What We Need: A Q&A w/ Cameron Knight
When I sat down with Cameron Knight, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to ask him.
I thought to myself: “We’re both black. We both love the theatre... That’s enough to go on.”
I mean, of course, I had a couple questions in my back pocket, but I figured our similarities coupled with the previous two months I had spent learning from and working with the wise, humble talent that is Cameron Knight, was all I needed to uncover what it was he had to give. Through my aimless picking of this man’s mind, Cameron left me with a prescription of sorts. It turns out what he had to give is what we all need right now.
The current Head of BFA Acting at the Theatre School at DePaul University is a native of Flint, Michigan. Coming up in a religious, blue-collar family, Knight found that what sparked his interest in theatre — as unfortunate as it is to say now, he admits — was The Cosby Show. “That show was everything to me,” Knight says, citing the show’s representation of black affluence as one of, if not the only example(s) he had known. However, it was his mother, a singer and sculptor from the south, that catalyzed his artistic journey as a whole. His mother’s frequent illness always prevented her from bringing her artistic aspirations to fruition, but by keeping him in libraries, at operas, and at plays, she instilled a courage in her son to pursue interests, see his own aspirations through, and ultimately sustain a “balanced life.”
When I asked him if he could name exactly what this upbringing in the theatre has given him as a human, he knew off-top:
“Everything… Everything in my life, I owe to the theatre... From the friends, the job, the dog I have. All those things are a byproduct of a life committed to the arts. That doesn’t make it easy, but I’m certainly reaping the benefits of it. It’s certainly made me a more well-rounded person, and a much more conscious person… Theatre made me curious… Curious about where I live and how I live.”
It’s that same curiosity that Knight seeks to give back to his students. He tells me it is a matter of “inspiring a person to be interested enough to seek answers... because the joy is in the searching.” Having students “learn how to learn” is his greatest goal, as this skill works its way into becoming a tool with which we can become more versed in the many things that make up being a human. “You understand a lot, and that offers you compassion.” Knight says.
You can’t have curiosity without some degree of ignorance, and with that ignorance comes fear; the fear of not knowing, the fear of being wrong, being misinterpreted, being called out, etc. Knight holds fear as one our greatest vices, telling me: “A lot of people are still looking for permission to do the things that they would love to do.” He has seen this fear manifest its way into his career, ultimately blocking chances for great things to happen. He cites general instances of fear, from colleagues overlooking ways to provide more representation in their curriculum to actors straying away from making choices on stage. However, what is greater than fear is the impact of action, and it is that action that we all need.
For Cameron and myself, our action comes from the art we put into the world. It goes without saying that our world today is plagued with issues, anxieties, and unanswered questions. However, while art can hold the mirror up to society and (at the least) uncover these issues and questions, shouldn't it also provide refuge for our daily troubles? In 2017, is there room for theatre, music, and art that provides a complete escape from the issues at hand?
To Cameron Knight, no.
He brought up our respective circumstance in particular: two black men in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, set in the early 1940s during WWII. “I had a friend who said, very beautifully, that every play is an element of the future… a vehicle of the future… So we’re never escaping into the 1940s in this production of Much Ado About Nothing. It is a reflection of the world we live in now, even with you and I being cast in it. That element alone makes it a product of the future… That couldn't happen… Anytime we nostalgically go back, you’re trying to inadvertently erase me, and that is a degree of escapism. People try to escape their views about race or their anxieties about race or gender or what have you… by saying ‘Let’s think about the positive.’ But those positives are only 50% of the narrative. For positive to exist, there has to be something negative.
“I do find that there are people who escape in ideals. People who say, ‘All we need to do is love each other, and that will conquer…’ no it won't. It's not that it's naive, it is escapism… Hiding behind an ideal when there are real people dying.” In the end, hiding behind these positives, these “ideals,” is futile.
As an idealist himself, Knight finds that the balance between living in idealism and living in reality lies in application - the action. “We can sit around and click like on Facebook and talk about how it should be, but until we actually put feet on the ground and go to work, it's just an ideal. It's like when people offer sympathy for world issues; I don't need your sympathy, I need your support. I need action.”
This isn't the first time that this message has been passed on to me. Although, working with Cameron this past summer has shown me this active idealism and its impacts first-hand. He’s applied his ideals of race and representation by taking steps to widen the canon of plays studied in his acting classes. He's applied his ideals of feminism through cross-gender casting while still keeping the integrity of the narratives at hand. You've got to trust me on this one: the receipts are there.
And he admits, he hasn't taken these actions without encountering the fear that bubbles inside us all: potentially facing backlash from one’s students, friends, and community. Nevertheless, by taking ownership of his fear, his ignorance, and his imperfections, he finds the strength to act— on AND offstage. From Cameron Knight to Colin Kaepernick, we all see that to do something costs something; committing to action takes great risk. “We have to be willing to take those shots if we’re actually going to change something,” Knight tells me.
I sat down with Cameron about a week prior to the Hurricane Harvey tragedy that struck our nation, leaving Texas in disaster and grief. Fortunately, people across the country are pulling together, uniting in action. Unfortunately, we had to see catastrophe for this to happen. But perhaps this isn't the peak. Maybe this is the beginning of action that will lead us into a new era— an era of change.
Well, we’ll have to change ourselves first to know, right?
Face that fear.