Houston Theater Actors Share Stories of Racism Behind The Scenes

Brittny Bush (left), one of the Houston actors speaking up about racism in the theater
Brittny Bush (left), one of the Houston actors speaking up about racism in the theater Photo by Pin Lim

Theaters are liberally minded organizations that wish to be welcoming spaces where people of all races can participate in the power of live performance.

Theaters are also spaces where racism happens.

Shocked by this dichotomy? You wouldn’t be if you were a black actor. Or a Latinx artist. Or Asian. Or any race that isn’t white operating in these spaces. It’s a truth that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color) theater artists have carried around for years.

But they’ve had enough. Enough of whispering these stories to each other but no one else. Tired of being afraid to call out racist incidents for fear of being branded as difficult or angry. Fed up with worrying if they’ll be replaced or never hired again if they stand up for themselves.

On June 1, Broadway Stage Manager, Cody Renard Richard blew the issue wide open on Twitter, detailing just some of the many racist incidents he's had to put up with over the years. Everything from being told to smile backstage so people could see him, to having his hair touched and then likened to pubic hair.

Issues of backstage racism were also recently exposed north of the border when dozens upon dozens of BIPOC actors took to Twitter to share their #inthedressingroom experiences of racism in Canadian Theatre.

And now it’s our turn to listen and learn. To hear testimonies from actors and acknowledge the shame and hurt they’ve experienced due to racial discrimination in our theaters. And for everyone to be on notice that they won’t put up with this in silence any longer.

Being too black

Anna Maria Morris was in a show where the director was the company's artistic director.  "While we were in rehearsal, I got a note that was I was doing was getting, ‘too black’. And I said – excuse me? And the director said – too ghetto, like a hooker. And I looked around the room at the few other black people in the mostly white cast like, do you hear what she is saying? And no one said anything so I just took a beat. I was very aware that how I acted at this moment could affect my future and so I made the change.”

Morris says the incident forced her to make the awful choice between being black and being an artist and that because she was so young and new to the Houston professional scene, she was afraid to speak up.

“I haven’t worked with the company since then. I’ve been invited to audition but I just say no thank you. Turning down work is hard but I never want to put myself in that situation ever again. I am a black artist and I don’t ever want to have to choose between those things again and compromise my integrity for a paycheck.”

Failure to commit

When a theater in Houston wanted to reach a black audience for its new hip hop musical but admittedly didn’t know how to market to the black community, they brought Joseph Palmore in to help.

At first, he says he felt supported and believed they wanted to reach out to the community, asking him to bring in and connect them with his contacts.

“But it seemed like in the middle of it they just got restless and tired of doing the hard work and didn’t want to spend any more money. They just cut off resources and after that, there was no continued effort. I told them at the start that I don’t want to connect you with these black people if you don’t continue to have some sort of relationship with them after the play. It made me feel that I betrayed my community because I thought I was working to bridge the gap between them and the theater.”

Among the many issues Palmore has experienced on stage, he says one of the most frustrating is that when theaters do finally pick a black play, they often don't hire any black production people.

“So, we have to do more work because we get asked by the director about do black people do this, and the sound designer asks what music black people like, and suddenly I'm the play's dramaturge but I'm not being compensated for it. I should be getting a dramaturge fee for answering all your black questions about this black script.”

Stereotypical assumptions

Mai Le remembers a situation during a rehearsal with a director who took great pride in being a champion for the marginalized and the minority.

“The situation for the character was that they were being frugal and the director thought it was appropriate to give me the direction to imagine I was remembering my mother haggling for the cheapest cut of fish at a market when I was a child. She used this to get a response from me as an actor as some kind of remembered trauma.
And I remember balking and moving on but it was so inappropriate because frugality isn't a trait that is exhibited by the poor immigrant Vietnamese refuge and for them to assume this and then exploit it was very odd.

At the time so much of my life has been people at every corner saying it's a shame you won't get cast because you're Asian and so I just took it and pushed it to the corner of my mind but a couple of days later it still bothered me and it made me very uncomfortable going back into rehearsal because it was really telling about what the director thought of me. And how they see me outside of the work I provide for them."

Le also recalls sitting in a room where a director complained about setting up a season where there are roles for actors of color but then these actors don’t show up to audition so how then could they justify future seasons featuring actors of color?

“That’s so wrong”, says Le. “For some theaters to think that they've opened doors, fallen short at outreach, and then blame us and walk those opportunities back.”

Talking about race with only white people in the room

Callina Anderson was doing a show about race, white and black. "The majority of the cast was white and only a handful of us were black and once a week the theater would have a talk-back and all cast were welcome to attend but only the white cast members were required to attend.

I was and am speechless. The gall to think that you can have a conversation about race without black people there? So, I and another cast member made it a point every time they had a talk-back we showed up.
I truly believe they didn’t know the implications. They wanted the lead actor to be there and other cast members for various reasons. But they didn’t understand that not having people of color in that conversation was problematic.”

And it wasn’t the only issue on that production. As patrons filed into the theater, they were greeted with black men on stage singing in a quartet.

“It felt real minstrel. I wanted to have a conversation about it but the woman that I spoke to said she didn’t know what I was talking about. I get that the show was trying to be diverse and the play was about race, but this wasn’t the way. I expect people maybe not to understand, but at least question and say let’s talk more instead of being dismissed.”

No Shakespeare for you

Luis Galindo's story takes place before he arrived on stage in Houston, but the wound and resulting anger is something he still carries with him.

Deciding he wanted to further hone his craft, Galindo enrolled in a three-year conservatory with an excellent reputation for turning out classically trained actors, particularly actors that could do Shakespeare, his career dream.

"Come to the end and we're about to do our showcase in New York for agents and casting directors. So, to help us get prepared, one of the best casting directors in NYC was brought in to coach us/give us feedback, and I wanted to do a Shakespeare piece. She told me don’t do a Shakespeare piece, you don’t look like a Shakespearean actor.

And I said what the fuck does that mean, and she said no one is going to look at you like that so do something else.

When that woman said to me, it was as if I was no longer a 33-year-old man, but a kid again being called a wetback by white school kids and adults and feeling utterly less than and ashamed and it was here that some seeds of self-loathing were planted. So, when she said that to me, it was as though any progress made or success I had achieved on my own merit, talent and fortitude were rendered meaningless and void. The crippling thought that if I couldn’t succeed at something I dreamed of doing (which I had been assured anyone could do in spite of race and ethnicity) I was instead destined to be a failure. I was an angry, embarrassed child who couldn’t stand up straight.”

Labeling black shows as money losers. And hair.

Brittny Bush says the racism she experienced in the theater started for her when she was at the University of Houston (2001-4).

“The student body created an organization called Unheard Voices because there were no BIPOC or gay people on stage at our school. That was where I got a lot of the work I did – where I got my training.

The students wanted to do Raisin in the Sun on the mainstage and the faculty, which is a lot of people that worked and still work in Houston theater as well, turned it down because they said it wouldn’t sell.

So Unheard Voices put it on and the line wrapped around the block. Just that message, what does that say to your students of color? That’s what I came out of, being marginalized as I’m being trained to be an actor.”

That feeling of being othered had affected Bush several times in her career, even when working with someone Bush cites as being a champion for her talent from way back.

“I did a show where I was playing a professional and I had my hair (as I still do) in dreadlocks and at one dress rehearsal she said, what are you going to do about your hair? Does that come out?

I said give me your idea of what you would like and the response was that my hair was not professional and I needed to make it look professional. So, I put it in an updo and everyone was like, wow it looks so great. So, it’s possible for black hair to be styled in any way to fit any character. I still have people say I don’t want you to change your hair but it’s not period, so my hair is an obstacle rather than what kind of wig can we invest it. If a grown man can get a wig that makes him look like a woman then I feel like I can have any hairstyle you want if you invest in it.”

Being the only one in the house. And more hair.

Candice D’Meza has had her own battles over hair as most black female actors do. In her case, she was threatened with breach of contract if she cut down her hair so that the wig she was required to wear would fit her properly. All of which could have been avoided had the theater understood how to make wigs for black actors, whose hair grows out differently than their white castmates from the time of initial fitting to weeks later when they need to wear it for the production.

“It's hostile and racially-based. There is nothing I can do about the texture of my hair. Instead of finding the people that can do my hair, you’ve made me the sole problem. Which makes it now easy to say that I’m a difficult person to work with.”

D’Meza has also experienced other troubling incidents, such as having to navigate what it means to be black on stage for white directors.

“One of my early shows in Houston, I was the sole black character in the show. There was nothing in the script that said how this black woman should sound and I felt like making her sound more urban would be disingenuous to me because it would be like putting on an accent. She’s black, I’m black, so I talked in my regular cadence.

"But I was aware that it was an issue in the theater's mind. That they wanted her to be more urban and stereotypically black in their minds. So, one day during rehearsal they asked me if I could make her sound ……more……and I waited to see if they were going to say it because I knew they were having difficulty finishing the sentence. And they whispered to each other really quickly and then looked at me and said never mind.

"I think it’s confusing for a lot of us – we understand the nuances of what it’s like to be black and we come from different socio-economic groups and neighborhoods. So, it’s difficult to navigate when they call for a black actor, what kind of black do you want? We have to think about this is in a way that white actors don’t have to unless the role has some specific ethnic designation.”

So, what now?

We asked all of the actors what steps they feel are needed to effect change.

Telling their stories, they feel, helps bring the issue into the light. As Galindo says, “There’s now no getting the toothpaste back in the tube – it’s on the table and we’re all looking at it.”

While most incidents in Houston theaters are not overt racism, but rather microaggressions (commonplace daily indignities, intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights) Palmore says theaters need to understand and be willing to discuss how these behaviors wound.

“Microaggressions are worse than blatant racism because I can't call you on it, I can't acknowledge it, it's worse to me. It's worse because you're orchestrating instead of just being blatant about who you really are.”

But without fail, every actor we spoke believes that there must be more BIPOC working in every position within the theater, in both academic and professional settings. The universal belief being that not only is this type of racial inclusion just and representative of the city of Houston, but that the racist moments they encountered would either not have occurred or could have been discussed in a productive and supportive manner.

However, there's only so much actors, who are by and large contract workers and not theater employees, can do. When it comes to making a theater a diverse, safe space, “Change has to come from the top,” says Anderson. “I’m just about done educating people.”
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman