A post by PAC Production Coordinator Bennett Marrow
I was talking to a friend who had seen some of my writings in this space, one on Ghost Light and another about working on wardrobe crews. She asked if I would write about what it is like to be a Black man in theater, music, and touring.
There were numerous responses that came to mind.
When I was in first grade, I was the first Black kid in a certain school system, and my brother was the second. In the classroom my experiences with other classmates were normal, and the days went by without anything being different from one day to the next.
One day our class went on a field trip. To me all seemed normal. I didn’t have much interaction with my classmates, but I did make a new friend that day from another class…we will call him D.
Flash forward to 12th grade.
I attended BOCES classes since I was striving to become a graphic artist. A classmate looked at me and said, “I know you from somewhere.” It was D. I went home after class and told my mom about my day and this new classmate. She went to her closet and pulled out a photo album, and then showed me a picture of me and D as kids playing on that field trip.
She then explained to me that on the day of the field trip, being outside of the classroom, the parents of my classmates wouldn’t let them play with me because I was Black. They also didn’t want to socialize with my mom for the same reason. At the same time, D and his mom were also being shunned because they are Jewish. That day my mom and D’s mom hung out together too.
My mom told me that even though that day started out uncomfortable, we both made friends that we would remember for a lifetime.
The next class D and I had brought in our pictures of the field trip day.
The field trip was that kind of day when you are just at the right place at the right time. It taught me about compassion and acceptance and how it feels when you find the right place for yourself, with like-minded people you were meant to be around.
In that BOCES class, I was taught how to draw and read complicated technical drawings. These skills helped to steer me into the world of theatre.
I got my start in the industry in the late 80’s by accident as a box pusher (loader/unloader), mainly as a stagehand. It was that first experience that led me to continue learning more and to eventually work in this business, where I’ve held an array of positions utilizing various skillsets over the years.
When I started there were very few Black stagehands that I knew of in the industry. I was voted into IATSE local 499 in September of 1990, where I met another Black member, and she taught me the responsibilities of being a part of and running a wardrobe crew. Another female union member took me in as an apprentice; I learned lighting and electrical skills that I still use today.
Working in the industry, I found that same open acceptance. I knew that I belonged in this field, around like-minded people who were also passionate about the arts. This passion was larger than each individual – the performing arts are a collaborative venture.
Looking back at my work history, what has meant a lot to me is the recognition I received from Black artists. They were proud of seeing me in the positions I held, knowing that we were all contributing to the arts. One important memory for me is of Ossie Davis, an acclaimed American actor, director, writer, and activist of the previous generation. We had a memorable conversation, and in acknowledgment of my running the stage where he was visiting, he called me the ‘Captain of the Stage.’
Two other people stand out from my early days at the Arena Stage in D.C. There was Allen Lee Hughes, an American lighting designer for theater, dance, and opera who is currently Associate Professor at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He is the only African-American to have been nominated for a Tony Award® for Lighting Design as well as being nominated for and winning multiple Helen Hayes awards and others. Also, Eugene Lee, an American actor/ playwright, appeared in many television, film, and theater productions.
Now, as a staff member in the production department here at The Purchase PAC, I’ve witnessed a more diverse body of students attending the College, including in the theater department and other arts. This makes me feel that at Purchase we are moving forward in a positive direction towards more diversity in this industry.
There has been a common message in my interactions with those I have worked with – artists, my industry mentors, designers, crews, staff, students, etc. – one of removing boundaries for others, remembering that one should always pay it forward and that where you come from does not limit your tomorrows.