Black actresses can play more roles than the "Black Woman"
This is probably my third article on the lack of representation and positive representation of Black people in the world, but that just shows how much farther we have to go in our society to reach equal Black representation. Last weekend I had the opportunity to see the musical “Waitress”- it was my first time seeing a Broadway show in Chicago as all the ones I’d seen previously were in New York. I love theater and Broadway and was super excited to see my first show in Chicago.
I went into the show blind, having no idea what the musical was going to be about, but I still loved it. The music, written by popular artist Sara Bareilles, was beautiful yet poppy and catchy. I enjoyed the modern-day storyline and the cute way the story was able to intertwine the motif of pies and baking throughout the show. But I’m not writing to comment on whether I liked the musical or not, because overall it was a great musical.
As I watched the show, though I enjoyed it, something was still bothering me at the back of my mind, about race. It wasn’t that the entire audience watching the show was white. That was to be expected, and as a person being used to constantly being surrounded by only white people, it didn’t make me feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t the fact that the main characters and love interests were white, because that was also to be expected too.
It was the roles the Black women were playing. Foremost, they were all supporting characters, but what upset me the most was that they were all just stereotypes. The main character was a 30-something-year-old white woman named Jenna. Her best friend, Becky, was a large sassy Black woman who was always back talking and making sassy remarks to the amusement of the audience. The problem with this? She was just a caricature. The character she played was completely based off of all the stereotypes Black women try so hard to get away from. That we’re sassy, loud, rude and are always there with a comeback. Because shockingly enough, not all Black women are like that!!
The only other prominent Black character in the show was the nurse who more or less fell into that same stereotype as sassy, always saying something smart and just a comic relief. Don’t get me wrong, the two women who played the parts were both great actresses and amazing singers as well as all-around performers. But it was still disheartening to me to watch the show and know that as a Black woman trying to pursue theater, I would be limited to roles like these. That when I watch musicals, there are so many roles and characters I’d love to play but I’d never be able to because I’m not white. And I’m not talking about shows where the character has to be cast as someone who is white in order for the story to make sense contextually or historically. I mean roles where the character could probably be played by any race but I’d still never be given a chance to play it because I’m not white. So I’ll only be pushed to roles in which I’ll have to embody stereotypes that I’m otherwise working so hard to show the world that I, as well as other Black women, am more than. When I was younger I never consciously noticed things like this, as only seeing white representation was something that I was used to.
There are musicals in which the majority of the cast are Black people and people of color, like “The Color Purple” and “Dreamgirls”, and it’s amazing to have those shows that feature so many Black artists and celebrate Black culture so beautifully. But I don’t want to have to have the mindset that if I want a lead in a show, I’ll have to be cast in one of those shows. I want to be able to play Jenna in “Waitress”, Heather Chandler in “Heathers”, Sophie in “Mamma Mia”, Rose in “Dogfight.” I don’t want to have to limit my dreams because of the color of my skin. I want to be appreciated as an actress because of my ability to play a character, not just fulfill a stereotype.