‘Initially, it was the lack of roles for people like me that inspired me to create this show,’ she explains.
‘I personally connected to Lena’s story so deeply, her struggles as an artist held back by her race. That powerless feeling really spoke to me.
‘I’ve been extremely close to so many roles and lost out to actors because they had more profile then me, and I’ve had my lines or scenes cut because the “star” wanted more screen time.
‘I’ve not been seen for roles in period drama’s because I don’t look “period” enough, and so many parts for mixed-race actors fall into the murky waters of the “temptress” trope.
‘Talk about a sinister lingering throwback from slavery.
‘Lena Horne was also mixed-race, although the term “mixed” wasn’t used back then; you were either black or white. In fact “biracial” is a relatively new term in the US.
‘Pre-Obama, being mixed-race and admitting to it was really looked down upon. Here in the UK, we were far more progressive in this way. Lena, descended from black slave and non slave Senegalese blood, as well as European slave owners and Native Americans – I mean she really was the epitome of the authentic “All American Girl”.
‘As I researched Lena’s life I became fuelled by a burning desire to tell this story. I became inspired by Lena herself. There was so much I discovered about her that I did not previously know about, like her her activism, she was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
‘I had never heard Lena Horne’s story told in a theatrical capacity before, so I felt compelled to tell it. She broke so many barriers, and her existence has had a direct impact on my life. She is part of my success story.
‘Without her, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing within my career. Without Lena Horne there would be no Beyoncé, or Lupita Nyongo. She was a trail blazer. She changed the way Hollywood perceived black women.
‘She represents so much in terms of artistic integrity, grit, professionalism, racial and cultural identity, and the evolution of popular music and the entertainment business.
‘Her story has so much relevance, and that’s what kept me inspired during the gruelling four years it took to write the show. It has been through sharing Lena Horne’s story that I liberated myself from feelings powerlessness in my own career.’
Lena’s story has universal relevance. The work she did changed perceptions and opened doors for female and male actors who didn’t necessarily fit the pre-existing norms that Hollywood expected.
‘Lena was the first Black Hollywood movie star, the first black “sex symbol” who shattered the way black women were portrayed on the silver screen,’ explains Camilla.
‘She was a heroic symbol for so many disenfranchised black people, she was a beacon of hope, a sign of change. Up until then black actors were only used to portray racist stereotypes in Hollywood narratives; rapists, buffoons, slaves, and maids.
‘Lena Horne was a political symbol as well as a bonafide talent. Tragically though she was restricted in her art because of the weight she carried as a “symbol” and sadly, the movie industry was not ready to embrace her fully and she was restricted to playing night club singers in most of her films.
‘She was too white to play romantic leads alongside leading black male actors, for fear of audiences thinking she was white and boycotting the movie in their disgust at interracial relationships.
‘She was too black to share screen time with white actors, because that just wasn’t allowed.
‘She also faced backlash from the black actors working in Hollywood who saw her ground breaking contract as a threat to their livelihoods, because they made their living playing degrading stereotypes. These black actors rallied against Lena Horne in Hollywood, ostrasizing her even more.
‘Again this is a trait of the mixed-race narrative; often feeling like you don’t fit in on either side of the fence.
‘Today, more than 100 years after Lena Horne was born, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and post-Weinstein, it seems as though things are only now beginning to significantly change for women in our industry, and change for non-white women in our industry is a few steps behind that.
‘Lena Horne’s fortitude, her grace in the face of all she had to endure, followed by the success she found in her 60s with her award-winning one-woman show, makes her an inspiration. She deserves to be celebrated.’
For Camilla, it is hard to overstate the importance of telling stories like Lena’s. The consistent whitewashing of history has a profound effect on the aspirational prospects of minorities – she sees her show as an opportunity to chip away at this overarching narrative.
‘It’s so important to hear stories about iconic figures of all backgrounds because it re-balances the history books that have largely written out our preciously diverse history,’ she tells us.
‘We all need to see ourselves mirrored in history to be able to claim our value in the present. The stories of our mothers and fathers and grandmothers anchor us in who in we are. And if we don’t have uplifting roles models available to us we can’t see beyond our own circumstances.
‘These people are part of our rich collective human history. Experiencing stories from different perspectives enriches all our lives. Stories are not just black stories, or Asian stories or white stories, they’re human stories.’
Camilla’s show Stormy, the Life of Lena Horne, takes place on the 13th May as part of the Underbelly Festival on London’s Southbank.
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