‘I am not your token’

February 27, 2021

Imani Branch, senior musical theater major at Howard University sings an original composition for a musical competition. Shot in the bedroom of her students apartment on February 25, 2021 in Hyattsville, Md

Washington, DC - Imani Branch remembers growing up in a household where she did not watch television. Instead, her mother wanted to foster her creativity through playing ‘make believe.’ What she didn’t realize, was that through the endless playtime, she was subconsciously developing her love for acting.

“We would play games, and I didn't realize that it was acting exercises. My mother would have a remote and she'd be like, Oh, I'm watching the news and then I'd pretend to be an anchor,” Branch said.

Branch, a 21- year old from Fresno, California is in her senior year at Howard University where she is pursuing her B.F.A. in musical theater. Her musical theater career took off at a very young age when her voice teacher suggested that she audition for the junior company in her hometown where she would perform pre-shows before the mainstage shows at Fresno’s community theater.

Although Branch, who identifies as African-Amercian and Mexican credits her time in junior company for her discipline and exposing her to golden age and contemporary theater, she often felt like ‘The Token.’

“In high school, I was the sexy one, the friend or casted as an alto, even though I can sing a high E,” Branch said. People would look at me and not see a floating soprano and I realized, ‘Oh, that's racism’, they're trying to box me in.”

Once the pandemic shut down campus, arts students had to pull resources to continue distance learning as well as auditioning for upcoming shows. Shot of Imani Branch's set up in her bedroom on February 25, 2021 in Hyattsville, Md

Deciding to attend Howard University gave her a chance to make her own box. The Historically Black University, which is often referred to as the mecca for Black education graduating legendary actors including Phylicia Rashad, Taraji P. Henson, and the late Chadwick Boseman, gave Imani the freedom and confidence to break the barriers that she felt in white spaces.

But an HBCU was not her first choice. Branch mentioned on the day she toured her first-choice, New York University, she received an email from Howard that not only was she accepted, but that 90 percent of her tuition would be paid for. Acknowledging that the country faces trillions of dollars in student loan debt, Imani decided Howard University was the best option for her pockets. And she never looked back.

“God really placed me there to make me who I am today. I truly feel like that's where I'm supposed to be,” Branch said.

On March 6, 2020, in her junior year, Imani had just wrapped up Howard University’s Production of Pippin where she played Fastrada. A huge role for the rising senior who was ready to propel her career forward with auditions and projects with various companies over the summer. She was exhausted, but excited for the next chapter. Then the pandemic hit and Howard University announced it’s students had to leave campus and there was no sight of return.

Since the pandemic, Imani’s goals have altered.

“I've completely shifted gears on what I want my focus to be. I thought that post grad I would be in New York pursuing Broadway. But now, I've actually done more film projects,” Branch said.

Imani Branch began writing an original script two years ago and while in a pandemic, she has been able to finally complete it. Shot in Branch's bedroom on February 25, 2021 in Hyattsville, Md

Film has taken on a new role as a safer alternative for theater acting. Films are able to be accomplished with smaller cast sizes, limited bodies on set, and social distance. It has also opened a space for writers to be heard.

After the killing of George Floyd, a black man who was lynched on camera for eight minutes wrecked the nation, the need for diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry hit an all time high. While Imani is proud that ceilings are finally being shattered, she is clear that this should not be a fad.

“I hope that we are not creating black stories because it is trendy. I would like to see more black writers, directors and producers behind the scenes because that's when you really can see authentic stories, not forced representation to fill a quota,” Branch said.

In the final stride to the finish line, Branch is working on her own short film which she is producing, directing, and starring in for her senior project. She hopes to graduate and attend NYU to pursue her M.F.A. in theater in the fall and looks forward to contributing to the radical reimagination of what theater can be once it returns.

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