The Actor’s Studio on West 44th and 8th Avenue was a location Kalisha knew well. She had read for parts here at least four times. One got her into the ensemble in Kinky Boots last season. Lately she’d landed some local TV ads and a nice voiceover job for an audiobook. But what she really chased was that steady, next-level acting gig, something that might get her national exposure. And maybe do a little better than just surviving in the big city.
The ad read:
Hard to prepare for something described so vaguely, she thought, tossing her empty coffee and pushing through the big brass revolving lobby door, an immediate burst of warmth pushing the January cold back into the street. She’d drawn the golden ticket here before. Maybe luck would strike today.
Following makeshift signs to an unfamiliar first floor room, she opened a door and spotted an improv guy she’d seen before at casting calls. He was warming up doing Trump and Biden impersonation riffs into a mirror, his Trump now clownish and overdone, but his Biden, with exaggerated senility, was fresh and hilariously spot-on.
She loved her dreadlocked look best but always led with the straightened-hair, practical-sexy shot. She closed her eyes to get her mind centered, the mental preparation needed to pull any random emotion from her growing thespian tool bag. As she began to find her center, they called in the improv guy.
In just a few minutes, he strode back through the door, all the presidential aura knocked out of him. They made eye contact, fellow soldiers in the endless battle for acting work. His eyes said man, that was weird. She heard her name. Game time!
She quickly sized up an unfamiliar room. A mini-theatre of maybe 50 flip seats, a perfectly silent audience of various sizes, shapes and colors. Her audiences tended to skew older and whiter. This one had all the makings of a focus group.
“Ah, Kalisha Ali… is it? Welcome.” From stage right, a ball-capped, athletic looking man with Scorsese-like eyes felt no need to introduce himself. He motioned her to the center-stage lectern.
“In this role you’ll be playing a politician. You’ll read a few lines from, like, a town-hall speech. Are you familiar with politics, Kalisha? You know, liberals and conservatives?”
“Sure, as much as anyone I suppose.”
Apparently having no issues with personal space, Martin put both his hands on her shoulders, speaking assuringly as a highly skilled coach might, right into her.
“Your character is liberal. So draw motivation here from a mix of empathy and condescension. Think you’re all in miserable shape, and I’m the only one who can save you. The other guy is basically satan, so if you’ll just give me your vote instead of that asshole I’ll leave you alone for the next two years. I’ll give you a second to get into character. Nod when you’re ready. The teleprompter will start and stop on my cue.”
She looked over the first few phrases on the page.
“We’re at a dangerous crossroads in this country [scan the mock audience]. A time where compassion for our fellow citizens is at an all-time low [subtle oratory escalation]. We’re scared of what we’ve become, of what might happen next [no shit?]. And [punch it here] TRUTH… that critical thing that we always counted on to point our compass toward right and away from wrong [point upward for effect]. Well, that compass today spins aimlessly, and is leading our society right off a cliff.
She used a teleprompter gap to close her eyes and shake her head in intense, manufactured consternation. It continued…
“I remember my own working-class roots right here in this community. Papa was tired from long days at the tannery [what is hell is that?]. Mama stayed up late nights helping me with homework [a wistful, looking-back smile]. They taught me to look after our neighbors. To help our community in little ways every day [nod knowingly]. Mama and I would clean a neighbor lady’s kitchen who lived alone…pick up some groceries [I’m feeling this character, let’s go for it here].”
On impulse, it seemed a worthy gambit.
“We need to put compassion back into our government [hey, nice cashmere sweater in the first row]. Our society is like a worn sweater with many holes. Collectively, we’re threadbare. Too many of us cold, hungry, in need of just that little bit of compassion to keep us going.” Kalisha knelt slightly toward an aisle seat, locked eyes and gently patted a shoulder. “I will always fight for you [slight head nod, eyes just a little wet].”
She moved fluidly back towards the lectern. Her eyes unable to re-engage the line on the moving teleprompter, her own improv riff would need to continue.
“I mean, we all just want a fair shot, right?” [they’re actually nodding back] “To work hard, to pay taxes, to maybe get more than just a paycheck or two ahead [fighting hard now to block out Juilliard and summers in the Hamptons]. I will fight for the things that matter to you. [count them out on one extended hand] Affordable health care for everyone. Streets safe from guns in the wrong hands. A minimum wage that assures all of us can make it, not just the fortunate few.”
The ignored teleprompter had stopped scrolling. “Together we will…”
“Okay…Wow. Thank you, ah…Kalisha… for that, rather inspired off-script reading. Everyone, go ahead and press your buttons.”
In the business, actors get a good sense when they kill it.
“Kalisha. Really appreciate that read. We will definitely be in touch. Please leave your contact information with Jamie; he’s just outside that door.”
Early the next morning, her phone buzzed. Jamie called to lock her down for another reading at 2 P.M. Awesome, she thought, her calendar already clear.
She arrived ten minutes early to an empty waiting room. Right on time, she heard her name called. Over morning coffee she’d spent the entire morning googling the left-wing agenda. Armed with fresh new riffs on climate change, affirmative action and critical race theory, she stepped back into the ring with brimming confidence. The ball-capped Scorsese stood smiling.
“Kalisha, thanks for making the time. I’m Julian Girard.” He gestured towards another man and woman sitting at a table by the stage. “We loved your read yesterday. But something unexpected came up and we have a big ask. We need you to read for another part.”
Julian continued, now almost embracing her. Obliterating all personal space norms, he reversed his ball cap, then took her head in both his hands and talked almost hypnotically, straight into her face.
“Kalisha, you are now a dyed-in-the-wool Republican.” He felt her shudder slightly. “I know, I know, it’s jarring. But I’m confident after what we saw yesterday that you got this. Take a deep breath…good…now let’s find your new center. Your motivations this time root in two things: entitlement and fear. Everything was great when we had control so gimme it back and get out of my country or I’ll shoot ‘cause that’s how God wants it he told me so. He stared deeply into her, watching her mind completely reboot. Satisfied, he smiled.
“You know the drill, sweetheart. I’ll give you a minute.”
She looked over the first lines on the page on the lectern. This character sure read differently. But the deeper center of the motivation seemed oddly similar, someone steeped in deception. And after all, becoming something she wasn’t was something she was.
The teleprompter began to roll.
“Who here has ever been to war? Raise your hands. [pointedly scanning the room, willing a few hands upward]. I served in Kuwait and Afghanistan. Three tours. The mental scars of kicking in doors, of nervously driving a humvee across potentially mined dirt roads in a hellscape [damn this is intense]. But you know what’s scarier? Today, in America… right here… our enemies are among us everywhere. Very bad people are literally pouring across our borders unchecked. Nutcases are shooting up our schools and places of worship [shaking head in disgust]. Never before have we been more terrorized than today, right here, right now… in our own backyard.”
This character was a bit less familiar. Unable to riff here, she would stay tightly on script.
“Sometimes a gun is the only thing standing between you and your very survival [oh, shit]. And my opponent wants to take that gun away from you… and basically ensure you have no means to protect yourself when that nutjob knocks on your door [exactly who is the nutjob here?]. Oh, and remember, he won’t knock folks. By the time you see him, it WILL be too late.”
She glanced over at Julian who was huddling with his team. Despite the radical shift in material, the energy from the audience felt affirming, adoring almost.
“Okay, Kalisha… very nice read.” He beamed, and pivoted to the audience. “People, go ahead now and hit your buttons.” The room murmured as she watched conferring heads bob in all directions, considering her fate. The woman on Julian’s team stared intently at a little electronic box on the table, while Julian and the other man looked over her shoulder. They whispered for maybe a full minute, then Julian finally rose and moved in her direction.
He reached for her hand. As she shook it, he pulled her into a bear hug. His taut body relaxed as he soothingly uttered congratulations into her ear. Then he turned her toward the audience and, like a prizefighter, raised her arm triumphantly into the air.
“Ladies and gentleman, I give you… Kalisha Norton!” Loud applause broke out in the mini-theater. He turned to Kalisha, almost teary-eyed. “We found you.”
“Julian… my name is Kalisha Ali. I don’t understand.”
Julian blurted in a low voice to only her, “Don’t sweat the details.” Turning back to the audience. “Thank you everyone.”
His two teammates were shaking hands and embracing a few of the audience members. “We all can’t thank you enough.” With two fists pumped in the air, he said, “That’s a wrap.”
“Well, I’m very excited guys, but can someone tell me more about this part… this show… whatever this is?”
Julian started, with a massive grin he couldn’t contain. “Okay… we love this part of it… the big reveal. Remember we said this was a two-year minimum commit, right? Well, your part in this show could go on as long as you keep crushing it like we know you can, Kalisha.”
The older white man on Julian’s team spoke, uncrossing his arms to extend his hand. “I’m Mike Marin, Deputy Personnel Director for the New York Republican Party.”
Then the woman spoke. “He’s kind of like HR for Republicans here in the city. Hi, I’m Mary Rollins, liaison to the actors guild. I’m kind of the casting director for the party, that might be the best way to explain it.”
Kalisha stood perplexed. “I’m so confused. Are you guys like consultants? I mean, if this is a political drama, you guys sure are thorough.”
“I’ll cut to the chase. Republicans have an urgent opening in their New York congressional delegation. District 3 to be specific. Queens. You know the place? It’s pretty local, just over the Queensborough Bridge.”
Mary Rollins took a turn. “A young man over there just landed that role. The other team that cast him didn’t know what the hell they were doing. Now he just admitted to making up facts.”
“Look, that kid broke character.” Mike jumped back in, shaking his head. “That’s what created this disaster. The ‘facts,’ he made air quotes, “don’t matter anymore. Nobody cares.” Hearing him say it, and looking at Kalisha, his smile returned. “That’s the beauty of it now. Those details just don’t…”
Mary cut him off. “It’s unlikely he’ll even get seated next week. So this is an urgent fill. You really nailed the audition, Kalisha. I mean, we’re over the moon to have found you.”
“We find candidates for both parties.” Julian explained. “We loved you for that strong, urban liberal part that could open up in Maryland. But these guys came running to us yesterday. They need you more.”
“You’re single, portable, and more or less local. I have at least three apartments in Queens you can sign a lease for today, so you’ll be a resident.
Mike jumped back in. “Norton… that was my idea. Look, I do like your actual name, but with this constituency, you see, that name might be too much of a good thing. Kalisha… great, diverse, ethnic, checks a lot of boxes we need. Ali… well, not so much. Norton sort of neutralizes the effect, don’t you think?”
“Wait. All of you please just please stop talking and simply tell me what the hell show this is.”
Welcome to the United States House of Representatives, Kalisha. This is politics today in America.” Julian stretched his arms out wide like P.T. Barnum. “The greatest show on Earth!”