Level the Playing Field

by Anu Yadav

in Diversity & Inclusion,National Conference

Post image for Level the Playing Field

(Photo by Teresa Bayer. This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)

TCG Online Conference Salon: Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc–South Asian American Theatre series

Jacqueline Lawton: First tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator?

Anu Yadav:  I am an actress, playwright, and community-based theater facilitator.  Most of my theater work is about provoking dialogue about economic and social justice issues. My first solo play ‘Capers, directed and developed by Patrick Crowley, was about DC public housing families who protested the forced relocations of their families and the demolition of their community.  I ended up performing it across the country and it became the basis of the 2007 documentary Chocolate City.  Afterwards, I started Classlines, a storytelling project to spark public conversation about wealth and poverty in people’s lives.  More recently, I’m working on Meena’s Dream, which started as my MFA thesis at University of Maryland.  It’s a solo play about an Indian American girl whose mother’s health is failing, while in her dreams, she leads Hindu God Lord Krishna in fighting the terrifying ‘Worry Machine.’  Meena’s family is struggling, yet Meena is dreaming of and fighting for a world where her mother has the economic resource she needs to thrive. I’m interested in having a conversation about abundance and the question of who gets to have enough.  I’m working with musicians Anjna Swaminathan, Rajna Swaminathan, and Sam McCormally who are composing an original score merging South Indian classical traditions with contemporary jazz and folk rock.  It debuts at Forum Theatre January 2014.

JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?

AY:  I identify differently based on who is asking, and where in the world I am when I’m answering the question!  But here, I identify as a “United Stateser.”  I am Desi (means ‘from the homeland’).  I am Indian heritage.  I am South Asian.  I identify as female.  I was born in Iowa, raised there and in Kansas.  My parents are from northern India, from Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakand. I have a Hindi and Punjabi-speaking background.  My religious heritage is Hindu.  I identify as mostly middle class, but my experience/heritage and that of my family’s cuts through working to owning class.

I grew up in Iowa.  My world was divided in two – Indian and white.  We were outsiders to white people and after my father passed, times got hard.  We became outsiders to the Indian community as well.  I became a keen observer of people as a result.  Looking back, my passion for economic justice feels rooted in this time of my life.  I knew it wasn’t right, and that no one should be blamed for their struggles, but rather supported to get through it.  Theater became a way to ‘level the playing field.’  I started by sharing my own stories through performance and realized it could be a powerful way to privilege the stories of those who aren’t heard but should be.  It is political.  Stereotypes are nothing more than a lack of character development.  By deciding what to write, perform, and produce, as well as by whom, we can play a role in breaking and challenging stereotypes through great theater.

JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?

AY:  It’s a double-edged thing.  I appreciate the opportunities I’ve received because of my ethnicity because it meant I was actually considered for something, versus being ignored altogether.  But I also carry defensiveness for being considered only for roles directors feel they have to make as South Asian, West Asian, ‘ethnic,’ ‘non-white generic other,’ etc.  I made a point early on to not audition blindly and instead I focused on creating my own theater work.  Through that opportunities came to me.  I truly enjoyed this, but I also hesitated to participate in the larger theater world out of a fear of taking on roles that don’t reflect my values or might be stereotypical.  In a way, I closed doors before the doors could close on me.  I am beginning to rethink this approach.  Awhile back I saw the movie 42, and what hit me was how Jackie Robinson’s passion for baseball was greater than the racism he faced.  It had to be.  In organizing his life around his passion, Robinson was on the frontline facing people who hated him for nothing other than their own fear.  That had a huge social impact.  It prompted me to think, what if I made decisions based on the biggest picture of what I want as an artist, rather than any limitations imposed upon me, or the potential limitations?  What would change?

JL: Do we need racial, ethnic and gender based culturally specific theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community?

AY: “Yes and…” is my answer.  Ultimately all of us are more complex and interesting than any of the labels and identities that thus far categorize us.  But in our current society, it’s hugely important to prioritize stories told, written, and produced by traditionally marginalized groups of any and every kind – with support. People should have a say in how they are portrayed, and for whom, rather than the same few people telling everyone else’s stories.  We are experts in our own situations and life experiences, and we are also limited by our own experience. The greater variety of people telling stories, and the greater variety in portrayals, the less stereotypes dominate.  This can extend to not just culture, but other things too like class, job, sexuality, age, ability, etc. Storytelling becomes a radical act of education about ourselves and each other.  We as a society are enriched and able to reach closer to a more complete picture of truth and humanity.

JL: What is the current state of South Asian American Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)

AY: What I love about South Asian American Theater is that to me, it’s multi-, inter-, under- and beyond disciplinary.  A lot of the work I’m seeing crosses categories, merging different forms together – comedy, activism, storytelling, movement, spoken word, music.  Like the work of  D’Lo, Hari Kondabolu, Deen, Ananya, and Ragamala Dance to name a few.  I find it vibrant, creative and underfunded.  They are helping broaden the larger landscape of performance today through such hybridity.  They are also bridging their experiences to more mainstream audiences.  South Asian American artists, like others, face the obstacles of how the larger society exoticizes, pigeonholes, and attempts to package and mis-define what ‘South Asianness’ should mean.  But the more we can listen to the art and artists speaking for themselves, the conversation gets a lot clearer.

JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?

AY:  Theaters can start by making an internal assessment.  Break down the socio-economic demographics of the artists they hire, who their stories are about, by whom, and their audiences.  Bring in outside facilitators or organizational consultants trained in anti-oppression work to offer trainings in issues of stereotyping, power, equity, privilege.  Use those facilitators to help them really listen to every person on staff about what they really think, without repercussion – and I’m talking everyone, including the people who come in to take out the garbage and clean the bathrooms.  If theaters want to increase their audiences, why dismiss everyone who helps the theater run?  So many times, the way power works is that there are brilliant people on staff who are not rewarded to think, but “do their job.”  The job of a leader is not to have all the answers, but consolidate and act upon the best thinking of the group, including their own.  That means listening.  Then systematically listen to and build relationships with the local communities – artists and audiences.  Ask them why they do or don’t go to that theater, what they would want to see or have for their families, for themselves.  To me, theater at its best is a creative form of community organizing, which is founded on the art of listening.  To serve a more inclusive community, theaters must integrate the act of listening within their organizational structure, how they engage their audiences and artists, as well as the stories theaters value enough to produce.  Truly valuing people’s stories on and off stage can have a ripple effect, extending to who gets thought about in the larger society, how resources are distributed, how policies are crafted.  Everyone’s stories matter and I believe theater – and the world – should reflect that.

Anu Yadav pictureAnu Yadav is a D.C.-based performer, writer and teaching artist who has performed at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Imagination Stage, Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Strathmore Mansion, Studio Safdar in Delhi, and the National Academy of Dramatic Arts in Beijing. She was a multiple Artist Fellow and Young Artist Grant recipient from DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. She is featured in Walk with Me, an award-winning documentary by Ellie Walton and Tanisha Christie. She performed her solo play‘Capers nationally as a tool for awareness on housing as a human right and was featured in publications including The Washington Post, Washington City Paper, WAMU-FM and the Express. She just completed her M.F.A. degree in Performance at the University of Maryland, College Park. She will perform her newest play, Meena’s Dream, at Forum Theatre January 2014.

Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com