There’s something arresting about people from a specific ethnicity who co-opt the styles and manners of a different ethnicity. Their presentation causes a hitch in our prejudicial giddy-up. Let’s face it, we all stereotype. Sometimes it’s benign and unconscious; sometimes it’s purposeful and mean-spirited, intended to cause offense.
I’m a case in point. A predominantly African-American child of a college English professor, I grew up in a home where proper, unaccented English was spoken and expected and spent my childhood in Greece, where I was often the first person of color these villagers had ever encountered. After two years of college in Munich there was precious little to connect me with an emerging ‘black culture’ in America. I was the quintessential “stranger in a strange land.” I didn’t listen to the music preferred by most of my contemporaries, I didn’t know the latest dance steps; I wasn’t a star athlete or an aspiring hoodlum. I really didn’t fit into anyone’s stereotypic world.
That odd-duck status has endured throughout my life and to some degree, has affected my range as a character actor. I am not a very identifiable type, in a business that lives to typecast its workers. We tend to look up when we encounter the unexpected – say, the teenager who is clearly of Asian descent, speaking in a ‘Valley Girl’ patois or the middle-class white kid affecting ‘urban’ speech, dress and mannerisms. They are appearing and behaving contrary to our predisposed ethnic expectations.
When I first moved to LA in the early 90’s I lived in a singles complex, a rather well-known Oakwood on Barham Blvd, storied for housing the annual migration of aspiring child stars and their ‘stage mother’ mommies. This complex is very useful to actors who come to LA for pilot season. You register, plug in your phone, rent from them some furniture, dishes and bedding and voila! You’re home. During a visit from New York, back in the mid-70’s, I can remember sitting around the jacuzzi at night, sipping beers and comparing scripts with John James and Vanna White, just before they achieved fame in Dynasty and Wheel of Fortune. There I met and became friends with Mariko, a woman from Japan, who traveled back and forth frequently on business and who was enamored with all things Black. Most of her friends were people of color, she sunbathed assiduously (and at times, trumped my tan), loved urban music and all the latest fashions. Tho her English was heavily accented, she employed the latest slang whenever possible, and while her pronunciation was episodic, her timing and rhythms were dead on.
We were lying around the pool one afternoon, discussing music. I’d grown up with the Beatles and the Stones and Dylan. The only authentically Black music I enjoyed was Mississippi delta blues. Mariko was into Motown, loved to go to local clubs and catch the latest rap or up-and-coming rhythm and blues artists. She named one group after another, and I‘d never heard of any of them or their music. I remember her suddenly sitting up on her chaise, judgmentally squinting over her sunglasses, energized by a sudden suspicion…and then asking, “Tuc kuh…Are you sure you’re Braack”?