by Jessie Hooker-Bailey
September 17, 2019 is a night I will never forget.
I had seen, on the calendar on our callboard, that I’d been given an understudy performance date about a month ago. I quickly noticed that it would be on one of Jordin Sparks’ first nights in Waitress. We would be in transition between Colleen Ballinger’s leaving and Caitlin Houlahan’s coming back (who both play Dawn brilliantly!)
I didn’t want to get too excited that I would possibly get the date though, not until it was “final.”
As an understudy you have to be prepared to go on at any time but also be prepared to possibly get a date and for whatever reason it not work out. It’s all a part of the gig, nothing personal, definitely not a “perk” of it all but it’s what we sign up for as understudies.
There can be a lot of anxiety being an understudy. Not getting to sing the songs everyday or run blocking in performance can be stressful (so. many. props.) but again, it’s all a part of the job. You have to personally do what you need to in order to be show ready at any time. Take your voice lessons, show up to rehearsals (which us Waitress cast members know all about ;) ) and continue to pay attention and watch the show/tracks you’re responsible for while also doing your own track onstage every night. There are ups and downs, like any job, and this past Tuesday was a big up.
When I saw I had the date (though again, I was still not holding my breath incase of any changes) the first words out of my mouth to a fellow cast member were: “Oh my God.. that means all three waitresses would be Black! That’s never happened with this show before!” My cast member squealed with me and I decided to keep it hush and again, not get too excited incase it were to change.
But as the date grew closer and it was showing that my fellow understudy buddy Molly Jobe would have that Monday and I would cover Tuesday’s show I STARTED TO GET EXCITED. I called my parents, told any friend/teacher/casting director/strangers on the street I knew who hadn’t seen me play Dawn yet, and immediately started dreaming about what a cool moment it would be- not just for me but for anyone of color who dreams like I do.
I left the house yesterday morning for a full day of rehearsal (for another project), met up with my parents for a quick bite (who drove in from PA to see the show) and then headed to the theater to get ready. Before I left the house that morning my husband reminded me :“Hey Today is for you. Just do this show for you. Don’t worry about getting approval or acceptance or excitement from anyone. Do it for you, babe.” and I’m so happy I had that mantra with me all day. If we don’t celebrate ourselves, who will? This was a moment worth celebrating!
I love that I got to play this role alongside two other women of color and tell this story. It went by too fast. I felt like the moment I would take something in it had already passed. But man, it was fun! I felt like I was up there with my sisters - and I’ve only personally known Jordin for a couple of weeks! I loved having scenes and banter with her and Natasha - it all felt like we were telling this story together while also saying so much more. The show for me, from top to bottom, was truly a special experience.
I have said this before but I really do look forward to the time when all of this is not as big of a deal. A time when you can see three Black women telling a story (that’s not necessarily about race) and it just is what it is- like anyone else being up there.
We’re capable of doing more than “Black shows” and “Black roles” in this business. We can tell stories about love, and love lost, and insecurities we have. We can tell stories about regular day to day things! We CAN do that! We can do MORE than that! (And this is no diss to any black roles/shows. I’m just saying I believe we can do EVEN MORE).
Yesterday I felt I got to put a little footprint in the steps forward in showing fellow actors/ producers/writers/directors/all creatives that people who look like me can do all things just like anyone and everyone else. Give us a shot. Give us opportunities to lead and create and originate and grow. And, hey, let’s make our own!
I felt the magic onstage and judging by the feedback and messages I’m getting, the people I met at the stage door of all different races (some just buying their first Broadway show ticket because they saw my post earlier that day), they feel the magic too.