Writing in Black and White
Acting ignited my passion for writing. The stage served as the vehicle that drove me to my first publication, a monologue I wrote and performed. In 2013, at thirteen years old, I was cast in a theatre production put on by the local acting school where I took classes. The school’s productions outside of the annual year-end show were audition-only, and on the morning of my audition I came down with the flu. I sent an email to the head acting instructor, informing them of my condition. Their response didn’t detail well wishes or a rebooked audition time, but rather informed me that I had a spot in the cast. I was an avid student and had already performed in one of the audition-only shows the previous year, but I could not believe the honour of being selected without the usual formalities.
Rehearsals began; the opening night was mere weeks away, at the Registry Theatre in Kitchener, Ontario. The production aimed to celebrate powerful women, past and present, from all walks of life, by portraying them through our cast of twenty or so preteen and teenage girls. While auditions were, barring my circumstances, required to be selected to the cast, these auditions were not for character-specific roles in the production. Rather, these roles were assigned by the head acting instructor after the ensemble was complete. I was selected to bring the lives and legacies of Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman to the stage.
While I was honoured to be cast as both of these incredibly admirable women, I was confused by the decision. Yes, I was an actor, on paper capable of portraying experiences different from my own. Yet in person, I was a half black actor, and Caribbean, not African-American. I was also the only mixed-race actor in the show and the only actor even partially black. I suppose I was the closest choice in the eyes of my white acting instructor and an equally white cast to portray Parks and Tubman. Despite my partial qualifications, a sense of doubt began to engulf me. I wholeheartedly agreed Parks and Tubman should be represented in the production, but isn’t a monologue only as diverse as the actor who performs it? Was it because of my diversity that I was even cast in the show? A pit formed deep in my stomach when I realized my lack of an audition had perhaps not mattered for the production. An opportunity that started as an honour quickly began to feel as though I had been typecast. The worst part was I had been typecast for roles I could not even authentically portray.
Regardless of the reasons behind my place in the cast, I was not about to quit a show that would give my early acting career precious experience. Instead, I turned my attention to the question of how to honour Parks and Tubman to the best of my ability. I decided to take matters into my own hands in order to place them in their hands. Alongside the roles of the cast, the head acting instructor also chose the pieces each actor was to perform. A previously-written monologue set from Rosa Parks’ perspective felt historically genuine to both of us and was quickly chosen. However, a monologue set in Harriet Tubman’s perspective with the same level of accuracy and passion was nowhere to be found.
My instructor was not surprised when I asked to write the monologue to honour Harriet Tubman. I received free rein, minus minor edits, to write the monologue spoken from Tubman’s perspective. I fought for control over the piece to help bring it more authenticity, but my satisfaction with the authorship was short-lived. I was tasked with the immense responsibility of doing justice to the courageous acts she performed for an ethnicity I had no personal connection to. A sense of inferiority crippled me every time I sat down to write. Instead of prose, my brain swirled with worry. Would I regret seeing “Written by Tyra Forde” published, for the first time, on the theatre program? Was I going to have to field criticism and racist remarks from the audience once the velvet curtains at the Registry Theatre closed and the actors stepped out into the crowd? Prior to this production, my writing had been limited to either things I had personally experienced or things I wished to experience. Tubman’s experiences were both real and beyond belief, like my fiction writing. Yet it was these qualities that made me question my right to retell her story.
So I didn’t. I crafted the monologue primarily from her own passages to ensure her stories remained her own. As for what I planned to tell the audience, I would tell them I come from two loving parents, one black and one white. I come from Canada, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom, and beyond. I come from a group of passionate actors led by an instructor desperate for diversity. I come from a world where race does not define how or where you fit in or what you have a right to know. I come from my writing. Origins far humbler than the Underground Railroad, but still significant. Still enough.