bahia watson
Photograph by Ariane Laezza. Design by Kayleen Dicuangco.

My Story: Actress Bahia Watson on The Handmaid’s Tale, BIPOC Representation and More

Welcome to My Story, a weekly series dedicated to creatives of colour and their paths to success. By championing these diverse stories and backgrounds, we hope that our cultural conversations will expand and that respect for our differences will flourish.

“The stage is the actor’s domain,” Bahia Watson was once told by an acting teacher, and the Winnipeg-born actress decided to make it her home, playing roles like Queen Elizabeth I in Kate Hennig’s The Virgin Trial and Masha in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull for audiences in Stratford and Toronto. Of late, you’re more likely to spot her on screen. Watson just began filming her fourth season playing Brianna on the Emmy-winning series The Handmaid’s Tale, and also recently appeared on several episodes of Star Trek: Discovery. Last week, The Archivists—a short film she co-starred in with Noah Reid about a dystopian world in which art and music are illegal—premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.

We caught up with the actress to hear about her various screen roles, the need for greater diversity behind the scenes in the entertainment industry, and more.

On how she got her start as an actress…
I kind of stumbled into acting. I’d grown up doing dance and choir singing in Winnipeg, and when they started shooting films there and began casting for extras, I just decided to go. I was probably 16 and didn’t know anything about the film industry at all. But I started going on auditions and took some acting classes, and realized I really enjoyed the challenge of acting and how personal it was. I moved to Toronto to work as an actor and kind of stumbled into theatre. I ended up working with this one teacher who said ‘you learn to act on the stage, that is the actor’s domain’ so I was really encouraged to do that. Once I got that adrenaline rush of being on the stage, I pursued it. I also write and create my own shows for the stage as a playwright.

On her short film The Archivists… 
A lot of the projects I end up working on are kind of futuristic and dystopian and they all paint a very different picture of what the future might look like. But the story [about art being made illegal] is definitely not out of the realm of possibility. I remember in 2012 when music was banned in Mali. They have beautiful musicians and music but because of the political situation, music was banned there for a period of time. So it is a real thing that happens and it’s a scary thing. I wouldn’t say the film is a cautionary tale but it does make us think about governing and what it’s capable of in terms of limiting our access to the arts. Also, the role of music in the film was interesting to me. I write my own music so I was interested in having the chance to bring that part of myself into my work as an actor.

On the themes she’s drawn to as a playwright…
I’m interested in identity. One of the projects I worked on with a friend, Liza Paul, was all about Caribbean identity and womanhood and sexuality. My mom and my mom’s side is from Guyana and my sister was born there too. So with my own solo projects, there’s a lot about being a Black woman and identity and nuance. I’m always looking to make space for marginalized bodies to be understood as nuanced individuals.

On what needs to change in the entertainment industry…
The biggest changes will happen when inclusion happens in the writers room, and among the directors and the producers. It’s easy to just add colour to the actors and what’s shown on screen, but I think the biggest space for growth would be behind the camera or offstage… all the way to agents, managers, all that stuff that you don’t see, that’s where a lot of the power lies and the decisions are made.

On the problem with tokenism…
Even on crews on set, all of those arenas are very white. There needs to be more of everybody else. If there’s just one or two people, you get locked into your identity. You have to be a representative of your identity and you don’t get to just be a human being. Because there aren’t as many Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour in these spaces, there’s a lot of burden on the people that are there to do a lot with their work, to solve a lot of problems, and to speak for a larger community. My mom’s Black, my dad’s white, I grew up in Winnipeg in the Prairies… that’s a very specific experience, very different than if you’re Jamaican and grew up in downtown Toronto.

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i’m so lucky. look at these photos and tell me i’m not. image description: endless black beauty. image description: theatre in living colour. image description: my wildest dreams. that this play i wrote [shaniqua in abstraction] even without a producer, director or production, from toronto to los angeles (to londontown!), can still, even just as words on a page, serve as a ritual, a gathering place, an opportunity for discussion and self-exploration, an opportunity to build community and friendships, by and for and amongst black women, already fulfills so much of its intention as a story, and mine as a storyteller. i am honoured and grateful to have had the privilege to collaborate and conversate with such deeply brilliant and generous artists such as these. this is the kind of work that is most directly aligned with me being here on this planet, that much i know to be true. thank you for jumping into this playground and colouring it with all that you are. it’s all for you, with all my love. thank you for empowering and inspiring me: sarah afful @sarah_nat_afful ann akin #annakin, akosua amo-adem @akos2030, taylor bennett @tabennett34, tiffany cox @tiffany_y_cox virgilia griffith #virgiliagriffith, ashleigh la throp @ashleighlathrop, khadijah roberts-abdullah @djpaulydij, jasmin savoy brown @jasminsavoy, dominique tipper @misstipper, mouna traore @_mounatraore and our composer maiko munroe @maikomunroe (not pictured here). and thank you to the ontario arts council @ontarioartscouncil for the support. #internationalwomensday #shaniquainabstraction #theatre #playwright #storytellers #blacktheatre

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On being typecast as an actor…
Earlier on in my career I definitely did get [stereotypical] audition requests. The team I work with now filters out a lot of those things but they’re still there. One of my projects, this play I wrote called Shaniqua in Abstraction, started in response to being asked to audition for this character of ‘Shaniqua from the hood.’ That was the first time I said no to an audition and it really fuelled my writing because I felt that that was a way that I could create characters and language that I could connect with. There’s still a lot of biases that exist. I think that there’s a lot of well meaning people who see Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour as fundamentally different kinds of humans or something. I think there’s work to be done there.

On her on-set experiences as someone with textured hair
I always felt like I had to do my own hair because I just have a general distrust of most people, like ‘oh they’re not going to know how to do it or they’ll be overwhelmed unless I do all these things to prepare my big hair and make it easier.’ That’s been my experience across the board in any show, theatre and everything. Every so often you find someone who gets it and is not afraid of your hair and it’s like ‘this is amazing, I can just come in here like these other girls and just have my hair done?’ It’s unfair. And the increased voicing of that is important. Now people can’t act like it’s not happening. It shows how important how all the [Black Lives Matter] protests are because they’re pushing things in all these little ways. All the little ways in which we’re diminished or othered or excluded.

On the surge of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020…
It’s been an intense time. I’ve had some difficult conversations with people. I’ve also been inspired by some people and their willingness to step in to the arena of the race problem in our society for the first time and, however imperfectly, start to do the work. It made me step back and reexamine a lot of my relationships to power—the times when I was giving up my power and leaving parts of myself behind, brushing off certain things and not letting the microaggressions bother me. So it was really stressful but strangely empowering, that collective voicing of everyone’s pain.

On one of the shows I work on, The Handmaid’s Tale, the lead started an email thread amongst the main cast and started the conversation about how things could be better on set and why our crew was lacking diversity. We discussed what the barriers were and what kind of mentorship opportunities might facilitate a more equitable environment that looks like the world around us. It was nice to talk about the actual world we’re in outside of just our show. Those kinds of conversations give me hope.

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