In this issue, we spoke with Anu Yadav, a D.C.-based actress, writer, and theatre-based educator. Her work focuses on stories connected to social justice, and often takes the form of touring solo performer shows. We talked with her about the role of theatre in society as well as themes of displacement and transition.
Hi Anu, thanks for making the time to do this interview!
Can you tell the readers a little about yourself?
I identify as an actress, a playwright, and what I call a theatre-based educator. Which basically means using aspects of theatre as a form of community-building that’s connected to activism and bring[ing] people together in different spaces that aren’t within the walls of a theater.
I kind of came to theatre as an actor, but I would see stories or see theatre and wondered, “Where is a place for me in that?” I started to develop this consciousness of — rather than thinking there was something wrong with me — maybe there was a challenge or a problem with the limited notions of who gets their story told and who gets to act [out] these stories.
When you say “a place for me,” are you talking about that in terms of demographic representation, or specifically the kinds of stories you want to tell, or both?
It’s a mixture of both. I think when I didn’t see people that looked like me doing something, it was hard to think that that’s something that I could do. Also, the kinds of stories that I had access to seeing as theatre were stories that I didn’t necessarily personally relate to, or weren’t my life experience, or I couldn’t empathize with.
I didn’t even really identify as an artist until I went to a storytelling workshop at the Asian Arts Initiative. It was about encouraging people to develop and use their own writing about their own lives and experiences as a way to put together a short performance [and it] started me on this quest. I got really interested in the idea of political performance, the act of writing yourself into the world, [and] acknowledging your experiences. If there’s a democracy of story — if there are more and more different people’s stories — then we can kind of understand something bigger about what it means to be on this planet together.
If it feels like there are themes that come up repeatedly in your work, what are they?
A lot of questions come up around identity, migration, belonging, a sense of home, and, in particular, questions of poverty or inequity — wealth inequity — and [looking] at lines around race and class.
The first play that I wrote was called ‘Capers, and it was based on the stories of public housing residents that were protesting the demolition of their neighborhood in Southeast D.C. in a public housing project called Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg. That grew out of a set of relationships with people in a community that was organizing on its own behalf.
The Arthur Capper Carrollsburg Projects in 2004 | Source: Elvert Barnes/Flickr (CC-BY-2.0)
How do you go about balancing the needs and desires of the community that you’re (in some sense) representing, and the needs and desires of a production?
Originally I knew I wanted to write a solo show about something. Kind of separately, I got involved in the organizing effort, and then started to teach theatre [with young people] at the recreation center and eventually, a group formed and we started working on political theatre. At one point, they got together [and created] this song and short play, and we were going to take it to one of the community meetings, where the director of the public housing authority was talking. We weren’t allowed in the building, and we were locked out, and some of the adults that were managing the meeting were making threats to the young people about arresting them. All of a sudden, I became an obstacle to them [when I said we shouldn’t do it]. They still wanted to. Once that fell apart, it was very defeating, for them and for me.
I was left with these pieces of really amazing things — so I thought, “I’ll do interviews. I’ll just write it, I’ll act in it, and I’ll mix up all the interviews into different characters so there’s no one person that it’s connected to.” Then I had an advisory group [of] three or four folks. I started adding different things — looking at drug addiction and welfare — and they were very concerned. I was like, “Let me read the draft for you. Then if you don’t like it, I’m not putting it in.” These relationships really have to matter more than the artwork. So, I read the draft and [the advisory board] said, “That’s the best version that we’ve seen of this play,” and supported it.
Talkback following a performance of ‘Capers | Source: qosmic_qadance/Instagram
I stopped performing [‘Capers] because I’m not from this community; I’m not black, I’m not from D.C., and I felt like I needed to think more about my own stories from my own heritage and where I’m from, and really take a moment to take stock and reflect — to interrogate myself a little bit. So that’s what spawned Meena’s Dream, which was a fictional story of a young Indian-heritage girl in the U.S. and her dreams. It’s inspired by my life, but it also gave me — because it’s fictional — a little more room to play.
What was really interesting about doing ‘Capers was that I basically interviewed people about being forcibly removed from their homes. And then, I experienced displacement myself. So I feel like having my own kind of sense of class identity be interrupted, and really realizing [that] I am low-income — that was really a great personal revelation. If I am part of a movement to end poverty, that’s led by the poor, I’m one of them. It was both devastating and incredibly uplifting to realize, in this moment of crisis, that the richness I had was in my community and in the relationships that I’ve built.
Can you tell me what’s happening in that neighborhood [which inspired ‘Capers] now?
They kicked everybody out; they tore it down. The seniors that were in senior housing, they fought and worked hardcore, and the housing authority built a senior building. Then [the housing authority] removed people in three different phases. The project slowed, and it was taking a long time. So some people just moved. There was a lot of displacement, and there were a lot of conditions for coming back. Now, it’s a “mixed income” neighborhood, and it allowed them [the authority] to cherry pick who they wanted back. Now, even that community is facing another level of development, which will disrupt [the rest of the neighborhood]. They’re starting to have meetings now, and they’re looking in some ways to the people who have been here the longest, who are like, “Yeah, this happened before.”
You mentioned Meena’s Dream, and [I’m wondering] how you think about Meena’s as it relates to transition, or life change.
Meena’s Dream is primarily the story of a young girl who confronts capitalism: “My mother does not have the money for medicine that she needs to survive, and I demand that she has this medicine.” This idea that, regardless of what we can afford within our economic system, everyone has basic human rights to be able to live.
It was another way for me to look at poverty. Over the last [several] years, I [have been] realizing that [in my childhood] when my father died we were poor. My mom was a single mom then, with me and my brother. She was working the night shift at Burger King, going to community college; you know, hustling and doing whatever she could so that we could live. I think I was trained to see these things as something other people were going through and not really [as] a way to frame my own experience.
World Premiere of Meena’s Dream at Forum Theatre in D.C., January 2014 | Source: © Anu Yadav
It was a way to talk about how we use dreams and our imagination, which I did as a kid, to cope with things that were hard, to maybe escape things that were hard, [and] to remember ourselves in this bigger way.The ‘worry machine’ [in the play] is this fantastical, imaginary entity that is going to take over the world. When I was experiencing economic crisis a few years ago, I was thinking a lot about how, when you are in a state of crisis, objectively — say you don’t have health care or housing or a job — it makes sense that you’d be terrified out of your mind. When you’re terrified, it’s really hard to think and it’s easy to feel really alone. I’m creating this worry machine because I need to remember that my fears are something outside of myself. There are a lot of things that are involved in how and when fear shows up. I guess I just wanted to write a story where people who are experiencing some form of poverty or healthcare crisis or housing challenge could have a reminder that “you are not at fault for the conditions you’re struggling in.” I just wanted to address that — that there is nothing wrong with us. There is a system that needs to be changed.
Excerpt from Meena’s Dream: “How to Avoid Bullies” by Anu Yadav | Source: Anu Yadav/YouTube
Rather than read a political treatise, why not have the story of a young girl, who’s like, “I have these dreams and I have these nightmares, and I just want my mom to be OK.” Everybody can relate to that. I feel at the end of the day, that’s what I want my art to do, and I don’t know that I always succeed, but I want my art to cut across these deep divisions in our society, because we have so much more in common. There are so many people struggling with the same things.
I’m wondering about doing traveling shows specifically, as Meena’s Dream was a traveling show.
Is that something you do because logistically it makes more sense for you? Or is it like that is an intentional part of the process you go through when you are going to create a piece?
Travelling with [Meena’s Dream] allows for it to be not just [for a theatre audience] but going to different communities within D.C. who wouldn’t have seen it otherwise, and the kinds of conversations that can come about are just incredibly rich. Because you’re reaching different people, you’re getting different perspectives. And then, being able to travel the show to other places in the country has been — that and ‘Capers, actually — really amazing and affirming, to be honest.
I once did Meena’s Dream in Stockton, California. Stockton was [once] listed by Forbes as the worst place to live. First, it was hit hard [by the 2008 economic crash], and Forbes decided a couple years later to say, “Oh, it’s the worst city.” There are a lot of folks that have experienced hardships that are very similar to what Meena’s Dream is addressing. I performed the piece to a very diverse audience of students at this community college — Delta College — and it was a beautiful conversation. I don’t want to romanticize any place for sure, but I just remember the kind of connections that I felt people were making to the play and how they spoke about it in the talkback as well, and the generosity, I felt, was very much connected to the kinds of hardships that this community has experienced. The kind of compassion that you’re forced to remember in yourself.
View this post on Instagram
Don't worry, the #MonsoinArtsFest fun has just begun! AUG 19 + 20 we have @anuyadavishere from Washington DC with #MeenasDream, a tale of hope, bravery — and dreaming of a world where everyone has enough. Check out our website for more info and tickets! #PerformingArts #Theatre #SouthAsianArts #Surrey #Powerful #Funny #FamilyEntertainment
Then, I did ‘Capers in Detroit. It was a small audience in the offices of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. They’re currently going through a lot of challenges around water and who has access to it, this basic right. I remember performing this show, and the brilliance and the understanding people had about how it connected to their own lives. The political education of the folks in the room, most of whom were mothers and grandmothers on welfare, was humbling. [It] reminded me of how the wealth of knowledge in communities that are directly facing all these issues around poverty, is huge — if that was what was leading policy, the world would be transformed.
That’s all the questions I had for you — if there are any last things you’d like to say, I’m more than happy to hear!
I guess the last thing I’ll say is, I’m working on a piece called Ism: A Tragicomedy. It started out from a lot of my own anger at racism that I’ve experienced or other actors of color I know have experienced, and putting that into a play. Right now, I’m just noticing — with different communities of color I’m connected to and myself — a lot of anger. I guess I’m just left with the question of how can working and doing artwork on this divide of racism be something that is healing and compassionate for everyone.
I’d love to see it. Thank you so much for your time!
Editor’s Note: Anu has previously employed Natalie as a scenic designer and scenic painter for Meena’s Dream.
She is a critically acclaimed actress, playwright, and educator. She tours her solo plays ‘Capers and Meena’s Dream, and created Classlines, a storytelling project on wealth and poverty. As an actress, she performed notably with the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Studio Safdar in Delhi, and Beijing’s National Academy of Dramatic Arts. As a theatre educator, she has taught at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, University of Maryland at College Park, The Smithsonian’s Discovery Theater, Young Playwrights’ Theatre, Capital Fringe Festival, Sasha Bruce Youth Work. Her work was featured in the documentaries Walk with Me and Chocolate City, as well as The Washington Post, The Crisis, MTV, WAMU-FM, among other media outlets. She was a 2016 D.C. Artist Fellow, Opportunity Agenda Creative Change Fellow, NET Travel grant recipient, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and holds an M.F.A. in Performance from University of Maryland, College Park. She consults with arts and non-arts organizations on how to utilize arts-based methods in strategic development, leadership and community-building. Her play The Princess and the Pauper THE PRINCESS AND THE PAUPER will be produced at children’s theater Imagination Stage in February 2018. She is currently developing newest play called Ism: A Tragicomedy, about racism, sexism, economic crisis and body hair.