To Be Free & Me In This Industry

May 9, 2024

In 2005, I remember how eager I was to go off to college in pursuit of sharpening my acting abilities. I was seventeen, and had done a bunch of community theatre in my hometown of St. Cloud, MN, and was just bursting to “make it” as an actress. So when I received my acceptance letter into Howard University’s acting program, it felt like the dream was finally unfolding. During this time, my eating disorder was under control! Or so I thought.

Before I go on, it is important to note that in residential treatment I named my eating disorder EDNita. So for the sake of telling this story, I shall refer to my eating disorder as EDNita.

So, I was seventeen years old, and it had been almost four years since EDNita had taken hold of me. EDNita caused me to lose weight, drastically, unhealthily…but at the time I didn’t mind or think it was a problem. Why wasn’t it a problem? Well, because if you rewind back to elementary school, I was a little Black girl in a predominately white town where the kids would run away from me as they yelled “fat Black monster!” I was an outcast as a child. I wasn’t just Black, but I was fat and Black. In my hometown, pretty looked like an itty bitty sized white girl with blond hair that swayed as she walked. It was hard to be me.

Right before EDNita arrived, I got the role as Addaperle in The Wiz. It. Changed. My. Life!

I put on this character like a custom-made silk dress, it fit so easily and felt so good. I loved it so much, and from that moment storytelling was all I ever wanted to do. It was the first of many community theatre productions I would do. I was falling deeply in love with this craft. This acting thang felt like I was something, somebody…and people watched me embody characters without running away from me. But even as a child, my large body had directors casting me in characters that were way older than I was. Around the time EDNita showed up, I had just been cast as a sixty-five-year-old grandmother! I was fourteen years old! And a Black slender woman in her early forties was cast as my daughter. It became a thing for me not to be cast in plays/musicals for age-appropriate characters, or characters that were seen as pretty or soft.

The reason had very little to do with my acting abilities, and much more to do with my physical appearance. And just like that, what I looked like began to seep into the very thing I loved so much. It was as if I couldn’t escape how the world saw me. So, when EDNita showed up and started making me look the opposite of what I was, I didn’t think she was a problem.

Besides, EDNita came just in time because I was headed to Washington, DC – Chocolate City! Where I was about to be immersed in my Blackness at an HBCU where I would no doubt fit in. I loved Howard University. Though I was only there for two years, it was one of those life-changing chapters in my life. Being amongst all those beautiful and unique and brilliant Black students and professors was everything! Though I thrived, my weight was always a topic of discussion during evaluations from my professors, or sometimes just out of the blue during class…in front of everyone.

On one of my exams from Voice & Diction class, I scored a 96 out of 100! At the bottom of the test, my professor wrote the following:

“96 excellent. I expect no less. My advice to you, get fit. There is no reason for you to be typecast doing mothers at this age. You can do the devil out of those roles and will. But get hot Bonita. And do it in a very healthy way - study nutrition and get a personal trainer. I see great things for you. P.S. Stay humble!”

This is a picture of me at the time. For many years after, I would look at this picture and see nothing but flaws. Until recently, I now see a stunning young woman.

What did a voice and diction exam have to do with what I looked like? It was as if they saw my body as a hindrance to my talent, and what I would accomplish as an actor in my body type. This fueled EDNita.

Once I finished school and started my professional career, I was still cast in older roles and not called in for leading lady roles. And then, not only was it my size that mattered, but it was how dark or light my skin was. It was how kinky or straight my hair was. Suddenly, being skinny wasn’t enough. I needed to be thin, light-skinned, with curly hair that bounced. I was none of these things. The harder I tried to be, the more unhappy I became. The more dread I had when walking into audition rooms. The more disappointing it was not to get cast or a callback.

One year I booked a role in a play that was written for six women. Each character talked about the challenges women faced in various industries. It was the kind of story I was excited to tell as an actor. But I was disheartened when I was cast as a character whose main issues were weight-based. At one point in the play my character raps:

“Curvy and proud,

I’ll say it out loud.

My edges are round,

It’s all about the sound.

Won’t dress up like a clown.

Get it straight,

I got what it takes,

I can make it with the extra weight!”

During those early years in my career, EDNita would shift and change from bulimia, to anorexia, to binge-eating, and back to bulimia. My self-esteem disappeared. My faith in my acting decreased with each opportunity I didn’t book or hear back from. There were many times I felt hopeless, and lost, and questioned if acting was really my path. Would anyone see the soul of my storytelling? It felt impossible. It had been driven into my mind that acting is an image-based profession, and what an actor looks like matters. What an actor looks like gets them their next role, or disqualifies them. I have heard teachers, casting directors, and agents say things like,

“You can’t be ugly in this business. Well, you can, but only a few uglies will work.”

“Your body IS your resumé.”

“The camera adds ten pounds, so ladies, really think about what you’re wearing.”

And one said directly to me, “You won’t be cast as the ingénue, the pretty girl next door, the love interest, or sexy roles, Bonita. These are not your types.”

“Type” is a term the industry uses to define whether or not you physically look like someone who could realistically play a specific role. My type had been some of the following:

Mom roles.

Grandmother roles.

Angry roles.

Cryer/wailer roles.

Distraught Woman roles.

“Urban” roles.

The Best Friend roles.

The Non-Sexy roles.

Never the ingénue roles.

Definitely not the Love Interest roles.

“You’re Black So You Must Be Able to Rap” roles.

Still, I had this dream. I was called to be a storyteller. So I continued auditioning but on a lower scale (off-off-off-off-off-off-off-OFF-Broadway). And not that those productions I did were of lower value than say a Broadway production. I felt less judged in those spaces. Those spaces are where I would start to form a community, and learn how to collaborate and do devised theatre. It opened my eyes to non-commercial theatre, and helped to boost my artistic confidence. These grassroots, underground, DIY, experimental, no-pay, we-do-it-for-the-love, theatres gave me so much. Though EDNita was still there, she was quieter. Her fertile playground was dry when the soul of ME was seen, accepted, respected, and loved.

Being an actor is filled with doubts and uncertainty. Even to this day! Constantly unsure where or what your next job will be. If you will have your big break. Then add an eating disorder to the whirlwind of this overwhelming business and it's no wonder mental illness can thrive, deceive, and beat down a person…or cause them to quit altogether! It’s a wonder I haven’t completely given up on this craft. My saving grace has been my faith in God, my family, and my truth. With my truth showing up in the four one-woman shows that I have written, produced, and starred in. When I have allowed myself to be ALL OF ME, and share it unabashedly with others, that has been life-giving art to me. Sharing my struggles with EDNita, depression, anxiety, and trauma. Sharing that we are more than what this industry has labeled as beautiful, ugly, right, wrong, perfect, inadequate. I have fought against EDNita while fighting this industry’s opinion of me. When my art became less about making it in this business and more about telling the truth and connecting with others beyond just being entertainment, that is when power went into my healing. My storytelling, once a passion, now a medicine.