The other night, a young man on television totally rocked my world.
I’ve started watching this show on the CW network. It’s called Breaking Pointe, and it’s a “reality” show about a ballet company in Salt Lake City, Utah. The first time I watched it, I nearly cried with disappointment. I wanted more dancing, less drama. More pirouettes and less pouting. More grand jetés and fewer grand-scale emotional blow-ups. I told “H” I would never watch the show again. He just gave me that look. The one that says, “I seriously doubt that.”
Well, wouldn’t you know it? Somehow, I must have recorded the series. So, the other night, when I was mindlessly scrolling through the recorded shows we have stored on our television, there it was: three episodes of Breaking Pointe. I decided to erase them, but thought I’d take a peek first, to make sure I hadn’t missed anything good. Somehow, I got sucked into the vortex, and sat there on my couch, watching all three episodes. The drama, the pouting, and the blow-ups; with a few pirouettes thrown in for good measure (as well as a scene in Detroit which was probably written just for me!).
There is one, young, African-American man in this ballet company. His name is Josh. I watch him with a lot of interest. I wonder what it’s like for him. I was always the only African-American in every single ballet class I’ve ever taken. And I’ve taken a lot of ballet classes.
So, I watch this one, young, black man, dancing and living and working with the white dancers in this ballet company and I wonder what it’s like for him? Does he have to work twice as hard to be perceived as being just as good? Does he feel alone? Does he wonder if he’s being noticed?
In one episode, the members of the company are auditioning for parts in Cinderella, the ballet. This particular version of Cinderella includes a character named Napoleon. Napoleon provides comic relief. He’s a buffoon. The butt of every joke, and not as smart as the rest of the characters. Certainly, no prince. And, to my surprise, Josh is auditioning for the role of Napoleon!
I hold my breath as I watch the story unfold, and in my heart I know Josh will not get the part. In fact, I am secretly hoping he doesn’t get the part. Because, why would he want to be laughed at on stage? Haven’t we come too far for that? Why does he want that part?
In the end, I am right. Josh does not get the part. The role of Napoleon goes to a dancer with less experience, and less status in the company than Josh. I am relieved. Josh, on the other hand, is devastated. I don’t get it. Doesn’t Josh see this really is the best choice? I watch Josh sink into sadness. He asks his colleagues if he should talk to the artistic director, and one wise, seasoned ballerina tells him he should.
When Josh sits across from the artistic director and asks why he didn’t get the role of Napoleon, I already know the answer. I know why. And the director confirms what I already know. He says, “I’m gonna have to be really real with you right now.” I know what’s coming. “I had to put some special thought into this particular role…Maybe I’m, like, being totally overprotective here, but I don’t want to make a joke out of the one African-American guy in my company. I want you to be presented in the most elegant light you can…” Exactly! I think to myself (or say out loud to the television).
Oh, but this is not over, people. Josh replies, “I understand, and I know exactly where you’re coming from. But…” I gasp! But? What do you mean, But…?!?! Josh continues, “I want them to see so much of my heart, that they don’t even see color…I want to be judged by my talent, by my acting. If anyone in the audience sees it, you know, in a negative way, that’s on them.”
Cut to the artistic director, in tears, saying, “I made the decision I made out of the deepest respect to you.” And I’m in tears, too.
The artistic director didn’t say it, but I’m sure he also considered the reviews. What would people say — black people, white people, brown people — about casting the one black dancer in the role of a buffoon? But Josh tried out for the part! He knew what he was getting into! So, should the artistic director have been protective? Or supportive? Was he being respectful of Josh, and also protective of the ballet company? We may never know.
In the end, no matter how you slice it, the reason Josh didn’t get the role is the same as it always is — though nuanced and modern and refurbished for a new day and age. The reason he didn’t get the role is because of the color of his skin.
What do you think about that? What would have done if you were in Josh’s situation? What if you were the artistic director? Does this rock your world as much as it does mine?
If you’re up for it, you can watch the full episode here.