As an MFA candidate in the Television, Film and Theatre program at California State University, Los Angeles, Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni originally set out to make a documentary about identity and race, using her Jamaican and white ancestry as the core of the story, as her thesis project. But since her concentration was on performance, a professor advised her to do a theater piece to showcase her acting chops. So she took her footage and research and transformed the documentary into a multimedia one-woman show called One Drop of Love. She is performing that show in the Fox Theatre’s Egyptian Ballroom tonight at 7 p.m.
The title derives from the U.S. Census “one drop rule,” which states that a person who has at least one parent of African descent is automatically considered black. The daughter of a Jamaican father (Winston Barrington Cox) and white mother (Trudy Cox), DiGiovanni spent her early years in Washington, D.C., until her parents divorced and she moved to Cambridge with her mom and brother Winston. She spent much of her life questioning and aligning herself with a strong black identity, but falling in love with a European man caused her to ponder that choice more intensely.
The blue-eyed, blonde-haired actor, writer and producer married her husband, Diego, in July 2006, and her father did not attend the wedding. His absence from her nuptials caused them not to speak for seven years. But One Drop of Love needed an ending, just as her relationship with her father needed reconciliation. Here DiGiovanni talks about her ethnic identity, the role race has played in her family and a chance encounter with one of the show’s producers, actor Ben Affleck.
ArtsATL: How do you ethnically identify?
Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni: I am a culturally mixed woman searching for racial answers. That’s the best I can say, and I explore this in the show. I talk about how my ethnic identity has changed over the years, based on geography and relationships with my family. It is constantly changing. However, I got to the point politically where I had to educate myself about the way black people are treated in this country. As someone who may not look black or identify as black, I have a lot of privileges that people who don’t look like me — who aren’t light-skinned or have blue eyes — can’t take advantage of. Sometimes I think that calling myself black and aligning myself with that struggle does a disservice to people who are actively living that struggle, because they don’t have the same privileges.
ArtsATL: And we get to see you explore that in One Drop of Love?
DiGiovanni: That’s what the show is about. I spent a good bit of my life identifying as black and aligning myself with movements that are about justice for people who are oppressed. Then I fell in love with somebody who is not in that category, and it shocked me. In 2006, after [Diego] proposed and we prepared for our wedding, I had a lot of difficulty figuring out how I would present that to my father, who identifies very strongly as being black. I was afraid of what he would say and how it would make him feel, so it took me a long time to tell him about the wedding. And when I did he didn’t come; so that’s the opening of the show.
ArtsATL: What was your relationship like with your father growing up?
DiGiovanni: We were pretty close for my first seven years, because we were all in D.C. When my parents divorced and my mom moved away for her job [as a nurse midwife], we would see him on school holidays and for a month in the summer. We certainly grew further apart during those years, but there was always a piece of me that missed him and felt that it was important to have a relationship with him. I admired him, because even though he is guarded, he is also a very loving man. We weren’t estranged during those years, but we weren’t very close. But when he didn’t come to my wedding, I basically cut him off and we didn’t speak for seven years.
ArtsATL: So you all just started speaking last year?
DiGiovanni: Yes, we started speaking last year, and honestly it was because I needed an ending for my show. Originally the show was just about our family and the larger historical context about why race was playing this role in our family. I knew that the ending of the play would be that I would call my dad and have this conversation with him, but I had no idea what that conversation would be. I called him a week before I was doing a public reading, and we had the final conversation that you’ll see toward the end of the show.
ArtsATL: In identifying as black, did that affect your relationship with your white mother?
DiGiovanni: Momma Trudy is a free spirit who loves everybody and cares deeply about justice and equality, and she was all for it. She encouraged my brother and me to attend historically black colleges. She encouraged us to identify as black. She was never hurt by my identity choices. She encouraged us to know her family, but she also shared stories about how her mother disinherited her after she married my father. She did us a great service, because she shared it all with us, including her understanding of justice and equality, especially knowing that my brother was going to move through life as an identifiable black man.
ArtsATL: How did One Drop of Love go from a thesis project to now touring?
DiGiovanni: I had the great fortune of having grown up in Cambridge . . . and having done theater with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and we stayed in contact. I think Ben found out about my thesis performance through Facebook, and I got a message from him saying he was going to come see the show. He ended up coming with his wife, Jennifer Garner, then he emailed me a couple of days later and said that he wanted to help me get the show to more places. The first thing I asked him when he offered to help was for a quote for my web page. He wrote back and said he wanted to put me in touch with his agent at William Morris Endeavors, and they signed the show. This part is hard for me to talk about because it is still happening for me.
ArtsATL: It seems serendipitous.
DiGiovanni: This is the best part of the story for me. I’ve been in Hollywood for 13 years, and one of the hardest lessons I learned early on is that you have to make your own opportunities; no one gives them to you. Not to mention the way I look.
When I first moved out to LA, when my agent would send me out on auditions I had to ask whether or not they had submitted me as black or white, so I could decide how I was going to style my hair, how I was going to speak, how was I going to perform my race that day.
ArtsATL: I read on your website that you want to spark conversations about race through One Drop of Love. Right now it seems like we’re talking about race a lot in this country. Does that conversation need to change?
DiGiovanni: I hope that a great deal of what people get out of the show is that we need to focus less on race and more on racism. On the DNA level we are not all that different. There are cultural and traditional differences, but I’m hoping that we can all get behind the fact that this race thing was imposed on us. Perhaps we can examine it and unify to focus on ending racism.