Q&A: Actor Shamika Cotton on the ‘Female Gaze’ of Her African-Carribbean Feminist Spy Character, Marianne Angelle

Shamika Cotton
Photo via Shamika Cotton

Actor Shamika Cotton is one of the four women on-stage currently in the City Theatre production of Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists. Her character, Marianne Angelle, is a composite created by Gunderson “to embody the badass ladies of the uprisings in the Caribbean that were happening at the same time as the French Revolution.” Marianne is the only women of color in the play which also features three white female characters each based on actual historical persons.

Shamika is a Cincinnati native whom you may recognize from her previous role as Raylee Lee in the HBO series The Wire. We had a chance to interview her about this role and her experiences of Pittsburgh. Be sure to follow Shamika on social media (links below) and secure tickets to see this groundbreaking feminist show at City Theatre.

I think the thing that resonates with me the most about Marianne is her willingness to jump in the fight for “freedom, justice, humanity” in spite of the inherent sacrifice that comes with that. Such bravery. A human bravery, which comes with a nagging fear which can only be dealt with by finding allies that can help you along the way.

Your Name: Shamika Cotton

Your Pronouns: She / Her / Hers

Your Affiliation with The Revolutionists: I play the role of Marianne Angelle. She is a spy and activist from Saint Domingue, fighting for abolition of slavery.

How do you describe your identity? Black American Woman

Please tell us about your very first impression of Pittsburgh: I first came to Pittsburgh early this year to do Citizens Market at City Theatre. And I was pleasantly surprised by the amazing artist and activist community here. So many great theatres and organizations that are doing the work and giving space for conversations and healing. And I absolutely love looking up at the hills and seeing the houses and buildings and trees. There’s something magical and expansive to me about it. It’s hard to put it into words. It’s just a very comforting and ethereal feeling I get. There are some amazing views –and bridges.

What Pittsburgh creators – writers, musicians, poets, etc – have influenced your work? Is there anyone with whom you’d like to collaborate? August Wilson of course. I mean, his work, his contribution, not just theatre but to society; by saying here are these people, these voices that have a story to tell, that is worthy and interesting and complex. I mean yeah. Definitely August Wilson. As an artist, I am well aware and grateful to be able to stand on his shoulders and walk the trails that he blazed.

In terms of someone who I’d like to collaborate with, I would have to say Billy Porter. He is everything right?!? I mean he gives me life. Although I haven’t met him personally (he’s a friend in my head). Not to mention there are pictures of him all over City Theatre, so in a way, we’ve kinda connected in spirit. His artistic integrity in inherent in everything he does. One of my favorite poems is by Marianne Williamson, and there’s a line that says “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” I feel like Billy is a light.

Please tell us about the first LGBTQ person that you knew and what impact they had on your life. This is sort of a tough question for me because I can think of one person, but I’ve never seen them openly identify with the LGBTQ community. We never really spoke about it. It was always this kind of unspoken thing. And I don’t know if they’ve found their “pride” in who they are, if you know what I mean. So I can’t be too specific in who this person is, in order to honor and respect their journey. But I will say, that they were and are always so supportive, loving and accepting of me. So much laughter and style. I definitely looked up to their sense of style and “joie de vivre” as a kid. Oh God, is that cliché? Oh, well, aren’t we all a bit of a cliché at times.

Your character Marianne Angell is a fictionalized composite woman of color from French Saint-Domingue (known to as now as Haiti.) What resonates with you about Marianne in your own life? There are so many things that resonate with me about Marianne. First I’m grateful to Lauren Gunderson, for writing the heck out of this character –this story even. What a gift it is to play her. I think the thing that resonates with me the most about Marianne is her willingness to jump in the fight for “freedom, justice, humanity” in spite of the inherent sacrifice that comes with that. Such bravery. A human bravery, which comes with a nagging fear which can only be dealt with by finding allies that can help you along the way. And together, you strengthen one another. I think that’s the only way to do things that scare us. Together.

Conversations referencing the French Revolution rarely include women’s voices, beyond the stereotype of Marie Antoinette (also a character in this play), much less the realities of the French Colonial Empire and voices from people of color subjected to French rule in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. How familiar were you with the Revolution(s) before you were introduced to the play and did you read/study anything in particular to bolster your knowledge? When I was in school I was never great at history.  It was just a bunch of facts that I was never able to really connect to. So it very well could have been taught to me, but it was so disconnected from my reality, that it didn’t stick. So before working on The Revolutionists, I had no idea about the French Revolution, let alone, a Haitian Revolution. But as an actor, I find that I learn, actually enjoy learning, history through my work. It’s more fascinating this way, because I examine history through the eyes of a character. As the character I’m able to imagine myself in the circumstances, and then allow my natural curiosity to lead me through the research. Besides our brilliant dramaturg Clare Drobot, who put together an amazing package of character and world study material; one places on the internet that helped me find my way into the world of the play was this YouTube channel “Khan Academy”. I feel like I could learn anything from that channel. Their coverage of both the French and Haitian Revolutions, was engaging and concise. I highly recommend it.

Pittsburgh’s white feminist community continues to wrestle with intersectionality and acknowledging much less deferring to the leadership of local Black women. How does art like The Revolutionists offer us a path to a more inclusive feminist community? I think the thing that this play does brilliantly, is that it shows us four passionate women who each represent different aspects of the female gaze, but in a comical way. The comedy comes from us women folk being able to see and laugh at ourselves, but yet and still demand that the things we care about be taken seriously. I think that laughter, and even crying, connect us to our humanity. And that is what this play calls to task. It asks us to sit and listen to each of these women make a case as to why they are human and worthy of equality and justice. And I think we, as women, and as feminist have an obligation to stand and fight with anyone, especially our sister, if any of those core value are threatened.

What does your feminism look like? Feminism to me is recognizing and honoring the exquisite uniqueness that makes me feminine. Unapologetically showing up in life. Walking in a power and truth that I define.  And being unafraid to change my mind.

In the 2011 queer coming of age film Pariah, your character is a supportive older sister who takes in a younger sibling rejected by her family after coming out as well as a friend of the sister who also experiences family rejection. How has that experience impacted your understanding of the realities of LGBTQ youth? I like to think that my life experiences and understanding of the realities of LGBTQ youth and community as a whole, is what drew me to the role. I was so grateful to play a character who was a beacon of light and hope. An example of the love and acceptance we need in this world.

You have ties to the soap world (my not-so-secret indulgence.) How has the soap opera genre successfully (or not) reflected the voices of women of color, especially Black women? I feel like I am a little out of touch with the Soap world today. But I remember when I was in it, I was very disheartened by the lack of opportunities and story lines for people of color, as well as the lack of diversity behind the scenes. It was like, I was trying so hard to do more soap work, but there wasn’t really a place for me, Then, soaps started getting cancelled, which led to fewer opportunities. So I guess, I kind of changed my focus. I do, however, think diverse and inclusive representation in storytelling, is a major success factor for any TV show, whether it’s soap/daytime or primetime.

And that is what this play calls to task. It asks us to sit and listen to each of these women make a case as to why they are human and worthy of equality and justice.

Your YouTube series The Shamika Chronicles is an example of taking control of the narrative to create media about your own experiences as an actor and a Black woman. Will there be future seasons? When I first started the Shamika Chronicles, there weren’t as many Vlogs out there as there are now. There especially weren’t many Vlogs out there showing the journey of an artist. I remember when I was recording some of the earlier episodes, I’d be walking through the city with my camcorder, recording myself. And people looked at me like I was crazy. Now, it’s commonplace, because everyone is doing it. Not to mention, it sometimes took a lot of time to edits the videos myself. But thankfully now, there are apps and it’s easier to just share a quick video on places like Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.

It strikes me that the City Theatre ‘Pay What You Can’ policy is a solid opportunity to make art like this play more accessible to people who are often priced out, including single working mothers, people of color, and LGBTQ folx. What are your thoughts on the policy as a tool to bring the art to the people? I absolutely LOVE this policy. And I think it’s a great fit for City Theatre. First of all, I think City Theatre is such an asset to the Pittsburgh community. City Theatre is really good about giving space to voices and stories that address current issues. With that being said, the ‘Pay What You Can’ policy is a great service to combat what could be seen as a financial obstacle for a potential theatre goer. Also it lowers the financial risk for someone who’s new to the theatrical experience.

What is your love song for LGBTQ youth? Well I’m a little old school. I love me some R&B, and I’ve always loved the message in the song “All About Love” by Earth Wind and Fire.

Who are some of the younger openly LGBTQ artists that our readers might not know about? I don’t know.

Where can readers find you on social media?

Instagram: shamikachronicles

Twitter: shamikacotton

Facebook: Shamika Cotton 

Thank you, Shamika.


The Revolutionists is running at City Theatre through September 30, 2018.

 

Shamika Cotton Marianne Angelle
Shamika Cotton as Marianne Angelle on far right. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover