Wednesday Apr 26th, 2017
This week, YoungArts staff member, 2011 Winner in Writing and U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts, Delali Ayivor, sat down with Michele Selene Ang, 2012 Winner in Theater and U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts to have a discussion about the intersection between identity, creativity and power. Michele is an actor from the Bay Area of California. She can be seen in the new Netlix series “13 Reasons Why” and is currently based in Brooklyn, New York.
Delali: I’d love to hear you talk a little about the intersection between your identity and your work as an artist. I know from my own personal journey as an femme, fat, third-culture artist of color there are times that I have felt my identity was a distraction, or too much of a frame of assumption for my work and other times that I have felt that my identity and work were completely inextricable from each other. What has your journey been like, particularly as a performing artist who most often engages with text generated by others? Did you ever have *Oprah voice* your a-ha moment?
Michele: I think I grew into my identity through my work as an actor. At the start of my training, I was scared to be loud, to take up space, to command the arena. Acting provided me with a way to explore anger, lust, sorrow, jealousy, without having to claim the emotions as my own. There was a point where I decided to live with that fear instead of trying to demolish it, and I think that's when I was able to start owning my anger, my sexuality. This is how I grew up, so I can't separate the two, when so much of who I am is my art. Then there is the part of my identity that calls my ethnic heritage into the limelight. I am proud to be Chinese American, but my race is something I must separate from my art, because I think it's hard for people to see past what I look like-especially in this industry, and because I have this romantic notion that art should transcend all these labels and differences we humans place on each other.
I love words, I love pulling apart a scene or monologue and working on it from the inside out. And while I have many joyful memories collaborating with writers and their text, I've also had many frustrating moments. My journey so far has always been this ricochet between highs and lows-mostly because of the pressure I put on myself to do justice to the words and the story, to just trust myself and trust that the work I've done is enough to buy me the freedom I need to perform at my best. I don't think it will ever stop, but then again, I don't think I'd necessarily want it to. A measured amount of self doubt is healthy.
Delali: Being a young, female, artist of color can be really challenging. What keeps you vital? Where do you go to when you hit those moments of ultimate frustration? And, as a complement to that, who are people you admire and why?
Michele: My vitality relies heavily on friendship, family, access to an array of artistic mediums, and self-reflection. I force myself to write every day because I know that if I don't, all of those unexamined memories/feelings will come back to bite me at the worst possible moment. I'm grateful to live in New York City at this time in my life, because when I'm at a low point, I have my pick of cultural institutions, my favorite streets, safe spaces in the city I can go to and revitalize myself. I also think it's important to have friends who aren't actors, because sometimes it really helps to not think about your art when you're trying to come back to it! As far as people I look up to...I admire Viola Davis immensely, not because of her talent – that much is apparent and many people have talent, but because she has the courage to follow her talent into the unknown places it can take her. Oh, and Constance Wu, because that woman doesn't take any crap and calls everyone out on their shit.
Delali: You and Brandon Flynn met each other through YoungArts. Are you conscious of (or wanting to) be part of a larger generation of artists? What do you think defines that group?
Michele: I definitely want to be a part of this growing family of artists, it's a big reason why I'm so attached to YoungArts, because having a community is so important. From my observations, I think the artists of my generation, and the generations around it, are getting more amped and vocal about political matters, I think a big part of what defines this group is this sort of fearlessness, of endlessly questioning the world around us. It's inspiring to be a part of the chaos.
Delali: You’ve been getting a lot of press coverage lately for wearing a t-shirt that calls out white actors for playing Asian characters. What drove you to make that statement? What do you want to say to those who think cultural appropriation and white washing are non-issues?
Michele: It's funny how that shirt went viral the way it did. I saw it on Instagram one day and instantly messaged the guy who was wearing it, and asked to buy it off his back. He sent me one in my size instead. I have always been a part of this ongoing conversation about yellowface and whitewashing, more so when I came to New York for college. I've gone to all the meetings and conventions, swallowed all of the statistics, had variations of the same conversation. After 13 dropped on Netflix, all of our social media blew up and I woke up one day being bombarded by all these articles, confronted with a certain image and responsibility that these media outlets suddenly foisted upon me. I guess what ultimately made me choose to post that picture that day was the desire to have a visual stamp, to make my stance on the issue crystal clear, and to support the Asian American artist who makes the shirts. And, I was thinking, "what is the classiest way to express my feelings of rage, frustration, humiliation towards the people who can't seem to grasp why this practice is so insulting and hurtful?" Wearing the shirt seemed like a good start. It's really shady, but there needed to be an element of shock, of "oh no she didn't" to it in order for something to blow up like that – that's what flash media thrives on. If the post had been a picture of a letter I wrote explaining my personal grievances towards those actors, I don't think it would circulate the internet the way it did.
For those who think cultural appropriation and white washing are non-issues, I would want to know exactly why they think it doesn't matter or that our anger is frivolous. Because I don't think it takes a lot of energy to listen to us, or to try and understand our perspectives, then to speak up on the topic when it comes around. Keeping the conversation going and getting as many people as possible to know why this practice is wrong isn't too much to ask of an ally, right? I get it, if it doesn't directly affect you, you don't really give the issues much thought or consideration. But I'm not asking people to break down doors for the cause, I just want them to listen and learn. Listen and learn. That, in its' own way, would be a revolution. I would also like to say to those people that "Asian" is not a monolith, that "white washing" and "the white savior narrative" are different heads of the same monster-racism. There are new terms being coined, new language to talk about these issues-and it can be hard to keep up at times, but it's a good thing because it means the conversation is evolving, becoming stronger. What I want people to understand is that appropriation is theft, stealing a culture and reducing it to set dressing. White washing contributes to the erasure of Asian and Asian American people from the stories meant for their mouths, and their bodies. I could go on. But I have my life to talk about this so I'll just save it for another time.
Delali: In our current world, every subject is politicized. Given our current political climate, what do you think the role of the artist is in finding a path forward?
Michele: Like I said before, I see so many young artists now who can't help but to engage in politics, and that is so invigorating to me. Art is meant to reflect, and respond to, society-and I think artists nowadays are finding the courage to address the questions we as a nation are currently agonizing over, and to speak publicly about issues that matter to them, carving a path towards more open ears and hearts for themselves and for those who will follow in their footsteps.