I'm a white male.
I'm pretty much playing the game of life on the easiest setting there is.
So, it goes without saying that I have long existed in a world with some significant blinders on. With everything that has been going on in our country during of my first year of owning and operating Minnesota Playlist I came to realize how important it is that I work to remove those blinders. But more than that, I understand how the privilege of owning a platform like Playlist necessitated that I be intentional about who is participating, what stories are being told, and who is telling those stories.
When I got an email from Commarrah Jewelia Bashar wanting to write for Playlist, I had no idea that we would spend almost two hours talking. And that her request would connect me to such a fascinating individual with a story so different from my own.
I once heard Lars Leafblad (founder of Pollen) say "find ways to accelerate serendipity". Sometimes saying yes to coffee does that. In talking to Commarrah I knew I wanted people to hear her story. And I knew I wanted her to tell it the way she wanted to. So, I’ve asked her to write her story in a series of articles that we are calling "The All American Actor". I think that her story will resonate for many in our community, and for those of us who need to have our vision expanded, it will help to do just that.
I am proud to publish this first piece during Black History Month. I take no credit for this endeavor. All I have is a platform to offer. These are Commarrah's words, and this is her life. I'm grateful for her tenacity in reaching out. Too often the system for being given space to tell a story if fraught with barriers. For all those folks in our community who are currently fighting the cultural narrative of being labeled "other", I hope that Commarrah shows what we can do together when those of us playing the game on the easiest setting get out of the way and support those playing this game on hardcore.
Edit: content warning - murder mentioned, trauma, abuse, racism, suicide, suicidal ideation.
I think often about the price of attending New York University, Tisch School of the Arts because it cost more than I knew I would pay. The tuition was exorbitant then and has only gotten staggeringly higher clocking in at $27,000 per term. Money means nothing to certain people who have always had it. When you think about it, it’s not so strange that money meant nothing to me because I never had it. When I held the special invitation to the welcome ceremony given to the top 10% of incoming freshman, standing in the filthy, roach infested, nightmare, I grew up in, money was far from my mind. I was going to give whatever was asked of me to attend.
I failed to comprehend neither that I’d be paying more than money, nor that my most difficult lessons wouldn't even be about acting.
Lesson One: Time
I’m currently $60,000+ in debt, but the highest price I paid for my Tisch brand BFA was time. The curriculum was intense: Acting training was three days a week from 9AM to 5PM. Two days a week for about 5-8 hours I was in comprehensive theater history courses. Each semester, I worked 2-3 jobs, including a work study. I was painfully aware that I was coming in at an extreme deficit compared with my wealthier and connected peers. Some of my dorm-mates were having their moms come do laundry for them every weekend while I was desperately scrambling to close the gap with 70-80-hour work weeks. I spiraled, unable to reconcile these drastically different realities. I didn’t have the capacity.
I didn’t have the time.
When could I afford it?
When could I afford to sleep in the city that never does?
Births, deaths, holidays - all of that down the drain of preparing monologue after monologue, paper after paper, show after show. My grandmother was the first person to put art tools in my hands. A week after she died, I was back in New York working to pay rent, finish paying off last semester's tuition, and buy headshots.
The next spring, I managed to fight my way to Paris to study abroad. Limited to only one job, due to visa restrictions, all I had was time. In the alienating silences between thinking in English and speaking in French, grief found me. It ripped through weakened tissue left by the aggravating loneliness of living in the garage of an Islamophobic host family.
After learning French fluently enough to know they were making jokes about sending me to Africa, I went to the dean and asked to go home. When I explained why, I was quietly moved to an apartment. After earning the best grades of my undergraduate career, I flew back home to Utica for two weeks. Then, I was back in New York looking for more work, auditioning, and doing more shows.
Lesson Two: Safety
Sometimes the price of safety is safety. Matriculation at NYU led me to later develop and articulate physical and emotional boundaries. It also led me to develop the specific brand of hellfire and fury I rain down upon racist behavior on set.
My first breakthrough in a scene class was with an instructor named Catherine and the scene was from John Patrick Shanley’s Savage in Limbo. During a massive monologue my character gave ironically about relationships, I caved inward physically and could not get through my lines. I hadn’t figured out yet how to bear emotional weight in a scene. I hadn’t figured out yet how to bear emotional weight in my life. Let alone navigate how similar these mentally ill and dirt-poor characters were to people in my own reality. After yelling at me for a while, Catherine grabbed my hair, pulled me upright, and the words came spilling out. At the time, I was grateful she helped me remove barriers. Later it enraged me to realize that her actions just created new ones.
There were multiple methods of acting you could study and I can’t speak for all of them. But at the Experimental Theater Wing, it was a given that their majority white and white skinned teachers - like Catherine - could touch you without your consent. The oppressive insistence of New York City white liberalism that we were living post-racially, even as this woman grabbed my hair as slavers grabbed the hair of my ancestors on the block for sale still brings a tightness to my chest. As arbiters of the technique, it was their right impart it how they wished. Using physically and emotionally violent means like those described above to get us to create art was the norm.
When I was able to internalize their violence and make myself present in a scene, it was celebrated as proof of mastery. Many of my classmates left the program, unable to fully articulate that it was because we were being abused. I stayed. This set a dangerous precedent for what behavior I expected from other professional artists as a young professional artist. I can name on one hand the directors I’ve worked with that haven’t emotionally and/or physically violated me. I’m uncertain if any have done any work to address their internalized racial superiority.
Lesson Three: Mental Health
Due to environmental and genetic factors, and the inevitable result of putting human life into a hierarchy based on skin color and money, I didn’t have mental health in my student account when I got there. But like a payday loan, NYU was on the list when I declared mental bankruptcy.
We sat through a musical during orientation week, which primarily consisted of repeating the emergency helpline number. I thought it was weird at the time but at a big impersonal school in a monstrously impersonal city, it didn’t take me long to understand. A month in, we had our first suicide. The school’s response was to update buildings with bars on the windows or windows that couldn’t open, and alarms on the roofs. In the big library, Bobst, were giant polycarbonate sheets designed to keep students from using it as a part of their exit-life plan. Prior to that, I was told that it practically rained bodies. They had to replace the polycarbonate with perforated aluminum sheets because it didn’t always deter students. Not lacking in school spirit, I was tempted to test their efficacy.
The difficulties kept stacking under the crushing realization that I’d never escaped poverty, or the effects of it, like the horror of calls from loved ones who still lived it day in and out. During finals when I was already distracted by work and harassing every loan company, so I could return, my best friend’s father was murdered. My school issued insurance covered an astoundingly few twelve therapy sessions. After an hour session in which I tried to cover everything that ever happened to me, I asked the therapist what happened after the next eleven. She shrugged and said, ‘We’ll see.’ I never went back and though I graduated, the calls from home never stopped. I didn’t get to see a therapist consistently until I moved to the Twin Cities three years ago, six years after that first attempt. Between those sessions, I graduated and no less than four disorders had time to grow wild in my mind and wreak havoc on my body. Sometimes it feels like it was a scam.
It’s true that when you don’t know the value of what you pay, it’s easier to pay anything. And I did it to chase my dreams. Safety, mental health, and $200,000 sounds like exactly the type of wildly irresponsible spending spree an economically vulnerable, 18-year-old, black kid would undertake. I’m mentally well and old enough now to say with certainty that I don’t regret going. From nothing with nothing, I got into one of the most elite schools and graduated, which means that I had something priceless before I got in. That I almost ended my life because of what I experienced there is relevant and real. That doesn’t take away from the fact that I wouldn’t be living my best life now if I hadn’t gone. Loss and gain both happen at the same time. Might as well play on your terms.