ORLANDO, Fla. – Mandi Jo John remembers her start in the performing arts industry working to establish herself with a staple of an actor’s portfolio: professional headshots.
She said she would pay $500 to $600 to get her photo taken, hoping the new pictures would lead to jobs, only to be disappointed.
“I looked completely different because they don’t know how to shoot and film women of color, they don’t know how to shoot brown bodies,” she said.
The professional performer says that experience is just one of many barriers Black women have to break through to pursue a career in the arts.
From sharing stories with other women online about washed-out headshots, having to dye dance tights to match one’s skin tone, and discussing hairstyles fit for stage lights came a new community that has evolved today to become the nonprofit Black Theatre Girl Magic.
“We started in 2017 as just a small network for Black and brown performing women in Central Florida. It just started as a network of women that I knew, and from there they added their networks and we went from being 100 members to being 1,700 members not just in Central Florida but all over the country.”
John is now the executive director of Black Theatre Girl Magic, or BTGM, a member-driven organization with communities of artists and performers in Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and other major cities offering bustling performing arts and entertainment scenes. With nationwide membership, the group has now shifted its focus to advocacy work and policy change to help create a racially just and more equitable entertainment industry while still providing resources and networking opportunities for its members.
John says though BTGM is now taking on issues on the national stage, its first obligations are to its home in Central Florida.
“You know the phrase ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ has always stuck with me,” she said. “(BTGM) is not just creating the opportunity but showing you all of the things that you can do and all the things you can be.”
John says living out this mission takes on many different forms. The group constantly updates its website and social media channels posting audition notices and education opportunities from workshops to tips on how to pick out a headshot photographer. It also looks for opportunities to provide mentorship through community partnerships like through its free Musical Theatre Anatomy course and works to host events that can support and showcase work from other women.
John says that’s how it’s created a great partnership with the Orlando Museum of Art.
“I feel like the Orlando Museum of Art has created a staff that really focuses on the community and voices in the community that are heard the least,” she said.
Together, the two organizations will host ONIJA, a virtual show and physical exhibit featuring portraiture and poetry from the African diaspora. John says the focus was intentional, meant to provide artwork seldom seen.
“Traditionally speaking, in the art world, portraiture of Black and brown bodies has been something that has been lacking up until about the past 50 years,” she said.
John says she drew inspiration from a powerful photo of a young Black girl looking at the portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama, hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.
Onija, the Yoruban word for warrior, means possession of great strength, and symbolizes the work that will be on display. The exhibit will feature work from local artists at OMA on Feb. 7 as part of the museum’s first Thursdays series and in celebration of Black History Month. Work will be on display for a few days after, giving people the opportunity to see the artwork in person or to purchase a piece.
“After everything that’s happened over the summer, with the murder of George Floyd and the art community kind of gathering around to release Black Lives Matter statements, (OMA) is walking the walk,” she said, describing how the exhibit and OMA’s commitment to uplifting the Black community is a way to follow through with advocacy that was promised during the resurgence of the racial justice movement.
“It provides access and platform to people from the African diaspora who have something to say,” John said. “They have a voice but they don’t necessarily have the access to institutions like the OMA or other major art institutions to feature their work.”
John explained how this local event can pay off in dividends, putting an artist’s talents in front of a selection committee and on display, gaining exposure not easily found during these COVID times. She added that the connections with the commercial art world can also provide a way for artists to gain an income, an opportunity that isn’t always offered and one that can be crucial as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has canceled many art exhibitions and limited opportunities.
The BTGM director says this exhibit is one way of meeting multiple goals and raising awareness about changing industry that still has to work to be more inclusive.
“Brown people in this industry are starting to realize that they can divest themselves of the power structures that keeps them underneath everyone else,” she said. “The fear of never working again has kept a lot of people silent about the things they’ve been through or silent about the things that they want it need to see but I think we’re all kind of moving towards that place of -- we can criticize these institutions and still participate in them because we want them to succeed.”
BTGM is currently using its influence to drive a cultural shift in theater institutions and create safer spaces for women of color working in the entertainment and art world. Its team currently works as a group of well-coordinated volunteers. To learn more about BTGM or to support their work, visit their website.
Below are event details for ONIJA:
Date: Thursday, Feb. 4
Event time: 6 p.m.
The exhibit will be available via live stream on Facebook and YouTube from Feb. 2 through Feb. 7. The exhibit will aim to display portraiture art and poetry that centers around the word Onija.
Along with the First Thursdays show and full museum access, guests can enjoy music by DJ Gay-Z, BBQ with a Latin twist by Maya Rosa food truck and cupcakes from Anna Cakes. For those who choose to attend the event in person can enjoy an outdoor bar serving beer and wine. Note all drinks and food must be consumed outdoors.
Masks will be required at all times and social distancing is encouraged.
Tickets are $15 and can be purchased here.