has benefited them; when my ancestors were released from the plantation where they’d been enslaved, they were expected to magically just catch up to all the wealth and prosperity that’d already existed. So, as a community living in one of the world’s wealthiest beach towns, I hope you’ll consider why you’re able to sit in the comfort you do today, and how best to use your positions of privilege to amplify the voices of those still calling for equality and justice.
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