Vanessa Robinson plays Massassi in the upcoming production of IF PRETTY HURTS UGLY MUST BE A MUHFUCKA. This is her first show with Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte. She took the time to sit down with us on July 9, 2022.
What was your entry point into theatre?
That’s a really funny question because in arts school…it seemed like everybody was a theatre kid. I was not. I was always really shy – I was a singer, and my dad’s a singer, but my introduction to theatre didn’t come until much later. The first time I thought, “Wow this is something i want to do and I want to be a part of,” was when we went to see Ragtime in high school for chorus at Carnegie Hall – all the choruses go to Carnegie Hall – and Ragtime was my first real on-Broadway Broadway show. Before that moment it never occurred to me that this is something people did for their career. As soon as the Harlem ensemble came out in Ragtime – they have this burst of [mimics orchestral introductory flourish] and everybody’s happy and excited, and I was like, “What? This is what these people do for their lives. I wanna do that too.”
What’s a movie folks haven’t seen that they should?
Gia with Angelina Jolie. It’s a true story about Gia Marie Carangi, who was the first supermodel. [She] exploded everywhere, everyone knows her name, on the front cover of everything, but she also is one of the first really public cases of AIDS. It’s hard to watch. [Laughs.] I tend to gravitate towards things that are harder to watch, because I’m an actress and I’m interested in how people get to that point. A lot of people don’t know about that movie, they just know about Angelina as she is now, this huge star. She is fantastic in that movie. Faye Dunaway is in it. I’m a huge Bonnie & Clyde fan. It just depends on my mood!
Are you a fan of older films?
Yeah. it’s funny, musical-wise – and this is part of being a theater kid – growing up, if you are of color, you might be behind on a lot of the older things simply because nobody ever told you that that was something for you. All the theatre kidsI went to school with were [into] all the classic musicals, Oklahoma!, Kiss Me Kate, but it’s only now that we’re beginning to be cast in those. So I had a lot of catching up to do going to theatre school. All these kids did these shows in high school or always wanted to play Annie. But us, we’re not really told that we can do that. So we have a deficit to catch up on. My friend Shabazz was in a black Oklahoma! out west, and it was all black casting notes, just the coolest thing. But if you aren’t taught to go for those things, you’re just like, “Well, that’s not for me. Why would I know Oklahoma!”
When you found yourself in a group of people recommending these classic musicals, did the content feel distant culturally for you or did you just wish you’d seen it sooner?
[Ponders.] I mean, a lot of those shows tend to be problematic racially anyway. Showboat is one of the few that we would know because there’s some black and some white people in it. I love updated versions of the shows. I want them to stay true to the material, of course, but how can we make this fresher for audiences now? And I hope this is changing, but, in school we still would get typecast. If I said I wanted to play the lead in Oklahoma! or a classic musical it’d be like, “eh, but she’s blonde and more that type,” which is like… I love that a couple weeks ago I saw black Elle in Legally Blonde with blonde braids, or, black Belle, Beauty and the Beast. I love that I’m seeing a little bit more of, “Oh! Yeah, why couldn’t she do that? There’s no reason she can’t do that!” Not only that but, intersectionally, the Elle that I saw is also plus-size. So again, that’s another thing that’s like: “Why couldn’t she be?” People stick very strictly to the things that have always been done, and I’m glad to see that that’s starting to change a little.
How do you feel about If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be A Muhfucka?
I am loving being in this show, and discovering. We have had a couple of heart-to-heart chats with each other about what this means to us and what we’re discovering. When I tell you I had zero idea that this role was going to be mine, no idea at all, it wasn’t even in my thoughts that I would be Massassi. Me being me, I’m used to them being like, “You’re going to play the mother.” This show is specifically about embracing your own unconventional beauty, and it’s ingrained even in me to assume that the one who’s not the sexiest and the boldest and the brash queen bee role is not for me. When they asked me to read for it, I was like, “What?” And you know, I’m a little older than the other girls, it just didn’t cross my mind at all. And when I got to know [Massassi] a little more, I was like, “Well, why not? You can do this. This is for you. It’s okay to claim this for yourself.” I get her. I understand her, because the only thing anybody ever sees of her is her body. That’s all anybody ever cares about. And they make certain assumptions about her, because she looks that way. That’s how she was born – ever since she was a child people talk about her body. They talk about it so much, that’s all they ever want to know about her. She’s sexy, she’s got boobs, blah blah. But she is just yearning for somebody to see her as a person, and not just sexy, and I get that. In today’s modern world, being a plus-size woman that’s the first thing people see, they make different assumptions about you, and like, dating-wise – I mean, Kasim will hook up with Massassi. He thinks she’s hot and he thinks she’s sexy… but you’re not gonna date her. Publicly he’s not going to claim her as his girl. He wants Akim, who’s like pretty and pure and unattainable. It’s not that he thinks Massassi isn’t pretty or sexy, he just can’t get Akim and that’s why he wants her more. Massassi is just there, and he has access to her. So, there’s a lot to unpack for each character, and we’re all pretty distinct, and we’re all working righ tnow on discovering those differences, all three of us. Massassi is one of those people who’s like, “That’s what you think of me? Then, fine! I’m fine.” but, that’s a front. Inside, she’s frustrated and hurt. Her own family members talk about her like she had anything to do with the way her body was shaped. Well, she’s “fast.” She’s just a kid. I mean, she says she wants to be a ballerina and they’re like, [stifled laughter]. They don’t encourage her in that way because of her body. And it’s happened since she was a child. So, yeah, I get people having different perceptions of you based on something that’s largely out of your control.
Do you feel trust with the group in the rehearsal space?
Yeah, since we had that talk. I think it was important for me. [Director Sidney Horton] pulled us all in, like “get a little closer and talk about what this show means to you.” The women especially, we get it, you know? We all have to do these certain things — especially being actresses, we have to do these certain things, look a certain way, talk a certain way. Something that I say might trigger something that you have been through. It was just really valuable, especially for the men in the room, to listen to us talk about how this show reflects everything that we have been through. So we’re starting to have more fun with each other and become a little bit more of unit. Which is really important, because these girls are so close that they finish each other’s sentences constantly in this show, they’re talking over each other, so we have to develop that I-know-what-you’re-gonna-say-before-you’re-gonna-say-it kinda vibe.
IF PRETTY HURTS UGLY MUST BE A MUHFUCKA runs July 27 – August 20 at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte. You can get tickets here.