Still Def on Stage
STACEYANN CHIN LANDED IN THE LIMELIGHT as a standout original cast member of the groundbreaking Broadway show Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam. This summer, the 32-year-old writer and performer proved that she could carry a show all by herself.
Her one-woman stage production Border/Clash: A Litany of Desires opened in June to rave reviews. Chin narrates, impersonates, and sometimes stampedes her way through scenes of childhood abandonment by her Chinese father and Jamaican mother, pre-pubescence and adolescence, coming out as lesbian while a university student in Kingston, and eventually her 1997 move to Brooklyn and contemporary artistic success. She hurtles from dialogue to monologue, from imitation of her grandmother to reenactment of a younger self, from pathos to hilarity, filling the stage and then some.
Along the way, Chin tackles the particular (the difficulty of being gay in her homeland, the distance between the Jamaica tourists see and the country’s crushing poverty) as well as the universal (her adolescent shock at suddenly finding a “full beard” growing between her legs). All of this she does with rhythmic precision and a wry wit about her own past, undercutting sentimentality before it has time to seep in.
Chin, who lives in Crown Heights, spoke with The Inquirer this summer, in the middle of her show’s successful two-month run at the Culture Project in Greenwich Village.
How important has Def Poetry Jam been for you and the other performers?
In terms of exposure, it’s been phenomenal. We’ve been validated by lots of the mainstream newspapers and institutionalized media. It made me focus on how to sit still for a minute and do a show every week—you know, eight shows a week.
Do you identify primarily as a writer or a performer?
If somebody put a gun to my head and said, “You have to choose,” I would choose writing—in a second. Performing can be very tiring, and it hinges so much on other people, and writing doesn’t. I put my pen to my paper and it’s a private activity.
Do you think you’ve become more of a performer now?
I’ve become a better performer, but I think I still am a writer at heart. But people don’t pay me to write, not yet anyways, not in any significant ways. People have this surreal, ephemeral respect for writing, but it doesn’t translate into money. And so as a performer I can make a living, and I can reach people who would never meet me on paper but they’ll come to see a show. You can reach an entire audience, which ties me right in with my political identity—I mean, I’m an activist trying to change minds.
What’s your relationship with the Chinese and Jamaican communities here? How have they responded to your work?
I think it’s particularly nuanced, like my Chinese identity isn’t as visible, but because I do speak about being Chinese, the Chinese-American community has made a lot of space for me. And then I sound like I’m Caribbean, I look Caribbean, I identify in terms of my passport as Jamaican, but I’m queer, which is very challenging for the community. So I feel like they have an uncomfortable discourse going on around my queer identity within the context of my Caribbean identity.
Do you represent a specific community in your writing and performance?
No, I think that I represent an identity where you have all these borders clashing. In my body, lots of these borders clash and subsequently collapse. I can’t say, “Okay, this is where my Chinese self ends, and this is where my Jamaican self begins, and this is where my writer self begins, and this is where my performer self ends.” They all kind of bleed and therefore inform each other and therefore affect each other—and effect who I am.
I’m wondering what Brooklyn means to your work and identity.
Brooklyn is kind of like the world collapsed. You can meet all kinds of different people here—it’s kind of the meltdown of where all the different types meet. I like that. All the different parts of my identity exist in Brooklyn.
In your show, you talk about fighting for a revolution. What kind of revolution would you like to see?
I think that the word “revolution” has been overused, and I think that I want to take it back the way that I want to take back the word “liberal.” A revolution just means you turn things around. Revolutions happen all the time and should happen all the time, but they’re relevant to a time. I don’t necessarily think the “I Have a Dream” now would have the same kind of impact that Martin Luther King had when he first spoke out. I don’t know if Muhammad Ali’s actions in this day and age would have been as effective.
What’s next for you?
I don’t know what’s gonna happen next. I have to figure out what is exactly right for me, and my body, and my politics. That’s the big thing that I’m always concentrating on, what’s right for me and my politics. What is it that’s gonna make it okay for me to sleep at night? Am I being true to my own revolution? Is it relevant to my time?
Miriam Felton-Dansky is the former editor of New Voices magazine.