A Life in Extreme Switches:
An Interview with Melanee Murray, Creator and Star of The 'Hoodwink
Interviewed by Jiwon Choi
The 'Hoodwink: Written and performed by Melanee Murray, this brave and daring piece showcases both truth and talent. Murray plays Albie Davis, a single mother with sick beats and a big dream––to be a rap superstar. Her words are powerful and thought-provoking, but there’s just one problem: she doesn’t have the look. Albie struggles with the unfair reality that the rap world belongs to those who are sex symbols. After being rejected from gig after gig, while sexier girls––with not much to say––got the glory, Albie had enough. She creates an alter-ego “Ten-Cent” and auditions for a popular rap show in her area. While trying to impress the man in charge as well as one that she is starting to fall for, Albie loses herself in this new persona. She is gaining acceptance in the rap world, but the uneasiness of the deception starts to take a toll.
Jiwon Choi: Can you talk a little bit about your process in creating multiple characters for your one-woman play?
Melanee Murray: I learned that I had a lot of people living inside of me. That I had spent years inwardly mirroring people and capturing and channeling their essence. It can be surprising how much of people’s energy we are able to take on. The human ability to mirror others is very strong, (we have something called mirror neurons in our brain) and probably actors go into the business because they constantly access those mirror neurons. I also learned that I probably act out interactions between people in my head all the time. I think doing a solo show calls upon the same mechanisms that occur when you dream––you are playing all of the parts, drafting the scenarios but also “forgetting” yourself and getting lost in the story. Our brains are capable of doing this––we do it every night. Children do it. So I guess it’s just natural that people create scenarios and worlds. It’s also how we figure things out. How we figure ourselves out. Looking at reality from several different perspectives.
JC: Taking on other people’s energies is draining. Was there a character who was the most challenging to embody?
MM: Hmm. I have to think about this one. I guess the role of the casting assistant Cassie. She was pretty underwritten and thus it was hard to get a handle on who she was. She was a bit of a comic device so she changed from production to production. Sometimes it was also a challenge to play someone based on a real person––a friend I knew since high school––William. I had to exaggerate things about him and over do it, and I felt a little guilty. But mostly it was about differentiating him from the other characters but also playing him organically.
JC: In watching your performance, I remember thinking how much you had to change your voice in order to embody your various characters.
MM: [v]ocal placement came from another place in my throat, so it was a switch to keep that up. Most characters’ voices came from my belly. He had a lot of breath in his voice, but was still very male––so it was like––how do I have the breath to do this, and to subtly change his physical weight in my body so he was different from the other adult male characters. And still show that he is male––as his voice is quieter than some of the other characters. Sometimes playing Trigga Trev also taxed my body in the same way, maintaining breath while still indicating his masculinity. His voice is quieter than that of Ten Cent––the boy’s character. He is more still. So, it’s always the actor’s challenge––stillness, and “quiet” while filling up the space. That’s always an interesting maneuver. He is based on my interpretation of Mos Def, so it’s like, remembering that person’s energy––what I’ve seen in interviews, while infusing my own emotions. But really, none of the characters were too hard. I have such a good time doing it. The trick is to think it’s all easy and effortless––and thus it is.
JC: In listening to you discuss your process of becoming your characters, I wonder if this is how you create spaces for yourself?
MM: I think all of my own work derives my experiences and what I am drawn to. The ‘Hoodwink will always be inextricably linked to blackness and my blackness in particular. I lived as an actor in New York and LA for a total of fifteen years. Before that I went to arts high school, which was predominantly black and before that, Catholic, private school that was predominantly white. Before that I lived and went to school in essentially the hood in Baltimore. After mostly black high school I went to a very white college in Vermont. So my educational/social trajectory was as follows: mostly black, mostly white, mostly black, mostly white. It’s always been extreme switches––although somewhat easier because from high school, all my “subcultures” were artistic.
JC: Speaking of spaces and “switching” I know you’ve mentioned that relocating to Canada has been a challenge. Can you talk about that a little more?
MM: Calgary is where you see the arts scene completely unaffected by blackness. And let me tell you––blackness is, if anything, a performance. The ‘Hoodwink showcases my ability to “code switch”. I play a character, Albie, who is accessible to white people and yet who has this little homeboy living inside of her, which pretty much sums up the experience of being black in America. Living black in this society hones one’s ability to act, which is why I think most black people here are natural actors. We do multi-character solo shows ALL THE TIME. And we do it to get along and survive the constant, low hum of danger that being black entails. It can be dangerous to be black amongst other black people and not understand how your vocal tone needs to change and your verbal paradigms need to shift. You have to place your eyes a certain way, move your body.
JC: You just made me think of a line from that article you sent me: “…when white people feel unsafe, they are unsafe for black people to be around” (“The Art of Being Black In White Spaces” by Ruth Terry). Pretty damning.
MM: It all changes in all white spaces. It’s a different kind of danger. And a more panic inducing one. I would describe my ability to do those characters as a culmination of a lifetime of navigating through spaces with various forms of danger.
JC: Is this what Albie, the main character has on her mind too? Well, you are in essence Albie.
MM: Regarding the main character, Albie: we understand what white American conceptions of femininity and in the case of The ‘Hoodwink, what the standard American rom-com female lead is like. She’s quirky, both capable and hapless, and in many cases, righteous. She’s also neurotic. Or on the neuroses spectrum. In white spaces, I might be able to be this a bit more, although it’s been harder since I’ve been romantically involved with a white man––my husband.
JC: Is being married to a white man another instance of having to switch or “navigate through spaces”?
MM: The territory for hapless femininity (and white male attraction) is something that is fiercely guarded by white women. As well as being neurotically smart––all the things that Albie is. Playing Albie in the white space in which I live (Calgary, AB Canada) ended up being about asserting my right to be wrong, to not be guarded and keep myself safe––which is expected of black women in white spaces. The black women where I live in Calgary tend to be guarded and one note in their delivery. They are rarely vulnerable, overtly feminine in front of the white people here socially. They don’t engage in the kind of neurotic (manic) humor with which I infused Albie. Playing Albie is about assertion. I assert my right to be quirky, self-righteous, outspoken and yet feminine, vulnerable and sweet––all the things Albie is.
JC: So Albie embodies all the things you are, and is a role model for just accepting who we are?
MM: It was a powerful move in a very limiting, racist community that was aggressive in its white female racism and policing of me and my union with my husband––and parenting of our light-skinned biracial child. People would come over, (black and white) in the guise of friendship and act out in passive aggressive ways because of the subliminal rage about how I was not being Oprah––helpful, supportive and guarded. I also showed that I was not disconnected from my own culture or what white people perceive as “black culture.” I could, if I wanted, switch into any one of those personas and it was very powerful.
JC: The act of “switching” in order to adjust to our ever-changing environments is life-saving skill for many people of color. It sounds as if your show as well as your ability to slip in and out of many roles positively impacted your daily life.
MM: It’s interesting because I know a woman who is a staunch feminist here, whose humor I was drawn to. But she was always distanced from me until she saw The ‘Hoodwink. We were discussing an African colleague of ours. She was baffled as how to place him in her head, how to contextualize him. She would never realize in a million years that her need to contextualize him was a part of the inherited racism that many white people possess. I realized that while she is smart, feminist and funny––she still struggles to place black people. And my show gave her a context for who I was––a neurotically smart, funny, (slightly) self-righteous person who has the ability to communicate across cultural lines (if I choose.)
JC: But it’s not often a choice, how we are tasked to subvert our true selves in order to exist in these white spaces. How do you reconcile this?
MM: I have always been interested in creating a new black female archetype. I think Issa Rey is managing this adroitly. What I create in Albie is even more specific in terms of neurosis and vulnerability than what Rey is doing, but it’s all along the same lines. We are allowing for and presenting to the world an informed, black female, self-defining femininity to come in. We are creating characters that deviate from the stultifying male ideal of placidity and “no drama” sweetness and the vulnerability-crushing racist representations of black women- as stoic, deadpan, slightly masculine and reliable. (All I need is my own HBO deal. ;)) In Albie’s case, she can “go there”––she can play the racist version of black womanhood––stoic, deep, forthright and wise in the character of Ten Cent––but she can also be neurotic, impulsive, smart, nurturing and loving––and in over her head. A complete person as shown through various characters.
JC: So I know “code switching” has been embedded in our culture for as long as there have been people on the planet, but what’s your take on it?
MM: Albie is always code switching. And she is always trying to exist in one of the most sexist, racist industries on the planet––the entertainment industry. The white space of Hollywood has infiltrated all of our minds, and we, as black people, have internalized the racist/sexist tropes of show business. So, if you audition for that hip hop video, watch out because the rappers producing it are a product of multi-generations of drinking the Hollywood, white supremacist Kool-Aid. Not because they wanted to, but because that Kool-Aid was forced down their throats. The show is about existing within the white spaces in our minds. It is about navigating the expectations and demands of black femininity and masculinity as defined by living within the constraints of white supremacy. Albie wants to be heard, like all of us at the lower end of the racial/gender hierarchy (and the lowest on that ladder tends to be black women) and she will be heard by any means necessary. Alice Miller––whatever you want to say about her personal life––wrote about the trauma that creates a gifted child. The gifted child, if I am paraphrasing correctly, develops their gifts of heightened sensitivity to read the needs and intentions of the withholding and/or abusive adults. Talent is a survival technique. I think The ‘Hoodwink is all about someone who has had to develop the extraordinary gift (or slight mental illness––two sides of the same coin) of an alternate ego or persona because she’ll do anything to be heard–– even in the midst of the racial trauma of being black in the empire of our western colonized culture.
Jiwon Choi: "I am a poet, teacher and urban gardener. I teach preschool at the Educational Alliance, a multi-generational non-profit located on the Lower East Side of New York City. I am also a long-time urban gardener and coordinator for the Pacific Street Brooklyn Bear’s Community Garden located near Downtown Brooklyn.
"My first book of poems, One Daughter is Worth Ten Sons, was published by Hanging Loose Press in 2017. I am also a poetry editor for Typehouse Literary Magazine. I live in Brooklyn, New York."