As part of Border/Arte's Living Room Series we ask artists to share their insights on a broad range of personal and politics themes. We asked actress and producer Anu Yadav to share her thoughts on the unique power of performance to move social change, and to share some of her personal story as it informs her community organizing through performance.
What are the themes present in your work?
It varies between more direct approaches to social justice issues, or more broadly, the joy and dignity of people's humanity amidst harsh conditions. As a creator of my own work, I really love character development that smashes stereotypes, and storytelling that centralizes the perspectives of people whose experiences are often not centralized within mainstream narratives. More recently, as an actress, I have been enjoying doing comedy, and I am exploring the idea of how to subvert mainstream genres and narratives to share more progressive ideas about poverty and other forms of oppression --in ways that support and reveal people's innate humanity, connection, and courage.
How does performance uniquely approach these themes? Or, why performance?
One thing I've loved about performance, especially something like solo work, is that I can perform it literally wherever there is a space. Solo performance is very political, by virtue of the medium. I think a lot of artists of color and other marginalized artists have used that medium as a way to transmit ideas and stories that were not going to be easily produced by predominantly white middle/owning class male-led theater companies. I created my own sandbox of a structure, and invited people to collaborate with me on those terms. I'm realizing that there is more possibility in expanding that sandbox, building collectivity, as well as figuring out what ways I can enter into more mainstream avenues with integrity.
What has the response been around your work?
Tremendous. It is a joy to perform and move an audience. People come up to me and share their own stories about hardship. It's like a floodgate of emotion and their story opens up. Through performance I have helped support spaces where people feel welcomed to share and reflect on their own experiences, from the perspective there is nothing wrong with them for what they have experienced. Oftentimes, due to the various forms of discrimination, and misinformation about poverty and 'isms, many of us carry these false messages about ourselves. That there is something wrong with us because of the hardship we experience, the identities we hold, who we are. And to create performance that centralizes the stories of people whose lives and minds have been dismissed is a powerful reminder for people to value their own dreams, minds, thoughts, and passions.
How does 'Capers connect to Arizona audiences?
Across the globe, there is a growing wealth inequity that is leaving more and more people without their basic human right to housing, healthcare, living wage, etc. I won't fully know how it connects to Arizona audiences until I get there and meet with people, but from what I understand, parts of Arizona are undergoing a similar process of redevelopment that is displacing low-income communities. This is a violation of people's human right to housing. Poverty is a human-made epidemic of outrageous scale, and low-income people are constantly dehumanized in a variety of 'subtle' and overt ways. It's important we have reminders of our significance, and the power of our minds to collectively face and fight the powers that tell us we don't matter. Because the reality is we matter very much. And regardless of documents, income, geography, age, ethnicity, education, gender, sexuality, language, etc --until the significance of each individual is at the core of every single policy, regulation and practice on the planet, there is work to be done.
How do your own heritage and history influence the play?
I identify as South Asian, my parents are originally from India, and I was born and raised in Iowa and Kansas. I have a mixed class upbringing, mainly a middle class identity, and when my father died, my mom worked in fast food and went to community college, while raising me and my brother. I am portraying characters who poor and working class black families. A number of the families were single women-headed households, which I related to. And as a child of immigrants to the United States, I have carried the questions of Do I belong? Where is home for me? Talking with people in a community where home is suddenly unstable and may be taken away from them definitely resonated very personally to me. Obviously I am an outsider to this community. I am not black, but I am portraying black characters. When I began this process, I was aware of histories of cultural appropriation and blackface. I knew that even if people were unsettled by this person who wasn't black acting characters who are, my goal as a writer and actor was to portray the humanity of people fighting for their homes. To be honest, I was surprised more people weren't offended. Not because I was doing something horrible, so much as I was transgressing boundaries around race. What helped in part was my constant questioning and reaching for integrity around process and having a community advisory board to guide the development of the play. The final draft was vetted by my advisory board. And if they said, "cut that part out" I would have. Fortunately, they liked my revisions! After performing this play, I also began to experience great financial hardship and was displaced twice. My own recent history has definitely shaken my concept of being an ally. I realized I could no longer afford to simply see myself as an ally. The people in Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg were just one of the first communities to be targeted. I too was a couple paychecks away from the same situation. I knew this intellectually, but only when I went through financial crisis, did I slowly understand in a much more powerful way that my story was hauntingly similar, albeit with some differences. This recent hardship also got me reflecting more clearly on the how I actually was low-income during a period of my childhood after my father died. Sometimes class labels actually do a disservice to the nuance of our lived experience. I'm all for recognizing our privilege, but sometimes we can become infatuated by that in a way that doesn't actually move us forward. Guilt doesn't help anyone. As I'm rehearsing this piece, because of my recent clarity around my relationship to class and poverty, I've been connecting much more powerful to this play. I'm curious to see how it will affect the performance. I think any time we can break down those internal walls that separate us from other people, that empathy and connection increases our capacity in everything else we do.
In you opinion, what is the role of art in social justice movements?
I think the role of art in social justice movements is still not fully tapped. It can serve as a form of public protest, community-building, education, and dialogue. It can also act as a powerful leadership development tool as people gain confidence through artmaking. An effective process allows a group to further develop their leadership, awareness, and connection. An effective product offers a beautiful story about people's humanity, courage, and love. I get excited by art that does both process and product well. I am excited by the idea of using art and storytelling as a way of educating people in entertaining ways, who might not otherwise reflect more deeply on important social issues. Art has played a powerful role in every significant social movement I know. There is so much more possible, and I'm excited to connect with more people about that possibility.
A question you'd like to be asked?
One thing I'd like to say is to underscore this idea of allies. I came to this work as an "ally," and more and more I am realizing how vital this is to my own life and my family. I'm shedding more of the idea that I am "helping," and getting more grounded in the need for doing this work for myself. Our liberation is deeply intertwined with the liberation of each other. I was interviewing people about this really hard thing going on in their lives, and then when I was going through displacement myself, I had a hard time talking about it. It just got me thinking about how we are all set up to think we are so separate. And as much as we need to look at those differences, we also need to build foundation on where we come together too. Because ultimately, that is what will build a movement for massive change.