What’s it like being an actor of color? Amira Warren-Yearby sat down with Siddeeqah Shabazz, an actor and teen programs specialist at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis, to talk about casting issues related to ethnicity.
Shabazz, originally from Oakland, Calif., has theater degrees from the University of La Verne and the Guildford School of Acting in England. She has performed on multiple stages, including Luna Playhouse, Electric Theatre, Mixed Blood Theatre and The People’s Center. Her favorite roles include Evilene in “The Wiz” and Shakespeare’s Othello.
What are some of casting challenges that actors of color face?
As an African-American, you definitely start to think that you don’t look like everyone else. And it’s hard to get cast. It’s still hard. But I never thought of it as a setback. That’s actually what’s kind of great about Los Angeles. It’s a double-edged sword out there, but at least they tell you what they want. You have to be fit, blonde, white and thin. OK, that’s the character. That’s it. “Oh, I don’t fit those.” But at least you know.
Here, you’ll get, “Oh, everybody can come.” But they still really mean a white person. If it’s something historical and they have to cast Abraham Lincoln, you know it’s not going to be a black person. Or if you have German last names, or someone from France, and you’re reading it … I mean, you know that you’re not going to fit into this character who is dating a white guy in America.
Does colorblind casting exist?
I think there needs to be more honest colorblind casting. I think it’s getting better. There are some things where, you know, you see a certain kind of black person on TV. Like, a McDonald’s commercial is going to have these deep, spoken word black folks who all try to look Afro-centric. There’s that type. It’s a step. I’m not saying it’s the best step, but it’s happening slowly, surely.
Honestly, you never know what’s going on in the head of a casting director. Maybe they had the costumes ready and you just don’t fit in one. You never know. I understand that. I go through that. The only thing I can do is go into the audition and leave knowing that I did exactly what I wanted to do. Sometimes you have a great audition and you just don’t get the role.
Do you think audiences would have a hard time with colorblind casting?
I think audiences are conditioned to say, ‘Well, you have these two parents that look a certain way, so the kid must look like this …” But it doesn’t have to be that way. I was reading about a recent show that literally had colorblind casting, and it didn’t get a good review. It said something about how (the reviewer) couldn’t get into it because of all the ethnicities. Isn’t that unfortunate to say? If you can place yourself in the 1800s in Italy, and you’re in (2014) Minnesota, you know, that’s OK. You can have a play in space and believe it’s going on there, but different ethnicities, that’s what throws you off?
What advice do you have for young actors of color?
Create your own work. When there’s nothing out there, and that’s the only way you can get seen, create your own. New theaters are popping up all the time because of it. That’s how theater was started! It’s a lot of work. It’s a long haul. But if you feel like you’re not being seen, do it yourself. There’s something powerful about that.