Rotimi Agbabiaka’s one man play, “Type/Caste,” centered on what it is like for a black, queer actor to make it in the theatre business. That means dealing with one of its most frustrating aspects: being typecast. Again and again, actors of color are assigned the same roles based primarily on their race. This one-man show was Agbabiaka’s answer; it demonstrated his captivating energy and impressive versatility and showed he is fit for a thousand different roles.
Akhila Khanna ’17, a good friend of Agbabiaka and the one who pushed for the event to happen, had interned at his troupe in the Bay Area of California working on plays that would engage the surrounding community’s pertinent issues, like the privatization of public education. Khanna felt “Type/Caste” was what Middlebury needed with the events of Charles Murray still resonating throughout campus.
The play is made up of primarily Agbabiaka’s background and history because he is telling his own story. But it has a broader political message at its core: the exclusivity of race and non-heterosexuality in American mainstream theatre. But it does not even need to be that she says, to be political here at Middlebury. Just the sheer contrast between Charles Murray and Rotimi Agbabiaka makes it political. The sense that this is what students at Middlebury should be hearing—this is the kind of speaker that Wilson Hall needs.
The show began with Khanna introducing Agbabiaka by reciting a poem and a short autobiography. He was born in Lagos, Nigeria before he and his family immigrated to the states. Here, he studied at the University of Texas, majoring in English and Economics. He then switched gears to study at the University of Northern Illinois where he received an MFA in acting.
After Khanna introduced Agbabiaka, the lights dimmed and a spotlight opened up to illuminate Agbabiaka, smiling fiercely, sitting at a table in the middle of the stage and wearing a pair of high-heeled shoes. At first there is little dialogue — Rotimi did not need words to prove that he is captivating. He approaches a rack of dresses by the edge of the stage and picks out a white dress. Putting it on, his pleasure is so visible that it evokes laughs from the audience.
Then he begins to speak. From the day he was born, he said, he felt different. He felt like his body was capable of thoughts and desires beyond what his culture allowed. And when he put on his first dress — he knew, he simply knew — that he loved it.
In a memorable scene, Agbabiaka displayed his dynamic skills as he juggled various different personalities and accents to play both himself and the three judges at one of his auditions. He shifted from a stuffy Shakespearean scholar to a pretentious theatre producer and to a young white producer who did not understand the concept of his privilege. Through subtle adjustments of his coat, posture and voice, he was able to make all four characters distinct and entertaining.
In another scene, Agabiaka explores why his father has such trouble accepting his homosexuality. At one point, he portrays God — to whom his father prays so fervently — as a Nigerian drag queen. From her, Agbabiaka learns that his father is the one tormented “gay demons,” that he was trying to keep away from his son. Then, with a change of lighting and music Agbabiaka turns the drag queen into a demon that embodies the hatred, guilt and anger which haunted his father.
The point of “Type/Caste” is to encourage the audience members to tell their own stories — that is what makes it powerful and genuine. To a certain extent, Agbabiaka is exploring who he is with “Type/Caste,” to make himself into a character, into something marketable, searching for a sort of artistic identity. Being forced and bottled into the same role over and over limits what he can explore and achieve. He cannot grow if he does not try out a wide range of roles.
Khanna has felt the same way. She is a theatre major at the College, and while acting here, she has been cast as an Indian dancer twice. She was once asked to wear Indian clothing in a play that did not require her to wear such clothes — she could have worn anything.
“I haven’t come to Middlebury to … preach my South-Asian ancestry,” she said. “I’ve come here to find inter-cultural connections. How am I [going to] find the inter-cultural connection if I’m not challenged to engage with the Western art forms?”
One of the reasons why she brought Agbabiaka to Middlebury was so that other artists of color see that they do not need to be cast in these same roles over and over, and they do not need to wait for someone else in order to showcase their own talent. They can create their own niche, they can find a way — like Agbabiaka — to transcend the typecast.
Whenever Khanna asked him how to make it in the acting world, she said he always told her that theatre begins from a place of honesty.
“Every person has their own story … and every story is marketable. So you have to figure out what your story is … what makes you different, and capitalize that in a way that is true to your artistic identity,” Khanna said.
“Type/Cast” was Agbabiaka’s way of doing that.