Mirirai Sithole on Being an Artist, a Citizen, and Building a Future World

Credit: Gabriela Della Corna

If silence can be eloquent, few actors deliver wordless soliloquies with the precision and grace of Mirirai Sithole. In stage productions of Tori Sampson’s If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka, Ngozi Anyanwu’s The Homecoming Queen, and Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play, she painted lush emotional landscapes in the moments where all she did was listen to other actors. Her alert, expressive eyes, often uncover new layers in the dialogues of the bold playwrights whose works she favors, her body language is always ethereal but grounded.

It turns out that Sithole’s empathetic listening goes beyond the stage, as an activist she has shown to be deeply in tune with the requests and pleas of her community, and throughout her career has worked to create opportunities for those who aren’t always given the chance to be heard. This led her to create Aye Defy, an organization that advocates for inclusion, equity and empowerment through art.

Mirirai Sithole in “Mother Courage”

I first encountered Sithole’s work as Kattrin, the tragic mute daughter in Bertol Brecht’s Mother Courage, and I was impressed by the way in which she made moments from one of my favorite plays feel completely new. Seeing her work in Kattrin’s last scene, knowing what was about to happen to her, was one of the few moments where I can recall wanting to jump off my seat to intervene in the play. I knew then that I would follow Sithole’s career wherever she went next. Having seen her act in several mediums, it’s a joy to follow her as she puts on a new hat. I spoke to her about acting, streaming and always defying expectations.

Was Mother Courage your big break into the New York theatre scene?

Mother Courage was a major part of my break into the industry as an actress. And then I feel after that it was a steady stream of things Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and then School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play happened and it was like “oh, this person, right! I either remember her, or I never knew her. Who is she?” Those two feel like major turning points in my career as an actress. 

Before that I weaseled my way in through internships. It recently was the 10th year anniversary of my first internship at New York Stage and Film. I didn’t know anything about theatre. I did it in high school and then I went to college to study theatre, but I learned everything that I know either through internships or on the job as an actor. Before coming back to the city, proper New York City, I spent time at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. So it was just a steady stream of interning and apprenticeships, and learning the different ways in which to be an artist. And then getting the privilege to be an artist in New York City, which is magical and confusing, very confusing.

Why did you want to become an actor?

That question? [Laughs] It’s one that eludes me. I’m trying to figure out the concise answer. I don’t think I knew why I wanted to become an actor or be an actor until recently, quite honestly. I do believe and understand that I’ve always wanted to be a theatre artist because it’s perhaps the first place that I found community. It’s where I was able to, I don’t know what the word is, whether it’s access or utilize all parts of myself. 

I definitely was not the person that was like, “I’m three years old and I know I’m going to be on Broadway.” I didn’t know any of that. I was a Zimbabwean growing up in Massachusetts with two parents who worked very hard and was just figuring out how to keep myself occupied as the youngest of three. 

Now I say I’m an actor because I love to embody different stories and learn about myself and various characters. At the end of the day, storytelling is one of the most healing and transformative experiences we can have, whether that’s on the design side of things or the performative side of things. It brings me so much joy to be with people telling the story, which feels so basic, but it’s indigenous, you’re around a fire telling the story. And the fact that I’ve just realized that at my big age of 29, made me realize this is inherent in my DNA as an African. We tell stories of our various lineages, and it could be as simple as just orating that to a young child or adding the elements of design and sound and projections. 

I can tell you for instance about the feelings that you ignite in me as a journalist, as a critic, and as a human being. But I’ve always been curious about what actors go through on stage, would you be able to describe what it is that you feel when you’re onstage telling those stories?

[Laughs] A metaphor to describe the alchemical experience of my inside?

I’m sorry!

No, I love that. I’m smiling. You can’t see me, but I’m smiling because I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that. Wow, it’s purely magic. And I feel comfortable saying that and knowing that that’s true for me. The memories that I immediately thought of as you were asking that question was performing School Girls while rehearsing The Homecoming Queen in the winter and being so sick that at one point I didn’t have a voice, I was overworked. I definitely didn’t do self care practices or tools to release one show and enter into a rehearsal space for a different show.

And yet I remember doing this one show where I got to the Lucille Lortel Theater, from rehearsal from the Atlantic, and I was a mess. Of course we don’t have understudies, so I’m thinking, “Here I am, $700 a week, super grateful, thankful that the show’s only 60 minutes.” I had to sing at one point in that show, and I had no idea what was going to happen, but this is what I did know: I had all these beautiful Black women around me who trusted and supported me and I can only do my best.

In certain rehearsal rooms we say, “You bring yourself to the character,” and if an actor is sick that day, then your character is sick that day. We’re not going to pretend, but we’re going to trust that for all the other times that we’ve done this in rehearsal that we can do it that night as well. So you trust and you believe, and I don’t know how I got through that show, but I did, we did. It was just as powerful and just as magical because the audience had no idea [laughs] and we’re truly so powerful and magical when we lean into the trust of our instruments.

It’s this magical combination of practice, which is rehearsal trust, and also honoring where you are at in the present moment. The lines will come out when they’re supposed to come out, and if they don’t, someone else knows the script well enough that they will jump to the next part. That’s what’s so magical about a live theatrical experience and being able to be a part of it as an actor: we know this story and we know that anything can happen. 

I always get nervous, I wrote in my journal a while ago that the day that I stop being nervous before a performance, before a self-tape, before being on set, is the day that I have to reevaluate if this is what I want to do. It’s those healthy nerves of knowing: who knows, you might choke on an orange today! But putting yourself out there is the joy and is the practice.

I often tell myself that the night that I go to the theater and I feel tired of being there, not because I’m sick or because the subway sucks or whatever, but because I just feel tired, I’m quitting and I’m finding a new career.

Yes!

School Girls was recorded and has aired on PBS and streamed during quarantine. During the run of the play you got feedback from audience members, critics and from friends and family who came to see you. But then when you have a show that’s recorded and people can see it beyond NYC, have you been getting feedback from people who found School Girls for the first time when it was streamed?

The short answer is yes. That one’s been difficult though, because as far as I know, it’s only released to the Tri-state area, so it hasn’t had the global reach of the Goodman production that got cut short, that people were able to buy tickets to. The response to the PBS recording of School Girls has been varied in the sense that some people don’t know that it exists and when they realize it exists, they get sad if they’re not in the Tri-state. I wish I knew how to help them access this thing. 

Mirirai Sithole in “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play”

For those people who have access to it, it’s this beautiful reminder of the legacy of that piece and the legacy that Jocelyn Bioh put into the world and the gifts that she gave us that keep on giving truthfully. Despite me wanting to be able to share that with my friends in Brazil and my family in Zimbabwe, I know that the energy of that piece has ripples beyond what I think any of us could have ever imagined, so it’s always nice when you have this kind of living document that something existed. So no matter when people discover it I forever get to go back into that memory box that makes theatre feel less ephemeral.

The part of me that is an artist who got paid one time for that day of recording is like, “darn, I wish we had residuals on that.” Or what would happen if we could move it out of the Tri-state area and what does that look like contractually. My castmates and I talk about that sometimes, what is the reach? We’re not getting those numbers. We don’t really know. So it’s interesting because it’s both really great that it’s out there but also we don’t know why it can’t be shared even to a wider audience, you know?

I didn’t know that, it shows my New York privilege, doesn’t it?

It’s accessibility. I had a friend of mine who’s in Massachusetts, but was living in Long Island before quarantine and she was so excited to watch it but she can’t access it. It’s so sad and I can’t really help. Not because I don’t want to, but because I don’t know what to do. Should I reach out to PBS? Do I let it go because I have other things to worry about? I know there are DVDs, but it’s accessibility, and the conversations that we have about how to make things more accessible are having them in a holistic way and who experiences something and who doesn’t. It goes back to bureaucracy and contracts and asking why are they allowed to watch this? If we allow everybody in the United States to watch it then what does that say for the artists that originally made this who got X amount of money for it? So it’s definitely a weird position to be in: I want everyone to see it, and I don’t necessarily want to get paid for this, but why are we not making this accessible? What is the holdup?

It’s so scary to me, even just as an audience member, to think that once the pandemic is under control, and things become more flexible, that the theatre community specifically is just waiting for things to just go back to like they were before March 12th. And that is insane to me, because the world is already so different, so let me have a Barbara Walters moment and ask you: what have you discovered about yourself as an artist in quarantine that you are not willing to forget or put behind when this is over?

I love this question, Barbara Walters Jose. It’s so many things. I’ll start with how transparent I believe things have been. I started quarantine on March 14th and delved into the live-streamed readings world, where I realized pretty quickly that this is really beautiful because the barriers to access, whether that’s for artists, actors, or playwrights, are gone. Brick and mortar theatre, as I’ve been calling it, does not exist. So how do we bring some of the things that were working in the old world to this new world? 

It’s shifted so drastically and I love how open many artists have been to doing a reading or putting their words towards the developmental work. They have been honoring their status or social currencies to give back to vulnerable communities, artistic spaces that they believe in and want to make sure survive. 

When I started reaching out to folks to do work it was never a question to me that this was for the love of the art but that they would also be paid. I’m definitely not going to pretend that we’re going to pay you the hundreds of dollars you probably deserve, but you will be paid and you will be paid this transparent amount. Full transparency as much as possible. That’s what we ask of our people in power, whether it’s in government or other businesses and a lot of times you don’t get it and I think it creates this fear.

When I was working on If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka, it was the first time that a company of Black actors were talking publicly about money and about our contracts. Maechi Aharanwa, one of the artists involved who in my eyes is veteran and so vocal about artist’s rights, was just so adamant that we had to start talking about these things. She’d say, “This is what’s in my rider, what’s in yours?” And I’d be like “Oh, I can ask for that? I didn’t know I could ask for that.” And I’ve been doing this for how many years? 

Even on Twitter, I think it started with the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag, and that’s not my world, I’m not a playwright, but I like seeing it, because I think that’s love. I think truth is love, transparency is love. When you can say “Hey, y’all, this is what they said I’m worth. I think you’re worth that as much as well. So that should be your starting rate.” Sharing what you get with other people that you believe should be getting that amount, or should be getting more allows us to actually be equitable. 

Another thing that I had to reframe for myself when we were dealing with casting for readings was a phrase that I realized was really problematic, the phrase, “We want a name.” I told all my collaborators, “Everybody has a name actually.” So what you’re asking for is you want someone with status. We know it’s business, but the way in which we frame these things and say these things is really important because I don’t want anyone to feel some type of way if I say, “Okay, let’s ask this actor who ‘isn’t a name.'” Does that mean they’re not as important that they shouldn’t be treated as well as we treat Tessa Thompson? No, it’s just that someone like Tessa Thompson, who we are grateful for and who is so badass, and who we were able to have on a reading, has this different social status and that’s okay. Because what we’re trying to do is raise money.

I’m not willing to sacrifice this sort of equitable playing field that we had during quarantine, and this autonomy of we don’t want people to feel used.That has to be across the board for everybody, no matter what systemic list they’re on, we must respect their time and really realize that doing work of any kind is work and that the rules of the old world no longer apply. I don’t feel comfortable asking people to spend 29 hours on a reading knowing that they probably have other job things or time that they’re trying to spend with their family or friends and happy hours. We’re creating these new digital lives for ourselves, and yes, things are starting to reopen and you can balance that now with a little bit of outside time, but there’s a new, emotional map to the world that I think is being built, which is a future world.

One of the things also that I don’t think I knew about you before quarantine is that now you’re a producer. When you started developing Aye Defy, was this the first time you took on creating work for others?

Credit: Gabriela Della Corna

I’ve always had my hands in something. In high school I was theatre kid, but also on the newspaper and on the dance team. In college I was part of the student government, student activities and a member of the performing arts community. I had friends in the music department and the dance department and I think I just really took to heart a phrase that was a part of my college experience that we would say before shows three times: first I honor life and with it my life in the theatre. And for me in order to honor life, I needed to be outside of the insular theatre walls. I needed to be experiencing life in other perspectives.

Like my acting career, I never wanted to be a producer, but I took a class in college for a credit and to learn about that side of things, and it all felt like it was serving the larger purpose of me as an artist and figuring out the system from the inside. So before Aye Defy, which honestly started as a blog and a place for me to heal a romantic relationship, I had executive produced a short film with Níke Kadri, who’s also a multi hyphenate artist who I’d been in multiple plays with. 

Before that, when I first moved to the city after college I started a theatre company called Rooftop Theatre Productions. I was living in Brooklyn in Bed-Stuy and wanted something to do and had a bunch of friends that wanted something to do, and we had this beautiful roof. So we had a night of 10 minute plays. We held auditions and we did them on our roof and it was a party. That was the only thing we did, Rooftop Theatre Productions was that one night, but I still have a few collaborators from that time. I was 21 years old about to turn 22 and I just wanted to do stuff.

Of course alongside that I was proving to my dad that four years as a theatre maker was worth it. [Laughs] I was trying every single way in. I had to make it work. I moved here, cliché or otherwise, with a duffle bag, a backpack and a job that was $200 a week, and I didn’t know where I was living. I think we’re all storytellers and we’re all producing our lives, figuring out what is the best way to tell this story of my life, which includes art and theatre and business. I also have a minor in business and human resources, which is a thing that I forget and a lot of people don’t know about me truly.

How did Aye Defy happen?

At first I thought this was a blog, then I thought this was about how to be an artist and a citizen in relationship to the crap that’s going on in our country. And what is this country? Because actually my home country is something else, but now I’m a citizen of America and an artist. And now it’s a pseudo production company that’s in the digital realm. I did not plan this out, and I think in relation to how I feel about being an actor: that this whole life that we are gifted is a mystery and it’s magic, sometimes it’s painful and confusing.

Trusting our innate personal power is something that I’m learning. Impossible truly is nothing. Yes, there are barriers and yes, there are systems that really want to tear down Black people, women, other POC, those are true things. And what’s beautiful is moving past those blockages and understanding that we can do anything. I truly believe that. Whether the label is producer or actor, or CEO, it’s really fascinating watching people realize that we have so many tools to help us create the life that we want to honor.

Something you just said right now resonated with me so much: my very first review that I ever wrote was in my journal when I was 10 years old. And here you are talking about how you turned your journal, something that was so precious to you, and so personal, and so private, and you transformed it into Aye Defy. But then you called it a pseudo production company, which is what I call myself often, not the production part, but the pseudo part. How do we get over imposter syndrome? How do we tell ourselves: you matter, you’re not pseudo, you’re the real thing?

[Laughs] Oh my gosh, how do you get over imposter syndrome? Well, we’re going to have to help each other on this.

I hope so.

I don’t know the thing that’s coming to me right now is that I believe that I am in this position that I’m in, whatever it is, where I’m stepping into all that I am capable of and all that I know of myself, because I was able to sit with my failures, and able to acknowledge when I didn’t get something right, or when I did hurt someone unintentionally. 

I say that because I think it’s something that I think a lot of leaders, the people in positions of power are not comfortable doing. And it’s what we’re seeing reflected in our community, in the larger theatre community where it’s like, “yo, y’all like, I didn’t get here by having the money by having parents who are like, ‘Oh yeah, let’s get you into this program’.” They were like “all right, we’re still co-signed on those loans sis.” I had support but there were mistakes, and failures, and roadblocks, and things that I did wrong. 

But there were also things that I did right. So not to be masochistic or mean to myself, but I sit with myself and acknowledge that I am both perfect and imperfect. I am not my flaws, but I am flawed. And that’s okay. As a leader that allows other people beside me, “under me,” I’m trying to figure out how to be a leader in a non-hierarchical set up, which is really hard because people are looking to me. But I think what I try to give my friends and colleagues, especially the ones that are working on Aye Defy right now, is to be empowered, to tell them “you know what you’re doing, and if you need help ask for it.” Which is something that I had to learn for myself too, I can ask for help. I can ask for someone to help me figure out a way to do this better.

I don’t know that this answers fully the imposter syndrome thing, but I feel like I get it right, when I tell myself “I know, I know I can do it. I know I can do it. I know it.” And yet sometimes I can’t and that doesn’t mean that I’m an imposter. Sometimes you just need to reset and ask for help. Do I need to spend five hours on Google? Or do I just like call that friend that’s been doing this for three years? I don’t know everything and yet me having the humility to say that out loud is what makes it possible for us to be the badasses that we know we are.

Where do you want to take Aye Defy and what can we let audience members know they can do to help? How can we help your production company grow?

I spent a lot of time in our soul work, figuring out the best way to do this. I actually launched this before quarantine and it was for the brick and mortar theatre, and eventually for film and TV. We have a mission, we have a philosophy, we have the pillars of the work that we want to do. And there is a GoFundMe campaign that will help us do this work with the understanding that these tools are needed because we are building tools and we’re building programming that allows for dramaturgs, directors, artistic directors, to see where the future is.

It’s really interesting that there are different communities, factions, organizations, whatever you want to call them coming out that are getting ready to lay out demands for what we want the theatre to look like. And I think for me, my team has been doing that work actively. We’re not a theatre company. I want to be very on the record about that. We are helping create tools for more streamlined intersectionality in terms of marketing and artistic advocacy and community building. 

So we would love some folks on the mailing list so that we can tell you all of our programming which for the foreseeable future will be digital. I’m interested in what people want to see in a digital platform. I had a conversation yesterday with an actor friend that was more in the veins of artistic advocacy, because as people are starting to call people out, which I will not say my opinions on, we need tools for healing. Aye Defy started as a blog for me healing from a relationship, and I think of people’s relationship to the theatre and the interconnectedness of that.

Aye Defy is a space for everyone where you can come and pitch your projects and we’re there to support it in any way, shape or form that we can. And it’s also to help heal the processes that happen in a rehearsal space. We’re doing our first workshop, which will lead into a one night only benefit reading, so now I’m watching my friend and collaborator start a rehearsal process for a workshop that’s not 29 hours, and that’s in house, that has a black dramaturg and a black director, which was the goal and the mission of the playwright. My karmic lesson right now is to really amplify writers and their mission, and making sure that whoever they want to see their work, we reach out to them and we do our due diligence on marketing, not just being a word, but a way of being, a way of connecting, a way of creating the world beyond just logging into a link or stepping into a theatre space and letting whatever information transpires for 90 minutes to three hours. 

Actually you inspired a different interview that I had about a month ago when I was thinking about your experience at Second Stage, and I said what makes an experience to me theatrical or otherwise is when it’s holistic. It’s not just when Jose sits in his seat, but what is the experience when you enter the space at the box office. I’m someone who works in merchandise, so I see all the different types of beings that have entered these spaces and it hit me when I was reading about your experience, because that’s crazy. We’re not taking care of people from the minute that they enter our spaces, and now they are digital spaces and we don’t know what’s happening on the other side.

For me it’s not just: this is the play that we’re presenting. It’s also: were we available to you? Was it clear that this is starting at 7:30, but we’re opening the doors at 7:15? All of it feels like a part of the process. I’m very much interested in changing the process of creating through Aye Defy and making it as joyful and holistic as possible so that people feel listened to. I know that I’ve been in spaces where people didn’t feel like they could talk to me openly and I didn’t know that until I asked you that information.

I want people to feel whether they’re the playwright or the actor or the person reading stage directions, that they can ask their questions and that no one’s gonna feel harmed. So, join our mailing list and support us as we figure out how to start companies and our businesses in a quarantine where there are so many causes that totally need our energy and time and resources. I want people to understand that Aye Defy is a resource, a space for people to come and gather and get what they need out of it more than anything.

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