Part Two: 50+ years of Being Black in the “Industry”

Recently, I had the honor of speaking with Tony-award winning actor and performer, Chuck Cooper. As a theatre veteran, he found great success in the television and film sphere as well. As I covered in many of my other interviews, black artists and black work are not always accurately or proportionately represented. Mr. Cooper began his career in the 60s as more opportunities for black actors became available. That being said, he shared with me that these not opportunities were not only hard to come by, but they did not always win him the respect or accolades he felt he deserved or would have gotten if he were not a black man.

Mr. Cooper came upon theatre and music in high school and college. Beginning in a choir and then pursuing theatre in college at Ohio State, he moved to NY after graduation and was welcomed by his friends, recent graduates of the university, who showed him the ropes of the industry. He shared that NY at the time was a very collaborative environment because his friends elaborated on the lessons they all learned in college and also taught him things they had picked up during their time there before him—the “street smart” of the industry. Even though the limited roles/opportunities for black men made their chances of getting those opportunities much smaller, he said this did not stop any of them from coming to audition. Even if they didn’t get the role, one of their friends did and that was an accomplishment. Mr. Cooper was determined to keep showing up.

Overall, he shared that being a person of color in this industry, he has relied heavily on his ancestors. He knows that nothing in his career would have been possible if black performers of the past didn’t make sacrifices for us to be here today. “A road has been paved for us, and even though that road may be hard, it’s been made easier by those who came before us,” he said. He continued by stating that being a person of color “is always a political, powerful, historically charged thing”, especially in this industry. Whether he knows it or not, his identity as a person of color affects the way he tells stories, the way he is perceived, and the way he interacts with others. He also shared that there have been times when his contributions as a performer have “not been appreciated as they might be if I were a white actor. And I’m aware of that. And so, it’s up to me to value myself.” This speaks strongly to the fact that although the industry appears to be becoming more diverse and telling a wider array of stories that reflect our country and world, there is still lots of work to be done.

Even his Tony award didn’t change anything, he told me. One would expect that, after winning the most prestigious award in the realm of theatre around the world, that they would get the respect they had been waiting for all along. But even after his 1997 Tony award win, he still wasn’t being offered the same types of salaries as white actors with similarly vast careers and seniority. “If it was going to have value, I had to give it value,” he said.

All of this being said, Mr. Cooper does have great hope for the future. Although he recognizes that for the theatre, in particular, this is a very dynamic era (regarding COVID), this extra time everyone has on their hands has sparked a lot of internal reflection. For example, he told me that CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) has pledged to have 40% of the writers for their shows be people of color, which is a monumental change that he would not have expected even last year. “White folks saw that cop put that knee on that brother’s neck,” he said, “and they realized at that moment that everything that their black community members had been telling them was true.” They couldn’t not see it anymore. This industry is one that is steeped in a culture of white supremacy (that permeates all of our society and its systems), but these systemic changes that are beginning to be made are fueling his hope and excitement for a bright future.