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The Absent Casting Call for West Indians

Written by: Sarah DeSouza-Coelho

If I asked you to name one Indo-Caribbean actor/actress on TV today, who comes to mind? I’ll wait. Chances are the average Joe can’t think of any at the top of their head. This is a problem.

My name is Sarah DeSouza-Coelho and I’m a Guyanese-Canadian actress based in Toronto. After my first year at York University’s theatre program, I decided to take my career into my own hands. I landed an agent and began building up my experience. I’ve been fortunate enough to have auditioned for and starred in various films, series and commercials for brands like MTV and Sunny D to name a few. Let me tell you that being an actor isn’t easy. Although the constant rejection can really catch up to me at times, it’s the most soul-fulfilling thing when I step into a character’s shoes and bring the script to life on-screen. I could go on about it, but perhaps that’s a story for another day.

Haphead Web Series

For the 6+ years I’ve been in the industry professionally, I’ve noticed a huge lack of representation in the media. Either my character’s ethnicity is ambiguous or it’s defaulted to Indian because of my skin colour. Honestly, at times it feels like there’s just no room for our Indo-Caribbean culture on film/TV. It feels like I have to be subjected to a box. But as many of you reading this know, our background is much more intricate and beautiful than that.

My parents left Guyana in 1982 to start a new life here in Canada. While both of them were born in The Land of Many Waters, my Mom’s ancestors came from India and my Dad’s came from both India and Portugal. To further this dynamic, my two brothers and I grew up amongst a mixture of religions in the family too. I feel very blessed that our family functions consisted of 30+ relatives (pre-Covid of course) and always with an abundance of fresh pholourie and pine tarts. When I take a step back to think about it, I’ve never actually seen a show or film that incorporates any West Indian dishes on-screen, let alone our dialects, music or cultural norms.

Bibi DeSouza-Coelho - Mom & Donald DeSouza-Coelho - Dad, at Cheddi Jagan International Airport in 1982

Whenever I receive a casting notice or a character breakdown (description), it will usually indicate the ethnicity attached to the role, if any. Now I do want to stress that the film/TV industry has made amazing strides in the last couple of years. When I first started out, I was most likely to audition for “Indian girl #2.” Fast forward to 2021 and a lot of the roles I go out for are “open ethnicity,” which is definitely a step in the right direction in terms of having greater inclusivity on-screen. It’s worth mentioning that I am totally okay with playing either. I wouldn’t want anyone in the industry to think otherwise. But I can’t help feeling this lingering guilt inside of me when I play a character that solely identifies in the script as Indian.I feel like I’m betraying the Caribbean part of me. And when I play a more ambiguous roles, I feel like I’m betraying the DNA that runs through my blood. It’s a Catch-22.

With the diaspora that took place in Guyana from the 1970’s onward, don’t we owe it to our ancestors to preserve our culture here in North America? And I’m not talking about storytelling between elders and us young folks; but storytelling on-camera. The media is such a powerful tool. A lot of the times when I tell people my parents are from Guyana, they have absolutely no clue where it is or what the nuances of our culture are. Perhaps it’s because Guyana is a small country geographically speaking. But also, maybe it’s because there was never any content that reflected the West Indies on mainstream TV. I don’t want my future kids to lack the blessing of understanding of their ancestry and ability to share it with others. I almost feel a responsibility to champion this.

Wedding of my Paternal grandparents in Guyana

With that being said, I am extremely hopeful of the future. As I mentioned, the industry is making strides towards greater diversity. And I’m going to fight for diversity within diversity. Until the day I can audition for and play a dynamic Indo-Caribbean leading character, I’m going to focus on what I can control. Whether it’s my Instagram posts or my lifestyle YouTube channel, I’m constantly striving to be a positive role model for our community online. And in even more exciting news, my colleagues and I (Roshan Permesar and Zach Minawi) are working on an episodic series to pitch to a major streaming platform later this year. The series is about a mid-20’s Guyanese-Canadian woman trying to navigate the White corporate world and find her voice. Very meta, I’ll say!

To wrap up: despite all the conflicting emotions that come with being a female BIPOC actor today, I am extremely optimistic about our future. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that our time is now.

I do hope that when an Indo-Caribbean based series is finally released, you do yourself, family and forthcoming generations a favour and hit play. I’ll be too busy learning my lines for its next season, ha!

TIFF 2019

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