The Weight of Words: Why We Need to Do Better When We Talk About Actors – Candy McLellen

shutterstock_741925669Sometimes it can feel like we, as actors, exist in isolation. We work and promote ourselves as individuals. It’s easy to forget that we are part of a greater community of actors, artists, and storytellers. It’s easy to forget the responsibility that entails.

I am part of the Atlanta theatre community, and something happened recently to remind me that the voices we raise should not stop at our own.

A reviewer for a local publication recently posted a review of ​An Octoroon ​by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins​, ​currently playing at Actor’s Express. For those unfamiliar, ​An Octoroon i​s a reframing of Dion Boucicault’s ​The Octoroon, t​ackling matters of identity through the social constructs of race and culture. The language used in this review sparked outrage and backlash throughout the Atlanta theatre community. I was able to reach out to Ms. McLellen about her experience, and encourage all to listen to her response.

In your own words, what happened with this review of ​An Octoroon​? What was your response?

The review of An Octoroon came out, and I was really excited because I saw it shared on a few of my cast mates pages, so I figured since it was being shared, that it was a good one. I saw my last name, and I got so happy, because I’ve never been mentioned in a review before, but I continued to read and saw what the reviewer wrote. “Mclellan is a hoot as a Aunt Jemima look alike that wandered in from Grady High School.” I must have read it 20 times, trying to dissect it, and each time I got more confused and angry. I was [taken aback], because I know my history and the reference that was compared to me was a racist caricature, that was a part of a minstrel show. Yes, we have elements of that in our show, but my role does not. I [took a screenshot] and sent it to a few of my close friends and also posted it in my cast group message to get their opinion on it, because I felt like I was being overly sensitive, but they were equally as stunned as me, and that is when the humiliation set in.

It’s completely offensive. I was referred to as this big and burly caricature that was used to make fun of Black people and then the Grady High School reference was also thrown in the mix and it just was one horrible reference after the other.

How did you find the response of all parties? What was lacking, and what could have been done better?

The Atlanta theatre community truly had my back. I was extremely surprised, proud and overwhelmed with all the support and rallying everyone did. People were tagging me and tagging the reviewer and the [publication] and demanding for an apology, not only to me, but to the past victims of the reviewers opinion in past reviews, that commented on their race and body. My cast mate emailed [the artistic director of Actor’s Express] and the marketing team to point out the offensive sentence and they immediately reached out to the [publication], in which they revised the article, leaving the Grady High reference and saying “old south caricature” vs “Aunt Jemima”, but with more emails coming in, they eventually erased the whole sentence and I was no longer mentioned in the review. On a Facebook post, I finally saw the reviewer comment to try and semi justify his use of language, but all I heard was “Sorry, not sorry.” I believe the [publication] and its editors could have been a lot better about catching it before it got out, but I think that’s a staff issue. When you don’t have enough POC or women in those rooms, all you have is a White Man’s point of view—and that’s a problem.

How do you think we, as actors, can combat racism and ignorance in the way we talk about theatre? What can we do to require more of ourselves and our community?

I think it’s important to use our voices more and stop holding our tongues to avoid conflict. It just creates more issues. We have to be willing to speak up against the ignorance and EDUCATE others but also learn from others as well. We need to gather in a safe place, and be able to have these uncomfortable, but needed conversations for change. The leaders in the community, should make their theatres safer spaces, where those conversations can be had.

Words carry so much weight. Words can build up or tear down. They can motivate or discourage and leave a lasting memory, [whether] good or bad. When you don’t critique the actual performance, but rather focus so much on how a person looks or their race, and use your privilege to write down racial stereotypes and compare them to an artist etc, [you] are diminishing the hard work we put in as artists, because when you focus on those aspects, are you truly engaged and listening and understanding the art that’s in front of you?… I personally feel like my job is to please the producer, the director and myself and to tell a story. However, when a reviewer uses offensive/ and harmful language, that’s when I care and that’s when it’s no longer about my artistry.

I will add that [the reviewer] finally reached out to me…and apologized for his use of language in the article and he informed me that he has took a giant step back to learn and grow from this situation. Which I thank my theatre community for. If it hadn’t been for their VOICES, that might not have happened. Although… Wendell is the only one [from the publication] who has reached out to me. I really hope In the future, [this publication] will be more cautious of what they publish….

***

This series of events illustrates that our responsibility as actors, to one another and to the progress of theatre, extends beyond our personal roles. Theatre is a platform to be approached with gravity and compassion. The way we produce and discuss this art matters. When we cross a line, whatever the intentions, wrongs must be redressed and lessons learned. Sugar coating discriminatory language with qualifiers and euphemisms excuses and perpetuates the damage. ​In the words of Atlanta actor Tiffany Porter, “Your apology should be as loud as your offense.”

Speaking especially to my fellow actors who exist in worlds of varying privilege, we have to do better. We must use our privilege and platforms to work actively for change. We must require more of those who have any platform to discuss art and artists (including myself, here on this blog). And we need to be better listeners.

Thank you, Candy McLellen, for sharing your story.

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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com

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