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A Gift Makes Room

The first few months of the pandemic took a huge toll on my mental health that was quite visible to those close to me. My anxiety was through the roof and manifested as deep worry about every unsanitized object I might have touched or sharp fits of anger at anyone who stood even slightly too close in the grocery store. My apartment constantly smelled of bleach, and my hands were perpetually raw from all day washing. It was unnerving not to feel in the driver’s seat of my body.

However, my people showed up for me. They loved me gently, patiently to stasis. In the fall of 2020, it seemed as though the dynamics in many of those relationships had changed, and my community of folks were now hitting their emotional walls. I recall that almost every conversation I had with loved ones left me feeling a profound sense of heaviness. It pained me that I couldn’t give my friends a hug, cook for my parents a meal, or just hold someone’s hand and cry. From these conversations, I was struck by how often our most personally challenging days were spent scrolling on our phones and computer screens constantly encountering news, tweets, and headlines that didn’t make us feel any better.

I started to post short skits on my personal social media around September. I wanted to interrupt the scrolling with something that would make my friends and family laugh. My acting classes (and therapy) were helping to heal me from my fear of “looking silly.” And silliness seemed like a small debt to pay to people who had given me so much. Honestly, I also wanted to cultivate joy for myself. The pressure to continue as normal at our jobs in the face of so much flux and death seemed nonsensical and spiritually dishonest. These sketches were a way to get a few minutes during the day where I had complete autonomy of my body and creativity and permission to speak freely. It was also a space to try out things I hadn’t gotten a chance to fully explore in class like accents, voice work, and writing for myself. Importantly, I didn’t have to win an audition to get permission to perform. I could just do it.

In these videos, I could render the conversations I had with my loved ones into something small enough to laugh at and perhaps small enough to see differently. It felt like success when a few friends on Facebook or Instagram would like a post or message me to say that something I had done made them smile. I could never have anticipated all that has happened next.

In October, a sketch I had written and performed about a Black British actor playing a famous Black American went viral. Although I was proud of the video (particularly my accent), I thought this was an anomaly. It was a confidence boost, but I moved on. I made a few more videos without much attention which was ideal for me. The reaction to the first viral video - being so suddenly visible - had made some of my anxiety return briefly. Shortly after my first viral video, I posted a parody of The Crown which went even more viral and eventually accumulated over 1 million views on Twitter. From that point forward, the audience for my videos grew.

I began to realize that I was cultivating a creative voice and growing an audience for my work. My friends and family appreciated these offerings, but so did folks I had never met. This growing community appreciated levity, my worldview, and the chance to laugh at the circumstances that also occupied their minds for most of the day. These small acting and writing exercises during my day meant something to more people than I could have anticipated. I did not always feel my voice carried much weight in the professional spaces where I was devoting so much of my time. At the same time, my artistic voice was getting clearer and reverberating in real time in the small space I had allotted for it.

I lost my job a few weeks ago and the community who follows my work has supported me beyond my wildest dreams. I’m being loved back to stasis again. Now I’m facing what it might mean to professionalize what was once a personal healing practice. I’m worried about what it means to transform what was meant to be a respite from labor into labor. What it means to confront an industry that isn’t inclined to see bodies like mine as worthy of storytelling. I’m often overwhelmed by what I don’t know about the acting business. I don’t have an agent or a press kit. And COVID-19 robbed me of many of what would have been my first acting opportunities.

However, I have held firm to the knowledge that this practice has been to cultivate joy for myself and the people who care about me. I was drawn to acting because of the insights it provides into my own humanity and the humanity of others. My hope is to catalyze that kind of interrogation for others. I don’t know what the next chapter of my life looks like or how to convert Twitter likes into a gig. But even if my greatest acting achievement is this period of time where I got to be one of the light carriers, that feels worthy of celebration and holy. The practice of acting allowed me to connect with the people I loved most across social distance. The love is in such abundance that it has reached strangers. I feel once again compelled to return the love that has been extended to me. I’m grateful that I have more ways to do that.

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