Black Lives Matter in the Theatre Too

Working in the theatre is like having another family. You become inextricably connected as you share each other’s laughter and joy but also their pain. As an only child, being part of the theatre surrounded me with a chosen family, a big group of rambunctious brothers and sisters I had always craved. Finding these people was like coming home.

Twenty years ago, as a junior member of a theatre company, I was working with the most talented people I had ever met. I was in awe of them. The actors were household names, most of them on television, but we all instantly clicked, and became a big happy, dysfunctional family.

One of the actors was an Aboriginal man from the Northern Territory of Australia. We’ll call him Will for anonymity’s sake. He appeared tall and strong on television, but in real life he was a six foot version of a 10 year old boy. Mischievous, witty and the big brother I never had. He had been cast in a role traditionally been played by a white actor. We were preparing ourselves for pushback from traditionalists who wouldn’t like an Aboriginal perspective to the role and how it would change some long-held assumptions within the play.

After a long day of rehearsals had ended three weeks before opening night, Will received some devastating news. One of his family had passed away. Young. Too young. Will was heartbroken. And we, his theatre family, were ready to rally around him to share his pain.

Taking time off from rehearsals is a hard thing. Four weeks is never enough, it’s intensive and not being there would make him feel less prepared, but Will knew he needed to be with his family. He rang the director, who granted him permission to take some time off without question, and told him to take all the time he needed to grieve and mourn a life lost too soon.

He left the next day, we didn’t see him before he left. In rehearsals the next day we shared his pain from afar, and were comforted knowing he was with his real family. We wondered if he was okay, knowing he was uncontactable, out of phone range, until he returned.

The day after he left, I arrived at rehearsals early. The morning newspapers had been delivered to Stage Door there was a headline that caught my eye.

‘Will abandons rehearsals for walkabout’

My stomach churned. I left the paper there, too afraid of what the article would say. I didn’t want anyone else to see it, but how could I hide it? The morning tea break chatter always revolved around the morning’s news.

How did they know he wasn’t here? Why did they think he ‘abandoned’ rehearsals’? The mistrust in the headline was evident.

I changed my mind. Maybe the article wasn’t as bad in my mind as I had made it out. Nope. Reading the article was worse. The words ‘just didn’t turn up’ and ‘without permission’ felt like arrows. The tone was clear. Between the lines they were saying you can’t trust Aboriginal people.

Glad Will was out of range and wouldn’t see the article until he returned, I went to see the publicist who assured me she would sent a retraction request to the newspaper editor.

The theatre family were furious. But I felt powerless. How could I make any difference? Knowing the publicist had sent an email made me feel like something was being done. The theme of conversation in our breaks that day – How could they write something like that about him?

Will returned to rehearsals the next week. Still obviously grieving but ready to let out his usual chuckles. We didn’t mention the article. Did he know if it existed? It felt better to not tell him. It would only hurt him.

Rehearsals returned to normal. We never talked about the article again. But for me something didn’t sit right. How can he be my brother if I don’t stick up for him? How can we be a family if we sit by while they say these things? None of the others said any more about it, so how could I as the youngest member of our family?

Over the last 20 years this story re-awakens every time I witness the same. Taxis coming to pick up Aboriginal actors leaving the theatre after the show refuse to take them. Shopping with an Aboriginal actor who has her credit card checked. Why don’t they check mine?

I’ve seen more of the world now. I’m one of the more senior people in the room. It’s time for me to speak up in honour of my theatre family.

I’d always rather regret the things that I have done, rather than those I haven’t. And this is a big ‘haven’t’ that has lived with me all this time. Shame of my inaction has prevented me from telling this story until now. But surely my shame is nothing compared to the daily hate and prejudice that others are subjected to.

Telling this story is hard. It forces me to face that shame and hurt head on. But Will’s constant pain is greater than my shame and for that reason, I stand with him, lending my voice to him and the hurt he receives.