by Vikram Phukan (download a PDF copy)
As he describes himself, D’Lo is a queer, Tamil, Sri Lankan American, political theatre performer. Currently touring India as part of The Park’s New Festival, he spoke to Vikram Phukan for a Timeout Mumbai feature. Here is the complete interview.
Let’s talk labels first, and there are several that you seem have to have taken on. Did this involve a process that involved first, a rejection of mainstream notions, before you claimed them back?
Well, I was the first to be born in the States on my appa‘s side. But because it is such a part of my upbringing, being Hindu and Tamil and Lankan, I purposely say that I am all of those things, so that through my hyphenated experience, one can understand that how I’ve lived, how I live, what I choose to create my work around, is not necessarily all that I talk about, but the lens through which I see it. And it extends to how I label myself queer and trans. Queer is a strong lens. I know a lot of heterosexual or cisgender people who look at the world with a queer lens.
What kind of audiences do you perform to? Are you a local lad speaking to his own communities or do you thrive off a sense of alienation?
I tour my theater shows to different venues nationally and internationally. I perform a lot on the university circuit, and many times I get called in very conservative/Republican schools to perform. Those performances are harder, so I’ve figured out a formula. But for the most part, it can be mixed—people of color, or queer audiences, or theatre audiences. I’ve hardly ever performed for a South Asian audience except in NYC, and even there, it is not that often. I don’t thrive off of a sense of alienation. Frankly, everything practically scares me. But I figure I gotta fake it till I make it. I know that my work changes people’s lives. What a thing to know this and hold onto it. I do this for that. For the sense of finally feeling not alienated. For the sense of feeling like I belong. Even if it is only for an hour or so, on certain nights of the month.
Sometimes people use the ‘desi‘ and the ‘queer’ for novelty. How are you able to transcend this? Do you protect this sphere defined by your identity, your turf so to say, or is it all incidental anyway and you’re not bothered by how you’re pigeon-holed?
I haven’t ever used the word ‘desi’ because here in the States, it generally means ‘Indian’. Queer is that ‘all-encompassing’ term that works best for me. To be queer means that you are working on making ‘walking down the street’ an easy thing for everyone. This means not just queer people who look queer, but for the folks who are also differently abled. To me, to be queer means that, you know that people are not able to voice their concerns and stories, so you do everything you can to speak up for them. You understand that money and power lie in the hands of the corrupt few and you try to Robin-Hood it back to the people in subversive ways. And you understand that the personal is always political.
Lastly, being trans is the best way to describe me, by me. I’ve had top surgery, I’m not on hormones. I pass as a male many times, but my voice sounds like Mickey Mouse, so at other times I read as a dyke, even though I’ve never used that word. But I’m ok with that. I figure, as long as you’re not beating me up or yelling at me, I’m ok with however folks take me. But I always say that my preference is to be referred to in male pronouns.
How do you work in bringing some very intimate narratives into such a public arena, and as a comic? How much of it involves a lot of explaining who you are? That must get annoying but i’m sure there are audiences that totally ‘get’ you from the word go.
Comedy is tragedy given time. The stuff that I’ve been through, many people haven’t gone through. And even more importantly, I haven’t gone through even close to what other queer people have had to go through. Queer people, we survive. We try to. We try to make sense of the world and why we can’t seem to fit, when all we got is love for people and a desire to be loved by people. I mean, who doesn’t want to be a part of love? So in regards to comedy, after all the painful writing is done, after you’ve drunk your bottles, after you’ve cleaned yourself up, you re-tell the stories and very often, they are funny. Absurd. Because the intolerance towards queer people is baseless. Queer folk are usually not trying to hurt anyone. So what’s the problem?
And as for the annoying part of explaining myself over and over again… your story is your most powerful tool to change people’s mindframes. Talking, sharing. Powerful tools. So yeah, it does get mad annoying, but then again, I have the privilege to do it. So I try to do it right, and without the heavy feeling of being on repeat.
Are you selective towards stereotypes? I understand you can’t get too politically correct in your work, but because you’re also representing the communities where you come from, South Asian or queer, do you watch how far you take your material in terms of self-lampooning? Basically, how far can you push an Indian accent?
I use accents to speak in the voice of another, but all kinds of accents. 100 percent of the stuff I’ve written about my parents did happen, so I voice them the best I can, in my best Sri Lankan accent (smiles). My storytelling is über personal, so I don’t talk about things I don’t know. And ironically, I don’t know much about the mainstream/white queer scene, so I have no stereotypes to go off of. And if I did, it would probably be the most boring part of my show to perform. IN the theater, I have Sri Lankan characters who are immigrants, and these folks have accents, of course. But the joke isn’t in the accent, the jokes are in the story, how the characters think. I don’t believe that it’s right to make your material based on jokes about immigrants or people of color, or anyone really. I joke about myself mostly. My life. And I make fun of some politicians, but they’re making me the butt of their foolery, so I figure it’s fair. There are ignorant artists out there. I hope after you see my show that you see that I am not one of them.
Yes, looking forward to the show. The urban angst that informs your work, the edginess, how do you think that will play off when you’re in India performing in decidedly bourgeois settings. Indian audiences are also notoriously insular.
(laughs) Well, when I came to the Other Festival in Chennai in 04, I was doing mostly hip-hop back then, with some theatre. So I toned it down, took out the beats, performed it clearly and like poetry. I didn’t want any of the 300 folks sitting there to write off the power of hip hop. Being raised in Hip Hop culture had an equally significant role to how I walked as being raised Tamil Sri Lankan. I know how to make my work palatable not by downplaying my art, but shifting it. The goal is to be heard and loved. I’ve played for many different audiences and the goal stays the same.
I see that people who are snotty, they want to be loved and reflected just as bad as I do. These ‘snotty’ folks are usually less privileged in what they can say than I am. I have the stage, that’s freedom. I take it on as my duty to never isolate. But of course, if there are hecklers, I’ll have to kill them. (smiles)
D’Lo’s show, D’FunQT (pronounced defunct), is filled with his humorous musings, rants and stories of being a queer boy/stud/transgendered person who grew up in a strict immigrant family, trying to make it all work peacefully while radically and bizarrely challenging mindframes in choosing to exist unapologetically.
It will be performed at Mumbai’s St Andrew’s Auditorium on Mon, Sep 10th, 7 PM.