A few years ago, I was having a conversation with friends over dinner and drinks. OK, mostly drinks. As we discussed our experiences working in theatre, I breezily made a joke about being the token Black performer time and time again. When my younger Black friend told me that she’d never had that experience — she had performed in productions with plenty of brown faces — I quickly fired back, taking a drag from my imaginary cigarette, “Well, I’ve made a career out of being a token. I paved the way for you so you didn’t have to be one!” While made in jest, it is a statement that has stayed with me in the almost five years since.
I’d been groomed to be a trusty token since childhood. As a young dancer in Pittsburgh, my sister and I were almost always the only little brown faces at dance recitals and competitions. Everyone knew who the Ghebremichael sisters were because we were talented, but mostly because we were Black. When I competed in dance pageants as a teenager, my teacher encouraged me to play up my Blackness. In the interview portion, I was strongly encouraged to sway the conversation back to “the Black thing.” And I could. And I did.
I could effortlessly manipulate the judges to ask me what it was like to be the only Black contestant. I would reply with charm, ease and humor that I considered being the token an advantage; that I naturally pulled focus and grabbed your attention. I was turning something uncomfortable for those I was speaking to into something palatable, darling and even funny.
Years later, that dinner with my friend was no different. I had years of practice giving what had become a reflexive response. When someone later reminded me what I had said, though, it gave me pause. Did I truly believe what I had been saying? As a Black woman, had I just been transmuting my own pain into safe humor to appease those around me? As the firstborn child of African immigrants from Eritrea (Google it) with a funny name, I’d felt the pressure to succeed, excel and be accepted even more than most. But, like, in a nonthreatening way.
For years, I have been in the rehearsal rooms as a token, as the sassy Black friend and as the cultural chameleon who code switches as effortlessly as she breathes. And these are just the roles I’ve played offstage. I’ve borne witness to creatives casually using the N-word and peers “assuring” me that no malice was intended by that. I’ve experienced white peers measuring my Blackness against theirs, whether in skin tone, butt size or affinity for Black music. “So and so is like you, a White Black person” is a real favorite line of mine. For years, your Black friend has taken it in stride and maintained the status quo to make you feel comfortable. To make you laugh. To make it go away.
But now is the time this changes.
We’re in a unique situation right now, in that isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic has given us all the opportunity to pause, reflect and reset. On a micro-level, I have used this time to confront issues I’d conveniently avoided in the past. It was never MY fault; day-to-day survival in New York was challenging enough. Several months into isolation, however, I have no more excuses. And neither do you.
A creative team member saying “I believe in diversity. I made this supporting role Black, and look at my ensemble!” is akin to saying “I’m not racist! I have Black friends!” On Broadway and elsewhere, the issue goes so much deeper than populating the stage with color. It comes down to a need for the creative teams, the producing teams and the general managers to represent the diversity that is now being so overly celebrated on stage, even as it remains lacking. Because if the same people tell the stories, the same stories will be told, and these experiences will continue.
When actors of color see a Black or Brown person on that side of the table, do you know how excited we get? Do you know that there is an instant bond? A sense of community, because we know what it took for them to arrive at that photo shoot, that press event, that opening night? Do you know that there are conversations among Black actors in which the actors say to each other, “Oh, that director/choreographer doesn’t hire Black people”? In those situations, some actors don’t even waste their time going in. The ones who do have that mental defeat looming over their heads before they even walk into the room.
I’ve been that actor. I’ve said yes to appointments against my better judgment, knowing that a certain director isn’t that interested in me because of my skin color. I’ve been the actor at the auditions for the one ethnic female role, after the creative team members have received backlash for their lack of inclusion and casting has scrambled to assemble a list of every non-White woman in New York. I’ve even been the actor who played the Black friend, but historically THAT friend wasn’t Black, so playing this role was a big deal. Are you tired? ‘Cause I am.
I encourage you, the producers, the directors, the choreographers, the writers, the composers, the designers, all theatremakers to take a beat. Think about your circle. What does it look like? Does everyone look like you? How can you create opportunities for people of color to join your world? If you can figure out how to make it rain on stage, I believe you can examine your resources and devise ways to combat the institutionalized racism that not only plagues us as a society, but also lives and breathes on The Great White Way.
The onus is on you to make a change. People of color are currently coping with the trauma that these most recent racist attacks have triggered. We must now be activists in the middle of a global health crisis, and it’s both physically and emotionally exhausting. And you’re the ones in control. Don’t just be sorry, change.
Another one of my go-to one-liners happens when someone, usually White, asks a Black colleague and me how we know each other. I always respond, “Oh, just from being Black on Broadway.” It’s a joke, but it’s not funny anymore.
Asmeret Ghebremichael has been a Broadway actor for 20 years, appearing in shows such as “The Book of Mormon,” “Legally Blonde,” “Spamalot” and “Wicked.” She was last seen playing Lorrell Robinson in the West End production of “Dreamgirls,” and currently stars in the BBC television show “Get Even.”