When I was a little girl I watched the Wizard of Oz for the first time when I was five. My mind was blown. I wanted to be Dorothy. In fact I lived, breathed and wished to be Dorothy. I gathered my toys, my little mechanical dog and, of course, named him Toto, I grabbed my pink Easter basket, and a towel to put over my hair to cover my bouncy curly pig-tails, because, you know, Dorothy was white. Silky hair and all, and in order to be Dorothy I had to look like her.
Everyday I skipped down the sidewalk clicking my heels, neighbors looking out of the window and laughing at the little black girl skipping down the side walk, but I had no idea. I was Dorothy. I knew that movie inside and out, and one day, one day I was going to be her.
Then there was Little Shop of Horrors. Mind Blown. Talking plants. Unrequited love. I knew all the songs. I cocked my head, all the black girls were the do-op girls, why weren’t they Audrey? Alice in Wonderland, mind blown, but there was a little blond girl, where was i? Edward Scissorhands, pretty much all the Tim Burton movies, loved them all, but where was I? It didn’t matter too much. I didn’t understand. In my mind I could still be all those girls in those movies.
I majored in theater, high hopes and dreams of being the character I dreamed of, in my world I could.
I was cast in shows: Lesson Before Dying, black man faced with the electric chair sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit during segregation in the south. I got an Irene Ryan’s nomination. My mother was upset. This was her fear. Me, playing an old slave women humming old hymnals. In this world of theater, this would be the only thing I was destined to play. I didn’t understand it at the time. My feelings were hurt. I was a good actor! I did it, I tricked people. Audience members actually thought I was a 71 year old woman. I was only 19. I was a great actress!
Next, an old woman in Dearly Departed, playing, once again, an old Southern lady and a gospel choir singer. Proved my mother right again.
Our theater department then decided we were going to put on a Cat on A Hot Tin Roof. Roles for black people: maids with one line, “Storm, storm coming!” No thanks.
If it were my show I would be Maggie, but it wasn’t my show. The day of the audition, my professor comes up to me and another black male asking why we didn’t sign up to audition for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, we should be proud. If it were on Broadway we would jump at the chance to be in that show. My world changed at that moment. I saw things completely different. People didn’t see me as Maggie, people didn’t see me as Gertrude, or Ophelia, they saw me as the maid or the old woman in a slave tale.
I thought maybe it was different coming from a small North Carolina town. When I moved to the big city it would be different. I moved to Chicago and realized the story was still the same. I could look forward to being in plays telling the “Black Experience” whatever that meant, or be pimped. I wanted to be more. I wanted to be in a surrealist fantasy. I wanted to live the life of magic.
I watched as the brunettes whined that it would be harder for them to get the role over the blond. I watched as the curvaceous girl whined that the thin, perfect girl would get the role over them. I watched all of this with the realization I couldn’t change my skin color.
I had a choice. To accept this world, the world of literature and art that wasn’t made for me, or to try harder, push harder, be better.
This is not victim tale. This is a tale of responsibility. I choose to work harder. I chose to create new roles. I chose to question my way of Being. I chose to question the “Black Experience” and point out that there is a missing link on both sides of the equation. I chose to be the Tim Burton for minorities. I chose to have a place where any color, any body type, and sexual orientation can play anything because those roles are written for them. I chose to not feel sorry for myself (even though it is so easy to do). I choose to turn the “black experience” on it’s side, upside down and around again so I can understand what it means and who I am. I choose to stab at the keys, trying to be a better writer so some day I, or someone like me, can play the roles I always wanted to be. I chose to be me.