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- In the Chair
by Khanisha Foster
June 7, 2012
Coming up on two years ago I moved to L.A., and since that time I have been writing. Writing creative non-fiction for 2nd Story, an organization that has stolen my heart, and writing my memoir—I’m the kid of a former Black Panther career criminal and heroin-addicted parents, one black and one white (so there’s lots to write about there), and with the help of UCLA’s professional program I’m in screenplay Heaven. All of this is work, commitment, and time well spent FO SHO, but here I am feeling like I’m cheating on acting.
Acting was the first and only thing I ever wanted to do. It taught me about my brain, my heart, my sexuality. I felt alive on stage before I ever felt it in real life. I was ready for the business you hear about when you grow up wanting to be an actor. I was going to be rejected. No problem. I was going to be poor. Since I had never been anything else, that was fine by me. I was going to have to work my butt off. This, to me, seemed to be the easiest part. My childhood was more than challenging, and my father always taught me I’d have to work twice as hard to get half as far, so hard work seemed habitual. What I wasn’t ready for was the complete challenge of identity I was about to undergo.
I’m mixed; the list, which changes in specifics based on my audience and how they wish to receive it (everybody thinks they know more about being mixed than you do), goes like this: black and white, which then breaks down into Creole, which then breaks down into African, French, Spanish (Spain), plus Native American (I prefer this to American Indian), Scottish, Irish, and German. Are you trying to picture what I look like? If you don’t know me or haven’t seen a picture, my skin is honey-colored (or so every base makeup I ever bought tells me), while my hair is almost black like both of my parents’; its waves fall into curls and it is shiny soft, and even though it looks full, quite thin. Everyone thinks I’m Latina.
Which of course is a totally rockin’ culture, right? Plus my husband is Latino which means my daughter is everything listed above and Latina. Here is where the challenge comes. As an actor, I have been told, more than once, in an assortment of ways:
“You’re not believable as black.”
“You’re not white.”
“There aren’t any roles for mixed people.”
“You could play Puerto Rican. Can you translate this script into Spanish for the shoot tomorrow?”
Now you may be thinking this is no big deal. You may be thinking the same thing I was told by a white male Artistic Director in a black box theatre in Chicago: “It’s the same thing as if I had to play a redneck . . . well of course, I have rednecks in my family, I am kinda a redneck, but either way, it’s your problem. Get over it.”
Here is the thing: it’s not like that at all. If you are white imagine always playing black roles. If you are black imagine always playing Asian roles. If you are Asian imagine always playing Latino roles, and if you are Latino imagine always playing black. Not most of the time, not some of the time, all of the time.
Now you might say, “Khanisha, it’s on you to let the theatre community know what you want to play.” EXACTLY what I thought! So I set up auditions where the company or the season was predominantly black (no mixed roles, remember) and I changed my monologues to ones that mentioned race. Want to know what happened?
At a major African-American Theater company I was told, “Your resumes makes you look Latino.” When I was a reader at a mainly white theatre company that was doing a contemporary African-American play, they couldn’t find an actor for a part that was my age (and, I thought, my type). I politely asked if I could read for the part. They told me that it would be a stretch to hire a Latina actor for the part. “I’m not Latina,” I said. “I’m black and white. I’m mixed.” The Artistic Director stormed out of the room. He did not like being corrected. Later he would call me out at a Q&A in front of a large audience for being too racially charged. (That, by the way, was the only conversation we ever had about race.)
Now you might be secretly thinking, Maybe it’s not your race. Maybe you’re not good. Fair enough, but I am good. Not the-world-should-know-I’m good-by-looking-at-me good, but I’ve spent my career training to be the performer I want to be. Questioning. Challenging. Failing. Pushing. And you know what? I’m good at what I do.
So ALL of this identity questioning led me to one answer: I have to write the stories I want to see in the world. I can’t sit on my butt wishing for better. Except, learning to be an exceptional writer, in some ways, has led to me sitting on my butt. Crafting. Rewriting.
The writing is not about acting anymore, although I am, and always will be, an actor. It’s about how surprising honesty can be. It’s about being invited into someone’s life instead of preaching rights and wrongs. It’s about acknowledging who I am to myself and not waiting for anyone else to do it.
The sweet beauty of it all, is that simply stating my truth has brought me to a group of people who are doing the same. For the second year in a row I am the Live Event Producer for the Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival out here in Los Angeles. The festival was founded by true-to-life best friends Fanshen Cox and Heidi Durrow. Fanshen is a wonderful actress and filmmaker. Heidi is the New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. Dudes and dudettes, if you have not read this book, do yourselves a favor. It is a delight and a heartbreak.
These two amazing ladies were told repeatedly that there is no audience for mixed race people. Luckily, they are brilliant and stubborn. Knowing there was—and is—an audience, they created a space where it could show itself. Brilliant, no?
The result is a host of people sharing each other’s stories at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles on June 15, 16, and 17. This festival is for EVERYBODY. If you are mixed, you love someone whose mixed, you know someone who’s mixed, or you love great storytelling, we will see you there.
Stop by and say hello. I’ll be that curly-headed mixed chick telling stories: body, paper, and soul.
photo: “Theater” by Alan Cleaver