The Dissection of a Mad Black Actress

The National Theatre School's production of the Laramie Project. Photo by Maxime Côté

I am Black and I am exhausted. Exhausted of feeling like an inconvenience for casting. Exhausted of being treated like an exotic animal in a zoo. I applied to theatre school to train as an actor and yet every day feels more like training to be a civil rights activist.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion: three words that should mean so much to me as a Black woman pursuing a career in theatre. But, frankly, I am not sure I know what they mean anymore. I have heard them so many times that their true definitions are slowly beginning to fade.

For some people, those words are used to meet quotas and receive funding, or they’re buzzwords casually sprinkled in panel discussions. For an artist of colour, they carry far more weight. Diversity, equity, and inclusion surround every opportunity in my career. Those three words encompass my life in the margins. My livelihood rests on the fact that somewhere a theatre company needs a Black actress.

I have been cast in roles where I’ve realized I was there to fill a quota. I end up feeling less like a person and more like someone’s token. After all, some of the biggest stages across this country only hire one Black actor. Schools, for the most part, only admit one. One Black actor is the norm, and we have become accustomed to it. The current landscape of Canadian theatre is proof that we as a community are comfortable accepting a minimalist attempt at diversity; hire one face of colour among a sea of white and call it a success.

The National Theatre School’s production of the Lear. Photo by Maxime Côté.

Currently, my theatre school cohort is being marketed as the “historically most diverse class to date.” That label is weird. I thought we were just a class of twelve actors. I never imagined that we would be bearing the weight of years of neglect towards diversity, equity, and inclusion. Or maybe it is a coincidence. Maybe in the last half-century since the school was established there have never been more than four talented actors of colour at a time who could gain admission to the most prestigious theatre school in the country.

But in 2014, there were five. Four of us are women and two of us are Black women. Three years ago, I was stunned to learn that both another Black woman and I had been accepted into the same cohort. Because no school does that. Why would they? One is often enough. Two seems redundant.

Walking into the callback auditions for the school, I remember feeling relieved that I was the only Black woman there. This is how I have been conditioned to understand my place in this industry. When there is no specific mandate for diversity, the possibility of acceptance narrows. Every other Black woman is my competition. There’s no space for all of us.

*       *      *

“We really have no idea how you would potentially fit, or if you would fit on our roster.”

 This is part of a rejection letter I received from a Toronto talent agency. It is the part that has been permanently etched in my memory. It’s the part that disappointed me the most. Their carefully selected roster, like those of many big-name agencies across the country, is littered with white face after white face. Of course, there are slight variations. Sometimes the blondes have blue eyes and sometimes their eyes are green. There’s an array of different shades of brunettes, and occasionally a couple of redheads. And yet barely a handful of people of colour, and, more specifically, rarely two Black women. Once I see that an agency already has their one Black actress within my age range, I move on. I know there is no place for me. And then I can’t help but think to myself, “Why is there only ever just one?”

This trend goes beyond agency rosters. It permeates our training institutions and it seeps into the various stages of casting.

Being the sole Black actor on a roster or in a production can be the most powerful position to be in: I am unique, I am the only one, I am necessary. Yet I still have to question if this opportunity was given to me based on merit. Am I simply a token? I want to earn my place. I want it to mean more than the category of minority I fit into. I want to be included, and I want to be hired. I am proud of my blackness. I own who I am in this skin. But is that all people are willing to see?

The National Theatre School’s production of the Laramie Project. Photo by Maxime Côté.

There is more to me as an artist than my skin colour and gender. And as much as I want to implore our theatre community to do better, I also just want to be. I want to be me: Rachel Mutombo, the human—not always Rachel Mutombo, child of immigrants from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Black actress motivated for change. Yet, at the Theatre Ontario showcase this year I performed an Othello monologue from Harlem Duet… Not exactly the monologue choice for someone who doesn’t want to be stuck in the Black actor box forever. But what other option did I have?

I cannot shy away from the responsibility I feel as an actor with a historically marginalized voice. I feel compelled to speak up for myself and others, but taking this on does not come easily to me. I have learned to thrive in the margins rather than let the confines crush me. I have learned how to develop a voice as an artist who tackles the issues head-on. In my first year at school, I distinctly recall being asked about how my race related to my acting, and I said, “I am not really into the Black thing.”

And yet here I am. That same girl who wasn’t “into the Black thing” dared to show off her blackness at the Theatre Ontario Showcase and dared to write this article.

My skin carries baggage. The weight of hundreds of years of oppression is heavy on the shoulders of a twenty-three year old. There is beauty in intersectionality, especially in the theatre. There is more to my graduating class than what colours you see when we are on stage together. Our work ought to exist on its own. And when I get hired, I hope that I am hired for me, Rachel Mutombo the actor, who happens to be Black. So that my entire career is not spent wondering: Am I just filling a spot?

7 Responses to “The Dissection of a Mad Black Actress”

  1. Thank you Rachel for Sharing this piece!
    I also graduated from my theatre school class as the only woman of colour. At one point I had been the only Woman of colour in the entire school. You articulated every single thought that has ever crossed my mind, body and soul in a piece of writing.
    Thank you for your Honesty, and for your Voice!
    I can’t wait to see all of the wonderful things you accomplish.
    Peace & Love

    • As posted on the Facebook feed: Without any intent to dilute Rachel’s brave, insightful, articulate, and indisputable experience, I am prompted to add from a ‘generational perspective’: when I graduated from theatre school (as an actor), my first years were spent in a frustrating exercise of trying to side-step the mould of only being considered for vapid, pretty boy roles – frequently requiring me to appear naked? Eventually, my baulking of this ‘pigeonholing’ (particularly, the naked part) cost me my first agent who declared that I wasn’t committed enough! Clearly, this isn’t a direct point of comparison with Rachel’s argument but it does point to the small epiphany that came afterwards: myself and many of my young contemporaries in the early 80’s found themselves deeply at odds with the predispositions of the established theatre business in Toronto – for a wide host of reasons: gender bias, sexual orientation, ethnic stereotyping, etc. Our response was to redirect our energies into creating our own works and the company structures to facilitate that vision. It was a steep uphill challenge; it led to measurable, onward movement. I encourage this younger and dynamic cadre of artists to grab hold of that pro-active baton, healthily updated with their concerns – rather than falling prey to reactively railing against the narrow confines/strictures of the status quo (though that’s entirely understandable). Stemming from my 35 year experience in new play development, with a focus on social themes, I would propose: ‘It’s less a question of whether one is rightfully indignant about the very real barriers; it’s more about guarding and directing your precious energy and imagination as an artist – so as to be available for forging/manifesting your own, more enlightened and unique vision.’

  2. Deeply intelligent meditation. Thank you, and good luck; you’re embarking on a career in an industry drowning in racism and hypocrisy.

  3. I’ve been out of the entertainment industry for years, and I’m a white woman. Back when I was your age, the battle was purely gender: at what point can a female actor get work as something other than a man’s ornament.

    While the playing field has moved forward somewhat, young female actors still face enormous challenges based on their gender, and adding colour to the picture makes it all the more difficult to carve a space for yourself.

    Don’t give up. If there are no shows, write one. If there are no roles, invent them. If no one’s listening, be patient. The industry is daunting, competitive and cruel for everyone, and unfortunately one of the negative rewards for success is seeing your personal life misrepresented and splayed out in gossip rags for the entertainment of the bored.

    The positive rewards far outweigh that if you can keep your soul on straight, keep your chin up, and remember that the most import thing about you is the spark within you. Everything else is just the paint and wallpaper. You will cry, you will jump for joy, you will fight and sometimes you will win and sometimes you will not. It’s a tough industry – particularly for women and people of colour.

    Halle Berry in Things We Lost in the Fire gives me hope. Not just because it was a great role in a great film, but because her blackness was not part of the script. She was not there to play a “black woman”. That role was a race-neutral role, the script did not define her as a woman of colour. She was just a wife and mother who lost her husband and wanted to find some closure by helping her dead husband’s friend.

    The fact that they chose Ms. Berry for the role tells me all is not lost. She was not hired because she was black. She was hired because she was GREAT. Brave young souls like you must keep pushing for that.

    Don’t give up, beautiful young woman. YOU will fight your battles and get hurt too, and that’s part of the business. But the fight YOU fight may leave future female actors of colour a wider spectrum than was available to you. Someday, YOU may be the wise old owl being given the lifetime achievement award at the Genies for your contributions to the industry.

    We share our womanhood, and from (much, much older) woman to woman, remember that there was a time we weren’t even allowed to vote. As a white woman to a black woman, I’m so very, very sorry for the discrimination you face – it is NOT fair and if I could click my heels and send us all to place where these battles are long past won, I would.

    Sadly, I can’t. And I can’t fight that battle FOR you. But I can be your cheerleader, your fan, and one of the many female voices that unite us all as women – rainbow sparkly, shiny, savvy, talented warrior goddesses who never back down.

    Keep up the good fight, Rachel. Bring your voice out here, bring your talent out here, and shine as loudly as you can.

  4. Just came across this wonderful article. Have to comment on the condescending “advice” from white people in the Comments. Why do they think they know what is ahead for this writer/actor? Why do they think they know what she should do, how she should feel? Why do they think they know the real intentions of those who hire black people? “Keep your soul on straight”. These are the kind of white people who tend to turn into total hurt monsters when you tell them they have no idea what they’re talking about because they think of themselves as well meaning and expect black people to be grateful. Nauseating.

  5. Excellent article Rachel! It shows your strength, your soul, your determination, your character and how smart you are. Keep speaking up with conviction and confidence, and do not let anyone define you or put you in a pre-fabricated box to fit their own questionable agenda. You have talent to share and you need a platform to share it properly. If you cannot find the right one for you, create it! When you do, people will follow you, because you are an inspiration to many and a natural born leader. BRAVO!

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Rachel is a graduate of The National Theatre School’s Acting program. She enjoys long walks on the beach, cuddling her cat, and challenging societal norms and defying boundaries placed on her because of her race and gender. More details about her extracurriculars can be found on her website.