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AnuYadavAnu Yadav

Anu Yadav is an award-winning playwright, actress and theater-based educator in Washington D.C. She received a 2008 Creative Communities Initiative grant for her newest piece, Classlines, a multimedia performance exploring issues of class in the D.C. area. She got her start as a member of the Asian Arts Initiative performance collective Something to Say led by Gary San Angel in 1998. It was a powerful experience and played a key role in shaping her artistic voice—and reminding her that everyone's story is worth telling, including hers.

How do you see art connecting to social change?

I became really interested in how art can have a relationship to different forms of social change, in particular community organizing. After I graduated from Bryn Mawr [College], I got this fellowship to travel around the world for a year and follow street theatre and social change groups in India, Brazil, and South Africa. When I was in all of these places—in these “developing nations”—I was starting to really confront my own kind of upbringing as someone from the United States, someone who was raised middle class, and was afforded things, and also shielded from the kinds of things that other people had to deal with. So it got me really thinking about class divisions in the United States, and . . . multiracial organizing. When I came back, I started to get involved with the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, and also the University of the Poor—organizations that were devoted to this idea that we could support a broad-based movement to abolish poverty in the United States that was lead by the poor across color lines; that was something that really fascinated me.

Do you believe art can facilitate connections between people and their communities?

One example of seeing art facilitate connections between people and their community is when I did a reading of my play, Capers, which was based on interviews with the folks in the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg Public Housing Project in D.C. . . . When I performed it, at the end people gave me a standing ovation because they were so excited about seeing their experiences respectfully and honestly represented through this play. Even though I wasn’t from their community, somehow the way that I captured characters . . . really compelled them and spoke to them, and made them remember that what they have, what they feel, and what they think is important and significant. It legitimized something, and it was a really powerful moment because after I did the play, one-by-one people spoke for up to ten minutes each: they spoke about how their human rights were being violated and how they just demanded something change. It was a beautiful moment of people coming together in this community space. And there were people from other public housing projects who were there and concerned that the same thing might happen—there was a real sense of solidarity, and I was happy that I could help to create or support that space as an artist in that moment.

The other piece of this story is about audience. There were a few people who came to see the play who didn’t know anything about how gentrification is impacting low-income people in the city, and so when people came to see it they were hit with new information, and it made them think more about what is their relationship to what is happening. And this one person who’s an architect said, “How is it that I can use my skills to continue to make a living the way that I need to and to better society and not just help displace people?” Some people came to see the show and they really didn’t realize that they would actually feel something for the characters; they were coming from a totally different experience, but they saw these characters on stage and they cried with them, they laughed with them, and they surprised themselves by actually relating to people in a completely different situation than themselves. Like this one person had never been evicted—had never faced that—but was able to really feel something for this character who was going through the crisis of eviction. To be able to capture that person’s heart in that way is one step closer to making them think about their relationship to society and maybe empowering them to make change in their lives . . .

Do artists have a responsibility to address social justice issues?

I feel like whatever responsibility artists should have in terms of addressing social justice, it’s the same kind of responsibility that other people should have too. I don’t think that it always needs to be reflected in their art, but how they relate to people in their community . . . I think that people can have ways of figuring out “How do you maintain integrity and treat people respectfully within a system that encourages you to not do that?—a system that encourages you to treat people differently according to how much money they have, or what kind of social status, what they look like, and things like that?”

I’m in this play now; it’s based on the book The Never-Ending Story and that’s a fantastical story, and people say, “That’s very different than what you do because your work has always been social justice issues,” and here I am in this play, and I’m playing with puppets, as it’s musical children’s theatre piece. And it actually has changed me because I’d forgotten that there were so many different ways to create that it doesn’t have to be about a housing issue or an overt issue of social justice in order to transform us. It made me remember that art is about joy and about sharing joy. Even bringing people together in a room to share something joyful can be one step to something that is very much about social justice.

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