With Thanksgiving drawing close and Native American Heritage day right around the corner, Marcelina Agapita Ramirez, guest author and member of the Mescalero, reflects on her theatre journey.
I was 19 when the head of the musical theatre department at my college told me I needed to shorten my name to make myself more castable.
I sat there hearing him in a way I had never heard anything before. Like my senses had been turned up to level twenty. I nodded in agreement, still the meek and sweet girl who had for the first time been away from her parents' home. I wasn’t who I am now. I was easily persuaded, never stood up for myself, and took the words of authority as if it were sacred acts set in stone. I went home and changed my name on my resume from “Marcelina” the name of my grandfather, the name of my father, and my brother, the name of thousands of years of tradition scrapped with the click of my fingers on a keyboard. I started to go by “Lina” in audition rooms, knowing that name was easier to go by, made me more ethnically ambiguous, made me more castable.
I look back at that girl and I want to punch her square in the back of her neck.
Doing shows that feature diversity is no longer the “Cool” thing to do. The edgy thing. The thing only Lin-Manuel Miranda is doing with success. (Do not DM or email me criticizing this man. I will die on the Team Lin hill and I was raised with three brothers, that is a fight I will win and not fairly.) Theatre has now been pulled into the Great Reckoning of 2020. There is no longer a spot for being in the middle about Diversity. You either want equality on stage or you don’t. This isn’t a maybe issue. Yet even in this fight so many people are getting left behind.
Larissa Fasthorse, the “go-to” Indigenous playwright, puts a specific clause in the contract of her (arguably) most popular work, The Thanksgiving Play: which is a show about white people attempting to be woke. (My brief summary, please actually go read it). She requires that whoever produces this all-white play hire at least one Indigenous person on their team, and feature Indigenous work of some kind in the theatre. The fact that she has to twist the arms of theatres for them to hire an Indigenous person as part of a play written by an Indigenous woman brings up words in my gut that are illegal to say on the radio.
They think they can do the Indigenous work, with no Indigenous actors but still be “progressive”. Give me a break and gag me sideways. Ms. Fasthorse has some incredible and poignant work in her rep but the white show is easier to hire.
If you are thinking “Where in the world do I find Indigenous actors?” when looking at her shows or other Indigenous plays—wanting to do something like Cherokee Family Reunion (my favorite of her plays)—I have some answers for you. If you are comfortable in your privilege you may not like my suggestions. First off, instead of asking yourself first if there are any Indigenous actors in your area, maybe ask yourself why First Nations actors aren’t showing up for you.
Pick up that scrapbook of playbills you are so fond of, the one that you feature at your fundraising dinner. Flip through the pages featuring every white actor within a five-mile radius who you’ve performed with in every show for 22 seasons. Flip past the 12 Black actors you used for your “Diversity” season when you did Hairspray or Ragtime. Remind yourself that, in same year, you cast Nancy from your last three productions because she could “pull off” Latina while the rest of your cast, was in brownface, and did accents that were so far from being actual Puerto Rican dialect you might as well have just said in your program: “White people who have never actually talked to a Brown person in their life but, one time, they spent spring break in Cabo, which is Mexico and not at all the same but Diana in row two doesn’t have any Brown friends either so who cares”.
Maybe wonder if it’s not that we aren’t showing up, we just aren’t showing up for you. Why would we? When year after year you show us we matter to you as much as our ancestors did. That the commitment to Diversity on your “About Us” section is as hollow as the Treaties in a language we didn’t speak.
But now BIPOC actors are creating our own space. In Hollywood, movies that are popular are the ones that feature a range of BIPOC actors. The best shows on Broadway are the shows that feature and are written by minorities. It’s as if we actually have stories to tell. Why is it so surprising to many producers that Black and Brown shows are successful when the core of how we kept our culture alive after thousands of years of oppression is through stories? That we would pay money to see them on stage.
Now, all of a sudden, theatres are scrambling to choose shows with a wide range of Diversity but, hate to break it to you, no matter how much you pay it’s not going to happen overnight. Many truly diverse theatres, which are run by people that look like us, have been in business for years, born out of not being cast because of the color of their skin or from being too “green”.
That actor you won’t take a chance on because they don’t have much on their resume? Well, they are green because they are too Brown. See where I’m going with this? The journey to true reparations may be a hard and rocky one. But it’s a road you built yourself.
So where do we go from here? First off, reach out to communities you have isolated. Be brutally honest in your apologies. Reach out to the communities you know nothing about.
Take a chance on musicals or plays that make you and your audience uncomfortable. Shows like Les Filles Du Roi, a trilingual musical by Cory Payette and Julie McIsaac, and a show that, for the first time since In The Heights, I heard my peoples’ language in songs of mourning and in love echoing through my speakers. I wept silently in my car and heard my grandmother's voice echoing in a song I never thought would be mine.
Don’t be so afraid of what Deb from bridge is going to think of this edgy new musical because there's a little girl in the nosebleed seats seeing herself, for the first time, being represented on stage. So when she grows up and the head of a two-bit University tells her to change her name to be more castable, she will remember your theatre, your production and she will have the strength you helped give her in that small moment in time to tell that department head to promptly go fuck himself.
Marcelina Agapita Ramirez
Member of Mescalero-Apache Nation/Chicana
Actress/Activist/Poet/Maker of Pies
Want to stay updated on Marcelina's advocacy? Follow her on Instagram.