Shauntelle Benjamin will mark the pandemic as a season of self-discovery.
After wowing audiences in the national Book of Mormon tour in 2019, like most people Benjamin spent most of last year indoors. Watching George Floyd’s murder and the resulting global protests were a moment of truth for the versatile performer.
“Black Lives Matter was the tipping point that led to me finally getting assessed for ADHD. That diagnosis changed my life,” Benjamin says.
“I now understand why I always feel like I’m hiding a lot of my excitement and investment in projects. I’m generally more excited about projects than a neurotypical person because creativity equals dopamine. It’s simple, really.”
Benjamin continues, “I also understand why it might not look like I’m as excited as I am about projects—I’ve been taught it’s not socially acceptable to be so exuberant. Like any femme taught to be submissive to avoid being called bossy, I’ve been taught to look calm while my creative thoughts run at a million miles per hour.”
Black and brown people have long been known to adapt to codes of behaviour. Living as minorities means we are required to conform to strategies of survival that often feel like a betrayal of our true selves, as Benjamin, who also works as a psychologist, has discovered.
“I’ve learned I need more people of colour in my life to feel more me (instead of avoiding people of colour to be an “acceptable black woman” in my community), and I need people who experience neurodivergence to remind me I’m allowed to be as excited or disappointed as I feel, and that I’m not alone with the struggles of neurodivergence in a world designed for neurotypical people,” they say.
Benjamin’s personal reflections have resulted in her also realising she’s genderfluid.
“They/she pronouns are much more comfortable, though I still largely prefer to present as femme. My body is not the problem: the problem is how others decide what or who I must be based on a single word: woman.”
The multi-hyphenate talent maintains their artistic discipline is much like their gender and sexuality.
“Constantly in flux, constantly questioned, rarely settled on,” they say. “I’m an actor, writer, voice-over artist and physical performer, a singer and a quester for truth. Sometimes I’m none of those and unsure of what I am, and that’s fine too.”
In addition to the devastating effects of the pandemic, Benjamin also says Black and brown people have had to deal with disingenuous lip service from commercial brand opportunists post-Black Lives Matter.
“It’s been a time in which every man and his dog (though not the dogs, cause puppers are wonderful) had something to say about how important Black lives are. That continued for about two weeks, then we went back to business as usual,’ they say.
‘For about a month (last year), I went through casting after casting and request after request – as an actor, writer and psychologist—to be the face of varying products that had to be out immediately to capitalise on the movement while it was important. All because now Black lives are of ‘value’, i.e. marketers picked up that a Black face will bring in money.”
Benjamin continues to write at their Words With Colour website in addition to working on their PhD. They’re also brainstorming ways to foster industry relationships for culturally diverse performers as lockdowns start lifting.
“I have plans I’m developing for ways to engage more with people of colour in the Australian arts, very early planning stages stuff,” she says.