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The Feministing Five: Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni

What does it mean to be mixed race in the United States today? Where does racial categorization come from and why does it matter? How do we critically engage with race and racism for our collective liberation?

These are some just some of the pressing questions explored in “One Drop of Love,” the multimedia solo performance by award-winning playwright, actor, producer and educator Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni.

“One Drop,” co-produced by Fanshen, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon, uses the ever-changing racial categories on the U.S. Census as the backdrop to this multilayered show. Throughout, the audience is asked to participate in defining and redefining these categories for themselves and one another. Fanshen parallels this history with her own and her mixed-race family’s search for roots, identity, and justice.

Fanshen has been featured in the New York Times and on NPR as a spokesperson on using the arts to explore racial identity. I had the pleasure of catching up with her for this week’s Feministing Five to talk about this incredible show, why theater is a critical tool for exploring racial identity, her own family history, and more.

Senti Sojwal: Can you tell our readers about your show, “One Drop of Love,” and how the idea for it came to be?

Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni: The show looks at the construction of race in the U.S. I’ve always known that I wanted to do creative work around examining race and how deeply it’s embedded in everything all around us. Some of us face that all the time and some of us don’t necessarily think we have to. I came to Los Angeles about sixteen years ago to be an actor. Ten years later, after lots of rejection and being told I was “too this” or “too that” or “not enough,” often about race or weight, I finally decided to go back to school and “One Drop” was my thesis for my MFA. Theater has always been my first creative love. I was making the show I felt like I was born to make.

Sojwal: As an artist, have you always been drawn to exploring various facets of your identity through theater? When and how did you learn that this was something you wanted to do?

DiGiovanni: I don’t think I always had planned to look at racial identity in my work. I think really part of what pushed me was realizing how limited I was in terms of what I could audition for. I was really fortunate to go to a high school with an incredible theater program where everyone and anyone was cast in our productions. We ended up doing shows that other programs would never touch, with casts that reflected the way our city looked. When I went to college, I took that with me thinking that was how the world was and immediately realized it wasn’t. My campus was segregated socially and academically. I was in a black theater troupe. It was clear that that’s how I would be cast in something, versus being cast in a larger show. I created an organization on campus that worked to make sure the arts on campus were more multicultural, more representative. I joined the Peace Corps and lived in West Africa for a few years. I coached students after school in the drama club. I focused on education for a few years and went to grad school in New York to be close to the theater scene. Still, I felt all these limitations around what other people would see me as, how other people were in control of how I was portrayed. I think that’s why I steeped myself in working with young people.

Sojwal: How was race and racial identity talked about in your family growing up? How did that have an impact on how you came to understand your own racial identity?

DiGiovanni: For much of my life I identified as black and much of that had to do with wanting to find connections with my dad. My parents divorced when I was very young and my mom got full custody. She is my best friend on the planet. She is this incredible radical woman. I felt I was lacking a strong racial identity; I wanted to be rooted in blackness. I think my mom did the very best she could but there’s only so much a white woman can do in that situation. For a time we lived in very small towns in Maine which was very uncomfortable. Even with my light skin, I was often the darkest person around. My brother and I were called the n-word. Every time I think about that now, I’m just filled with fury. My dad was in DC. He has always been pro-black and a Pan Africanist. Anytime we were with him, we were very much steeped in blackness and did not have exposure to white people in that environment. It was a very interesting survival mechanism. In Maine, I had to be on my toes, but in DC, I got to be proud of my blackness. Definitely dual worlds.

Sojwal: What are your hopes for what the show can mean or illuminate for people of color and mixed race people versus white people?

DiGiovanni: The more I do this show, the more I realize that the most important thing I can do is have a critical lens on what it means to be mixed. Race was created to maintain the ideology of white supremacy. I’ve had to reflect on what it means to have a mixed identity, and how exploring this identity perpetuates this ideology. I don’t feel like it has to. There’s room to explore this identity, talk about it, celebrate it, but it has to be done with a critical lens. This show is about coming to terms with why people use terms like “biracial,” why there was the term “mulatto.” Again, it all circles back to white supremacy. The overall thing I want everyone to walk away with is a critique of white supremacy within our contemporary lives. I want people to think about the lack of representation in media all the way to the highest levels of government. I want people to unpack the history of what led us here.

The show begins with a projection of the U.S. Census in 1790. There were three racial categories: free white male, free white female, and slave. I tell audience members which category they would count in. It’s very uncomfortable! Then I go on stage and examine my own skin. It’s to show that this was random. Maybe you were lucky enough to be called this thing called white. The racial categories go on to change 24 times. It just goes to show you that the categorization is not real. It is only created for a sinister reason—for this hierarchy. I want people to walk away from this show thinking about things they’re afraid to talk about.

Sojwal: Where can readers catch this show coming up?

DiGiovanni: All show listings are on our website: www.onedropoflove.org!

NYC

Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics, and has worked with NARAL, The Civil Liberties & Public Policy Program and its sister program PopDev, and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She currently works at Sakhi for South Asian Women, an advocacy organization that supports immigrant survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence through an array of culturally competent services and programs. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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