Danielle Deadwyler is an Atlanta-bred actress, dancer, poet and experimental filmmaker whose hip-hop alter-ego, didi xio, bears zero resemblance to the sunny, bubbly, quick-to-giggle woman sitting behind the wheel of her car, at the height of rush hour, as she discusses her latest performance art piece, BUSTitOPEN.
“When Living Walls named me the inaugural recipient of their Laura Patricia Calle Grant, they gave me the financial, artistic and emotional support I needed to complete a project I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” she says.
Deadwyler’s work explores how the lines between domestic and sexual labor can be blurred, and the resulting impact on a physical and metaphysical plane. Family and social ranking are also examined, as are the ways in which she believes women can be simultaneously pedestalized and marginalized.
“The Atlanta black woman is someone fierce and special,” she says. “I want to take her private labor, show the public something they don’t always see and create a space for us to have a conversation about it.”
“Danielle’s project speaks for black women as champions of civil disobedience, who rarely get the recognition they deserve,” says Monica Campana, cofounder and executive director of Living Walls. “Her show asks several questions, including: Are we part of the problem? How often do we forget to honor women of color, including our own mothers, for their countless contributions and sacrifices? How can we elevate their voices?”
Living Walls was established to promote, educate and change perspectives toward public spaces in Atlanta by using street art as a connector. Calle, who served as programming director at the nonprofit before she died of kidney disease in 2015, was an activist who, like Deadwyler, advocated for social justice, cultural diversity, LGBTQ rights, feminism and immigrant rights.
BUSTitOPEN marks Living Walls’s first foray into public art performance. Free and open to the public — Saturday from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at 348 Auburn Avenue — the multimedia piece will incorporate dance, a live DJ and silent film. The piece will also be live-streamed on Facebook.
Lee Osorio, who performed opposite Deadwyler in the Alliance Theatre’s The Temple Bombing this spring, calls his co-star, “the most talented actor in Atlanta. She has a groundedness, but a ferocity, and imagination unlike anyone else.”
Anyone familiar with Marina Abramović’s seminal 2010 exhibition at MoMA, The Artist Is Present, will have an inkling of what to expect from Deadwyler’s interactive installation. But anyone who knows the actress — a Grady High School alum who earned a master’s in American Studies at Columbia University in 2006 (her thesis was on sex positive images of women in hip-hop) — knows better than to expect her to rehash a variation on anyone else’s theme.
“The first time I saw Danielle in a show, I was mesmerized,” says BreeAnne Clowdus, who has photographed Deadwyler for the Aurora Theatre’s Clybourne Park, Synchronicity’s Troy Davis Project and Horizon’s The Book Club.
“She has one of my favorite acting gifts: the ability to portray a full story (not just emotions) with only her body,” says Clowdus. “Words are almost superfluous when she acts. She gives me something so special each time she sits for a picture. And it doesn’t require her to go hide in a room and work up to it like some self conscious method actor. Instead, she will be laughing hysterically one minute, then go to a place of completely layered and articulated despair seconds later. I still don’t know if she is aware of how amazing the shift is, [but as a] spectator, I am always swept up in it and grateful to capture it with the click of my shutter.”
Likewise, the Auburn Avenue community expects to get swept up by taking a fresh look at the Sisyphean nature of women’s work. When Campana proposed bringing Deadwyler’s performance piece to their neighborhood, residents expressed excitement. And their prodigal daughter is equally thrilled.
“Black women are wrestling with many things at the same time, and I will engage any community member who volunteers to get in the [virtual] ring with me,” Deadwyler says of the unscripted, 30-second interactions she’ll have with audience participants. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m down to see what unfolds when interacting with people who are curious enough to have a conversation about what it means to be a working, black woman in present-day Atlanta in such an unconventional venue.”
Enoch King, an Atlanta-based actor who recently starred in Constellations at the Horizon Theatre, first crossed paths with Deadwyler eight years ago when he watched her portray The Lady in Yellow in Jasmine Guy’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf at True Colors Theatre Company.
“When I saw Dani jumping double-dutch, she was obviously five or six months pregnant,” says King, with a mix of awe and affection. “I knew she was fearless.”
This weekend, however, he says guests should come prepared to “see Dani at her full Dani-est,” whose signature style he characterizes as “collaborative, fierce, unapologetic, vulnerable, eye-opening and multi-faceted.”
“She’s a tiny little thing, but she can fill a room with her presence,” says King. “And something tells me she’s about to kick it up ten notches.”
Whether the community responds to BUSTitOPEN with a roar or a whisper, Campana — who believes in the power of art to foster empathy — says Deadwyler’s piece is bound to be a game-changer, “even if it only reminds you to call your mom after the show, and thank her for all she’s done.”