By Tadias Staff
Published: Monday, July 25th, 2016
New York (TADIAS) — What does it mean to be Ethiopian American? The answer depends on who you ask, but for Playwright Antu Yacob — whose parents immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia when she was barely five years old — the identity is not as clear-cut. In the Gray is the title of Antu’s latest one-person show, which explored precisely this question when it was staged in New York City as part of the Women in Theatre Festival by Project Y Theatre in Manhattan last week.
In the Gray features Antu playing several engaging characters including herself, her 8-year-old son, as well as her muslim and Oromo activist mother who lives in Minnesota.
“I knew that I wanted to write about my experience not only as an actor, but also as an Ethio-American professional in the entertainment industry,” Antu told Tadias in an interview following her show. “It’s a point of view that I don’t see reflected in mainstream media, but it is something that I live with.” Antu added: “I constantly have this experience of being between two cultures. That’s why I call it In The Gray, because a lot of things are not black and white for me. I wrote it so that people who watch it and relate to it can feel they are not alone.”
In January of this year Antu was one of five women writers selected to join a group and tasked to develop individual solo shows for a reading workshop here in NYC. “So I started woking on In the Gray in that development lab and later I was asked to present my piece at the Women in Theatre Festival,” she told Tadias.
Just as she negotiated her various identities while growing up in America, Antu does a seamless job of switching from one accent and voice to another, including that of her gregarious alter ego: an African American women of her age in the mid thirties.
The most memorable conversations in the play, however, takes place between Antu and her mother such as when Antu returns home from college one summer, sporting an afro hairstyle that her mom found absolutely horrifying, and begs her daughter to allow her to moisturize and make it smooth with butter. In another scene, Antu mentions that as a teenager her mother’s advice about sex usually came in two brief and stern sentences: “If you have sex, you will get pregnant. And if you get pregnant, you will not finish school.”
“The other thing that I tried to show with my mother’s character is that it’s a very complex relationship between her and I,” Antu said. “Sometimes she is my hero and I try to communicate that in the piece, but then there are other times when she kind of takes on the oppressor’s job.” She shared: “It’s not like there is good or bad, that’s another reason why it’s In the Gray because I know she loves me, and our parents love us and they want only the best for us, but they only know how to give it to you the way it was given to them.”
“Eventually I had to become comfortable with the fact that I am who I am. It never felt right when I tried to identify entirely as one thing or another,” Antu continued. “When you are young and are forced to assimilate you lose part of who you are, such as your language, and as an adult that’s not something that you will end up being proud of. I lost part of me willingly, for example, no one put a gun to my head and said ‘stop speaking your Oromo language,’ but I wanted so badly to stop being on the outside that I forgot my mother’s tongue.”
In another segment Antu touches upon the current race and police relations issues in the United States, pointing out that she worries a lot for the safety her own child. “The scene with my son at the end are all the conversations that we had together,” she said. “It is a concern that I have because he is a child who is very outspoken.” Antu added: “And so it’s kind of sad that you have to tell little brown boys to be careful that they can’t be as outspoken and demand the truth as much as any other child can. So, you know, it’s a real concern for me. Every time I hear things on the news I say to myself ‘oh my gosh, this is not ending, this is continuing.’”
Antu, who holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Acting from Rutgers University in New Jersey, grew up in San Francisco and Minnesota before settling in New York where she currently lives and works. Her acting career includes a co-starring role in NBC’s Law & Order television film series as well as a lead role in Walking in Circles (NYU Film/Elegance Bratton) and supporting role in Inspiration (SVA Film/Kaelan Kelly-Sorderlet). Her play entitled Mourning Sun, set in Ethiopia and New York, that she wrote and performed in was shown last Fall at the West End Theatre in Manhattan.
Antu Yacob on-set of “Make a Name” by Morocco Omari. (Photo Credit: Paul Chinnery)
Antu (r) acting in Edward Allan Baker’s “Rosemary with Ginger” at Rutgers Theater Company. (Courtesy photo)
As a playwright Antu says “she tries to experiment with social and political activism in an entertaining way” noting that “America is made up of so many different cultures, and there is room to honor that diversity without sacrificing the beauty of who we are as a people. As Ethiopian Americans we make up a part of the larger American experience.”
Antu said she plans to tighten her one-person play, In the Gray, and take it on tour. “Initially I would like it to premiere with a full run in New York and eventually get it to regional theatres,” she said. “The best thing about In the Gray is that you don’t necessarily have to be Ethiopian to appreciate the play because it’s an American story. It’s for everyone.”
In the Gray was directed by Celestine Rae and produced by Project Y Theatre’s Inaugural Women In Theatre Festival at Theatre Row – Studio Theatre. You can learn more about Antu Yacob at www.antuyacob.com.