|Web Magazine Online|
|By Karen Ann Daniels|
From Mountain to Molehill:
A Dialogue on Race and the Entertainment Industry
Racial problems exist, it seems, in almost every facet of human existence. They are political, social, economical, historical, and damaging to the human spirit. But in the entertainment industry, they are also become institutionalized and packaged in pretty paper with the strings and bows of comedy and drama.
What is there to do? Could I ever begin a career in the entertainment industry and survive under these conditions? How can I -- we -- turn a mountain into a molehill?
I found answers to my questions from a group of individuals who have restored hope for me. I discovered there was redemption from all this racial brouhaha. Carlos, Tom, Vanessa, Tesz, Joe, and Brent are all entertainers who are searching for ways to achieve their goals despite the many obstacles in their paths. They are actors, singers, and dancers at different stages in their careers.
So what? Who cares? What does any of this have to do with anything? To be honest, I wasn't sure when I began this article, but after hours of interviewing and asking questions about race relations and the entertainment industry, what began as a search for a solution became a touching, real dialogue with fellow entertainers. Knowing that I was not alone was one of the most important revelations from my conversations.
Carlos was born in Kansas City. He graduated from the University of Missouri, Kansas City, in 1986, came to California, completed his graduate work at UC Irvine in choreography, and now is an educator, performer, producer, and director. I met Carlos at UCLA's Musical Theatre Workshop where he continues to work as a director/choreographer. Aside from myself and a few others, Carlos was the only person of color in a class ranging from 15 to 30 persons.
Carlos considers himself to be first and foremost an American. "It's something I've really struggled with," he admits, "not only for myself but as I begin to talk with other people and explain to them that I consider myself first and foremost an American. That is my experience and that makes up who I am before being an African American in this society."
Belonging to a heritage as diverse as American history, Carlos has Irish, Native American and Black ancestry.
"People are not sure what my nationality is," he states.
Does it really matter?
"I'm me," he says, "I think I completely embody what the American experience is about."
Tom is a fourth-year transfer student at UCLA. He's a theatre major, an extraordinary performer. Last winter Tom went to an open call for the Pulitzer Prize winning musical, "Rent." He was called back five times for the lead role of Mark. This winter he will star as Jack (as in the Beanstalk) in the Musical Theatre Workshop's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods." Tom offered some insight on racial problems in the entertainment industry that I was quite honesty surprised to hear from a young, white middle-class guy with such a bright future. I was honestly surprised that he had thoughts about subjects like this at all.
"Why is it always a question between black and white?" he asks.
A provocative question. He even stumped me with it. He continued on by citing an example from the Academy Awards about two years ago when no black actors were nominated. "What about the all-black-ghetto-talking McDonald's commercials versus the all-white-with-a-speck-of-dust ones?"
His poignant question about racial battles in Hollywood struck a deep, resonant chord within me. Why wasn't the black cry inclusive of other people of color who were also not nominated?
"When you're fighting for just your group, it's not enough," says Tom. "I think that you have to fight for everybody."
Meet Vanessa, a third-year voice major; Tesz, a first-year undeclared major; and Joe, a fifth-year English major with a minor in biology. All three are members of the Musical Theatre Workshop at UCLA -- all three hopefuls, like myself. Together we discussed diversity, or the lack thereof, at UCLA in the arts.
For Vanessa, growing up in the Bay Area, this lack of the diversity in the arts was the norm. "Being in the majority is a different perspective than being in the minority," she states. "When I'm in a class of people who are of a different race than I am, I feel it far more poignantly than when I'm in the majority. So I guess I'm less likely to have strong feelings about it. When I'm in a situation that's more diverse, it's almost a relief. I think that in performance, it adds a lot more to it."
For Joe, this past summer he was in a Thousand Oaks production of Jerry Herman's "Hello Dolly." Joe was the only Asian in the cast, which also had not African Americans. Admittedly there are not very many Filipino leading men involved in mainstream popular arts. It makes you wonder why. Who's writing the scripts? Don't they ever think that there are artists of various ethnic backgrounds that could play the roles as well as anyone else. As Joe laments, "I don't want to do "Miss Saigon" all the time, or "South Pacific" or something like that."
Joe's fear is representative of many other talented people of color who have been pushed to the outskirts. The faces we see at UCLA on stage are not our own, except for a token few.
Carlos says that part of the problem at UCLA is recruitment and retention. "There aren't specific recruiting efforts for people of color," he notes. "People of color aren't coming to UCLA for music and theatre. They'll go for business or they'll go for ecology. They are going other places (for the arts); they'd rather go and take their chances at Julliard or NYU, or somewhere else."
But beyond recruitment is awareness. People don't think. When we turn on the television to sitcoms like "Friends" or night-time soaps like "Melrose Place," we don't even see extras representing the diverse populations of the cities that these shows are set in.
"It's not that they've been taught to be prejudiced," says Carlos, "but if they haven't been taught to be conscious of the fact that they've just written six characters and none of them are of color . . . that means the thinking is narrow. . . . (It just makes it even more) important that we have to continue to remind people."
Communication is one way to begin the change, along with education. "That's what it's about," stresses Carlos. "We have to reeducate or teach people, especially white America, what to look for, what things happen."
And bad things do happen. Tesz told us the story of a commercial for government housing she was in back home in Arizona. When she attended the shoot, the make-up artist saw her and told her how happy she was to see an Asian person (finally) in these ads. Tesz remarks, "I didn't think much about it at the time . . . but when I saw the commercial, all you could see was my hand. They had edited out (everything else)."
Vanessa, on the other hand, mentions a recent production of "Cinderella" on ABC starring Whitney Houston and Brandi. "It was a terrible production, but it was color-blind. I think that it would be great if they did a little bit more of that."
A little bit? A lot -- if you asked me. Wouldn't it be great if the production could have been good as well as colorful. I use the term colorful versus colorblind, in that I think so far we've identified that as being the main problem. People are unable to see in terms of color and variety, and other times people get caught up in that alone. Finding a balance is definitely one of the greater challenges for the creative forces in entertainment, as well as in our daily lives.
Having people of different ethnic backgrounds in a production definitely adds a different flavor. The late Jonathan Larson's story of "Rent" addresses these matters in terms of humanity. "Rent" is really an unfinished story, a creation of great possibilities that was halted midstream by his death. It began as an alternative story that offered mainstream America a view of a cross-section of people. It has now become a phenomenon and has evolved into a symbol of American pop culture.
"A lot of these people (characters in the show), in the general scope of what American Musical Theatre was about, were people you wouldn't listen to," explained Kevin at a recent Q & A session at UCLA featuring the cast of "Rent." "These were people that had no voice in American Musical Theatre and especially not a serious voice. They were always that comic relief. All of a sudden, there is this conglomeration of the people that were on the outskirts, that are now together which (in turn) makes up a whole new group."
The characters and the actors behind the characters provide a voice for the voiceless, the piranhas of society: those who live with AIDS, homosexuals and heterosexuals who are trying to develop a support system for themselves. It's this feeling of community that transcends any issue of race, or sexuality, or even sadness of disease.
"In our differences we make up a major strength because it's not about differences, it's not about similarities," Kevin continued. "It's just about how we affect each other and the love that we have for each other and the way we express that."
And express they do. But are their expressions loud enough and strong enough to override a long history of discrimination in the arts? Brent, who is also a cast member, and I sat down outside the theater one evening before the show and we talked a lot about the significance of "Rent."
He contrasted his experience in "Rent" with his past work in other productions where he was once described as "the third black guy on the left."
"It's discouraging," he said. "I've done principle work in dance companies, I sang in 'Smokey Joe's Cafe,' I've done a lot of workshops where either I've been featured or had the chance to work on some really remarkable stuff. And I've been really lucky -- since I graduated from college, I've always worked."
"Rent's" diversity appears to be much of the original concept.
"Jonathan saw it in his mind that he wanted a racially diverse cast; that the world isn't just black and white, or just white with little shades of pink," said Brent.
Most minority groups are suffering from the same oppressive forces in terms of casting.
"Something that's kind of sad that I'm noticing nowadays is that people in the back -- the group that in charge of getting these things up -- some of them are black," said Brent.
You would think that the people who finally get to that point where they have some degree of power would start to change the way that things are operated, but . . .
"They don't want to rock the boat," continued Brent. "They want to make their money. So they are going to do what they think everyone wants to see."
But back to the original question -- how can we change that? How does Brent think he can change that?
"You can't do anything but go and show up and say 'no,'" he stated. "And hopefully get yourself into a position where you get to that point where you don't suddenly lose yourself. But so many people get so tired, and they want to do what they think will make their life easier. You have to stop trying to make your life easier and do something that is going to be for the greater good."
Breaking the stereotypes, instilling in our youth that the world is diverse, teaching our friends and acquaintances to think broadly when they look at the world around them, and doing something to change those things whenever we can -- these are the solutions for turning the mountain into a molehill -- for breaking down the walls -- or any other metaphor we can come up with. But it is essential to not let race become the obstacle. We cannot let it get in our way of achieving our goals.
I am convinced that change occurs once individuals reconcile themselves to whatever their identity may encompass, be it color or culture or experience. How we apply those lessons and challenge those around us to do the same is what really matters. The challenge to think is the greatest talent we have. It is the objective I've had in writing this article -- to give me the chance to think, to share the thoughts of those I interviewed, and hopefully to stimulate the thinking of those who read this article. Perhaps in that way the cycle of racism can finally end.
(Karen Ann Daniels is a senior majoring in Art History.)