How Shakespeare in the Park helped a young actor beat the odds

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Dessaline Hayden was an 18-year-old college freshman when he received the biggest phone call of his life. He was sitting in his crammed dorm room, exhausted from a long day of classes when he got the call saying he landed a role in the cast of Shakespear in the Park, by the theater company Hip to Hip Theater. This meant he would be a part of multiple different Shakespearean Classics like The Adventures of Pericles and Much Ado about Nothing, performing at different parks in New York City all throughout the summer. Dessaline accepted the role over the phone, and when he hung up, he jumped with excitement. “The first thing I did was call my mom, she’s always supported me, so being able to tell her that I got a real acting job was- just one of those full circle moments you see in a movie or something.” he chuckled then continued, “It was a good moment for me, everything that I’ve done felt like it had paid off, it was nice.”

New York City is a land of opportunity for theater, but not for all. According to a study by Backstage, in 2020 only 23.2% of actors cast in Broadway theater companies across the city were black. The diversity doesn’t get any better when looking at people studying theater either. At Marymount Manhattan College, where Dessaline currently attends, only 25.5 percent of the 2020 Theater and Musical graduating class were racial minorities. That’s lower than the nationwide average of 30 percent. In fact, to be more specific, out of that entire Theater and Musical graduating class, 6, yes 6, of those students were black. 

While those stats are important, it doesn’t take a pie chart to see this racial disparity at Marymount, just take a peek into Dessalines classes, where according to him, he is only one of, if not the only black person in the room. “You just feel so isolated you know?”, Dess exclaims, “But at the same time you feel like everyone is watching you. Like there’s a giant magnifying glass looming over me, it’s scary sometimes.”. This feeling of isolation was very new to Dessaline. He grew up in New Orleans surrounded by a majority of black and brown creatives. “Everyone’s an artist, there is always art being created, so just being around that made me want to be an artist in my own right.” Dess explains, “Everything in New Orleans feels personal, every party every celebration- I don’t know, I just felt like I was surrounded by good people, a good family.”

But it wasn’t all Marti Gras and Art shows, New Orleans was a notoriously rough place to grow up in, and it still is. “Hurricanes and fires happened to my house, I’ve seen so many friends have their lives be ruined in the matter of seconds.”, Dess’s hands curled up as he looked back on his upbringing, “Facing poverty, seeing it affects others… it just was hard to survive for all of us.” he exclaims. A lot of Dess’s own friends dealt with the same economic hardships he dealt with, since they all grew up together. It was that sense of togetherness and family that Dess learned to appreciate his home. He explained how growing up in New Orleans was like being raised by a massive family. “Everyone’s struggling, so everyone kinda inherently understands one another, and we all try to take care of each other.” But little did he know that sense of family would soon be put to the test.

When Dessaline was 17, his house caught on fire. He was devastated, watching the house he and his family had grown up in become engulfed in flames, unable to do anything but watch. But when there’s a loss, there is also a lesson, “You just have to look”, Dessaline recounts, “Losing my house taught me to never be attached to materialistic objects and to appreciate my own life, and the life of the people around me…. I wake up every day and I’m thankful to be alive”. 

When Dessaline was moving to New York City for college, his father offered to drive him all the way from Louisianna. “My dad didn’t do too much talking much during the drive, but when we got into South Carolina and eventually Virginia, he told me one thing. He told me that the 2-hour drive between South Carolina and Virginia was the same path slaves back then used to run in order to try and escape captivity. It put in perspective how much harder people like me, black people must work, even to this day, that feeling is still around.” Dess knew he had to work ten times as hard as the next person, he’d known that ever since he was a boy. “Growing up I couldn’t be lazy, it wasn’t an option, you had to work for everything you wanted.” It’s that same tough mentality that Dessaline has built that got him that audition and later role in Shakespeare in the Park.

“The entire set was built in the park from scratch, kinda like this giant house with a balcony, I guess more of like a mini castle, and at the end of the show I get to stand on top and take a bow.” He continued reminiscing, “Seeing the audience, my friends in the crowd, hearing the applause…. all of a sudden, I’m back home in New Orleans, performing for everyone who’s helped me on the way, and I’m so blessed to feel that.” 

Sources Used: Hip To Hip Theatre Company Celebrates 15 Years Of Free Shakespeare In The Parks

White NYC Theater Actors Get More Jobs and More Pay According to New Study

Marymount Manhattan College Bachelor’s in Drama & Theater Arts