Interview by Maya Renee Castro & Carolina Meurkens
Photography by Joana Meurkens
Iris Beaumier is a proud New Yorker and first generation immigrant of French and Ghanaian descent. She is an actor/ singer/ filmmaker with a passion for environmentalism and social change. Iris and I met as freshmen at LaGuardia High School Music & Art and Performing Arts. Being both first generation Americans and mixed kids, Iris and I had an instant connection, an unspoken understanding of the complexity that is growing up with this intersectional identity. It wasn’t until after high school that we put these thoughts into words and communicated them to each other. Along with Maya Renee Castro, Mixed Mag’s TV/Film/ Theatre Editor, we sat down over Zoom and talked about all things mixed kid: her experience with colorism, the lack of representation in the entertainment industry, and what she believes is the artist’s role in the Black Liberation Movement.
Can you tell us about yourself, where you were born and where you grew up?
I was born and raised in New York City, and I’ve lived in Stuy Town in the East Village my whole life. My parents immigrated in the 70s, my father from France, my mother from Ghana. The apartment that I’m in now is the same apartment my mom moved into in the 70s. We’ve been here for a little over 40 years, which is crazy to me. Seeing old pictures of the apartment presented in different ways according to the style of the time, especially when my parents were just dating, is very cool, sometimes startling.
Growing up in the East Village, can you comment on how gentrification and displacement has affected you or your community?
It makes me feel viscerally sick that so many of my friends from middle school and high school were pushed out of Stuy Town over the years. After Stuy Town went through a change in ownership, many folks were forced to move or pay market rates for their apartment. I can only speak to how my family represented themselves in this upheaval. My dad ended up representing us in court, which was a huge feat. But I don’t know how that would’ve gone down had he not been a white, confident French man. It’s conflicting because I’m grateful that I have a place I can pass on to my children if I have any, but I know that if I had slightly different circumstances, I wouldn’t still be here.
After that period, the owners started renting a lot of units to NYU, which meant the white upper class university student demographic spiked. I think that further pushed the rent upwards in Stuy Town and encouraged places like Target and Trader Joe’s to open up side by side on Avenue A. Gentrification is something I wish I had more vocabulary to talk about because it’s definitely happening and I feel it all the time. It’s affected the essence of my neighborhood. It’s disheartening to see a Starbucks in the place of my favorite childhood pizzeria, you know? If I can see all that in my own lifetime, I can’t imagine what my parents have seen over 40 years.
What’s your experience been navigating the world as a mixed person?
Being the only child of immigrants, I feel a lot of pride and responsibility carrying multiple cultures; however, growing up there was a constant need to challenge perspectives dismissing how I defined myself. Especially among people I respected. From white French family members unable to grasp the concept of Blackness to Ghanians who look down on African Americans, there was rejection on both ends of being Black American. And locally, in the U.S., it manifested in people around me thinking I was not “Black enough”. The sense of “otherness” would creep up on every corner, which eventually made me learn how important it was to be solid in defining my own identity. A balance of being firm, yet understanding and empathetic, since these are all people I respect and love. It’s a feeling I carry in my profession and how I interact with everyone I meet.
What’s your experience been like with colorism?
In middle school, I was one of three black kids in a class of forty. I was the lightest between the three of us and remember many times I was given preference or treated more leniently. This is something that has been prevalent throughout my entire education. I once had a teacher who had the audacity to speak to me, voicing a grievance specifically about my dark-skinned classmates, hoping I would side with their perspective. In fourth grade, I remember coming back from vacation after getting really tan, walking through the doors of my classroom and my friends looking at me, but not recognizing me. I pleaded with them saying I was the same, just a bit darker. The next day, a white classmate came to school with a lightening cream. I went to the bathroom and used it until my skin burnt. I kept going because I thought it was what I had to do to be seen again. Worst is I’m sure the friend who brought the cream thought she was trying to help. I don’t think I ever told my mom, she’d be so upset. She always taught me to love my skin and my hair, that isn’t 3A. I’ve always been aware of the expectations to be the right kind of mixed –loose curls, freckles, thin frame–especially in the entertainment industry. It’s one-dimensional. Still, light-skinned Black women have far more representation than dark-skinned women in film and television.
How has your experience been navigating the entertainment industry as a Black actor?
On the last show I did, “The Dark Star from Harlem” playing Josephine Baker, I was lucky to have a Black wig stylist who knew how to work my hair. She was a classically trained actor who went into the theatre hair business because she had performed many shows herself where people did not understand styling for kinky or coily hair. She saw the need and showed up. I’ve felt that sentiment on set where I had to do my own hair because the stylist kind of gave up. This is all because a majority of hair and makeup people are white. It makes me think about Anthony Mackie, an actor in Marvel franchise, who said the only time Marvel hired an all black crew was in Black Panther, but in the other Marvel films he had done, the entire crew was white. Can’t Black people be hired for a show that doesn’t center around Blackness if they are just as skilled? Clearly, there are people in the industry, but they’re not being hired across the board. The same goes for Theater. I read that 85% of writers produced on American Stages are white, with only 3.8% being Black women (according to the WeeSeeYouWAT Campaign). Can you imagine how it is for other marginalized groups in our industry?
Where do you think the entertainment industry is in terms of representation? Where would you like it to be?
I’ve never been on a set where there’s been an equal number of poc to white people. It’s usually predominantly men. When I walk into the room, according to the number of people of color, I am confronted with whether I am supposed to be the voice for all minority ethnic groups. I’ve noticed this trend in the past two years of people calling in diversity consultants or assistant writers to help white people write stories about people of color. That’s not the solution. It really doesn’t cut it. People of color should be the ones telling stories about people of color. But because we live in a country that puts prestige on degrees and education, there are so many hurdles for people of color to jump through to get the same place of consideration and respect as white people. In musical theater specifically, the application fees to even get your video considered for round one is ridiculous. It has to start from early on for people to grow and become the producers that hire the show runners, who hire people who ensure there’s more representation.
We’d love to hear more about your journey as an actor… Do you remember when you realized first wanted to be an actor?
I recently found this photo while my family and I were organizing the house during this pandemic area. It’s of me front and center stage at Nazareth Montessori Nursery School. In the photo my mouth is wide open, mid-lyric. My mom said that was the first time that she realized this was the path that I was going to take. I started taking private voice lessons and my parents bought me this massive boombox karaoke machine that came with about twelve CDs, twelve tracks each. So I’m like six singing Beach Boys classics. Then I remember coming across a Whitney Houston song that literally changed me. I felt like that’s what I wanted to do, spread joy and belt my face off like Whitney.
What do you hope the audience/ viewer takes away from your work? And also alongside that, who are you doing this work for?
Recently I’ve been reflecting on why I’m an actor and I find that theater, film, television and music is what moves people’s hearts and changes perspectives. We really do need profound change in law, in equity and reparations. But that’s not my lane. I think my role is to change hearts and minds, so people can acknowledge injustices that have happened to Indigenous and Black people in our country. When people see my work, I want them to examine if they have expectations of the character and where those expectations come from. I want to tell marginalized stories, especially of our dark-skinned Black brothers and sisters, who are still facing more hurdles than I am. I want a little girl in fourth grade to not feel like her skin color is a problem, to feel supported. Our job is to provide nuanced perspectives so people understand there isn’t one story that represents people of color, there are many. I want to encourage empathy so others feel inspired to take action in their own lanes.
What’re some themes that come up frequently in your work?
I love bridging unlikely topics together in my work, like eco drama. That was something I became obsessed with in college. It feeds into the conversation about complexity that we can’t assume people’s backgrounds and who they are. It’s very complex. In college, I went to Indonesia on a Fellowship and my initial goal was to experiment with underwater documentary work. But of course, I didn’t have the right camera, the sound was bad and it didn’t turn out the way I wanted. But two things came out of that trip that I wasn’t expecting. I interviewed a fishing family that was involved in fish fence farming, which is when you use barriers to catch fish against the current. But the problem was, the Indonesian government supplied free or reduced price fishing nets which had a small netting mesh size. The net captured juvenile fish, depleting the fish populations in that area. Dependent on this new source of income many of these families were unable to pay off their debt because over time there were less fish to catch. Along the way fell in love with Balinese movement. Balinese dancing is so expressive. It felt like a good medium to tell their story. So I studied up, learned, and combined the filming I got from the interviews with Balinese movement to tell the story of this fishing family.
How does your identity and cultural heritage influence your art?
Because of my background, I grew up learning how to adapt to different situations from a very young age. As mixed kids, we find ourselves having to code switch within our own families. I never felt like my life was in danger, so I’m not going to say it was a survival mechanism, but it’s what I had to do to feel comfortable. Code switching is a form of disguise. It’s a skill, like shapeshifting. That kind of flexibility translates into my profession as an actress becoming other characters.
Lastly, what’re some must see films/ tv shows/ plays that speak to you?
Marianne Noires is a documentary film I was featured in about Afro-French Womanhood. It’s directed by Mame-Fatou Niang and Kaytie Nielsen. Mame-Fatou is a leading scholar in French and Francophone studies and was one of my Professors at Carnegie Mellon. She was born in Senegal and educated in France. Kaytie is a brilliant director and writer and one of my best friends. Along with Joe Hill, the Director of Photography, the documentary expanded on Mame-Fatou’s studies concerning 1st and 2nd generation banlieue immigrants in France . Joe and Katie are white, but they definitely understood the tension in the film and the perspectives that were being shared. The film gave me the vocabulary and the tools to understand what it means to be Black in France. It literally helped me work through what I felt every time I went to France. I didn’t feel so alone in this rejection from a country that I do feel like is mine.
A play that I adore is School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh. The show bridges West African and African-American culture, and provides a great look into colorism in Ghana. A must-see tv show is Ava Duverney’s When They See Us. It was an important series for me to watch personally because I know that while I’m Black in America, I’m also a Black person living in the Lower East Side of New York. Had I grown up just a few blocks north, I know I would’ve had a very different experience growing up. I wanted to watch it with my parents because a lot of the conversations that we have pertain to how they see themselves as immigrants in a “post Civil Rights Era” America. It’s easy to idolize American society, but there’s still so much rampant racism.