I was 4 years old the first time I saw myself on television.
Well, not literally me. The first time I saw my actual face on a TV screen was this year (shout out to the short-lived Chicago Justice). But the first time I saw someone who looked like me was in 1997.
Disney likes to endorse Tiana as their first black princess, but the OG black princess made her small screen debut in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, brought to you by “The Wonderful World of Disney.” I remember waiting on my mom’s lap in giddy anticipation for the commercials to end so that my dream could begin. My mother, who was an African-American Studies major at Yale University, always made it a point to find me black dolls and picture books with black children — a difficult feat in the early 1990s. However, it was an even more challenging task to find TV shows and movies with black characters, let alone a black princess. She may have been more excited for this movie than I was.
For those 90 minutes in 1997, little black girls around the world saw magic in their future far before it became a hashtag.
Whitney Houston & Brandy – “IMPOSSIBLE / IT’S POSSIBLE” (from R&H’s Cinderella, 1997) | Source: OceanKingNY/YouTube
For those of you who don’t remember, or who weren’t blessed enough to see the melanated rendition of this classic fairytale, Brandy Norwood of “The Boy is Mine” fame starred as the title character. Sweeping floors for her evil stepmother (played by Bernadette Peters), she is rescued from her ashy fate and whisked away to the ball to meet the handsome Prince Christopher (played by Paolo Montalban). Other notable cast members include Whoopi Goldberg, Jason Alexander, and Victor Garber. The movie was completely star-studded and completely groundbreaking. It had everything: interracial relationships; strong female characters; Whitney Houston’s range! Looking back, this made-for-TV movie represents the direction media should have continued to go in. For those 90 minutes in 1997, little black girls around the world saw magic in their future far before it became a hashtag.
Cut to the actual future — 2017. I am no longer a cute 4-year-old with a VHS tape in her hand and a dream in her heart. I am a disgruntled 24-year-old actress with an empty wallet and a short resume. Just three years out of Northwestern University’s school of theatre, and I have already HAD. IT.
The world of media decidedly went in the opposite direction of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s chocolate-caramel-vanilla swirl. The rest of my childhood and early adulthood were dominated by shows like Friends, Seinfeld, Sex and the City, and Girls — shows so white they could cry their way out of a speeding ticket. My frustration at the lack of representation of people of color is precisely why I decided to become an actress. I knew the way I felt seeing Brandy in that beautiful ball gown shouldn’t be nearly as infrequent — that black women and girls deserved to see their stories represented on a regular basis. The world needed to change and I was excited to be a part of it.
Sadly, roles for young women of color are still few and far between, especially in Chicago. You see the same handful of black actresses cast over and over again, mainly conventional looking women in their early 30s. Extremely talented women who can play a high-powered executive one day and a loving but firm mother the next. Roles for a fresh-faced quirky nerd with a blonde fade and 10 piercings are nonexistent. I get discouraged reading through casting breakdowns I know I will never be picked for. I contemplate becoming a stripper on a daily basis. Or worse — a consultant.
Dear White People | Source: Giphy
In this new age of the SJW, special snowflake millennial, we know representation is more than just seeing a brown face on-screen. It’s the type of brown faces we see and the stories behind them. We know the difference between a trope and a fully developed character. We notice that the number of gang bangers and side-chicks outweighs the number of college co-eds and superheroes. We’re tired seeing light-skinned, heterosexual, skinny women with long straight hair. We want more. Hence the rise of popular TV shows like Atlanta, Insecure, Master of None, and Dear White People. Too bad none of them film in Chicago.
Thankfully, I am far from the only Chicago woman of color feeling the blinding white light of the film and TV industry. Young black and brown artists have thrown the artistic middle finger to big production companies and have started producing their own work, mainly in the form of the web series. Most notably, the Chi-town based web series Brown Girls was recently given a development deal by HBO and was nominated for an Emmy. The immense success of the series is proof of the void that black and brown women needed to fill in the media. It was like a Millennial Cinderella — but gayer and (sadly) with less Whitney Houston.
Though seeing black women portrayed as royalty is nothing short of magical, there is something even more enchanting about seeing us as ourselves.
My own personal “Cinderella” moment came through one such web series. The first time I got to play myself was this year in a web comedy called Seeds. Seeds follows four black women in their early 20s as they navigate their lives and relationships. It is written by Deja Harrell and directed by Caitlyn Johnson, who are both black women under the age of 22. I kind of describe it as a combo between Awkward Black Girl, Chewing Gum, and Broad City. It follows the everyday adventures of Jade, Maya, Danielle, and Beth as they try to live their best lives, but are constantly faced with racism, misogynoir, and well-meaning but basic white feminists.
Source: © Seeds Series/Instagram
Instead of Whitney Houston, my fairy godmother in this scenario was Mark Zuckerberg and, like a true millennial, I found out about the audition on social media. Another filmmaker I had worked with previously recommended me, and the casting director “slid in my DMs.” I was immediately enamored with the project. However, the turnaround was faster than usual and my audition was scheduled for the next morning. With most auditions, I need to take time with the script to connect with the character I am auditioning for, so last-minute auditions can be stressful. But for my Seeds audition, I instantly felt like I was BFFs with all of the characters.
At the audition itself, I also felt an instant friendship with the creative team. Deja and Caitlyn — the writer and director, respectively — were in the room. Casting offices in Chicago are overwhelmingly run by white directors. I can count on one hand the number of times I have auditioned for black women, but I would need all my fingers, toes, and eyelashes to count all the times I felt uncomfortable in my skin in the casting room. When auditioning to play a black character for a table full of white faces, it can feel like you are auditioning your blackness. Whether the casting team explicitly tells directs you to or not, you are always thinking, “What kind of black do they want from me this time?” Should I be the sassy best friend? The bougie bitch? The ghetto chick who is ready to cut anyone who stands in her way? As a black actor, you rarely get the chance to let your authentic experience of blackness come through. But with Seeds, as soon as I met Deja and Caitlyn, I knew I could bring myself to the character.
The creative team continued to encourage the cast to bring ourselves to the show throughout the process. Much of the wardrobe came from our own closets, Deja took our feedback during script rewrites, and there were lots and lots of dope improv moments on set. Objectively, I have never seen a show that reflects the issues we deal with as young black women in such a real, thoughtful, and hilarious way. In addition, the crew was almost completely made up of young filmmakers of color. We were in front of the camera and behind it. It was melanin magic every day on set. I’ve never felt so happy or so seen as an artist.
Source: © Seeds Series/Instagram
I play Maya — a tomboy-chic, lipstick loving girl whose dry sarcasm and blunt nature often get her into trouble. She is fiercely loyal to her friends, but isn’t afraid to tell them when they need to stop being foolish. Her collection of big, Afrocentric earrings (from my very own closet) compliment her daring personality. She’s a real as it gets. I know girls like Maya. I grew up with girls like Maya. I am a girl like Maya.
The author (left) on set | Source: Kyra Jones/Instagram
Though seeing black women portrayed as royalty is nothing short of magical, there is something even more enchanting about seeing us as ourselves. Seeds does exactly that — it depicts us in all our intelligence, our vulnerability, our love, our goofiness, our awkwardness, our queerness, our stubbornness, and our blackness. I am honored to have the opportunity to make black women and girls today feel the way Brandy made me feel in 1994 — no magic wands or VHS tapes needed.
Source: Kyra Jones/Instagram