When Terena McLorn takes the stage as Janet Weiss, the heroine in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” who has traditionally been played by white actresses such as Susan Sarandon and Victoria Justice, the Black actress knows that she and the production will break barriers.
“Rocky Horror Freak Show Noire,” an all-Black and queer twist on the cult classic, begins Friday and will run through the weekend downtown at Zion Church of the City of Baltimore. The two-hour production is written and directed by Ta’Von Vinson, a 32-year-old gay Black man whose Theater Coven company specializes in dark comedy and horror.
“We did it my own way,” Vinson said. “We wanted to keep it all-Black and present it to Baltimore.”
In Baltimore, a city that is nearly 70% Black, color-blind and color-conscious casting of traditionally white productions has resulted in new opportunities for Black creatives. This unparalleled access comes on the heels of the country’s racial reckoning and following the success of colorblind casting in major projects, such as “Bridgerton” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” and with majority-Black productions such as “Steel Magnolias,” “Annie” and “The Karate Kid.”
McLorn realizes how lucky she is. It was the realization that there were few opportunities for Black actors that kept her from initially pursuing acting in college.
“Our main focus is to find a job to survive,” she explained. “Even though you may love it, (acting) becomes something you put on the back burner in school. You only make money in these careers if you make it big. That was definitely something that stopped me from being an actress.”
Ryan Haase, the artistic director of StillPointe Theatre in Station North, said that creating more opportunities for Black actors is a no-brainer — especially in Baltimore.
“You are in a city whose talent pool is mostly African-American,” Haase said. “Of course there are going to be more talented artists of color here than not. It’s way easier to do the colorblind casting in a community like ours. The Black people are more talented.”
Haase, 35, regularly casts Black actors in roles that have traditionally been reserved for white people, such as having a Black actress portray Amelia Earhart in the musical comedy-fantasy “Vanishing Point.” He intends to cast a Black Cinderella in the fall production of “Into The Woods.”
“I think that Broadway is getting there. But at the end of the day, they are old white producers. In Baltimore, we’re just used to a diverse group and pool of actors, we’re more apt to bend the rules,” said Haase, who is white. “At the end of the day, if we are dedicated to put on a good show and tell a strong story, you are going to pick the best people you can.”
Thea Washington, a Baltimore-based casting director who has worked on projects for Disney, HBO, Netflix and BBC, believes that creating opportunities for Black actors is a good thing that will result in success for the projects they join.
“For sure that is a step toward progress,” said Washington, who is Black. “A lot of time in television, film or theater, the Black character is super marginalized. Now we get to take a step outside of those stereotypes. We are complex. We can be the good guys. We can be the assholes. Black actors have this type of depth within their skills. But without these opportunities, who would ever know?”
Washington pointed to the success of Shonda Rhimes, and her shows “Scandal” and “How To Get Away With Murder,” as examples of giving opportunities to Black actresses and getting good results. Kerry Washington, who starred in network TV’s “Scandal,” was nominated twice for a Primetime Emmy Award for her role. Viola Davis, who starred in the ABC thriller “How To Get Away With Murder,” won in 2015 and was nominated another four times.
“That says that if we have the opportunity, there is the audience,” she said. “But if we never have that opportunity, they will say that it won’t work. Those shows are clear, prime examples that giving us options with Black principals can work.”
The response hasn’t been all positive.
At Center Stage, artistic director Stephanie Ybarra reported a backlash from some white audience members when it comes to showcasing diverse talent.
Ybarra, who is Latina, proudly noted that during her four-year tenure at the theater company, the majority of the creatives on stage and off have been people of color. Next season, all of the directors at Center Stage will be Black. She will also bring back ArtsCentric, a Black-led and all-Black theater company, for a production. This year, they performed “Dreamgirls” at Center Stage.
“There are folks in Baltimore who are thrilled. They feel seen. They are over the moon in feeling welcomed and that they belong at Baltimore Center Stage. But that’s not everybody,” she said.
Ybarra said she has received emails and verbal feedback from people saying “overt” things such as “There are too many black people on stage,” “White people need to see themselves, too,” or “Baltimore might be majority Black, but Maryland is majority white.”
Ybarra said people have told her she has a “political agenda,” and that “this has gone too far.” The pushback has not all been from white people.
As a 62-year-old Black actor, Greg Burgess has found endless acting possibilities at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. There, race has not limited his abilities to portray characters traditionally played by white actors, such as the iconic Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” or Shylock in “Merchant of Venice.”
“I have probably had a few people say that, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t think a Black person can do Shakespeare.’
“It’s interesting. I tend to look at that character as a universal person. I tend to look at that work as a universal thing. With Scrooge, it’s about redemption. That could be for anybody and everybody,” he said.
Burgess said race has never limited him from thinking certain roles were unavailable to him.
He credited his outlook on a mix of encouragement from his parents and going to a diverse high school in Richmond that did not place race limitations on acting roles. In high school, he played the character Perchik in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“There were a couple plays I did that kind of brought home for me the realization about what diversity means,” he said.
Gerrad Taylor, who is Black, directed Burgess in “A Christmas Carol” in 2018.
“We are in Baltimore City and it is important for our community to see a Black Scrooge,” he said.
Taylor, who has been a part of Chesapeake Shakespeare Company since 2014 as an actor and director, said all five of the productions he has led have featured actors of color cast in roles traditionally reserved for white actors. Taylor also leads the theater’s Black Classical Acting Ensemble, an affinity space for Black actors interested in training in, and exposure to, the “classics.”
“I am conscious of all the different types of people (the playwright) is writing about,” he said. “And I consciously want to cast different types of people that I knew were represented in the story.”
Since the program launched two years ago in response to the murder of George Floyd and to the Black Lives Matter movement, 30 Black actors have participated in retreats and workshops that have taught everything from script analysis to coaching the language of Shakespeare.
Taylor plans to put these resources to use in the fall when he directs an all-Black version of “Macbeth,” which was recently made into a film starting Denzel Washington in the title role.
Vinson hopes to open doors to actors and new audiences alike when he presents “Rocky Horror Freak Show Noire” this week.
Vinson said the “gender-fluid” and “psychotic” production, which he initially performed in November in Los Angeles, will give opportunities to groups of actors in Baltimore historically ignored by the theater community.
“Representation is important. Especially for something that is predominately white,” said Vinson, who also fights to keep racist tropes out of his work. “I struggle and watch something that is all-Black and it is stereotypically Black. My Blackness is not a stereotype. The fact that it is all-Black makes it Black. None of us are doing neck rolls. I did not want to Aunt Jemima our cast.”
McLorn is grateful for the opportunity Vinson has afforded her.
“It makes me feel special,” McLorn said. “It shows people that you don’t have to stick to the script. You can see something different. It allows people to put their culture and backgrounds into the story. It introduces material to different fan bases.”