This is the fourth post from our new column highlighting the voices and experiences of students of color on Brown’s campus. In this entry, Hayward Leach ’14 recalls his experience in the theater community at Brown.
In 1926, prominent Black poet Langston Hughes wrote: “An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.” Reading Hughes’ “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” in Introduction to Africana Studies my freshman fall, I remember feeling simultaneously liberated and constrained by the concept of such a freedom. Hughes wrote this article with the intention of freeing the Negro artist to portray his own life, to not shy away from the complexities and potential dirt of his experience. In scholarship and artistic expression, however, I have continued to struggle with this original contradiction.
Do I have a responsibility to study and portray Black life in America? The easy, individualistic answer would be no. Art should be about one’s individual interests. If those interests align with a political agenda, so be it. On my thirteenth birthday, I sat in the corner of my school bus, on a trip to the Museum of Natural History. I don’t remember much about the ride other than the sticky seats, the din of kids voices rising above midtown traffic, and the gray of February that seems to mark a never ending winter. My birthdays always feel like secrets, moments of light built into the dark fabric of the mid-winter sky. On that bus, where no one thought of anything but snow slush and bus games, I relished in my secret. Somewhere along the ride, I scribbled down: “Art is the expression of the soul.”
I remember thinking this was the most profound statement I could have made, that this prophecy would drive me through life towards masterpieces of great pith and moment. Even today, I look up at that piece of looseleaf, faded and curling but still intact, and relish that individualism, that creative energy. Yet somehow, theater at Brown has taken me on a different trajectory.
I find it fitting that my theatrical life at Brown began and ended with Black female directors. In the spring of my freshman year, I acted in my first college production as Benny in RENT, directed by Chantel Whittle ’12. Naïve and presumptuous a freshman as I was, I remember accepting the role with a certain reservation. My first role at Brown, and I was already playing the Black-guy-in-a-tie. I remember a sharp feeling of foreboding: I would only be called upon to play Benny (or a friendlier version of the same character) and would be otherwise shut out.
RENT proved to be a unique beast. Unbeknownst to me, I had stumbled into a rare explosion of theater populated by people of color. Looking around the room in the Pembroke Field House, I realized that I had never acted with other men of color. And here before me sat four other guys like me, everyone wrestling with different conceptions of Black identity, united in a common understanding of race as essential to ourselves. Making that realization brought me to reconsider my original whining on racially informed casting. Then, suddenly, we were in the full throes of rehearsals and I had no time to question much outside of the text. I experienced viewpoints for the first time and tried to feel connected to the space. We spent weeks singing gathered around a piano, recording harmonies on our phones. Half the cast carried around a personal jar of honey, chugged on breaks. I’m not entirely sure that it did anything but I grew to love the slide of sweet mucus down my throat.
On opening weekend, we were overwhelmed by the number of people lined up to see the show. Two, three, four hours before tickets were released, there would be a line forming down the hallways of T.F. Green. We expected a big response—this was RENT. Everyone had heard 525,000 minutes at least once. Half of those lined up knew every word to every song, ready to lip-sync and cry for three hours. Once we finally opened in late April, I started to appreciate what theater by and for people of color could do for Brown. It was only years after that I realized that these were not the people who usually came to see theater.
How can we bring more people of color to Brown theater? That was the question that plagued me all four years. That meant diversifying the audiences as well as the casts. I started to believe that one of the mantras of Intro to Africana Studies had become true: “White is theoretical and Black is biological.” I rarely saw POC on the stage or in the audience unless the character was specifically written as such. I remember a sense of frustration at the whole situation. Why couldn’t people of color take more “white” or “raceless” characters? Why couldn’t the theater boards bring more works pertaining to people of color to the stage?
Three years later, I found myself at the feet of Passing Strange, a rock musical spectacle following the soul-searching, artistic journey of an African-American youth across Europe. Over the course of the first month, we grew into new versions of ourselves. Director Kym Moore brought us to our knees as we worked to create a performance that just happened to include music, song, and dance versus the veneer of the musical theater to which we were accustomed.
During the process and for months afterwards, I wondered to what extent race played into this positive experience. To what extent had the space been allowed for me to explore topics of racial identity in this particular play, and to what extent had I opened myself in response to what I assumed to be an inviting environment? Moreover, should I feel most comfortable in people of color spaces? Do I even have a responsibility to take on those roles, to assume the Black character when presented with the option?
Now, I’m not so sure about the purity of my teenage revelation. After moving through the world of Brown, I feel more and more certain that if I don’t study it, sing it, or act it, no one else will. Refusing to bring my blackness onto the stage (whatever that may mean) is a loss. Yet I can’t help but feel constrained by my own self-righteous need for representation. Can’t I just be an actor, not a Black actor? Of course. It’s a spectrum like everything, with plenty of gray. But that spectrum reduces back to black and white when the character description says “Seeking African-American male.”