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As told to Alyssa Hirose.
I’ve been doing improv for 20 years now, and I started taking classes at Vancouver TheatreSports (VTSL) five years ago. On my very first day, someone in my class told me they’d definitely want me on the mainstage because I’m Black and I’m a woman. Like it had nothing to do with my actual ability or anything. I did eventually play on the mainstage (and so did the guy who made that comment), but I was told I was a token—not really a funny person.
I was constantly sexualized, and put in a position where I was only praised for playing dumb slut characters. If I played anything else, I was told to give other people (the white dudes) “more space.” Once, I was pulled aside before a show to ask if it was “okay” to have three Black performers on stage, because it could “look weird.” Another time all the women were told to invest in a padded bra in case we were groped on stage.
But as a minority, you just think this is how it will be everywhere. In June, when I was watching everything that was happening in the States with the Black Lives Matter movement, I really wasn’t thinking about TheatreSports at all—until the blackout squares started to show up on Instagram. I saw VTSL’s post, and something just clicked in my brain. I was like, how dare you put this up? They couldn’t be a more systemically racist and oppressive organization if they tried. Seeing it made me incredulous. So I just commented, “Take this down.” That was it.
But then other people also started commenting, and personally messaging me about their treatment at TheatreSports. I was horrified by the volume, and by the stories themselves. For example, a Black student reached out to me about how he had taken classes at VTSL—he peaced out of doing improv at 19 years old because the racism was so brutal. Seeing that message, I just felt so complicit with my own attitude of apathy. I then felt obligated to hold them accountable. If it had just been me advocating for myself… well, I probably wouldn’t have. People were coming in with stories of how over the last 20 to 30 years they have been going to the board and telling them these things, and then the board responded with, “Oh my god, we had no idea.” Me fighting against them is just holding up a mirror. It’s not like I needed a plan at all.
But it’s definitely more work than I ever wanted. There have been a lot of people who come out of the woodwork saying they want to help, but they aren’t holding the theatre accountable. Some are just waiting for this to blow over. And lots of people have blocked me on social media so they can’t be tagged in any posts—if they were actually concerned with being anti-racist, that wouldn’t be their reaction. You should be holding your friends and your colleagues accountable. If you can’t do that, please don’t message me saying you want to support, because you don’t.
On the positive side, with all of this being public, people are messaging me to say, “Thank you for doing this, because now I know it wasn’t just me.” You can feel the relief in their soul and their self-worth. That’s how abusive people operate—they make you feel like it’s just you, and that no one will believe you.
Other people who have called them out publicly are getting harassed online. What I find so bizarre and infuriating is that I am not getting any of those messages. Probably because I’m sure they know that I would go after them. Like, you never heckle a comedian—I am going to destroy you. I would love if any of those people who have blocked me could directly message me, and we could have this discussion. Some of them know they are guilty and have deleted their entire social media presence, and some just want to bury their heads in the sand. They just do whatever they can to maintain the delusion that they have never done anything wrong in their lives, instead of going, “Hey, maybe I have screwed up before.”
If you’re not being actively anti-racist, then you’re helping racists, so you are racist! That’s how this works. We can’t live in a world where people are like, “Well, I don’t have any power.” Yes you do, you 100-percent do. You can call people out, and you can walk away. There is power in doing that—but you have to decide that doing the right thing is more important than getting claps.