When you are in drama school, the most common directive you receive is ‘let yourself go.’ You have to get inside another person’s head and pinpoint that character’s wants and needs in order to connect with their goals and active choices. But what if you are asked to participate in something that carries hundreds of years of pain and suffering? In Mitch Kalisa’s powerful short, Play It Safe, a Black actor must unexpectedly confront stereotypes thrust upon thousands of aspiring Black performers. Kalisa’s short is eligible for BAFTA and this year’s Oscars.
Jonathan Ajayi plays Jonathan, a drama student participating in an exercise where you are asked to act like animals. She encourages everyone to think of physicality and not to ‘play it safe’ when inhabiting a squirrel or a cat. Suggestions like ‘don’t be afraid’ or ‘take up more space’ seem like harmless directives but when Jonathan pulls a card that carries heavy racist history, he has to make a choice in the moment.
Kalisa makes the brilliant distinction of when we can see Jonathan’s face and when we can’t. As he is waiting his turn to go in front of his classmates, it’s almost as if a spotlight is on him and we can hear his pulse quickening. There are times when Kalisa chooses to focus on the reaction of Jonathan’s white classmates and not on Jonathan himself but we never lose sight of his presence and his pain.
Last year, the short film Josiah brought focus to how Black performers feel isolated in an audition space full of white people, and Play It Safe is a reminder of how we need to be conscious of the space and feelings of others while during the creative process. Kalisa’s film will leave a deep impression on you.
Play It Safe will be part of the AFI Film Festival’s short film competition.