Orlando artist-activist Stelson Telfort would like white allies to ‘get in the backseat and listen’

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Stelson Telfort as the Duke of Aumerle in 'Richard II'
Stelson Telfort as the Duke of Aumerle in 'Richard II' photo courtesy Orlando Shakes

Orlando's arts community prides itself on being progressive and inclusive, but according to Stelson Telfort, we still have a ways to go. Born and raised in Pine Hills as the son of Haitian immigrants, Telfort, who goes by the stage name "ST3," first discovered his love of the arts through church plays and middle school band before becoming an accomplished actor. He first attracted my attention as a Valencia College student in Division and Ruined, and has gone on to perform at Mad Cow, Orlando Shakes and Universal Orlando. More recently, his passionate social media posts and provocative speech during last month's Black Artists for Black Lives rally have made him one of our theater community's most outspoken activists on racial issues. This week, I'm turning my platform over to Telfort to share his experiences as a Black actor in Orlando.

On studying at Valencia:

When I got to Valencia I'd say I felt pretty welcome. I was able to get in there and really start working because of [Beth Marshall's 2015] Trayvon Martin series. That was something that I felt strongly about, and it's relatable to me, [so] I feel like I was given some opportunities early in there.

One thing that was weird for me was the opportunities outside of those types of plays. I wish that I did get those opportunities because my thing is, I want to be a well-versed actor. I want to be able to do anything on stage, everything that I can. I know that I eventually want to do more Shakespeare [because] the need for Black actors that can understand Shakespeare is huge.

On SAK student Simon Duvall's call for a boycott of SAK Comedy Lab over lack of performer diversity:

I come from the practices of Malcolm X [and] Martin Luther King, and they were all about boycotts.

So I was in support of it, but as details started unraveling, I realized that he may have just taken action, all on his own. I questioned what his motives were in doing that.

People say this boycott is to create a conversation. Cool, a conversation is now being had. Where are the people that need to be in this conversation? Nowhere to be found. That was the problem. The response time on SAK's behalf was terrible, because it took literally [SAK alumnus] Wayne Brady coming into the conversation for people to decide that they want to step up.

These people who are saying, "Hey, we want to be the next Wayne Brady," they are justified in saying that. And they should have the opportunity to express themselves without people telling them to shut up, or people saying "get over it," or people just shutting their voices out completely.

On his "Black Artists for Black Lives" speech asking white allies to "shut up":

I kind of said it really bluntly, and the reason I wanted to say it that way is because people listen to stuff that's more blunt. You can't be polite with people. When I tell white people that "it's time for them to shut the fuck up, get in the backseat and listen," I say that with conviction. I believe that it is really that time; right now is not the time to be telling people how you feel about something, because obviously that's all you've been doing the entire time we've been trying to tell you how we feel.

You're shutting us up, and truthfully, it's not the time for that anymore. I'm angry, I'm upset, but I'm more rational with my anger. How can I take my anger and use it for good, and to magnify what I believe in? That's where I'm at.

On Orlando's need for Black-owned arts venues:

I want people to have opportunities to go into these other houses [venues] because, quite frankly, a lot of these houses are popular; they're bigger, they look shiny, they have better furniture. Personally, I want my own house, you know, and that's what I'm working towards. I'm working towards having my own house, having my own space, where I can call my people, "Hey, you want to come play over here? We can tell the stories we want to tell. We can create what we want to create over here." And if people want to come see what we're doing, they can come see it.

I'm more at the headspace of creating something for myself, so that I can allow other people to come play with me, but I also want the opportunities for other people to go to places. I want other people to go perform at the Orlando Shakes, perform at Mad Cow. Because there are talented people in this town that can do it; I'm not the only one. I feel like there's other people with capabilities of doing that, and if I've got to be the person to showcase those people, then I'll do it.

(This interview has been condensed and edited.)

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