The first time Margo Hall tried out for drama school, she did a monologue from “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf,” a classic, black, feminist theater piece by Ntozake Shange.
"It's this really black monologue," says the renowned Bay Area actor, director and playwright, sharing the memory one afternoon at her home in Oakland. "And I'm crying and doing my thing, and everybody's like, 'Ooh! that was great!'"
But Hall failed her audition.
Her older sister pushed her to try again, and the budding actor got a second chance. This time, Hall decided to infiltrate the system -- by coming across as less black.
"I did Emily from 'Our Town,'" Hall says, referencing Thornton Wilder's famous, 1938 drama set in small-town America.
Hall jokes about this as being a "big white" moment for her. She says she used her most demure "white voice" to audition with this very "white play" and even wore a white dress for the occasion.
Guess what? Hall got into the school.
This summer, we’re hearing a lot about “white voice.” Take the movie “BlacKkKlansman” out this week. It’s about a black police officer who pretends to be white to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. He begins the operation by using his white voice on the phone.
Hall is someone who knows acutely what it’s like to have to disguise your true voice to assimilate into a white dominated culture - both on and off the stage and screen.
Hall says the "white voice" thing was a deliberate act just to get into the school. "It was like, I'm getting into school and then I'm gonna raise hell," she says.
Hall says she did do her fair share of hell-raising there, like forming her own theater troupe to combat the school’s lack of main-stage roles for black actors.
Yet, she says that early experience of having to use her white voice to get ahead was traumatic.
She says white voice is baked into the way many black people speak. It’s a fact of life that many other people might not be conscious of.
"So if you're African-American, you feel like you will be more respected if for some reason you sounded like a white person," Hall says. "So if you create the illusion that you speak like them, then they feel like, 'OK now I can listen to you, because you're not ignorant, you're not uneducated.'"
She’s sometimes had to use that voice over the years to get stuff done — both professionally and personally — like trying to get medical attention for her mom, who had cancer.
"It's an odd thing. When you put on a white voice, you also put on white privilege," Hall says. "And instantly if they think you're white, then they're like 'Oh yes let me get on top of that,' because they feel like you have some power. And if you don't use your white voice, then they assume that you're poor, you probably can't pay for what you're asking for, and they'll just shuffle you around."
Movie director Boots Riley says it’s all just an act.
"Whiteness is a thing that is performed, that is not inherited," Riley says. "And so is blackness. Race is a performance. It's one that, you know, we don't necessarily have a choice in."
Riley is the director of “Sorry to Bother You,” one of several new movie releases by black filmmakers examining the absurd lengths that black people have to go to to get by in a world of white privilege.
Another is “Blindspotting,” starring and written by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs. Hall plays a non-nonsense mom in the film.
Hall says the movie makes her feel sad about the disguises people feel they have to wear just to get by.
"What is that, that we have to pretend to be something other than ourselves?" Hall says.
She hopes the latest wave of releases by this new generation of black filmmakers will empower more black people to reclaim their true identities.
"I think all of those voices are going to just tear stuff up and I'm really excited about that," Hall says.
Not every black American can or wants to use a white voice. And Hall says, maybe by broaching the subject in film, eventually they won’t have to.