Personalizing the Politics: An Interview with D’Lo

At USC’s “State of the Word: Asian American Spoken-Word Artists,” D’Lo performed monologues and stand-up about growing up Sri Lankan in Lancaster, CA and slowly being accepted as transgender by his parents.

by Ada Tseng

Date Published: 04/04/2011

D’Lo. Photos by Tani Ikeda

On April 2, D’Lo joined Bao Phi and Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai at the University of Southern California for a workshop and performance titled “State of the Word: Asian American Spoken-Word Artists.” Performing a combination of stand-up, theater, and spoken word, D’Lo took a relaxed and comical tone as he entertained the audience with stories about his experience growing up Sri Lankan in the US, the difficulties of meeting women on MySpace, and the complications with being addressed as male or female when one is transgender.

Later, the tone became more serious. In one piece, the lights were turned down low as D’Lo addressed the audience in profile and talked about how a young woman walking home alone at night might be afraid of D’Lo, because of how he looks. However, he wants to give her peace of mind and the feeling of safety, because he too understands the fear of being attacked by men.

In another piece, D’Lo embodies the character of his mother Amma, wearing traditional Sri Lankan clothing. Amma talks to the audience about having a daughter who is transgender, an extra challenge that compounds the difficulties she already faces being an immigrant in a foreign country. The monologue addresses the additional pain she feels from “losing” D’Lo as a daughter, when she has already lost another daughter in 1991 to a plane accident. The performance concludes: “D’Lo may not be my daughter anymore, but she is my child. I must love her.”

According to his bio, D’Lo is a “queer Tamil Sri L.A.nkan-American, political theatre artist/writer, director, comedian and music producer.” D’Lo began his career doing spoken word and poetry that was heavily influenced by hip-hop. Comedy entered D’Lo’s work by accident, through the stories he would tell onstage between his poems and later, through his work as an MC. After performing in plays by Susanna Cook in New York, D’Lo was inspired to write monologues for theater. He enjoys making people laugh, while addressing serious personal and political topics.

APA catches the very busy D’Lo on March 30, 2011 for a phone interview a few days before the “State of the Word” performance. In the middle of shooting a documentary about his life, D’Lo had just come home from interviewing his parents.

APA: How did this documentary come about?

D’Lo: Around last year, a graduate student at SFSU who had made several other films approached me about making a documentary about my life. My parents had trouble accepting my queerness and my trans, and I just think this is an important story, even if we’re still in the process [of acceptance]. So many young people think that it’s so hard to survive this life as a queer person, and I think anything we can do as older queer people to talk about how to navigate this world is important.

APA: Much of your stage work is humorous. When did you start putting characters [like Amma and Gandhi] into your shows?

D’Lo: I wanted to tell stories from different points of view. Around 2002, when I was in New York, I was working with different artists in theater, and that was when I started getting more heavily into my sets. I started working with this artist named Susanna Cook, and I loved being part of her plays. They were very interesting, very politically on-point, sarcastic, and just amazing. That was when I moved away from poetry, started doing monologues, and eventually began to understand theater and to train more properly in playwrighting.

APA: How has your work changed over the years?

D’Lo: The political, hard-core social themes in my work have always been there. Earlier in my career, I started with telling stories about the big picture — world politics, US politics — but it was always rooted in a story. Then I started writing more keenly on gender and sexual orientation, mostly because I didn’t want to just talk about politics without personalizing it. When I started doing that, I finally found what I really wanted to do: being able to joke and laugh with the crowd, experiment with how to nail a joke or kill a monologue. You really feel the power when you’re doing that.

APA: How does your show differ when you’re doing theater vs. when you’re on the college circuit?

D’Lo: It’s different when you’re commissioned to do your work. The stakes are higher. You’re expected to raise your bar. But each has his own set of expectations. If you don’t connect with the college crowd, then what’s the point of you going there, you know? In theater crowds, sometimes [performers are] not supposed to wow the crowd. You’re just supposed to make them listen. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but the expectation of me jiving with the crowd isn’t there in the same way.

There’s a whole bunch of different energies. If I’m doing something at a bar, I have to hit it. If I can’t make the white, straight boy think for a second, even if it’s through his laughter, then I haven’t done my job. If I’m going to a theater, I have to engage the older white people in the crowd. I’m not saying that I write for white people, I’m saying I write for a lot of different types of people, and I hope that white people can also understand. So I have my own set of expectations.

APA: What are the differences between your onscreen persona and your offscreen persona?

D’Lo: Most of my life is spent working, so I don’t get to go out much. I used to when I was younger, but now, I just have to make sure I’m always on the ball when my creativity is concerned.

APA: Are you familiar with the work of the other two artists that are performing at “State of the Word: Asian American Spoken-Word Artists” at USC?

D’Lo: Of course! I’ve shared the stage with both of them. Bao [Phi] has asked me to come out to perform at The Loft in Minneapolis, where he runs a spoken-word series. Kelly [Zen-Yie Tsai] and I have done a lot more stuff that is related to feminism and Asian American theater.

APA: Do you find that the community is small?

D’Lo: No, the community is large! On these college campuses, I feel like the Asian American population is huge. I actually do more East Asian things than I do South Asian things. And at South Asian shows, there tends to be a smaller amount of people in the audience.

APA: Why do you think that is?

D’Lo: The greater the population, the more diversity you will have. There’s a shorter history of South Asians in America. Whereas, there’s a strong history of Chinese workers in America, and there’s a strong war history with Japan. So with East Asians, they might have grandparents who worked on the railroads, grandparents who were in internment camps, and there’s a politicization happening. But as large an amount of who happen to be interested in the show, there’s an even larger amount of people who don’t give a shit.

APA: What else are you currently working on?
D’Lo: I’m directing a show now with spoken word artist Bobby Gordon, which tackles the issue of masculinity. I’m providing artist development, because he moving from spoken word to theater, so this is something he’s never done before. He’s a straight Jewish guy, and he’s the son of a porn star. I strongly believe that as queer artist, it’s important to tackle a lot of the larger issues that society is facing, including masculinity, violence, and [the issue of] young men going through proper rights of passage. [The show] is an extension of the queer arts work I’m doing in the world. I mean, we have a lot of spineless South Asian men because they don’t know how to really be men. [This issue] is important to all communities.

Another play I’m working is called Boys That Pray, and it’s in development at the Brava Theater in SF.

At college campuses, D’Lo tours a show called D’FaQTo Life. Other shows he tours includes Ramble-Ations: A One D’Lo Show, another solo theater show Minor D’Tales, and a full stand-up storytelling show D’FunQT. D’Lo’s second play, Boys That Pray, will have its staged reading premiere at the Brava Theater in San Francisco on June 2011. For more information, go to D’Lo’s official website here.