Race, representation and discrimination in the arts: discussion with Anita-Joy Uwajeh and Mykal Rand #ICMyStrength
Our new webinar series #ICMyStrength delves into the challenges performers face and have overcome, shining a spotlight on trailblazers in the performing arts world.
In our debut conversation, actor Anita-Joy Uwajeh (AJ) spoke with world-renowned director and choreographer, Mykal Rand about race and representation, the impact of the pandemic on performers, advice for dealing with rejection, and what to do if you feel like you’re being discriminated against.
Mykal also shared his journey from being a young ice skater, tap and ballet dancer and theatre performer to landing his first major role in Starlight Express, eventually becoming an associate director and choreographer to Strictly Come Dancing star Arlene Philips.
Being a performer of colour
Many Black, mixed-race, and minority performers have faced challenging experiences in the creative sector as a result of explicit racism or unconscious racial bias. Lack of roles is often used as justification for this.
Mykal discussed how there were hardly any other mixed nationality or Black shows in London when he first joined Starlight Express, and how brilliant it was to have a show without any limitations. He told us: “I went from a swing to a semi principal in three or four months, then the year after I went into the principal role. I didn’t have any doubts at the beginning of my career, and I didn’t feel like anyone was trying to hold me back.”
They discussed how today, many performances still want to cast people with a specific look in a specific role. However, this is changing. There are many more conversations opening up not just about race, but about gender and disability – though, of course, it’s important this doesn’t lead to tokenism or become contrived.
Mykal said: “It’s best to just open it up, and not have such a narrow-minded view of what’s possible… audiences are so much more open-minded, daring, they are so much more excited by seeing work and art that speaks to them in a way they didn’t expect.”
He continued: “Coming out of these times, people are ready to take risks. People are hungry for something fresh. I do feel that there’s something happening… And these conversations are so needed. They help because people of colour have been overlooked a lot. There are so many talented people out there of every shade. We’re all people, we all want to perform, and people want to see it.”
Getting through a pandemic as a performer
There are few performers who haven’t had to overcome self-doubt at some point in their careers. And in the wake of a global pandemic in which the entertainment industry was one of the most severely affected, many artists have found themselves without access to their communities, audiences, and incomes.
AJ opened up about her experiences as a performer over the last 18 months, of discussions with family about her options, of questioning her career, and how she had to re-connect with the reason she started performing in order to re-energise her.
She said: “It’s tough, even in normal times, and then we’re in this space where it feels like everything is closing in on us… I really had to tap into why I’m doing this, what I’m doing this for, and once I found that – the love of creating, the love of playing somebody else – that is utter joy… That’s what really spurs me on when I’m feeling those moments of doubt.”
With theatres opening up again, it’s more important than ever for us to support the arts as audiences and performers. And remember what a gift it is. As AJ said: “It’s a gift that we have to give. And that’s such an amazing thing. When people come to the theatre, they are changed, even if it’s in a small way. They are able to see themselves or reconcile something with themselves. I think that’s such a magical thing that we have in our possession.”
Looking after your mental health as a performer
Focusing your mind on something other than work and auditions will really help protect your mental health as a performer. Both AJ and Mykal credit physical activity and exercise, as well as community, as essential to their own wellbeing.
Speaking to the importance of having a support network, AJ said: “Speaking to someone, having an outlet, having a space where you can say ‘this is what I’m feeling at this moment’ is so important. What we do as performers is so exposing, be it dancing, acting or singing. We are giving ourselves so often. I always say to the students that I work with, be each other’s pack, be each other’s company, be each other’s supporters.”
Representation in the performing arts
While the representation of minorities in creative industries is improving, there is still a long way to go. AJ and Mykal discussed the fact that companies need to be willing to look within, see where improvements can be made, and where the conversations need to happen. Creating roles for minorities and casting them isn’t enough.
As Mykal said: “There’s always been this need to get more people of colour into shows. But what’s really apparent to me, as a director and a choreographer, is getting people of all ethnicities into management positions, into positions of creative control. That’s what really needs to change.”
AJ added: “It’s not saying only Black or Asian people know what Black and Asian people need. It is saying that when you want to understand what a particular group wants, you probably should look within the group to ask the question.”
Representation and accessibility are vital for a more diverse performing arts industry. AJ highlighted: “People ask the question, ‘why aren’t non-white people participating’? Often the answer to that is because they don’t see themselves. Or they don’t think that they can afford to do it. We need to get them to see themselves, and let them know that they can afford to do it. We need to create spaces for that to happen.”
Dealing with rejection
Rejections sting. To make it in the performance industry, it’s important to reframe rejection as an opportunity for self-growth and self-improvement. This allows our experiences to shape us into the performers we’re meant to be. After all, even the most successful people have had their fair share of rejection.
Mykal advised: “Remember why you started. Remember the passion you have. Remember that in this business, rejection happens all the time. It’s part of your job… So you have to have a thick skin. But that doesn’t mean you have a chip on your shoulder, just let it rebound off you. Ask, what do I learn from that? How do I move forward from that?”
It’s also important to be patient with yourself, and not give up if things don’t happen for you immediately. Mykal added: “99.9% of people who are going into show business want to be famous. But this overnight success myth isn’t real. Everybody has to work … people forget that it’s a journey and just want to be at the destination.”
What to do if you feel you’re being discriminated against
Discrimination happens. And it’s important that, as an industry, we call it out so that we can improve things for everyone. If you feel that you’ve faced discrimination on the basis of race, gender, disability or any other reason, it’s important to challenge this and remember you don’t have to deal with it alone. Both AJ and Mykal shared their own personal experiences of discrimination at work.
Mykal’s advice is: “Anything that I am not happy with or I feel is not right, I will always go to my agent. I have an amazing relationship with my agent… Don’t take it on yourself. Go through someone where you can remain impartial to the heat, and you don’t have to deal with it face to face. Get an agent or representative involved so they can deal with it on an official level.”
While this can be scary, and it’s tempting to back down instead of confronting what’s happened, Mykal said: “Definitely don’t sweep it under the table. Don’t pretend it’s not happening. If you feel it’s happening, it’s happening. Don’t let people gaslight you. You have to take it seriously, and take yourself seriously in that situation.”
AJ and Mykal also highlighted how important it is to acknowledge that everyone’s experiences are different. The issue of discrimination is highly nuanced, and can’t be over-simplified. Intersectionality plays a huge part, and we need to have more open conversations – like this one – in order to find deeper understanding and empathy. This will pave the way forward to a truly diverse and equitable creative industry that’s safe and welcoming for everyone.