“Go out and tell our story
Let it echo far and wide
Make them hear you
Make them hear you
How Justice was our battle
And how Justice was denied
Make them hear you
Make them hear you
And say to those who blame us
For the way we chose to fight,
That sometimes there are battles
That are more than black or white…”
Lynn Ahrens wrote these lyrics for a song featured in Musical Ragtime with music by Stephen Flaherty and a book by the late Playwright Terrence McNally. Adapted from 1975 novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow. It was first Performed on Broadway in 1996 and the production won a total of 4 Tony awards and many others during the show’s lifetime. The story is set at the turn of the last century, at the dawn before the first world war, in New York’s bustling jazz scene. It brings the tales of the Jewish Immigrants, African American jazz musicians and the white wealthy elite who are forced to acknowledge their privilege, fragility and bias. This song is sung as a call to arms by the character Colehouse Walker, A self-made successful jazz musician fighting for justice who calls upon the allyship of fellow marginalised people – his neighbours – the Jewish immigrant, socialist community. This story has stood the test of time because is an ever relevant and relatable one. The issues faced by these characters and the personal struggles they go through are forever perpetuated in our world. We must ask ourselves when will the cycle of oppression and fighting injustice come to an end?
For those of you who are not familiar with the Ragtime sound, made famous by wonderful Black artists such as Scot Joplin, Fats Waller and Eastern European Musicians including the young Gershwin Brothers, it is a heady mix of the afro sounds rooted in the New Orleans Jazz movement combined with the Slavic and Klezmer tones brought in by the Eastern European Jews. These two communities were flung side by side and musicians from both communities would work alongside each other in a district known as Tin Pan Ally. Named so due to the cacophony of sounds being produced that sometimes blended and sometimes were juxtaposed and resembled pans being clanged together. Eventually the two groups of musicians began to harmonise. They tore open their windows and even, in some cases, knocked down walls to jam together and create new delicious melodies and beats. Some say the Black musicians brought the syncopation and rhythm and the Jews brought the blue notes and thus modern American Jazz, as we know it, was born. The results of this linger on in iconic jazz standards and the modern American Musical Theatre genre of Broadway and MGM. One I devoted my life to for many years, and hopefully many years to come.
I grew up obsessed with musicals of all styles and adored MGM movies for their glamour and big production values. The Musical Ragtime however will always mean the absolute world to me. It was the first and only time I saw all of myself represented onstage. I myself am Mixed, of Black Caribbean and Eastern European Jewish heritage. As a young dreamer all I knew was that I wanted to be on stage. I knew I was an actress before I ever understood what my Blackness and Hebrew roots really meant, not only to me but to the world. But here, in this musical, I was – set to music and laid bare through the beauty and pain of the music and story – everything I am: Black, Jewish, Activist, Socialist, Musican.
I was raised by a wonderful, loving white Jewish mother, a white woman who would never look like me, never experience the world like me and yet was all that I am. I had always wrestled somewhat with my identity. Being mixed raced you often don’t have much of a say. Others from all sides will assign identity to you. You become what others need you to be and you find a safety in that. You make it work for you. You blend in to any and all and yet never truly belong. It’s a learnt safety but it’s disingenuous to the truth of who I am. I therefore, clung to the only identity I ever felt was truly mine. Being an actress from London. That was it. I wore that as a badge of honour and still do in some ways. Not in anyway to deny my heritage but as a desperate attempt to be more than just that. In my training and career as a performer I experienced many successes and much joy but there is also no doubt that I was victim to bias, stereotyping and exclusion. As I began to audition for roles I soon learnt that my background was no longer anywhere near as important as my skin colour. My skin colour would open doors I did not even feel I belonged through. I would get asked to put on an ‘African’ accent; I would get asked to ‘Black it up’ or ‘add some sass’; ‘give it that gospel flavour’ or ‘riff like Whitney’. To my benefit and shame I obeyed and excelled. I learnt to riff and belt and ‘give sass’ on command and it worked. I learnt a version of my blackness through the direction or a white lens. None of it had anything to do with who I felt I was…..not until I saw Ragtime, that is. And while I carried on, slotting into stereotypes of loud, strong black women, playing the ‘black best friend’ or solitary soul diva over and over I begun to loose myself. I held tight to the words I’d hear in Ragtime that spoke of the fight; spoke of the importance of pride and standing up for what you really believe in. All in all it is a story of integrity. It asks all of us to do our bit for what is right, for justice and equality.
I have always prided myself in being an advocate and ally to ALL those who are oppressed, diminished and marginalised by society. My success as an actress didn’t allow me to see myself as a victim or maybe I wasn’t ready to quite open that door yet. After all I’d been so lucky, I have a huge amount of privilege and success to my name. How could I be a victim. I didn’t feel I had the right. I knew my light skin privilege too. I knew that often I would get cast over a darker skinned actress because I was ‘more palatable’. I knew that. It was this new wave of energy brought to the anti-racism fight and the added time I had over lockdown to really stop and evaluate when I truly saw my path. I had to do more. I had already left the industry because I could no longer fit myself into their moulds, but I knew I hadn’t raised my voice in the way that felt right. That felt true. I knew I needed to ‘make them hear me’ in order to make a difference. In joining LTAR and becoming a moderator, I have found a group of like-minded people who all want to spread the message of anti-racism.
So, I hope we can make them hear us. For those who came before us and for those who are our future. I hope you join me in spreading the word loudly. I hope we find strength in each other’s passion for this work to be louder than those who deny us or wish to deprive us of the progress and justice we deserve.
“And tell them, “In our struggle,
We were not the only ones”
Make them Hear You.