Move aside Fruitvale Station, the black experience has been dissected in a Fringe play. Grey, directed and written by Chantal Forde. A white passing, racially ambiguous, redbone. Who felt qualified creating a piece about a young black man’s struggle out of the ghetto. Color me skeptical. Urban reporter extraordinaire. Led to the venue by a mixture of personal and journalistic curiosity.
“Never really understood the whole dark skinned / lightskinned thing with black people.” confesses a friend. We’re backstage at a local indie theatre. Waiting to be called in to audition.“ You see, there’s house niggas, and field niggas,” I say bluntly. The white chick next to me gasps. I laugh.
Basically, when you’re an actor of color life is a Tyler Perry film. After a few hundred auditions you start to notice a certain casting pattern. About which kind of colored folk, got what. The mocca skinned dude often getting lead. The darker skinned girl never even considered a love interest. There’s a reason we elected Barack Obama. He’s not only black; he’s the right shade of black. Being darker than a paper bag is just offensive.
“I don’t see color,” Some white people are saying. “I only see grey.” Exactly. That’s the problem. This culturally ingrained prejudice goes beyond color. It’s about shade. A bias towards those of fairer skin tones. Shadeism. A phenomenon seen everywhere from Bollywood to Asian beauty parlours. The question; which came first, the pigmentocracy or caucasian beauty standards?
Full disclosure; my interest in Grey goes deep. I’m an actor. Veteran to the game, but not the city. Booked an audition three months ago when I first arrived in the Six. It was for Grey. The sides I got looked promising, if a bit basic. Very mixed feelings about this new genre of art, where minorities just die. I don’t know what it is. Shit just makes for damn good entertainment. The protagonist argues with his dad the night of his death. He wants permission to go to a party. Dialogue is stilted as eff. Since when do black people say “totally?”
Scene change, locker room. The kid, Jayden torments a temamate. His text switches to an awkward proxy for black-speak. The victim, Richard, is white. I think this is the playwright’s attempt at social commentary. Both boys act as mirrors for each other. Throughout the play we realize that they’ve lost their mothers. In the dichotomy is the uncomfortable implication that Jayden deserves his fate. About twenty minutes in, the play goes from edgy to racism apologist. The audience is palpably alienated.
Unsurprisingly, every black actor in Toronto is at the audition call. That’s not an exaggeration. Folks came out the woodwork for the opportunity. Somebody flew in from Scarborough. Most of us know that casting is not in our favor. A show that requires three lead roles for POC. That’s like a unicorn dancing under a rainbow of racial diversity, singing Kumbaya.
But that damn script. A representation of black people that seemed an amalgamation of pop culture. But at least it was representation. Of the hundreds of scripts I get, most I know I won’t book. There’s a subtext written into every character whose race is not stated. Must be portrayed by white person. Action.
House lights fade out. The actors are in tableau. Hell naww. Oh no they didn’t. The black family is on stage. Except – they aren’t black. Don’t get me wrong, they are definitely people of color. Just not a color that represents the community they are portraying. Both the dad and son are light-skinned. Charlie, the supposed patriarch most of all. Played by Asante Tracey. He’s got a translucent hue, and free flowing locs. I bought into his performance of being a gruff black man as much I buy into Justin Bieber’s.
Suspension of disbelief? More like a full on expulsion. I glance around at the other audience members. Mostly white. Nobody else seems to be bothered by the casting choice. All they see is a “black” family, struggling. Little do they know, this experience had been curated to suit their palate.
Grey auditions. Forde sits at a table with three other white women. My monologue ends, and they all scribble away. One of them asks me to do it again, and “channel more Trayvon.” I want to ask her how the hell she gets off asking that of me. I also want the get paid. So I give them the performance they want.
Now I’m Charlie, grieving the murder of my son. Richard did it. Sometimes you don’t have to act. The white patriarchy has seen me as threat since I broke 5 feet. I’ve had police draw guns on me, and brothers who’ve died to white men without firearm licenses. Moonlight doesn’t do even justice to my complexion. Been fifty shades of onix. Under no circumstances can I ever pass. Within the clumsy syntax of the page, I manage to convey to a modicum of truth. Raw performance. So method.
There’s applause. I’m led out, with promises to get in touch. Outside, I meet a sister going over lines. She’s a bit hysterical. I offer to help out, and take her audition packet. On the first page is her audition notice. “Seeking women of color, light skin tone.” Internalized prejudice is rarely spelled out so plainly. Our eyes meet. I admire her beautiful ebony skin. We both know she isn’t getting the part. Neither am I. Our talent irrelevant in the face of our distance from whiteness.
The cast bows. Kenton Blythe taking centre stage. He portrays the homicidal Richard. Blythe also has top billing in the program, and all promotional work. The guy who kills the black kid standing like the leader of the Justice League. I get it, he’s the audiences “in” to this story of white people overcoming oppression. After a lengthy trial Richard gets off for the murder of Jayden. Great, always wanted to watch the alternate ending of Get Out.
I understand Chantal in a way. She is married to a white man. Her relationship to narratives of color has therefore been compromised. White people, don’t touch our hair, and don’t touch our stories. This play is a sad attempt to capitalize on an issue affecting a marginalized community. Safe choices, with safe actors. Instead of recreating her favorite issue of Ebony magazine, Forde should probably invest some time checking her privilege.
1 / 5 Black Power Fists. Would watch again to see the white mom.
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