Danielle Deadwyler’s Gravity-Shifting Intensity

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“I like to keep the body active,” Danielle Deadwyler said, as she placed me in the center console of her car. It was a Monday in Atlanta, and we were video-chatting as she drove home from her morning ritual, a movement class with the choreographer Juel D. Lane (who happens to be her cousin). The city is her city, and not just in the born-and-raised sense. Deadwyler is an artist as community emissary, bringing Atlanta’s artistic and political histories to bear on her work.

Her long entanglement with performance began at age four, with a television beaming “Soul Train” to her in the living room. Her mother, seeing her daughter activated, placed her in Marlene Rounds School of Dance, which led to theatre. “I’ve played red, I’ve played yellow, I’ve played brown,” Deadwyler told me, reminiscing on her relationship with Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf.” Local press reviews of those early plays tended to home in on Deadwyler, and her willingness to completely relinquish her petite body to action. That intensity has since transferred to the screen, where Deadwyler has shifted gravity in what would be categorized as supporting roles, such as Cuffee, the wily bouncer who has no time to entertain gender boundaries, in the neo-Western “The Harder They Fall,” and Miranda, a mysterious prophet-creator endowed with a real volatility, in the television adaptation of “Station Eleven.” Deadwyler said she is drawn to “women who make themselves the center regardless of where they are.” And we, in turn, are drawn to Deadwyler, her just-under-the-surface eeriness, her ability to convey in closeup not just emotion but the analysis of emotion.

What makes her recent performance as Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, in Chinonye Chukwu’s contemplative portrait “Till,” fascinating, then, is the sense that it is not one of flat reverence, nor of commercialized violence, as was feared by Black viewers in the lead-up to the film’s release but the culmination of powerful argument made by a theoretician. What intercessions are made into the official record when the Black woman makes the world see from her perspective? This idea suffuses Deadwyler’s work outside of acting; she is also a performance artist, filmmaker, poet, and erstwhile academic—an M.A. from Columbia University, an M.F.A. from Ashland University—who, despite the business of her acting schedule, is still thinking about going for her Ph.D. We spoke twice, once before this year’s Oscars nominations were announced, and once afterward; the Academy’s failure to acknowledge both Deadwyler and “Till” prompted us to reflect on the retrograde values of the Hollywood system. We also talked about her relationship with her mentor, Robin D. G. Kelley, the Black Arts Movement, and the importance of freakiness, among other topics. Our conversations have been edited and condensed.

You’ve become known nationally in the past few years as an actor, particularly as the scene-stealer, the performer who seems to reorient the work around their presence. But your practice as an artist spans virtually every medium. Dance was the first.

It’s the first medium. It’s a vocality, it’s a physicality. Kent Gash, one of my favorite directors, talked about that—how dance is an immediate language. It’s very direct. You don’t have to have as much translation, when it comes to dance. If somebody gestures with their hand, that’s an indication of something you can get to immediately. Whereas, with verbal language, somebody’s trying to decipher that.

Can you tell me about coming up in the theatre scene in Atlanta? You are a pillar of the community there.

We had this play. It wasn’t even a play. It was an exhibition of sorts, “Women Hold Up Half the Sky.” There was a scene about the four little girls killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. I played one of the little girls at eight years old. It was the scene of them being at church and playing and just being little girls. And then the explosion happened, leading to a mournful period. I was exploring Black American history. We traversed all those pivotal works. That’s why dance and theatre are grounding for me. Atlanta is a stable, consistent, beautiful theatre city.

I wonder if Hollywood as the unchallenged metonym for movies, and the values that those movies embody, is a truth that will endure for this new century. Atlanta is now a behemoth of film production. How has the industry affected art-making in the city?

Artisans have been able to work more. I don’t know if it’s enabled them to do their own stuff.

For our state, sometimes we don’t work. There’s a shitting on Atlanta actors with regard to pay. There’s an ongoing, uproarious dialogue—maybe more so monologue, at times, because people don’t always listen—about what it means to be an Atlanta actor, how actors’ contracts are treated. There is a reckoning in the arts community. And, because I’ve been mostly working on the national level, with regard to film and TV, I’m less astutely aware of what’s been happening on the ground for theatre, although I know it persists, and some organizations are thriving. I feel like everyone’s holding tight. The question is always about funding.

Are you working on an experimental piece right now?

Yes. One cannot exist without the other.

Can you tell me about it?

I have a solo exhibition later this year, and it’s pushing on black holes and pleasure and migratory patterns.

Looking through your archive, I’ve been so desperate to see recordings of your pieces. I’m trying to cobble together the performances from stills, descriptions.

I’m into the ephemeral. A lot of the time I don’t want you to see it if you weren’t there. [Laughs.] That’s the value of the oral history in the African and African American community.

The griot figure. The holder of experience.

How fucking exciting is it to sit and have a Black elder tell you what was. That’s the critical Black imagination. In a world that [forces] you to be there so often, don’t be there.

I was struck by something you said in a 2016 interview with the Atlanta performance artist Hez Stalcup: “If there is no peril than what am I doing?” You were referring to “MuhfuckaNeva(Luvd)Uhs: Real Live Girl,” a piece of yours that consisted of video and live performance. Masked and costumed, you re-created a performance we might see in a strip club on the corner, but outdoors.

I was very much trying to work out what it meant to be a mother, to be a woman, to be an artist, to be a lot of things outside of the archetype of being in this body. I was working out the public and private nature of the labor, working out the presumptions placed on the sacred and the sexual, the domestic and the sexual, and why certain bodies are in a certain way and why certain others are not.

We laud the unsung civil-rights woman, but we degrade the sex worker or the stripper. And yet the sex worker literally works on a pedestal of sorts and is lauded with money and attention. I’m trying to collapse these very binary notions. Like, you can’t be valued as a sex worker, you can only be valued as a holy figure, exhausting yourself for community, exhausting yourself for religion, exhausting yourself for family. The first was in three locations that were in close proximity to strip clubs, high-volume traffic areas: Moreland Avenue, Dupont, I’m forgetting [the third location] because Atlanta is constantly changing. Gentrification!

I’ve never been to Atlanta.

If this was the nineties, you would have been here by now.

I’d be at Freaknik. Did you ever go? No, you were too young.

Yes, I went. Of course, I was too young. You just look around at this young folk getting out of their cars, dancing on the highway. They look fresh. They look beautiful. Some people are doing some highly, highly salacious shit, and some people are just out being in the community. People have a negative tone when Black people get together, but it wasn’t like that.

How has motherhood figured in your work? How has the experience heightened your relationship to your instrument, which is your body?

When I became a mother, there was a desire to deal with these complicated notions of my womanhood, my motherhood. I’m questioning what it means to be in this body, literally break it and put it back together again. Black women suffer so much in private. We’re at a point right now where the conversation is centered on Black women deserving to be soft. I did a good seven to eight years of exhausting my body.

You have crafted a theatre of that exhaustion. I’m thinking of a still I’ve seen from your piece “The OOD: A Field Guide to Apocalyptic Worlds for ____ Children.” The mother figure assumes the fetal position, and she is trapped or cocooned, in some sort of netting or covering, as if child and mother at once.

Spiritually, my body stopped doing things in a certain way. I couldn’t move or dance in the same way. It’s called for an understanding of strength at a different tone, at a different pace. I look a certain way to people, but I’m much older than they presume. The older my son gets, the more I know he’s capable of taking care of himself. The responsibility shifts to something much more intellectual than trying to rear him, which is rearing myself at the same time. I’m shifting the kinds of roles I take in general. It’s all art, right?

Who are your touchstone poets and playwrights?

Harryette Mullen. She’s a brilliant poet. Gwendolyn Brooks, I love. Tsehaye G. Hébert—she won the Kendeda prize back in 2015. I love doing that play. It’s called The C. A. Lyons Project. It was fractures and fragments of scenes. It’s that stuff that’s breaking structure, that’s dealing with how the mind is not linear at all. It’s not, like, beginning, middle, end. It’s a dream. Kameelah Janan Rasheed talks about it from Octavia Butler. It’s hypertext. The thing you saw that connects to the thing you read that connects to the thing that you heard that connects to the thing you just wrote down.

Whenever a role of yours is announced, I think to myself, Danielle is unpredictable. You are like water, as the actor Enoch King once described you, capable of fitting the grooves of any genre. How do you manage the parallel careers of directing your own work and then being a vessel for another artist’s agenda?

My own personal work takes much longer because it is process-driven, whether its performance with my body or sculpture or installation or portraiture. It takes time because it is hyper-personal. Otherwise, it’s a question of collaborative intent and themes, which may influence whether I choose to work with somebody. Just being able to trust the director and the producers, at the end of the day.

Have there been times where you felt the trust wasn’t there? Where you had to leave a project?

No, no. People violate. You get in a position where there is a miscommunication, or where they’re not listening to what this Black woman is saying. You just need to come into the building with respect. A lot of the women in the roles that I’ve played are women who are making themselves the center in a weird, mysterious, obscure way.

“Station Eleven” examines hypertextuality. And Miranda, your character, is the author of the text within the text, the graphic novel called “Station Eleven.” What was your process of finding the color for her? She’s opaque, to a degree. It’s the third episode, which gives us Miranda’s biography, that really sets into gear what the project means to say about the mysteries of creation and of destruction.

That’s all the showrunner—Patrick Somerville—and Hiro Murai, the director.

It’s you!

[Laughs.] I mean, all three of us. At the end of the day, it’s deeply, deeply unknown. You can’t put a finger on stuff that’s revealing itself as it is showing itself. It’s rooted in the weird, and in being O.K. with it. I’ve done a performance where the directions are, like, It’s a little car and women dressed in red will walk this street at 4:15 P.M. on a Saturday, and that’s it. That’s the performance. That’s what being weird is. You don’t feel comfortable. We should be fucking uncomfortable because that’s pushing back against the ego as much as possible.

Is ego death a state that you’re interested in as a performer? As Mamie Till-Mobley, you exceed anything like impersonation. There is a sense of total self-annihilation, of you using yourself to not only embody Mamie but to embody history itself. It’s a lot of pressure. We put pressure on a film like “Till.”

This whole life thing is getting to some ego death. Particularly Black artists, coming into the Hollywood dynamic.

I’m not thinking about ego when it comes to serving people who have served me all my life. We do want to honor every [quality] of this story. And honoring that means being highly, highly interested in the complicated nature of humanity. The complicated nature of Dr. King’s humanity, Reverend [Joseph] Lowery, Mamie Till, of James Baldwin, of all these people who have contributed a practice in rebellion in combatting white-supremacist behavior. Me and Chinonye Chukwu had talk after talk about what it means to honor her legacy, and her family was part of it. Our producer, Keith Beauchamp, was her mentee—is her mentee. They ain’t gone. They’re never gone. He knew how she was but he didn’t know her when she was thirty-three.

The mode of the film is psychological portraiture. What’s foregrounded is Mamie’s interiority. The film makes it a point to tilt history to the angle of her perspective, culminating in its radical choice to not “give” the viewer the verdict of the trial. What were you thinking, when the role first came to you?

I was doing [the TV series] “From Scratch” at the time in L.A., and I was trying to get my footing with my character. And then “Till” comes in. And I’m, like, Oh, my God, give me a minute. Do you want to undergo what’s going to happen here?

And what did you speculate was going to happen?

You’re going to change your DNA, man. More accurately, you need to reach back in your DNA. I had worked as a youngster volunteering with the S.C.L.C. The unsung women who were in this institution, teaching me things, taking me to workshops, to marches in Alabama, to youth conferences. They knew Mamie.

How did you and the director Chinonye Chukwu craft Mamie?

The first major thing we talked about was what it means to be the Black wailing mother. How to handle that responsibly. We’re in a struggle to define our identity. And it’s a long-term struggle. It’s not done in a single endeavor, in one film. There’s a slowness and a care to who Chinonye is. A lot of times there is an aggression to filmmaking. She doesn’t move like that. That’s the beauty of Black women. We are full of equity. We are constantly surveying the landscape for everyone. She asks questions. She asks, “Is this O.K.?”

So, as an actor, you are not merely a limb, an extension of her ideas.

I’ve talked to Black women and Black mothers all my life, particularly in the last ten years in all this work that I’ve done. It’s the thing about doing work as a part of the community. You look crazy doing work that you don’t know. It would be too easy to give you an A-plus-B-equals-C on how I do it. That’s the value of the unknown.

There is acting as acting and acting as being. I’ve read that you did the “Till” audition with your son.

He just helped me with the first audition, where Mamie is tying his tie and telling him to be small when he gets down South. He helps me all the time unless he’s off being a sweet baby with his homies.

Is he interested in acting and performance?

He did “The Devil to Pay” with me. He’s interested. He’s done all kinds of performances. He’s thirteen, navigating the world through exploration. He is trying all kinds of new stuff. If he decides to come back, he comes back. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t. He’s an autonomous human being.

Do you watch your performances post facto while on set?

No dailies. I do watch the film when it’s finished. That’s a responsibility, to see the totality of what you’ve been crafting. It’s like sculpting something bit by bit and then walking away. [Laughs.] I need to see. The day to day is much more internal.

I haven’t been able to see you in your ephemeral works, your live performances, which incorporate the space that they are staged in, the presence of the audience. How do you figure the two modes of performance differ, like when you’re on set and the audience is implied?

I don’t think there’s an implied audience. I really value and love crew. I don’t underplay their role, their energy. They have a twofold existence. They are the audience on set. There’s choreography that has to happen with crew, particularly with the camera department, with grips and electrics. You’ve got to put your hand here and they’ve gotta move before you do. It’s not just an actor doing their thing. No matter how egoistic they are. They’re both intimate. There’s no real difference besides volume.

Tell me about working with Whoopi Goldberg, who both produced and stars in the film, as Mamie’s mother.

Whoopi’s an O.G. She’s maternal. I think she and my mother are the same age. Whoopi’s been deeply affirming. Like, “Whatever you’ve been doing, keep doing it, baby.” These people who I’ve loved in this way, who’ve shown me that I can be multitudes—you can’t tell me nothing about Black O.G. women. That’s who reared me here in Atlanta.

Chukwu expressed her disappointment that the Academy did not recognize the film, that it did not recognize your performance.

I have witnessed this history for a long time. [Laughs.] I’m forty years old. For the umpteen years of consciousness, I’ve seen the majority of white folks win or be recognized. I was prepared for any and everything. This idea that I’m superstitious? I’m not superstitious. I’m aware.

The history bears out your awareness.

I’m a Black woman in America. It doesn’t matter how hard I work. I know how hard I work is not valued under a certain institutional dynamic. It hurt me. It hurt me the way the family felt.

It’s triggering in a cyclical kind of way. And, yet, will this spur more people to be aware? Will this spur more people to witness? Will it spur more people to act? I don’t know. I hope so. That’s the win. I know misogynoir is rampant in every quality of our American life. It’s present in education. It’s present in the government. We’re witnessing the way Representative Ilhan Omar is being treated. We’re witnessing how Tyre Nichols is treated in a police system, by Black people. We’re witnessing how DeSantis treats education in Florida, trying to erase Black and queer lineages from the history. It’s everywhere.

And then, I wonder, at what point do we shirk completely investing in an institution like the Academy? Where we no longer accept the institution as the standard-bearer of cultural value? At the same time, its presence directs the flow of funding. It’s an impossible situation, a reactive situation.

My friend Lee Osorio, he’s a playwright. He has a play called “The Third Way.” I was just talking to him about this this morning. We tried to inhabit these structures and we can’t inhabit these structures. His play is about a queer couple trying to be married. They have a community that is needing love and support, too, amid their romantic dynamic. They eventually come to a point that lends itself to the title. I keep thinking about that for us. We have to radically rupture and shift the way we do things. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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