June 12, 2020
The Broadway star babysitting the next generation of anti-racists
Photograph: Brian Ray Norris
The five stages of grief go something like this: we're in denial; we're angry as hell; we're depressed, numb. Eventually – hopefully – we move on and forge a new plan, a new way of being.
Vasthy Mompoint has definitely been angry. She’s been sad too. The actor, who has performed in Broadway shows including The SpongeBob Musical and The Prom, knows only too well the inherent racism that exists within the theater industry. And the last few weeks have brought that painfully to the surface.
But she has a plan. Her mission: to create vibrant, joyful children’s programming – in the mold of Mr Rodgers and Lavar Burton (there has never been an American black, female children’s TV host) – through the Broadway Babysitters Playhouse.
“You know what I love most about doing the Playhouse?” she says. “I get to normalize being black to little kids. I get to show them (before the world tells them otherwise) that we are joyous. That we have other sides than the ones shown in the media and on TV. We tell stories and dance to songs together despite differences. And, most importantly, that we are love.”
But the last couple of weeks have been tough. “I go from being sad to angry, to, ‘All right, I need to get to work,’” she says. Griffin Matthews, who was one of the first voices to call out the racism in Broadway in early June, posted a video on Instagram that triggered all the emotions in her.
“It hurt. The truth of it," she wrote in response. "Every day reveals a new layer of pain we thought we’d dealt with.
"I love Broadway. I love theater. It gave me a chosen family I could only dream of having. But, that video – ouch!”
Think about it. The producers are white, the creative directors are white, the crew is white, the costume designers are white, the wig designers are white. “All of the biggest black Broadway shows,” says Vasthy, “Asian and Latin shows too – weren't even written by us. Hairspray, On This Island, Aida, Porgy and Bess. It's not even our voices. We've never had a voice in theater. And there are so many people ready to step into creative rooms and chairs, but nobody wants to hire us because everyone wants to choose the safe way.
“Then there are the little things, like not having the same color tights that match your skin, but match everyone else's skin, not having the right make-up, not taking into consideration that black hair is different from white hair. So putting a wig on our head can rip the hair out.”
Since Griffin's video, the dialogue has opened up. One Broadway producer has talked about the racism at the root of The Book of Mormon, and the We See You, White American Theater movement has collected more than 71,000 signatures on its petition demanding a more equitable, safe space for all BIPOC communities. Just yesterday, the celebrated dance shoe maker LaDuca issued an apology, and promised to begin offering all its styles in a variety of colors, at no extra cost.
“It's an interesting thing,” says Vasthy. “It’s almost as if we'd been hiding secret, silent trauma for most of our lives. And the last week has been like a metamorphosis. I think it’s going to be scary and uncomfortable, but it's what needed to happen.”
Vasthy came to New York when she was 17, studied at the American Musical Dramatic Academy, and got her first Broadway show at the age of 24. “I went from being one of the worst people in my dance classes – I couldn’t even get the high school musical – to getting eight Broadway shows,” she says.
And, like any actor, she had a side hustle – a survival gig that turned out to be way more rewarding than any bartending job. She launched Broadway Babysitters to enable artists like her to make money in between jobs, to give herself some financial freedom, and to help parents in the industry struggling with childcare costs.
Then COVID-19 happened, and even before Broadway had shut down, she knew what she was going to do.
“It's interesting because I had my own private quarantine last year. I had gotten very, very sick. I was in The Prom, and had to leave the show for four months. I had a face mask on, I was quarantined, and I remember that time being so scary because, when you're home and you have no distractions, you really start to face yourself.
“So my husband and I knew people were going to need help with joy. Parents would still need help with kids.”
Playhouse was launched with six families, offering virtual courses, song and story times, and dance parties featuring Broadway performers. Now they reach more than 750 families, all over the world.
“I want to introduce kids to different cultures. For instance, I'm Haitian. So we have days where we introduce Asian culture or Caribbean culture, I have a friend I did Prom with who's going to teach a class in Korean. And the kids get to see each other in the Zoom Room; kids that don't look like them, because we have kids from Germany, London, Australia.
Each class is donation based, and the artists are paid for their work. “It's just become something very special. And we're lucky to be able to do it.
“The kind of education we're giving them is a social education,” she says. “And the most important thing I try to teach them is that joy is a choice. You have a choice to make it a day where you can find happiness. And, at the same time, I tell them, ‘If you have bad feelings, you should feel those feelings and then you should let them go.’ I try to connect theater and art to show kids ways to artistically handle pain, sadness, and celebrate joy and happiness.”
And she’s leading by example. “I’m a very hopeful person,” she says. “My parents grew up in Haiti, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, and they always found light. So I grew up with that sort of mentality, and I can always pull from that.
“I personally think that things happen for a reason. And I think that the universe or the planet put us on a time-out so that we could not be distracted and maybe give us a chance to change everything. It would be silly to hope that every single person changed – I hope they will – but I think there'll be enough people to invoke change. I'm hopeful for that.”