2016 is the second year in a row that all the 20 nominees in the acting categories for the Oscars are all white. This prompted the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite created by April Reign to resurface. While television has started to become more diverse, this still isn’t reflected in other media.
While the news media may cover this year’s Oscars Diversity Gap as a new issue, the truth is that discrimination toward artists of color is as old as America. Historically, performers of color were often unable to find places in the United States to perform and hone their talent. Ultimately, many of these performers had to leave America in order to be able to perform, and often found great success and acclaim in Europe, Russia, and other parts of the world. Here are just a few:
Ira’s Shakespeare Dream, written by Glenda Armand and illustrated by Floyd Cooper – Ira Aldridge dreams of performing Shakespeare’s plays. He journeys to England to realize his dreams.
Ira Aldridge was born in New York in 1807. As a child, he attended the African Free School. While a teenager, he acted with the African Grove Theater, performing plays for mostly black audiences. At the time, black actors were not allowed to perform for white audiences onstage – or even to share the same theaters. Eventually, Ira traveled to England in order to pursue his dream to act in Shakespeare’s plays. Even in England, he encountered resistance from critics saying he shouldn’t play roles that were meant for white actors. Yet Ira persevered, and became the first black actor to play the coveted role of Othello on the English state. Ira traveled around Europe performing Shakespeare’s plays, and was especially well-received in Russia and Prussia, where he was knighted. Despite never being able to return to the United States, Ira would often preach about the evils of slavery after his plays and raise money for abolitionist causes.
Shining Shar: The Anna May Wong Story, written by Paula Yoo and illustrated by Lin Wang – The true story of Chinese American film star Anna May Wong, whose trail-blazing career in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s broke new ground for future generations of Asian American actors.
During the time that Anna May Wong rose to acting fame, most movies that portrayed Asian characters used white actors in yellowface. Anna May got her start as an extra in a film near where she lived. Later, Anna May was cast in many supporting roles where she caught the public eye. But even with fame and success, many of the roles offered to Anna May were racial stereotypes Chinese people. Tired of portraying stereotypes, Anna May journeyed to Europe, where she had supporting roles in films like Piccadilly. In 1935, Anna May lost the role of O-lan in The Good Earth to Luise Rainer. The United States had laws that would prevent Anna May from sharing an onscreen kiss with a white actor. Pearl S. Buck, the author of The Good Earth wanted the film to be cast with an all Chinese cast, but was told that American audiences weren’t ready for such a film.
Later, Anna May journeyed to China, and she vowed to never play another racial stereotype. In 1951, she starred in the first TV show to star an Asian American actor, The Gallery of Madam Liu-Tsong.
Unfortunately, stereotypes still permeate television and film. Many actors of color have had the experience of casting directors asking them to play up racial or ethnic stereotypes.
Other books about American performers who found success outside the US:
Give Me Wings, by Kathy Lowinger – After Ella Sheppard enters Fisk Free Colored School (later Fisk University), she becomes a founding member of the Jubilee Singers, in order to raise funds for the school. They traveled around the United States and Europe introducing audiences to spirituals.
Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, written by Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrated by Christian Robinson: This book follows the life of Josephine Baker, who was raised in the slums of St. Louis. Later, she found great success in Europe as a dancer and actress.
Please check out the following posts in the Ira’s Shakespeare Dream blog tour: