Casting Director Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd, in an interview given to Black Enterprise Magazine in 2012, suggests that there are some best practices with respect to auditions that naturally work in a Black theatre performer’s favor, and some rules that may take a little practice. Ms. Byrd’s first tip is that the performer be him- or herself. For the Black theatre artist, this means finding an internal balance with the drive that got you to the audition and an external balance given the need to stand out and get the callback.
Twinkie, who cast the late Whitney Houston’s last movie, “Sparkle,” as well as the films “Notorious” and “Stomp the Yard,” also encourages Black artists to know their craft. For Ms. Byrd, this means knowing your history and where the contemporary artist stands in relation to all those who came before. Ms. Byrd’s last piece of advice is for the artist to give him- or herself a break and acknowledge at the end of the audition that a best effort was given and to say “you’re welcome,” when thanked for coming in. Most artists stay in ingratiating mode and simply say, “no, thank YOU,” but Twinkie, who is credited with launching the careers of Laz Alonso and Michael Kenneth Williams, encourages artists not to gloss over the fact that “you’re welcome” is self-affirmation of a job well-done.
Actor Anthony Mackie has spoken on the “importance of being a Black actor and the importance of theater to an actor” in an article featured in the Guardian in 2011. After a turn on Broadway in “A Behanding in Spokane,” Mr. Mackie took a hit from Black writer and New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als, who stated candidly: “The sad fact is that, in order to cross over, most black actors of Mackie’s generation must act Black before they’re allowed to act human.” Mackie’s advice is to think beyond someone else’s definition of you as an artist because, “you can’t limit yourself.”
And then of course, there’s that ‘drops mic’ moment detailed by the NY Times blog in 2012, given to us by Lady Vi, Ms. Viola Davis, on the Tavis Smiley show, when he expressed “ambivalence” over the movie, “The Help.” Ms. Davis, with the dignity and humanity she brings to every role, illustrated why she should be allowed to write roles as well as act them. She offers: “That very mindset that you have, and that a lot of African-Americans have, is absolutely destroying the Black artist,” she said. “The Black artist cannot live in a revisionist place,” she added. “The Black artist can only tell the truth about humanity, and humanity is messy. People are messy. Caucasian actors know that. We as African-American artists are more concerned with image and message and not execution.” With that, Viola tells artists to focus on craft, as only someone who has been doing so for decades can.
Finally, a rule for the artist in us all, straight out of the mouths of babes as detailed on BlackCelebKids.com from an interview with Backstage.com. Yara Shahidi (Black-ish) brings us full circle with: “Never jeopardize who you are for a role.” Artists would be wise to heed these words of the successful young artist and not trade one’s “moral compass, or anything like that, to have a role.”