Assimilation for dummies

J. Nicole Brooks struggles with limitations in the arts

August 3, 2012

J. Nicole Brooks

(Courtesy of Lookingglass Theatre)
J. Nicole Brooks as Fedra, Queen of Haiti, pictured alongside actor Morocco Omari.

The dramatic art would appear to be rather a feminine art; it contains in itself all the artifices which belong to the province of woman: the desire to please, facility to express emotions and hide defects, and the faculty of assimilation which is the real essence of woman.

Sarah Bernhardt

1998: A crucial year for me. I was an ambitious student in a celebrated BFA program studying acting and dance performance. After four years of drudgery, I was pretty certain that I had chosen the right path: The Arts. I was also pretty certain, that I hated Sarah Bernhardt. That’s right – I could not stand Sarah Bernhardt. Now before you open a new tab and Google “who the hell is Sarah Bernhardt?” I can tell you, that she was a legendary actress of the stage and early cinema. The “Divine Sarah” was adored on stage and off. She was an actress, a courtesan and a celebrated lady who kept fascinating company. She ran with Victor Hugo and Prince Edward of England.

Why do I know these things? Because it all was drilled into my head. We were forced to pay homage to this European heroine along with the beautiful Lily Langtry (Don’t Google her either – just go with the story.) We had to learn how Sarah walked, talked, laughed, cried, pooted – you name it. The very idea of the venerate European actress was more annoying to me than eating a bag of circus peanuts at a wedding reception. It just felt wrong. But like any good guest at a lame wedding, you know you’re outnumbered so you smile through the pain, swallow whatever is given to you.

All summer, WBEZ and vocalo will be talking about race—out loud, and on the air, in frank conversations and stories, and in lively public events. We’re asking what it would sound like if people said what they really think and feel about race and ethnicity. What if they really talked about how it shapes them, their lives, and attitudes?  What would we hear?

Now I don’t mean to suggest that my wonderful teachers only had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo – but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I spent many a day biting my tongue. When I first started leaning the Standard British and Cockney dialects, I had a bit of trouble grasping some of the pronunciations. My teacher was like a character out of a Dickens novel; in short, she was a battle-ax. She often rolled her eyes and sighed loudly when I couldn’t keep up with the other students. One day after I stood before the class and read a passage from the text, she changed her tune. She seemed oddly compassionate and kind of nice to me. “You know, I’ve been thinking about you Brooks, and...I just for the life of me could not understand why you were having so much trouble with the British dialect. Then it occurred to me, that I had Mary Poppins growing up – and you didn’t.”

Whoop there it is. Just like that. She had Mary Poppins to accompany her skin privilege, and I didn’t. She stared at me, like I was one of those kids in the save-the-children-of-the-desert-and buy-them-a-bowl-of-food commercials that air late night.

“You didn’t have Mary Poppins, you poor Negro, you’ll never work with Maggie Smith with that colored mouth of yours,” is what she might as well have said to me. I was furious. Humiliated. And crestfallen. But hey, that’s what conservatory is all about, so I pushed through. I also learned German, Italian, Welsh, Spanish and French dialects.

Once, I had to portray Alexandra of Denmark, who was married to Prince Albert Duke of York. I did hours upon hours of research. I poured over every detail of this woman’s life. Not only did I have to perfect my English dialect, but I also had to learn a Danish dialect and then marry the two. I would pray to St. Meryl Streep to invade my body – and my mouth. I had to prove that I could do it the dialects. And trust me, when you are one of four black students in the entire performing arts college, have to be better than the best.

When it came time for me to perform the role of Alexandra, one teacher remarked “Well she looks pretty, but is she playing a Jamaican? She doesn’t sound like a princess.” That prompted snickers from my white classmates. We had to stage a salon where all of these European dignitaries, artists, royals and Western world leaders convened. Oscar Wilde, Kaiser Wilhem, Queen Victoria, Sarah Bernhardt, Lily Langtry and my black ass playing Alexandra of Denmark: the wife and queen-empress consort of King Edward VII of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions, Emperor of India.

Gag. Me. With. A. SPOON. This was my senior project. This is how I was preparing for a professional career in Chicago theatre, I thought??? I’ve encumbered thousands of dollars in student loans for this?! Talk about gross indecencies. Looking back at that time in my life, I can’t help but to laugh. I suppose those teachers were doing the best that they could. They didn’t quite know what to do with a young black woman from the South Side of Chicago who grew up in segregated neighborhoods and schools. They didn’t know that the arts was my refuge – that I grew up watching Channel 11 WTTW, and it really was my window to the world. They didn’t know that every day I passed dilapidated tenements on the way to dance class or 7 a.m. choral practices the spirit of Lorraine Hansberry would jump into my soul and whisper “Never retreat...never surrender.”

Now that I’m a big girl, I’ve learned when to take the knocks on the chin, and when to fight back. There’s room for all of our stories, past and present. Speaking of the past, I no longer have ill feelings towards Madame Bernhardt (or any of my teachers.) I just resented having to bow down to yet another iconic European beauty. Revisiting her now, I actually have some admiration for the woman. Sarah once said “The theatre is the involuntary reflex of the ideas of the crowd.” Ainʼt that grand? She’s right, you know.

I’ve learned that there’s room for all kinds of stories. I split my time between Los Angeles and Chicago and I don’t begrudge my journey. I am quite fortunate to have a terrific career as an actor, playwright and director. And though I have the support of a revered artistic institution, I admit I still have my moments of feeling like I’m back in college. Struggling with lack, limitation and deceit. When you grow up in a city like Chicago, divided by race, you are either taken down by apathy or you fight tooth and nail to tell the stories of those people who live within your spirit. I can’t change the world – I can’t even change my beloved city – but I can type 80 words per minute, and somewhere within the strokes of each key lies hope. Hope for myself, my former self and my future.

J. Nicole Brooks is an ensemble member with the Lookingglass Theatre Company. This summer she was seen in “Immediate Family” at the Goodman Theatre. She blogs tomfoolery at Docta Slick