Yao Kahlil Newkirk Explores Transracialism Through Theatre Performance

Yao Kahlil Newkirk.

Published June 1, 2020

Like all Theatre and Dance graduate students, Yao Kahlil Newkirk’s studies and thesis were disrupted by the sudden outbreak of Covid-19 and UB’s transition to distance education.

Fortunately, Newkirk recently performed and successfully defended his thesis project over video conferencing software. It was designed as an art installation and performance art piece titled “fUNhOUSE," to earn a Masters Degree in Theatre Performance.

“Originally my thesis project was going to be on campus at UB’s Center for the Arts,” Newkirk explained. “I already had a space and was doing rehearsals to get it prepared for the project date. When the campus closed, I had to figure out a way to reconfigure it. It was really interesting to take an already existing concept and translate it to my home space. I used my basement and converted it into a staging area and ordered quite a bit of supplies.”

“It was a one-man show, but also an art installation.” Newkirk said that, had his project been completed on campus, patrons would have initially felt like they were attending an exhibition that could be wandered through, similar to an art gallery. However, at the end of exhibit they would have encountered Newkirk in a solo performance art-oriented piece to culminate the work. “You self-explore the exhibit and then it ends with performance art,” he said.

As an emerging scholar, Yao Kahlil's research draws from the disciplines of theatre performance, transnational studies, and media study. His interdisciplinary work strives to explore the performativity of identity politics and uses social experiments, performance art, exhibitions, and art installations to understand transracial identities, specifically intraracial aspects of transracialism.

“I do a lot of social experiments in my works. My goal is not to try to place anyone in an identifying box of sorts but to get you to question “you”— to ask why you identify the way you do. What is the origin story of someone’s identity? Who told you what your identity is and when did it solidify?”

From his studies and experiences teaching in a middle school, Newkirk is encouraged that the next generation seems to be less concerned about racial differences than previous generations, “or at least until an adult tells them it’s important or relevant.” He referenced a recent news story that profoundly affected him. “Two five year old boys—one white and one black—wanted to trick everyone into thinking they’re twins. (In their innocence) they figured that if they dressed alike and cut their hair the same way that people wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. They believed that people would literally not know that they weren’t brothers. It just goes to show that something happens as we get more worldly knowledge that causes us to see that there’s something different about us. But at a certain age of innocence you don’t see the difference.”

“I think there’s a way to teach young (black) people to be aware or conscious of what’s already taken place and teach them about their history (i.e. experiencing American racial injustice), without forcing them down a certain path. I don't want the negative experiences of my generation, and the generations before, to overshadow the innocence of future generations. Our collective experiences should be used as a tool for understanding how to advance forward. If you become jaded by society, let it be because of your own experiences, and not because you are piggy-backing off of the hatred your ancestors experienced."

Making the transition from CFA to his home basement space, “I did include other actors,” Newkirk said. “My entire family is in the performance,” making the project even more profoundly personal and intimate. The piece ends with a “family photo” in which the variety of complexions in his family is made uniform.

Newkirk’s work appears certain to inspire new conversations and thoughts about transracialism and identity as the population of the world becomes ever more multiracial and diverse into the future.