LAST YEAR I was acting in an industrial (a small film for training or informational use) for a law firm. In the scene, my character, a factory worker in a diner at lunch time, is sitting across from another worker, a white male. We had rehearsed the scene and were about to start shooting when there was a hurried conference between the client and the director. They put a black male substitute beside me and told us to go on but I wouldn't until I got an explanation. I was told that they were "afraid people would think I was with the white man and would be so upset that they wouldn't listen to the message of the film."
There was a story not long ago in the Sunday show section of The Post about some performers who gave up their dreams of making it big in the arts and settled, not always happily, for performing part time or teaching. Some of us, though, don't give up the dream -- not only because we will not but also because we cannot. We must act. And it's tough, as everyone knows. Auditions, rehearsals, 5 a.m. calls, rejections, expenses for pictures, resumes and voice tapes, nasty ad agents, more rejection, yes -- this is a tough business and it's 10 times tougher if one is trying to do it full time and one is not based in New York or L.A. But some of us local actors are making it anyhow. You may not have heard of Fred Strother or Ron Canada or Caron Tate, but we're making it in this business and against some incredible obstacles.
Because, you see, we are black. More stories? There was the dinner theater director who "couldn't" cast me in "Guys and Dolls" because he didn't know a black man to play my love interest; the radio agents who have to ask if you're black when they first talk to you on the phone but will only use you for "black" spots after they see you; the "liberal" ones who will use you in their non-ethnic radio spots but never in their television commercials; the major area theater casting director who told me the other day that they "used blacks all the time but not last season and maybe not this season."
Every one of us has stories like these but we try to get past the negatives and go on. We just keep working. Fred Strother has had roles in several major motion pictures including "Fort Apache -- the Bronx," is a member of the Kennedy Center "company" and actually made it onto the Eisenhower's stage last season -- as far as I know the only black person who spoke on that hallowed stage last season. Ron Canada and I both freelance act full time in D.C. -- a nearly impossible feat. Between the three of us, we've done hundreds of commercials, plays, TV, radio shows and films. This means that we don't type or wait tables for money. We act!
But it's real hard generally being black in this business in this town.
You can talk about the Rep. I'm not knocking the Rep, which is a fine theater, but to many white folks especially it seems that if you act and you're black and you're not with the Rep, you probably don't exist. David Toney or Fran Dorn might tell you how hard it can be. David -- he's Arena's "toke," (sorry, "toke" is "token," as in token-black-to-have-around-to-show-people-you-are-indeed-an-equal-opportunity-employer) the only black member of their 13-strong Arena Stage Acting Ensemble.
Fran Dorn is an esteemed local black actress and was the highly respected teacher of Shakespearean acting at the Folger for some time but did not make the newly formed Folger "company" -- I don't know why. As a matter of fact (coincidence?) there are no black members. Fran Dorn played Lady Montague in the Folger's 1980-81 season production of Romeo and Juliet, and Portia in their 1981-82 season's "Julius Caesar." But the general rule is that if it's not Othello and if it's not a "blackversionof" then it doesn't make sense for blacks to be in Shakespeare. We'll believe in witches, ghosts, fairies and assorted other ghoulies and ghosties but please, no blacks. In a city that is 70 percent black, can you think of another leading role held by a black person recently at one of the major theaters that wasn't in a full production imported straight from New York or contained shipped-in New Yorkers?
And the question of becoming an Equity member presents an interesting "Catch 22." There are apprenticeship programs allowing people to get union cards, but if you aren't even considered for roles in the first place, you'll never get the card.
We're becoming invisible and unfashionable again and the trend is national. How many blacks have lines in "Star Wars," "Diner," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Blade Runner," etc. How many positive black male characters are in television series? How many black women in leads on TV aren't 100 pounds overweight? How many successful currently running plays have blacks in major roles interacting with whites as just plain people?