Welcome to Your Other Dad Says. Each week, I answer questions from young people about navigating life in a very modern world.
Dear Other Dad —
I attend a predominantly white institution, which is also a school for fine arts. I am a theater major and we have voice and speech classes. Sometimes while trying accents and dialects, it is very clear that “proper speech” sounds nothing like how I speak at all and I get self-conscious when trying to adjust how I speak. My tone has been called harsh/hostile when I am just passionate or confident. I don’t know how to adjust that all the time. I occasionally feel like I’m internally rejecting my authenticity/assimilating. Nevertheless, I take it in as a skill to learn and pull from whenever it is needed. When do I turn this on and off? Is this my audition voice?
Your (Not-So) Local Cocoa
Dear Not So Local Cocoa —
It is not news to you that American culture has long reinforced a platform where whiteness becomes the underpinning of everything considered acceptable or valuable. You’ve seen the bias at every turn, from the department store racks to textbook content to the casting of popular shows on TV. So it’s not surprising that this is true at your school. But it’s disheartening and it’s painful to be on the receiving end(especially if the bias goes unacknowledged).
I reached out to Summer L. Williams and Kirsten Greenidge, two accomplished Black theater artists who are also professors, to join me in answering your question. Both began by acknowledging the inherent challenges of your setting, a predominantly white theater program. Greenidge says it is especially hard to navigate an academic setting because of the perception that teachers have power over you. And in American theater at large, Williams adds, the rules of the game are not equal.
Williams says that Black artists have to “see the game, understand it, see their role, and think about how to subvert the game to move forward.” 2021 may be the perfect time for you to do that. “The good news is the game is being rattled in dramatic fashion right now. There are opportunities to decide how to play without setting the board on fire,” she says.
Greenidge agrees. “More [people] within the academy (and in theatre) are beginning to question the idea of what is ‘proper’ speech.’” She is seeing changes in what students are asking for, which material is on the syllabi, and in what universities are programming.
So how can you capitalize on this to deal with your immediate problem? Williams suggests, “Talk to your professors. Say to them: If you want the fullness of myself in the work, you need to allow me to be truthful to that. I can help you see better and to understand what that means, but I can’t always change the mechanics of delivery to be more palatable.”
Greenidge adds, “Speak who you are. Yes, part of the process is accessing a character who is not ‘you,’ but ultimately, you will need to bring yourself to the role, and to the process. If your faculty has trouble understanding, talk with them about it. But don’t erase yourself.”
Naturally, you’ll have to factor in who you are dealing with, as not all teachers are the same. Some white educators honestly don’t understand the dynamic you’re up against; they see “standards” and “norms” as culture-neutral, because their culture is rarely called into question. Many of these professors will be open to learning. Sadly, there are also others who know better already but resist change, hiding behind the notion that the way things have always been taught is the way things should remain.
Williams distinguishes between true educators and those who trying to exert control. “An educator will say ‘I didn’t understand’ and ‘I want you in your fullness.’ Someone focused on control will say ‘I won’t change my lens to see you. That’s a bigger fight.”
Remember, too, that how you deal with a single professor or situation does not have to define you.
I’m guessing you already practice code-switching. (For readers new to the idea, this means adapting your language and affect based on the specific situation.) There may be some other contexts — say, not swearing in church, but cussing up a storm at school — in which code-switching feels less like a personal loss or deep affront. There might then be moments at school when this is a similarly useful strategy. But only you can decide when you can code switch without sacrificing something that feels valuable. (You will keep calibrating this for a long time to come.) Adopting a requested dialect or conducting yourself in a particular manner might well add to your skill set, as long this is seen for what it is: performance.
Here’s the good news: More theaters than ever are looking for you, as yourself, even if not all your professors have caught up. As a playwright, I have worked with so many theaters in recent years to make sure roles are cast authentically. Greenidge adds, “I am actually LOOKING for an actor to bring themselves to the role and to the project. Maybe it’s not ‘right’ for that play, but maybe it is ‘just right’ for something else,” another opportunity she can pass on.
Greenidge wants you to know, “I have spent years not sounding quite the way others think a black person ‘should’ sound. It has taught me that you do not owe yourself to others. Be who you are and let others catch up.”
You have so much to offer the world in your own voice, Cocoa. Add as many dialects or personas to your toolbox as possible and draw upon them as you choose (in or out of an audition), but they will always be secondary resources next to the prime gift you have to offer: your authentic self.
Previously published on medium
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project and want a deeper connection with our community, please join us as a Premium Member today.
Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS. Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.