Storytelling and the Truth about Brown Women

“Why do you want to act?” I was asked this by my Acting Professor on the first day of my three-year performance training. I get asked this by my parents’ friends, people I just meet, and even by myself in the privacy of my home in the middle of the night. And I always tell myself the same thing: it’s about storytelling. We tell stories because they are important; they give others an opportunity to reflect on their own stories or the stories of others. Stories teach us. Stories make us feel, make us think. Stories make us reflect upon our own actions. That’s why I went into this profession, to tell storiesbut not just any stories. I’ve told many people this: I wouldn’t be an actor if I didn’t have brown skin.

I knew that statement may upset people. I grew up culturally very confused. I was born and raised in Vancouver to two immigrant parents from Tanzania in East Africa. Most kids at school would get confused whenever I would say this. I was faced by many people with the Amanda Seyfried-type expression from Mean Girls: “If your family is from Africa, why aren’t you black?” And then I would have to explain that my family is East Indian, specifically Gujarati, and that we were part of the Khoja Ismaili Muslim community. And that also felt strange to say, considering the fact that my immediate family was filled with agnostic-atheists who barely attended the mosque.

Growing up irreligious and belonging to a culture dependent on religious affiliation was a major conflict of interest for my cultural identity. I rarely attended the mosque and tried to integrate seamlessly into Western Canadian cultureonly it wasn’t seamless. I’d turn on the TV and flip to as many channels as I could, including YTV, the Family Channel, and the Disney Channel, and couldn’t find a single character on screen that looked like me, or even had my hair colour. I struggled to relate to any Bollywood movie my parents would force me to watch on Friday nights, knowing that each brown girl I saw on screen spoke pure Hindi, a language I couldn’t understand.

Many Indo-Canadian second- to third-generation millennials feel this cultural confusion intensely. Some more than others, some not at all. It was when I started auditioning at the age of seven for film and TV that I began to develop my passion for telling brown stories. I started being asked to come in for auditions for the very channels I used to watch as a child, and for predominantly South Asian roles. I noticed a stark difference, back in the early 2000s, between the number of roles I was called to audition for and the number my white friends were called for. And most people were resistant to making commentary on it. I was young and inexperienced, which didn’t help my case.

I received many audition calls in which the descriptions of these South Asian characters were abysmal. Several descriptions asked for the characters to be dressed in traditional South Asian attire, despite the character being in a scene set in a Canadian school. Many of the descriptions had no idea what words to use; they asked for bells and jewellery that jingled, hoping to get the vibe of a South Asian girl dressed to the nines for a Bollywood wedding. I felt stereotyped every time I walked into an audition room. I always felt like I was shitting on my ancestors when I saw a roster of white casting directors behind a table excited by my exotic outfit. I felt like a pawn being used to appease their white guilt by providing them with their version of diversity.

When I reached fifteen years of age, I started turning down auditions I thought were racist. I received an audition to play an immigrant South Asian child in an ESL class who couldn’t speak English well and became the butt of the joke for the entire episode. I ended up turning it down once I read the scene. I couldn’t believe it when the episode aired on Canadian TV; there was a laugh track playing for this episode in response to the student failing to make any sense.

By the time I reached my adult years, diversity was starting become the “in” thing. I auditioned for theatre school and got in and trained for three years at university. In those three years, I began to find my voice. I realized I had such strong opinions about Indo-Canadian representation and accurate representation of people of colour in the industry. I started shifting my training more into theatre. I learned that, even with the initiatives that both industries try to implement to be more inclusive, there is still a long way to go.

I learned early in my voice training that I apparently wasn’t doing a great job of hitting my Ds and Ts with the tip of my tongue. I later realized this was because I could do other phonetic Indian sounds that weren’t in North American phonetics (such as D for das, the word that means ten in Hindi, and T for Tasbih, the word for Ismaili prayer beads). I was made to read speech textbooks that incorrectly asked students to pronounce South Asian words such as Allah and Aga Khan in an anglicised way. I vehemently rejected pronouncing them in such ways, as I knew I was correct in my pronunciation.

I played multiple characters in Victorian, Shakespearean, and Chekovian plays. I played characters called April, Molly, Helen, Angeline, and Ann. Every night, after a show, I would notice how many white folks were present in the audience. I saw no one from my community seeking out these plays. Finally I asked myself, “And why would they? Would you?”

Once I got to my final year, while I was wearing a corset and four layers of petticoats during a warm-up before a show, I heard myself say “I am not a white girl!” to the catwalk above my head in the theatre. Several of my non-brown friends heard and seemed quite aghast by my outburst. It was like everything had been accumulating inside me until that moment. It was in this final year that I solidified something for myself as an artist: I have to tell stories to represent brown women, not to entertain white folks.

When I graduated, I made that my personal mandate. I wanted to be in shows that gathered more brown folks inside theatres. I wanted brown women to see themselves onstage. I wanted them to want to relate to their own stories. I didn’t want them to feel like their existence was insignificant or not cookie-cutter enough for life in Western Canada.

Recently, I was in a play set in a fictional Middle Eastern town with five South Asian and Middle Eastern women who told stories about the burqa, hijab, niqab, and other head coverings. I played an agnostic character who refused to wear the hijab and I didn’t have to change my Canadian accent at all to play the role. As an actor, I felt free. I didn’t have to stereotype people of my community, nor did I have to stray away from them to tell a Canadian story. I felt like I was telling a story of my kind of people. We sold out every single night, and not from the usual demographic of theatre-goers. Brown women were lining up to see this show.

I still have a very long way to go in my career and I know there are still so many obstacles along the way. However, I feel so determined. This is an industry that desperately needs accurate representation and a huge dose of truth; we cannot afford to fail anymore at delivering the truth in storytelling. It is a beautiful gift that we can give to other people and it’s exactly why I do it.

Rozina Jessa

About Rozina Jessa

Rozina Jessa is an Indo-Canadian writer from Vancouver, BC. She graduated from university in 2018 with a BFA in Theatre Acting and a minor in Creative Writing. She has been previously published in both In/Words Magazine and carte blanche. You can read more of her poetry on her Instagram page, which also includes her photography of nightfall, part of her upcoming work Everything Belonging to Night. @rozinajessapoetry

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