"Why are your hands two different colors?" "I don’t appreciate brown skin." "Do you think you only get cast because you’re Black?"
These are just some of the comments and questions that actor Ilasiea Gray has endured from children in her Colorado acting career, which she highlighted in her nationally celebrated video Acting While Black, which debuted as part of the Arvada Center's Amplify series.
While she offers children grace, the most painful remarks came from adults.
“How did the comments make me feel? Not the best,” Gray explains. “Annoyed. Frustrated. Baffled. Confused. Hurt. Tired. One amazing thing that came from this piece, though, is how incredibly educational and eye-opening it was for people. And the amount of people who reached out to me, including those who recognized themselves as someone who made one of the comments and took the time to apologize to me. I didn’t expect that.”
Born and raised in Colorado, Gray loved theater from a young age. Despite the flurry of insensitive comments, that love hasn’t waned.
“I’m an only child, so I was always creating environments, scenes, skits, dances, et cetera,” Gray recalls. “I would watch my favorite shows or cartoons and pretend I was in them, even going so far as to record shows on VHS, learn all the lines, and then watch them back, portraying different characters in each episode.
“Theater makes you feel something,” she adds. “You might laugh, cry, love a show or be indifferent, but you will walk away having felt something. I do a lot of shows with social-justice themes and/or that are educational, and as long as audiences walk away affected, having learned something that will alter how they move through the world, I am proud.”
One of Gray’s prominent non-social-justice roles was playing Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty for the now-shuttered Denver Children’s Theatre in 2018, making her the first Black woman to play this role in Colorado.
“Originally, I wasn’t even going to audition,” she remembers. “I thought of every character but the princess that I might be cast as. But when I got into the audition room and the director kept having me read for Princess Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty, it really sunk in that I was being considered for that role. It was an indescribable feeling. Then, during the shows, the looks on kids’ faces, especially kids of color — I just can’t put it into words.
“Black Panther came out during the same time, and the wedding between Meghan Markle and Prince Harry had happened,” she continues. “Representation and affirmation [were] huge for kids of color at this moment in time.”
She also plays a Black mother in BLACK., written by Lamaria Aminah and staged at Curious Theatre Company. The play, which is currently streaming, is about a young man dying at the hands of the police and a conversation between two mothers at a vigil. The goal of the show was to create communication between races and shine a light on white privilege. Anastasia Davidson played the white mother. The play toured education conferences, high schools, universities, libraries, congregations, groups of lawyers and judges, the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts and more.
“I have toured BLACK. with Curious Theatre for five years, and that show is one of the most incredible projects,” Gray says. “After every show, we facilitate robust community discussions, which are just as impactful as the show itself.”
In between acting gigs, Gray holds acting classes and coaching for her own organization, Lae Lae’s Acting Jam, which she started in 2011 after graduating from college. The classes, currently virtual, are geared toward kids ages four to seventeen. Gray was excited to get back to teaching at her organization, since her time is usually filled with other teaching or acting opportunities.
“Normally, I am busy teaching for other places and performing, having rehearsals, etcetera; I didn’t always have time to do my programming,” Gray says. “I was inspired to create [Lae Lae’s] because I loved working with kids and had done quite a bit of devising original work with students for scholarships.
“I do classes and primarily coaching,” she adds. “Which is really great because I can truly tailor lessons [and] the focus for each individual kid, their skill level, their interests [and] goals. For one of my current students, we’re creating a whole stop-motion animation project and utilizing our voiceover skills. The range of subjects I can do coaching kids who all have completely different goals and really honing in on the social-emotional connection as well is really important to me.”
Gray cares so much about kids who have an interest in theater and the performing arts, especially kids of color, that she recently penned an essay titled, “Why Are There No Great Kids of Color in the Performing Arts? A Black Artist and Arts Educator’s Exploration on Challenges for Kids of Color in Arts Spaces” for HowlRound Theatre Commons that details how to nurture and help children of color thrive in the performing arts industry, including creating utopias for them that include teachers or staff members of color to encourage ideas and provide support.
“I also think the most important thing is that the adults in the spaces — those that are predominantly white spaces — need to do the work,” Gray says. “If a kid is uncomfortable in your space, it is not their job to fix it. It is for the space that is upholding racist, discriminatory, non-inclusive practices to do that restructuring. And that first comes with admitting that they have a problem. That is by listening. That is by broadening the scope of the people they hire; more people of color. Period. Respecting these individuals and not deflecting when uncomfortable. Not meeting them with consequences and a hostile work environment like I experienced.”
Through Gray's up and downs, she's thrived, and she knows kids and people of color can thrive in the performing arts industry, too.
“I want kids to always look at the sky as not the limit, but where the floor begins, aim even higher, do not be discouraged, believe in themselves and go after their dreams fiercely," she says. "There will be bumps in the road. There has to be. But we know pressure makes diamonds. So soar into that sky. This is for the kids and adults alike, no matter what age.”
For more information about Ilasiea Gray, visit her website.
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