I started acting in theatre when I was 14 in Chicago. The idea of playing make-believe as a professional career was intoxicating. It was a much needed escape and a place where I could find my voice as an artist. It was also a place where the whisperings about unwanted advances from men who held any type of power ran rampant.
Last year, The Chicago Reader did a piece exposing the sexual abuse that took place in the once respected and beloved Profiles Theater. The in-depth piece spoke to many women who had worked with the company in some capacity over the past twenty years. The findings were incredibly similar to the Harvey Weinstein story.
Decades of abusive behavior from predatory men made possible through systems meant to uphold a patriarchal power. Full disclosure: I was an intern at Profiles. I was nineteen years old. I spent a lot of time in that space surrounded by much-older men who positioned themselves as having the key to my burgeoning career. Nights spent drinking dark liquor in the old black box with these men often included unwanted advances. Men who were old enough to be my father, gladly straddled the line between mentor and aggressor.
One night, during a holiday party, I asked the woman in charge of the interns if there was any truth in the sexual assault rumors circling around the artistic directors and she told me “We don’t talk about that.” So I didn’t. Even though I saw behavior that I knew was wrong, I was afraid to say anything. I didn’t know then that my silence spoke volumes. I didn’t understand how the place where I was learning so much could also be so simultaneously unsafe.
When I finally parted ways, I thought I was lucky: a forceful kiss and sexist remarks were all I had to endure. In hindsight, the fact that I had to endure it at all was insane. Other women weren’t so “lucky.” When the story was published, many people —men in particular— talked about how they all heard it was going on but because they didn’t have “proof” (meaning, anything other than a woman’s word) they did nothing. They still auditioned, they still critiqued, they still worked with them —because it was all just rumors.
More importantly, it was just part of the business.
Crude and abusive behavior being “just part of the business” is par for the course in the arts. As an actor, I remember a director calling a closed rehearsal of a sexual scene that involved just me and another actor. When I got there, the other actor was absent and the director told me he’d step in so that my day wouldn’t be wasted. After the rehearsal was over, shaken and upset, I left and called the actor.
He told me he was never scheduled to be there in the first place. I wish I could say that I dropped out immediately after that incident, but I didn’t. It would take my scene partner standing up and leaving the production before I was brave enough to do the same. When I told the director I was leaving, he looked at me with all the disgust of a cartoon villain and said, “You’ll never work again in this town.” I remember thinking he might be right.
You’d be hard pressed to find any woman in the arts (theatre, film, poetry, music, etc) who hasn’t experienced some type of harassment from the Powers That Be. More often than not, those powers are men who exert control over our careers. And behind those men are the people who prop them up through sins of commission and omission, because that is the way it has always been.
I experienced patterns of abuse (some more overt, some less so) for years before I decided to shift my focus to writing and directing films. In that medium, I believed, at least I would have the power to create on my own terms. And yet, here we are. In the days since the Weinstein profile dropped more women have stepped forward. Some men have made statements noting their disgust. Hollywood is shook and full of rage. But I can’t help but wonder why.
We work in a system that barely employs women, let alone believes them when they speak up about injustices. The overwhelming majority of stories greenlit today are told through a male lens and portray women as one dimensional sexual objects. On screen, middle-aged men are still paired up as love interests with young women in their 20s. When the idea of speaking up could mean your career is dead before it even has a chance to breathe, why are people so shocked?
Yes, Harvey Weinstein is a monster, but monsters don’t come out of nowhere. They are fed and revered and, worst of all, protected. With Weinstein, it feels like Groundhog Day. Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski —these predators aren’t created in a vacuum. The industry as a whole has been complicit and we’ve failed to build spaces with walls strong enough to keep out predators.
While I wish I could say that it’s just a symptom of Hollywood, we all know that’s not true. Women all over, no matter their professions, are consistently put into positions where they are forced to endure insufferable behavior from men with god complexes. Why should women have to choose between harassment and creativity? Why do we have to tip-toe around progressing in our careers and fielding off sexual advances? And, more importantly, why aren’t our male colleagues speaking up at the first sign of this type of misconduct?
I love the theatre and I love film. I love the stories we get to tell and the multitude of ways we get to tell them. What I cannot stand for are the systems in place behind the scenes that sully those stories. That corrupt and damage the people trying to tell them. When news of Weinstein broke, I didn’t know if my story was “bad” enough to speak out. I didn’t know if saying anything now, especially as a Black woman at the beginning of my career, would label me as difficult. I wasn’t sure if it was worth the possible blowback. Ultimately, I decided that it was.
If my goal as an artist, a filmmaker, and a woman is to tell my story, I believe it’s my responsibility to speak up. I believe it’s all of our responsibilities to speak up. The time of protecting men with power because they’re “talented” or “get the job done” needs to be over. The days of abusive behavior being masqueraded as part of the job need to be over.
My hope is that once the dust settles, it’s not back to business as usual. I hope people keep speaking up and I hope, for those with the power to actually make change, finally start to listen and cut that shit out.