When the Smile Grows
Sitting in the Gillian Lynne Theatre in London, people filed over and around me trying to find their seats, drinks in hand. I was undoubtedly excited to see a show based on one of my favorite childhood stories and movies: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe but it was just like going to any show. This one wasn’t high on my list of West End shows to see during my study abroad program there but I got free tickets to see it and who doesn’t love a fantastical story about talking animals, adventure, and the true nature of family?
I hate sitting alone in public spaces. It’s a big pet peeve of mine. I’m the girl who forces my family to sit on either side of me in a theater and take the spare seat off to the side on the plane. This was no different. I uncomfortably shifted in my seat trying to keep from touching anyone else around me. I kept darting my eyes around to build the illusion that I wasn’t in fact seeing this show alone and occupying my mind from the randoms whose knees were darting out taking up the space in front of my seat like little bars fencing me in. Squeezed into myself, a man in WW2 regalia sits at the piano playing an old tune. Others fill the stage, then in a rush of smoke The Pensevies, the main characters, run onto stage. And that’s when it happened. Four young black actors ranging in color from brown skin to dark skin stand center stage. It dawned on me as they spoke into their on-body mics that at the center of this classic British story on stage in London’s “Broadway” were people who looked like me.
This isn’t an everyday occurrence. Yeah, representation is on the rise and more and more shows have a black lead or main ensemble cast member but not the majority of the ensemble. Never had I seen this many black faces allowed to take up space like this in a story so departed from shared histories of generational trauma, and rather deeply connected to a white nation’s culture. And rather than pure paralyzing shock, I felt the shock of belonging, sudden comfort like I was being welcomed into something. It was like in darting my eyes around the room I’d finally landed on a friend who was saying “Hey, I’m over here, come sit with me”. My limbs relaxed and I sat up in my seat. And then my smile grew.
It was that kind of smile that warms up your body, that melts from within your soul and creeps up into every nerve ending. Goosebumps. Your eyes light up, your cheeks begin to sting. It’s a full-body experience. It’s that smile that stays throughout the entire performance. It’s that smile that every black girl knows.
It’s the same smile that came when droves of our people filled the theatres for Black Panther and when our little cousins and nieces sat in front of the TV watching the trailer for The Little Mermaid with Halle Bailey. It’s the same smile I remember when I saw Brandy’s Cinderella and again seeing Keke Palmer play her on Broadway. It’s that smile when Gabby Douglas won the all-around in London 2012 and Kerry Washington starred on Scandal. It’s that smile that black moms work so hard to bring to our faces, buying tickets and turning to channels. The one that etches into our brains when we see ourselves taking up spaces they don’t expect us to take.
It’s felt in the eye contact with the only other black girl in our AP Calc class, or from across the room at that business conference. It’s felt in the nod from the only other black family at the resort. It’s the joy that comes from belonging. The acknowledgment of how unfortunately rare or lonely it can be to be The Only, yet feeling the relief of seeing another like you.
I watched these black kids perform the story of ascending to Kings and Queens of Narnia and felt extraordinary joy. For me, it’s not about exceptionalism or even achievement. It’s the fact that I sat in this theatre hundreds of miles away from home in the birthplace of American racism and instead of counting how many black people were on stage as I’m prone to do, I saw myself genuinely represented and in abundance. Not just one lead but all. Not one color but many. Not a story of trauma or a “first” to do something but rather a family on an adventure. It felt normal. My smile grew and it rested no longer pinched up to my eyes but soft, relieved.
When my family came to visit me a few months later, I took them to see the show so their smiles could grow the way mine did.
Edited by: Defne Egbo