Black Hair in the Theatre
Never have I ever performed a role that was modeled after my real life. Until now.
Let’s take a second and acknowledge that I’m doing Grease which has been around almost forever, in fact Grease the Musical celebrated its 50th Year Anniversary since I’ve been on this contract. Not only that, but I’m playing a role that is not considered the lead. Everyone knows the story of Danny and Sandy, but do you know what’s happening in Frenchy’s world?
I’m playing Frenchy, so allow me to shed some light through my lens.
In the movie, Frenchy’s this sweet girl, a part of the Pink ladies. At some point her hair is pink and she drops out of school. Honestly, that’s all I really remember from the movie.
Let’s go a little deeper.
When I was in the 4th grade, I started getting my hair straightened. And every time I left the salon, you couldn’t tell me shit. I KNEW I was the bomb. My hair would silky smooth and flowing passed my shoulders. And where I’m from, that was a sure fire way to “look presentable:” by getting your hair straightened. And so that’s what I did all through high school and college. There was one time in college when I was the reigning Miss Fullerton when I just wanted my hair to be natural. In fact, I had that urge quite a bit except I never knew what to do with it. I remember every time I wore my hair to class with my curls, it always felt like a self-care day. I felt like how I looked that day didn’t count because I hadn’t “gotten ready” but it still felt good. Basically, I loved the feeling of being natural while thinking everyone thought I was ugly or not put together. But this one time when I was Miss Fullerton, I decided to wear my curls. And someone on the team said to me:
“Are you going to wear your hair like that……..it looks….mmm…frizzy.”
And although I already knew that’s how it was perceived, it solidified it for me. My natural hair was unacceptable. UGH. When I think back on my own perception of my curls, it breaks my present day heart. But it gets worse before it gets better.
When I went on tour with Beautiful, I could finally afford to get my hair straightened every week. So I did. I put SO much heat on my hair so consistently that it got SO heat damaged. And then I discovered WIGS. Which once I started wearing wigs, I stopped straightening my hair BUT I also stopped washing it and taking care of it. This is GROSS, but I remember leaving my pin curls in my head for a straight 3 months. Not touching them. Not caring for them. Just pretending they weren’t there at all. It wasn’t until my friend who pinned my wigs in the show told me that…it smelled. Like, it was that bad that she had to TELL me. I will never forget that. Up until that point, I’d go to work on stage performing in wigs, then after the show I would take off the wig from the show and put my own wig on. And I would KEEP it on until it was time to go to bed. No one knew what my actual hair looked like. My coworkers who I lived with, traveled with, hung out with….THEY had no idea what my hair looked like!
I guess it felt easier to just run to the store, buy the look I wanted, plop it on and keep it pushing. And honestly, some of my wigs were SO cute and fun! I experimented with pink hair, silver hair, straight hair, curly hair. It was so versatile. And when it started looking old, I’d throw it away and buy a new one in the next city on tour. TOUCHING my own hair felt foreign to me.
I started taking care of my actual hair after that, but still hiding it under wigs. And eventually when I got to the Broadway company of Beautiful, the ensemble dressing room would always talk about their curls and where they were going to get them cut, and blah blah blah. I FELT SO LEFT OUT. And honestly, I had so much FOMO that I decided to go natural. (Lol, I just wanted to be part of The Girrrllllss!! 💁🏽♀️) January 2018, I challenged myself to not get my hair straightened even once. And you guys… I DID IT!!!!!! I literally felt like a crack head in rehab all year but I did it!!!!! And I was so proud of myself!! AND IT FELT GOOD! Transitioning was so hard and I felt HIDEOUS, and I had to get used to what I looked like with a completely different look. But I did it. It felt like literal growing pains. When I tell you I HATED the process, man I’m not lying. It was hard. BUT I DID IT. During that time, I wore the occasional wig, which was definitely progress, but I was still hiding on my hardest days. It wasn’t until I took a commercial class and it was my turn to present when my teacher stopped me abruptly in the middle of my scene.
She said, “Something’s not right!! Salisha, I think it’s your hair”
Me: Tell me more tell me more
Me: Please tell me. I promise I won’t sue you lol.
Her: It’s just…not you. Is that a wig?
Her: Okay, well if I was casting a project and it’s between you and someone else as equally talented, I’d probably choose the other person who’s hair is out. Just so I don’t have to ask. Or say the wrong thing.
And that is all it took for me to THROW all my wigs in the trash.
After that, I was NATURAL natural. As in, actually-wear-my-hair-out Natural. Like let me figure out how to rock what’s on my scalp so I can keep working. Because if you know me, you know I love to work. Whenever I get a job, I love to get to work early and stay late. You’ll often find me in a practice room after rehearsal to make sure I know my part. And if HAIR was going to potentially hold me back, well then it’s something worth investigating.
I’d already been weened off the hot-comb, and now my wigs were in the dumpster. That was 2019.
I got my next job with my natural hair. The Britney Spears musical. And it felt GOOD. In fact, one of my wigs in the show is styled AFTER MY OWN NATURAL HAIR. WHAT!?!?!?!?!?! That still blows my mind. And after a whole pandemic of nothing to do, I started Black Hair in the Big Leagues, a podcast that gave me an excuse to call up all my friends in every major show on Broadway with gorgeous curls and honestly just performers who have confidence through the roof so I could ask them where their confidence comes from and whatever hair tips they could throw my way.
And I’m still on the journey. My hair is still SO frizzy most of the time but I’m embracing it more than ever. I’m embracing it enough for my current director, Joyce Chittick to call me up and offer me the role of Frenchy in the production of Grease that she was doing in Cape Cod at the Cape Playhouse. I auditioned for Marty and she offered me Frenchy. I thought that was funny but also it felt right!
Joyce had been the associate choreographer when I was on the Beautiful tour. She’s known me for years. And I’ve always loved her. She remembered never knowing what my real hair looked like. And she saw how I’ve been embracing my hair today. She listened in and saw what I was doing in the community with my hair podcast. And she crafted a role that’s not usually Black around ME and MY hair journey.
The costume designer and supervisor, David DW Withrow (@dwcostumes) met me for coffee before we even started rehearsals to discuss the vision of the Team and also how I felt about it all. What I thought. What I wanted. He was at the studio with me when I met with the wig designer, Tommy Kurzman to make sure I was Heard. And I was.
Much like in the movie, Frenchy’s hair color changes throughout the show. But in our production, it symbolizes so much more.
It’s the parallel of always hiding, assimilating, just trying to fit in. Trying on different personas while running from my own. Until ACT 2, when J.Daughtry who plays Teen Angel, sings my face off in Beauty School Dropout. Something happens to me internally. And I realize that it’s time to stop hiding. It’s time to be who I really am. And without giving too much away, I’ll just say that my next look in the show after that scene, is my favorite look in the whole show (Which is not pictured in this blog.)
We have one more week of performances here in Dennis, Massachusetts at The Cape Playhouse. And as we wrap up, I just must express my sincerest gratitude for the opportunity to truly be myself onstage. I ask my guests on my podcast all the time: What makes you feel seen? Well our process for Grease the Musical in the Cape has 1000% made me feel seen. It gives me hope for the future of our industry. It makes me feel optimistic. And yes, it’s possible Joyce and DW and Tommy have spoiled me out in these streets. But on a more global level, it’s not a bad place to start and I hope to see more of it in other shows with myself and my other Black colleagues.
Our last show is this Saturday, June 18, 2022. Take a break and get to the Cape. And HELLLOOO!!!!! COME SEE ME IN GREASE! And for crying out loud, can someone please get a bootleg and leak it on my behalf!? I’M JUST KIDDING!!!! *I’m not kidding*
OBVIOUSLY that’s a joke. haha
Grease is the word y’all!