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Black History Month Feature: Carolyn Ratteray

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By Bridgette Ramirez
February 17, 2021

Get to know our Resident Artist Carolyn Ratteray! You may recognize her from her role as Black Mary Wilkes in Gem of the Ocean and as the director for our virtual reading of Intimate Apparel. Today, Carolyn talks about her love of theatre from a young age and the legacy of her family as she as grown as a person and as an artist.

How did you get started on your artistic journey?

The acting bug hit me pretty young. I remember my parents wanted us to show consistent and sustained interest in a subject before they would put their finances towards deeply supporting my brother and I in our endeavors. I must have been bugging them pretty consistently because I remember being over the moon when they agreed to send me to a two-week drama camp hosted by the Smithsonian Museum during the summer of my 3rd grade year. The bug never left me, and I never looked back!

How did you get to where you are now? What challenges did you face on the way?

Ooooo that’s a broad question. Well, I guess I have to pinpoint where I am now, first. One answer for that is that I’m in a place where I can create, collaborate, and play with amazing theatre artists in the Los Angeles area. And how did I get to that point? Hmm… I got here because my ancestors chose to survive; I got here because of my grandparents’ intentional hard work to provide for their grandkids; I got here because of my parents’ watchful eye, my teachers’ encouragement over the years, my network of friends; I got here because of luck and a confluence of timings; I got here because other people saw something worthwhile in me and I got here because I saw something worthwhile in myself; I got here because of Spirit; I got here by saying YES even if I didn’t know how to do something; I got here by working through my personal issues.

Specifically, I got here through training. I love training. From high school to college to grad school, I have tried to absorb as much as I could from folks who knew more than me.

What challenges? Oh jeepers, a few.  Maybe that’s for a time when we can sit and have a cup of tea. 

How did you end up at ANW?

I saw the auditions for Tartuffe on Actors Access and decided to audition! I’m so glad I did because that introduced me to this amazing theatre community which has been so fulfilling to me over the years. I was in NYC for Christmas and heard from Geoff and Julia that I got a callback for when I was back in LA. AMAZING! The role came at just the right time because I was emerging from a pretty low period. Personally, my father had just passed away and I had been on a bit of a hiatus from acting dealing with family concerns for the better part of the previous year. Being in Tartuffe was the beginning of a new phase for me in the Los Angeles arts scene and I was so very grateful!

How does your culture, family background, and history influence your work?

From the small town of Lizella to the parishes of Bermuda, the stories of my great grandparents and grandparents have been duly passed down to me, and, in them, I see the immense odds they were able to overcome, the incredible legacies that they left, their business smarts and acumen. I feel them flowing through my veins.

My parents instilled an integrity in me and a love of self-expression. My mom always said that what I learned in school would probably be full of BS, full of racisms, sexisms, lies, and all the rest, but she said she was sending me to school and assigning me extra readings of Malcom X and Frantz Fanon so that I could learn how to think. The content (except for Malcolm X and Fanon) wasn’t as important as how to learn to see behind the lines, how to ask why, how to think critically and express yourself accurately. I have been given much. I am standing on amazingly broad shoulders. I hope to pay it forward.

Out of all your accomplishments in the arts, what are you most proud of?

I’m proud of the fact that I am expanding my avenues of self-expression as an artist regarding my writing and directing. I tell my students at the college where I teach that acting is a tricky passion to have because you are constantly asking to fit into someone else’s imagination. And many times, as a Black queer artist, I am not always in the dominant culture’s imagination. So, what do I do? I create my own narratives, my own worlds. By writing and directing, I get to create new narratives and spaces that reflect my own life experiences and aesthetic values. I will always love acting first and foremost, but at least I’m not always just waiting on a particular role that happens to fit the fullness of me.

Currently, I am developing my one-woman show Both, And with Boston Court Theatre. I have so often spoken other writers’ words; it’s been so meaningful to craft a world filled with my own message.  The show, in a nutshell, is about a young woman who, at the moment of her mother’s death, realizes how joy and laughter are key in how we as Black people can process our grief. 

Who is your favorite Black author/playwright/artist? What is your favorite work of theirs?

Lynn Nottage is my favorite Black author at the moment because of the way she writes Black women. It’s rich, it’s real, and her female characters run the full gambit of humanity.  I have directed 3 of her plays but have yet to have the honor of acting in one of them. My favorite historical Black artist at the moment is Zora Neale Hurston. She loved bringing Black love, Black joy, Black people in all of our warts and wonders to life. She loved our rhythms and our ordinaries. Blackness was a fountain that was overflowing, and she never stopped celebrating it in her plays, essays, and novels. I want to walk in those footsteps.

Learn more about Carolyn’s work on her website.

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