It is an extraordinary thing to commit yourself to work in theater despite the long hours and low pay. Why do people do it? This is the second in our series highlighting this year’s Helen Hayes nominees: their work, their life, their art, their passion.
It is fall, and a young girl — seven, perhaps — is preparing for Diwali, the ancient Indian festival of light. Diwali celebrates the return from exile of Lord Rama after his defeat of Ravana, or more abstractly, the triumph of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, and good over evil. The young girl is dressed to the nines, with new clothes purchased for the occasion. It is among the happiest times of the year.
Still: there is context. We are celebrating Diwali not in India, but in the middle of Iowa, in the basement of a Presbyterian church, amidst a much larger community of white people, or “Americans”, as they call themselves. “I got the message that since I wasn’t white, I couldn’t be ‘American,'” Anu Yadav says now. “Obviously that’s not true, but it really does speak to the cultural divides in the US.”
It wasn’t always that way for her. “Once, after I had just come back from India, I only spoke Hindi.” She was four at the time. “The English-speaking white kids I played with did not understand what I was saying, but it really didn’t matter. We played just fine together.” But by seven, experts say, children begin to recognize differences — not just racial differences, but anything that sets them apart.
“There were great distances there for me, definitely,” Yadav says. “Not always, but because it was all I knew, I didn’t think of them as distances. It just was. Moments of racism, or ways I internalized white people’s perception of me…” She felt unease, but analysis and understanding came later.
At the moment, it is time for the Baharathanatiyam, a twenty-five hundred year-old fire dance, best performed solo, which combines movement and storytelling. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the Baharathanatiyam:
“In most solo performances, [Baharathanatiyam] involves many split characters that are depicted by the dancer. The dancer will take on numerous characters by switching roles through the swift turn in circle and creates a story line that can be easily followed….”
* * *
It is October, 2015 and we are in the Silver Spring Black Box, watching Forum Theatre’s production of ‘Capers. Anu Yadav, playwright and solo performer, has slipped seamlessly from being Rhonda, a smart, aggressive organizer with a bad crack habit, to Shaniqua, a child taking a writing class. “I wrote fitty-two poems this week,” Shaniqua announces to her writing teacher, who is — Anu Yadav, a character in her own story.
“I realized that I came to solo work because there wasn’t really much support for me as a woman of color to be at the center of traditional theater. And the stories I was interested in didn’t have as much support either,” she says. “Solo theater was really a way to forge my own path, without relying on predominantly white male institutions to decide my destiny, choose my role, etc.”
Historically, our best theater has come from making audiences look at things we’d rather look away from. Thus Arthur Miller, at the height of American boosterism, made us look failure in the face in Death of a Salesman. Lorraine Hansberry made white audiences watch a family of color with real dreams and real aspirations, who wanted the same things they did. We couldn’t stop watching Raisin in the Sun. Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire not only showed us the collapse of the old social order in Stanley’s triumph over Blanche, he also confronted us with a homosexual character (albeit offstage) in Blanche’s former husband.
Those were hard things to talk about, and sometimes, we didn’t. Elia Kazan shamefully fudged Williams’ text when he made the play into a movie (“He was weak,” is all Blanche says about her ex-husband), and even today, the big money is not on producing stories which, like ‘Capers, are about residents of a public housing project.
So how did the child dancing the Baharathanatiyam become an actor, artist and storyteller, introducing audiences to people they haven’t seen before, at least not up-close? (“It is a careless statement to say one ‘gives voice to the voiceless,'” Yadav cautions. “It’s too easy to be patronizing and condescending about it — then you end up perpetuating the very same power dynamic.”) Work. Self-awareness. Art.
“Since I was young, I wanted to act. I just didn’t know anyone personally who did that. Neither did my parents, so it was a confusing thing. It didn’t feel like a real career option. But every time I did performance, the kind of encouragement I got really buoyed me further — as well as the sense of elation and belonging I felt.”
Still, theater seemed a little closed off for her. “I was disheartened early on by the limited roles for me as a woman of color. I just was seeing plays I didn’t connect with, with people who didn’t look like me. The idea of trying to be part of something that disconnected from my lived experience was not really motivating.”
And then she saw something she knew she could do. There was “an autobiographical solo performance workshop with Dan Kwong at the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia during college. [She went to Bryn Mawr] The flyer said, ‘you don’t have to be an artist’ so I thought, ‘I can do it too!’ It really merged both my passion for writing, truthtelling, and acting. I didn’t have to wait for someone to pick me. I could create my own opportunities and vehicles.”
But opportunities for what? “It was this workshop at the Asian Arts Initiative, with other Asians, that I got to really make the connection that my story, my perspective in the world, my body all mattered. I had just as much right as anyone else to be heard, seen, respected, affirmed. It was a deeply personal and politicizing experience that theater belonged to everyone. That includes me too. So why aren’t we seeing everyone’s stories onstage and everywhere else?”
And then she won a fellowship.
“A couple years later I got a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which allowed me to travel around the world for one year. I went to India, Brazil and South Africa, following the work of theater makers dedicated to social change. That included a 3 month residency at Augusto Boal’s Center of the Theatre of the Oppressed, traveling with Indian street theater troupe Jana Natya Manch — People’s Theater Front — and interviewing many others in those countries as well as South Africa.”
Armed with these experiences, she came back to the States to work on her art. “Since then I have created two solo shows, co-founded a storytelling project, and branched off into more playwriting and performance that is both overtly and covertly political. I love the idea of bringing people together across lines of difference to experience something together that is both joyful and humanizing. I want to reach everyone. I think there is great value in centralizing the stories of those pushed to the margins. But how that is done must be with great care, and also engaging the leadership of those very people.”
The two solo shows — Meena’s Dream is the other one — are overtly political, but in ways which engage the heart, rather than bashing us over the head. Yadav does not favor black-and-white characterizations, or shy away from complexity.
“Those with ‘privilege’ have their own challenges and hurts that prevent them from fully reclaiming their own humanity,” she says. “I don’t believe anyone is left unscathed in a system where any exploitation or oppression exists. We are all connected and impacted by it in different ways. Ultimately everyone gets to be at the center. If I can as an artist support more listening between people happening, then that’s incredibly awesome. Because people being more connected to each other in an authentic way, no matter their background, is a part of a much larger and needed transformation of society.”
The storytelling project is called Classlines, which she founded along with Rose Oliphant, Patrick Crowley, Ellie Walton and Amy Hendrick. Here’s what they do: “Our mission is to create stories as transformational acts that heal, unify, and uplift. We believe that true change comes from individual relationships and storytelling is one important element of that change.” Or, as Woolly Mammoth AD Howard Shalwitz puts it, Classlines is “…extremely effective in personalizing an abstract idea of class, which we don’t discuss in the United States.”
Classlines is grounded in art, but Yadav is excited by its potential as a treatment for societal pain. “When we first performed Classlines at Woolly Mammoth, the response was quite stunning to me. It brought up a lot for the audience, and people had so much to say, so many emotions. It was very clear that people desperately need more space to talk about this. It is also dangerous and tricky. It can bring up a lot of triggers for people.
“We don’t really have much of a language to talk about wealth and poverty. And in settings where people have a diversity of backgrounds, one person’s honest story can sometimes be hurtful to someone else…what we realized is the stories we share must be carefully shaped and curated. But also, there must be more time for the audience to become participants in the storytelling, ideally through movement-based activities. We need to play and connect with each other a lot more, because a lot of it is about healing from trauma in a way. Classism is, to me, a form of trauma.”
In addition to this powerful mission, Anu Yadav is, of course, a working actor. She’s in rehearsal now for The Who and the What at Round House. She’s taken on other roles in projects she liked. One of them won her a 2016 Helen Hayes nomination.
“I…found [In Love and Warcraft] to be witty, smart, playful. And I thoroughly fell in love with the character. She has so many facets to her.”
Her character was an unusual one, and many might find her difficult to understand: a professed and deliberate virgin, for none of the conventional reasons (religion, low sex drive, history of trauma) who is also a modern-day Cyrano, writing love letters for the romantically impaired, and on top of all that, a dominant World of Warcraft player. Her negotiation of the character’s disparate aspects won her a nomination for outstanding performance by a lead actress in a play.
“Yadav holds down the center in a delightfully unforced, funny performance, making all the different sides of the character mere facets of one whole person,” Brett Steven Abelman said of her performance in this review of the play.
This is the first time she’s been nominated. She thinks of it less as a career move than as an opportunity to have fun: “I don’t know exactly [what impact it will have on her career]. But I truly appreciate being nominated, and the chance to connect with other artists. I’m really looking forward to dancing and getting dressed up too!”
And so here is an answer to what drives theater artists to take the difficult path they have chosen. Right now, Yadav is, in addition to The Who and the What, collaborating with the Institute for Policy Studies (“using arts-based tools to support organizational and strategic development, as well as thinking about diversity and inclusion,” she says.), working on a commissioned play, working on a series of sketches she calls ISM: A TRAGICOMEDY, and touring with ‘Capers and Meena’s Dream (“I travel ALOT”, Yadav explains.) The work is intrinsically important.
And, of course, there’s dancing and getting dressed up.
But mostly it’s the same thing that might motivate a seven-year-old child celebrating Diwali in the basement of a Presbyterian Church: advancing the triumph of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil.