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The Next Generation Needs to Look Different

August 11, 2020 by Shereen Pimentel
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Shereen Pimentel

When I started my career as a kid, I didn’t really notice the racism within our industry. It’s something that I know exists in the world, but as a 9-year-old in The Lion King, which features predominantly people of color to me, I thought, “How can I not do whatever I want??” Here’s a show where there are so many people who look like me and they are on Broadway. It was great as a kid, but as I got older I realized it was not the norm.

When I did The Lion King, I decided that I would do musical theater for the rest of my life, but then I left and trained and saw that the world was very different. Every experience I’ve had on my journey of being an artist has been different, from being the only Black person in the room to being one of many. Throughout my training I had this idea drilled into my head that you have to be twice as good as everybody; you have to do all of these things better than anyone possibly could just for you to get half of what they can.

I did not think much about those conditions until I got older and I realized that it was the way I had to live my life to achieve my goals. I think that shows the institutional issues we need to talk about — from school all the way up to Broadway. There is a certain amount of conditioning that people of color experience. It starts in school, which shapes the way we look at the world and it continues throughout our lives.

It was also different coming out of Julliard, where we don’t have a lot of people of color in the classical voice program, students nor staff. I actually have more people of color in the cast of West Side Story than I did in my program at school. In college, you have to have representation on your faculty and staff. Students of color need mentors who are a part of the business and can speak to the unique experience of being a person of color in the industry. Though people of color are not a monolith and we will not have all the same experiences; these faculty and staff can give those students a safe space to freely express themselves.

Now after graduating from Juilliard and doing my last year of school while being in West Side Story, I feel fortunate to be in a show that has a lot of people of color, because that does change my experience. Being the only person of color in a room can feel isolating but to know that every day, when I went to work that was not the case was invigorating and comforting.

Through all of this I have realized that I want to use my voice to speak to young people. I want to talk start with children in public schools who barely have any access to the arts or none at all. I was really lucky to have access to and to be able to go see Broadway shows and plays and ballets, and that sparked my love for the arts. To think that there are people who live in New York City and have no idea that Broadway exists, is hard to fathom because it is right in their backyard. There is a lack of access, especially in black and brown communities, that fuels this problem. I want to work on bridging that gap and bring the arts to them.

 It’s going to help those kids and hopefully pave the way for them — even if they don’t want to have a career in the arts, and it is just something that they enjoy, I still want to be able to bring all the knowledge I have and give them an experience that they otherwise would not have had.

I also want to extend that to people who are getting ready to graduate with dreams of being on Broadway. It’s so important that they know there are other people who are out here who support them. I only just graduated so I know I am very close in age to many people in college, but I am still here as a support system for theater and music students of color.

It’s exciting to be a Broadway performer and people always say , “Wow, you’re famous.” I’m not in the slightest, but if there’s a five-year-old who has no access to the arts, I want to leverage being “famous” to go and talk to them and give them an experience that maybe they wouldn’t have had. That’s where I really want to lend my voice.