In 1993, Nadia Pillay, her parents, and three siblings left South Africa for the United States, where she has lived ever since. A classically trained actress who has performed in a wide range of both theater and film roles, Pillay shares that she “believes in the art of the thespian…and the sanctity of theater.” Her deep respect for technique and the craft has sustained her as she has navigated a theater world permeated with Whiteness.
Now, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Picture This Post (PTP) asked Nadia Pillay (NP) to share her story and her outlook on this moment in our culture as it is impacting her work, and especially her current collaborative work with Theatre Y.
(PTP) Please tell our readers about your work with the Theatre Y ensemble?
(NP) I am a member of Theatre Y. It began with an audition notice and once I was in the room, they asked me to talk about myself as an actor and what I was seeking to achieve. I very candidly share that as an actress who looks ambiguous, ethnically ambiguous that it's been challenging to find my space within the Chicago Theatre Community because I am not distinctly Black or distinctly Indian or distinctly Biracial. So, I shared my frustrations and that I was just looking for a space to create with other human beings beyond what I look like. To move beyond aesthetics, a space where I could just move beyond the body and create art and that I was tired of always being the only Actor of color among so many white actors.
They welcomed me in, and I have been there ever since.
My Theatre Y experience is unique in so many ways— the first being the rehearsal process. It is lengthier than most rehearsal process I have been a part of and that's because they move through the art like an investigation. It's both a rehearsal process and a study, which essentially becomes a class that you're taking. It’s training at the same time, which is what makes it so worth the length of the rehearsal process. It is a very organic process, and for lack of a better word, a spiritual process. The reverence towards the piece and towards how it unfolds is incredibly unique.
Another unique aspect about Theatre Y is that we are part of the free theater movement. It's not so much that theater is free, it's just that you don't exchange money for your experience. You are exchanging your time, and because of the kind of theater we create we often push the boundaries of time. What you might experience in a conventional theater experience—where it's your standard hour plus with intermission— maybe we will push to six hours, as we did in the Camino Project last year, or even Stories of the Body, even though there were several different shows within the collection called Stories of the Body, it still pushed the boundaries of time.
It is tradition at Theatre Y that we have a talk back at the end of the show where we just open up the floor to exchanging. One, this is to build community with our audience and to just get their feedback. It's never about looking for praise. It's just looking for what did they get, and how are they left. That exchange is something you can't put a price on. I love to be a part of that. I've been in shows where you have a talkback, and it just seems very formal like a panel. Whereas here, we get very comfortable and we often commune with food and we share drinks. We just get to hear how the audience is moved, impacted, irritated, so that we know. It most often is appreciated, and that's the magic of Theatre Y.
Another aspect I like about Theatre Y is the discovery within the rehearsal process. We get to truly dive deep, to question and to build right there on the spot. The director doesn't necessarily come in with a fixed idea of how they see things. A lot of the work is left up to the actor. There might be moments where it just seems like we have no idea where we are going, until we know exactly where we are going. From my experience, the best part is that the audience is the final piece to the theater, and how the production opens itself to the audience. The audience gets to find themselves inside the play. Sometimes it's surreal, and it’s absurd. But it's definitely magical. That’s what draws me to it, and that's what keeps be there and invested in creating Art, and the kind of Theatre that lives on the edge, defying expectation. It is the kind of theatre that calls the Actor to surrender.
Both Theatre Y’s Stories of the Body and Self-Accusation required something intellectually and physically different. Stories of the Body had stories to tell. With stories there's already a field of possibilities of where your imagination can go. We had characters that we could embody. With Self-Accusation, it really is not a traditional script with traditional characters. In fact, there were no characters when the play was originally done, and it was done by two actors. We used nine actors. The play had no distinct characters and no storyline. It just was a set of Commands, a set of confessions, and a set of declarations. We had to build a story and characters around very blank statements that didn't come with any prompts for distinct images to form. We really had to dig deep within our imagination to produce a moving piece of theatre. This was very interesting to do, and a challenge that was sometimes frustrating. We had to build it piece by piece, and it really required the audience more than any other show. Each night the audience was truly the final piece of getting that the show together. Talk about fresh! --it was almost as if it was a farm-to-table experience every night because of where we had to pull from.
I find that whenever I'm working on a project, it's like art always imitates life. There's always something that's happening in my life that's reflected somehow in the play. It’s never separate. I'm present to how at how on time these roles come to me. Because of that correlation that I make for myself with each project, I do I feel that each role impacts me in different way. It is almost as if I need to gain A Life Lesson through ART in that moment through the work that I'm engaged in. If I had to choose one work that completely shifted me artistically. I would say it would be the role I played in Self-Accusation, which were actually many different roles. It was a play with no character, but many actors. It kept me alert and heightened my hyper present, not only through the rehearsal process but also every night on stage. Every night felt like opening night. Almost every show was sold out. There was a nightly urgency to deliver for the audience. It was an experience I have never had before as an actor. Even though that’s a standard— to become present with your audience each night so that you give them a fresh show —this particular one took me outside myself in a completely different way, both as an artist and as a person. I couldn't help but take that lesson into my personal life. It had an indelible effect on me.
How did George Floyd’s murder affect the re-imagining of Theatre Y’s work?
Our next show was supposed to be a new iteration of last year's production of the Camino Project , which was a five-mile walking performance from Logan Square through Humboldt Park requiring the community to be a part of this project. It was a celebratory combination of Dance, Theatre, Performance art. And so this year, with what's has occurred with murder of George Floyd and the current racial climate, it was a wake-up call for Theater Y. Especially during this time of the pandemic, we were called to revisit the ensemble’s values and its mission, and to see how, as a theater company we are or are not speaking to the times . Are we stepping up to what is called for and asked for? At the same time, the pandemic has allowed all of us to stop in many ways, in our personal lives and our professional lives, and reassess our values. We may not be on the front lines, but we ask how can we allow ourselves to be essential during this time. What is our responsibility and ability to respond to the times? Art heals, artists serve. So, as many in the industry have “pivoted”, how do we pivot?
To keep in the spirit of the Camino, which is a walk, we started looking at it from a very primal place. Primal in that we walk, we migrate, and we travel. This taken from a National Geographic magazine project called the Out of Eden Walk where a group of individuals from the National Geographic team practice something called slow journalism. It’s where they walk the human migration route over the course of seven years, and maybe even more. And it’s about the people that they meet on this walk, and the art of truly listening to the stories people share— their genuine human stories. What comes from it is authentic human connections that crosses boundaries. In the spirit of the Out of Eden Walk we are looking at our Camino. There is no performance to offer yet. The idea is how do we listen to what we discover on our journey with the people that we meet. We are now in the very beginning stages of our exploration.
George Floyd's murder sparked a movement so loud that now you can't close your eyes, and you can’t close your ears. It’s truly exposed exactly what systemic racism has looked like for 400 years, and that it is a sin, and at the end of the day it's about reparations. How do we amplify the call for reparations-- for justice and repairing the injustices inflicted upon a people that built this nation? Upholding racist systems for 400 years is beyond criminal. Now, nobody can close their ears on it. So, as a theater company, we ask-- how do we address this, what is our responsibility in our art to amplify this and to provide the content, platform, outlet, that amplifies Black voices and Black Stories.
George Floyd’s murder absolutely put a spotlight on racism and economic racism—starting with redlining, environmental racism, food deserts, racism in healthcare, and the list goes on. For us, we want to make sure what we do is not merely performative, so we are giving ourselves a year to dive into our research.
Can you speak to your racial/ethnic identity and how that has affected your professional work?
I am South African and South Africans are a mix of many many different cultures. A lot of people don't know that the Dutch colonized South Africa and they too participated in their version of the slave trade. They went along the coast of Asia along the Indian Ocean and got their slaves from India, such as Madras, or even as far as Malaysia, bringing those slaves into the Cape of Good Hope. My ancestors on my Dad’s side are from Madras, which is in Southern India. My Dad’s mom was mixed with German and Zulu. My ancestors on my Mom’s side come from the Island of St. Helena and India. And, her Mom has some Irish and Black as well.
Put that all together and you get me. The term Ethnically Ambiguous makes me feel both a little lost, and like I belong everywhere, because I do not concretely fit in anywhere.
Working with Theatre Y has allowed me to think of myself in a much broader way beyond my look. I am aware of myself, my racial, ethnic, and cultural make-up—which is where I pull from. It also forces me to understand human conditioning and the human condition in an expanded way. When I am performing my goal is to connect to the humanity of the work and speak to the humanity of the audience.
Growing up in Apartheid South Africa there was no discussion about ancestry, family history, and especially with a family so diverse in its makeup. The European ancestry in our family line is not due to interracial marriage or relationships, but by rape instead. Growing up in a racist country, within a mixed family, you are going get colorism as well. Colorism, just like racism, divides. That is how hierarchies work. You lose your cultural traditions that way and become acculturated instead. Religion would be the biggest traditional practice. I grew up Islamic because I was raised by mother’s side of the family, and my father’s side was Tamil. What I hold onto in terms of cultural traditions from both sides of by family is the food. There is a special blend to the seasoning of our foods and the spices we use that is reflection of the diversity and infusion of our cultures.
Editor’s Note: Below, find a link to SISTERS WITH SPICES, a meal prep company that Nadia created with one of her sisters, and that specializes in African Indian vegetarian cuisine.
Spoken Word was my first play with MPAACT. I do not audition or submit for an African American character because I just feel like that should be reserved for an African American actress. I felt uncomfortable after my audition when I was invited to do an audition for the play For Colored Girls. Of course, I love the play and of course I was excited and of course it was with a Theatre Company I really wanted to work with, and I mean I'm invited so I'm definitely going to go but I also felt that I probably should not have been there. And I especially felt that way when I discovered the casting director was White. It was not a feeling of insecurity but a distinct feeling of occupying a space I should not have been in. It was a great audition and a great experience, but I just knew I should not have been there. My agent submitted me for it, and my agent is Black American. So, I went for it— the Actor in me jumped at the opportunity. I am very cognizant of that now, and discerning in what I audition for. With Spoken Word the character was Persian and so the first thing I did was to Google to find out if they have brown Persians that resembled me. I found some images. Then, when I went to the audition I looked at the other actresses that were in the waiting room. I just knew I probably was not going to get it. I did the audition for the sake of auditioning. I got the part and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. But it's tricky with someone who is ethnically ambiguous. I never feel enough of one thing. It’s both freeing and the same time frustrating, depending on the situation. If your casting director lacks imagination, it's difficult for an actress like me.
I began my professional career my senior year in college and by the roles I was cast in and chose, it entrenched in me a standard to uphold. It also reflected creativity in the casting because the majority of what I auditioned for was not specifically for Ethnically Ambiguous characters.
Prior to coming to Chicago, I gained my professional experience on the Philadelphia stage. I found myself in situations where I was always the only Brown person auditioning for roles and up against White actresses. I was cast in plays that had a cast of 95% White artists. I was always in a lead role and or always played a powerful character that was vital to the storyline.
But I embrace the complexity of my Brownness. Collaborating with MPAACT Theatre Company has been a great experience. It is an African centered theater, but it is not an exclusively a Black Theater Company. The stories and the narratives are African centered, Black centered. But people of other hues weave into the lives of these rich stories told on their stage.
I reserve the respect for Black-American stories, especially historically based, to be told by Black American actresses. Actress Thandie recently shared in an interview her regret for her misrepresentation of Black-Americans on screen. She’s quoted saying, “I know the nature of this business has had me play roles that I’m embarrassed I played. It’s had me misrepresent African Americans. Because I didn’t know. I have not been of great service in my career." She is British and Biracial.
There is already the lack of representation for Non-white actresses, there is also a responsibility to how we tell and who gets to tell Black America's stories. I will not play into a system that has already whitewashed a people's history. The least I can do is not be tone-deaf to the nuances that feed that system.
How do you think theater in general should respond to this moment in US culture - vis a vis the Black Lives Matter movement?
Theatres should look at whether or not they responded to what is happening, and if not, why? How they should respond should start with a deep reflection of their mission and look at why the art they create -- and their artists are almost always White and White-centered, and why can they not see art outside of their Whiteness. As we dismantle institutional racism, it includes all institutions—the Theatre and the Universities that feed into these systems. As member of MPAACT, I immediately understood the importance of not begging anyone to make room for me, but rather create something of your own that you can control fully.
In these largely White institutions, it is vital that the Black imagination is given equal playing field to craft, shape, and influence culture. Culture is inherently colorful. To not allow Black Cultural leaders a space to thrive and share robs us all.
In Chicago, nearly all of the theater “critics” and a large percentage of the audience for theater are White. (MPAACT audiences might be strong exception). From your perspective does this translate a white framework being imposed on BIPOC performers?
It absolutely does. For example, the play that I did with MPPACT was based off a true story and it was called Spoken Word. It’s about two college students that get into a relationship and decide to take it a little further. They end up spending the night together and having sexual intercourse. But the word yes or consent was not clear, lines are blurred. So, the play centered around race, assault, the politics of an All-white institution, and whose side they take. Of course, the young Black male is on the losing end of this battle. The critic who reviewed the show for The Reader, a Chicago weekly newspaper, negated the possibility of this actually happening in real life, not realizing that this play was based off a true story. When the review came the support for the show was so overwhelmingly positive that The Reader had to pull that review, and retract it because people came after the reviewer. However, we thank the reviewer for giving us such a scathing review, which actually helped sell the show.
They have to recognize that they come in with their own lens, and that they need to realize what their implicit biases are, and how tone-deaf they truly can be. They need to expand outside of their own circle of influence, and circle of experiences, to become more cultured. To be reviewing culture, you need to be more cultured.
Editor’s Note—Nadia Pillay’s expertise extends far beyond the stage and her theatrical accomplishments. She is also a yoga instructor, whom you can now join weekly in a the large online community she began during the pandemic called Yoga with Nadia and learn more about on the Nadia Pillay Yoga website. She also runs a non-profit arts organization that is a platform for African Artists – Color Me Africa Fine Arts. And, the aforementioned culinary business she helped create can be reached at the Sisters With Spices website.
For more information on Nadia Pillay’s theatrical career, visit the Nadia Pillay website.
Images courtesy of Nadia Pillay