Theatre Activism, the Challenges of Code Switching, and Learning to Flow on Stage

Published October 31, 2022

Timiyah Love.

Timiyah Love

Timiyah Love is a Buffalo-based actor, who was also born and raised in the area. She recently earned her Bachelor in Fine Arts as a Theatre Performance student from SUNY Buffalo in the spring of 2021 and continues her education here, working towards a Master’s degree in Theatre and Performance Studies. She has begun the final year of the two-year program.

As an undergraduate Love was a part of the first Working Artists Lab with UB Arts Collaboratory, having the opportunity to learn from former Saturday Night Live writer Alan Zweibel, along with comedian Dave Hill and artist Jef Scharf, aka Wolfy (2019). That same year Timiyah also worked with jazz vocalist Michael Mwenso, who was instrumental in furthering her passion for activism in the arts.

In 2020 Love became one of the founding members of Dreams Affirmed, UB’s first student-run diversity club for students of color in the performing arts, under the auspices of Theatre and Dance. She dedicates her work to making space for intersectional artists, and commits her skills towards creating a more sustainable and equitable environment for young artists who feel and identify similarly.

Love’s primary education included arts participation at a very young age. “I went to high school at a school attached to my church, called New Life Christian School, in Tonawanda,” Love explained. “I only graduated with one other person so it was almost like being home schooled! It was a very, very different experience. It’s a K–12 school and my younger sister still goes there. There are about 40 to 50 students in total.

“We did musicals every single year, which was also unique. I attended the school from first grade through 12 and started doing them when I was in second grade. We only did Disney musicals and I was obsessed and hooked from the start. After that I thought, ‘I need to do something like this with my life.’”

“After high school, I auditioned at a couple of colleges and went to their accepted students day, but nothing really fit until I came to UB and got a tour from (THD Production Manager) Mike Formato and sat in on a talk with Nathan Matthews, who was then the head of the Music Theatre program.” (Matthews retired in spring 2022 after a lengthy career at UB.)

“Something just clicked and I felt very much like this is where I needed to go. I fell in love with the environment and I liked the professors and wanted to continue working with them.”

Love’s transition to UB was still a bit of a culture shock. “It was definitely crazy coming here after (attending a small primary school), since it’s so big, like a tiny town,” she said. “Even though I didn’t leave home it felt like a whole new world to me.”

Timiyah Love.

Though Love’s early interest was musicals, her tastes quickly expanded. “I had never done a straight play before UB. Then I was fortunate enough to get into the Theatre and Performance program. My first play was 45 Plays for 45 Presidents, with Professor Lindsay Brandon Hunter directing, which was very zany and fun. I had never experienced doing work like this before, so I thought, ‘Okay, this is very different, but still something I want to pursue.’ I kept learning about how to actually act! Because I didn’t know how to do that. And being able to connect to work like that was like a drug to me.

“(THD Professor) Greg Natale was a person I wanted to continue working with so much. I had never learned about acting the way that he teaches it. He’s very honest with you. When I was younger people would tell me good things about myself to keep me happy, but what I needed was for someone to do a diagnosis (of my acting).

“The truth is that I was ‘BS-ing’ acting! I could get away with it with everybody else. But at UB I was challenged to not have such tight control. In my classes I butted heads with people and didn’t understand why they didn’t see (acting) the way I saw it, and I realized that I needed to stay here and continue working on that! Otherwise I don’t think I would have learned what it really means to act and do this work.”

The biggest lesson for Love was learning to be in the moment, and to play off of what other actors bring, so that a scene is alive and fresh. “In scene work, I used to really want to control how each line would be delivered,” she said. “So I would deliver the line the same way each time and expect the other actors to respond the ‘right way.’ I had to learn about listening, and how in each scene, each time you do it, it’s not going to be the same way it was done before. If you’re actually listening to the other actor you’re going to find new things in it. You’ll react to and understand things differently.”

Despite knowing what needed improvement, change didn’t come right away. “It was something that I had to get beat into my head,” Love laughed. "Greg would say, ‘You have to listen to your partner in a scene.’ But I didn’t want to listen! So it took me a little while to get there! Big ups to Greg! He was one of the most instrumental people in letting me know I had to give up control and do the actual work!

“After that diagnosis and knowing specific things to work on, I could actually get into character and do the checklist of things you need to do to be ready to act. It was hard but it was so good! He’s one of my favorite people!”

As an undergraduate Love was also cast in Everybody, by Brandon Jacob Jenkins, Julius Caesar, and Pipeline, by Dominique Morisseau, which was the first work staged by Dreams Affirmed.

Pipeline, which opened off-Broadway in 2017, tells the story of a Black inner-city public school teacher named Nya and her son Omari. Nya is dedicated to her pupils, but equally determined to give Omari better life opportunities via private schooling. The play follows their story after Omari lashes out at a teacher who pushes him too far.

Nya seeks to help Omari overcome his sense of injustice and anger and to navigate the pitfalls of an imperfect education system while trying to remain true to her sense of community ideals. The story shines a light on the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a trend which disproportionately affects students in disadvantaged communities, especially Black and Brown communities. Love portrayed Nya in the all-student production, bringing a knowing wisdom to the portrayal which felt beyond her age.

Pipeline specifically, because it was the first Dreams Affirmed show, was also the first production I was in that was run mostly by people of color, which was a drastically different experience,” she reflected. “I think that steered my trajectory towards making more art like that. Even with our faculty here, though I love them all to death, we don’t have representation, and most of the people in the classes are not people of color.”

Love said that being a student of color poses unique challenges. “I had one experience in a class where minstrelsy was mentioned while discussing the history of theater, and everyone whipped their heads and looked at me since I was the only Black person in the class. Instantly you feel ‘othered,’” she explained. “Doing work like Pipeline helped me to understand how much it’s needed, because it felt like home. I want to create more opportunities like that for intersectional kids like me, because it’s very lonely sometimes.”

The team of students who created Dreams Affirmed and mounted Pipeline as a virtual production during the first wave of Covid was very supportive of each other. “The conversations that we had in the (virtual) rooms – I think that we were all able to get very in depth with the work because we all knew where each other was coming from,” Love said. “I think that when you work with professors who don’t really have that background, a lot of the time you find yourself explaining ‘step one’ first, i.e. what the issues are and why people (of color) feel a certain way, instead of getting straight into the work and having that mutual understanding.

Stills from "Pipeline".

Preparing to film "Pipeline" in front of green screens for the online virtual performances.

“There was an intense amount of care taken about how we felt about things, the mental side of it. Especially because the year before, and even now, with all of the (Black Lives Matter) protests and police brutality going on, a lot of us were exhausted with having to hear every day about another person being killed and the awful, heinous things that have been going on, plus Covid. There was so much care taken to make sure that everyone felt safe.”

Regarding the creation of Dreams Affirmed, Love explained, “It started with a group chat on Facebook over the summer of 2020 before we came back from the first Covid outbreak. It was more for us to feel some sort of camaraderie over the issues that were happening. We wanted to have a showcase which gave some of the students of color an opportunity to share what they’ve been learning because a lot of the other shows we’ve done didn’t have students of color cast in them or were more about portraying characters as concepts, which didn’t include issues of identity when being portrayed.

“We didn’t really feel like there was much representation for us to express ourselves, or align ourselves with characters who have similar identities to us. That idea became something bigger when we started creating our EDI groups in theatre and performance, which is run by (graduating senior) Tioga Simpson.

“(Fellow THD student) Sydné Jackson came up with the name Dreams Affirmed and we had a big meeting with all of the faculty. Some were really receptive, and some were not having it, which is okay, I guess! (laughs) It became something we really wanted to get the ball rolling with. Sydné took over as President and now we have a Treasurer and Vice President. After I graduated they made it into an actual student club funded by the Student Association.”

The production bonded the group. “Most of these people were my friends,” Love said. “Getting to come to work every day and being around people who love you, we laughed a lot and joked around too, while also realizing the severity of the work we were doing."

Given the time and thought that went into it, Pipeline was as polished and impressive as any other department production, from the acting through direction, with virtual sets and staging. Anyone who didn’t know it was created exclusively by undergraduates could have easily mistaken it for a faculty-directed work.

“Everyone knew that there was a job to be done and nothing like this had been done at UB before, and we were all incredibly proud to do this work,” Love said. “We love doing what we do and the (faculty) directors that we have, (though) plays like Pipeline need to keep happening (at UB).

“There’s a lot of pressure for us (students of color) to have all the answers right now for what we need. We have some of them and we know what we want the end result to be, but sometimes it feels like people aren’t also putting the work into understanding. They just want to ask the questions and get the quick answers instead of doing the research themselves.”

When it comes to the issue of how to get audiences of all backgrounds interested in seeing new, cutting edge work, including plays written by people of color, women, and non-binary individuals, Love said, “Firstly, I think it has to do with how accessible we make theatre in general. We keep relying on older, whiter audience to make up our sales, and that’s why tickets are often so expensive.

“I think that making ticket sales more accessible (would help) gain new, younger audiences. People will be a little bit more interested in seeing new works, especially when they’re done by people who look like them,” she continued. “Even talking to friends, there’s definitely a hunger for that. But it is a sticky issue because theater is such a finicky industry and we also have to make enough money to keep doing it. It also comes down to where we put our value in productions because, in order to have a good production, you don’t (always) need to have super big effects and costumes.”

Love cites the influence of Buffalo’s Ujima Theatre Company Board President / actor Shanntina Moore, as great help in preparing for her role as Mya in Pipeline. “Shanntina was our mentor and getting to speak with her and play the role which she played in the Ujima production was insane. And to get her feedback and ‘mind-meld’ on the character gave me valuable insight. I would love to work with Ujima more in the future.”

Happily, the sum of Love’s acting experiences at UB applied directly to a recent project in spring 2022. “I just did the musical Working with O’Connell and Company, and the director was Neal Radice.

“Most of the musical is done in monologues and we didn’t have too much scene work, but I remembered things I learned in Greg Natale’s class that I had to take to my work there because it was really hard for me to get into the characters initially.

“They’re meant to be real people, but it was hard for me to identify with a lot of it. For example, one of the characters is a custodial worker who is in her early to late fifties, who has a kid she’s working for to make sure she has a better life. I’m 22. I come from a place of privilege and my parents have done everything for me! I have none of (her struggles). But there was a specific checklist Greg gave us in Method class to get into the deeper psyche of the character and I used it to do my best to justify everything about the character and to try to make up this whole life that I’ve obviously never had to deal with before, or so I thought. Though in going through the checklist I realized there were things I actually had in common with this person which I could pull from, after I’d memorized the lines. Then you can just get right into it.

Timiyah Love.

“I learned a ton on that production because Neal Radice has a specific type of acting approach that he prefers and he was very specific about how he wanted things. Again I had to realize that he’s the director and I’m being directed, so maybe I should take what he says and work with it! And once I started to do that I finally cracked each character and understood how this was meant to be done. Because it’s a long show and needs to be fast paced, but you also need to take your time. So finding the balance and figuring out what these two acting styles can do for each other instead of them fighting each other the whole time, it took a while for me to get it. But it turned out great! And everybody seemed to like it and we got really good reviews! It was a weird experience, but I learned so much!”

Regarding the focus of Love’s thesis project and her post-graduation intentions and hopes, the picture has become clearer.  “I’m doing my thesis on code-switching, and how that interrelates with Method acting for Black students. Pew research says that 48% of Black college grads feel like they have to code-switch at college all the time. And that runs true for many people of color in work and school settings, for their whole lives.

“It’s something that I’ve done my whole life. For many of us, it’s something that we can’t really turn off at times because we want to seem non-threatening or palatable to everyone and to our audiences. For Black students this is even more true because we (also) want to be marketable and for show directors to see us as malleable, but for us it’s a bit more (involved) because we’re having to erase our own identities to do that.

“So many of us code-switch for professors, just so that we are as accessible as possible for people who obviously don’t identify the same as us. Which is really exhausting. It’s hard to keep that up all the time because you’re not meant to. You’re not meant to have different personalities which you present to different people all the time and stay that way. And many of us, because we do it all the time here, and at home too, code-switching in the opposite way, we risk being othered by people in our community, which is a whole different level of trauma.

“I want to look at Black actors and the psychological effects. We’ve all heard the stories of Dustin Hoffman and other prolific actors who have taken Method acting too far and dealt with the psychological effects, which Black students go through all the time between acting and their daily lives.

“And bringing that back to activism I think it’s important that at least we have (some) understanding of what these effects are. And it’s trauma. There’s no other way to put it, having to diminish parts of your identity so that other people will cast you or feel like they can work with you, because those parts of your identity aren’t desired (for the specific part one will play).”

Timiyah Love.

For Love, the challenges of code-switching have also become a strength. “There are things which you gain. I know how to make myself a chameleon so that I can play any character because I have to keep little bits and pieces of each of those characters in myself at all times to make sure I am accepted in each social setting.

“It gives me a little bit of an advantage, and to be able to grab things from characters I obviously have no way of identifying with, and to make myself identifiable with anything at all times.

“Doing work like this (thesis) is important to give people who have no sense of this even happening some idea of what it’s like being an intersectional Black girl in theatre, because I’m also Latina. I hope that having different backgrounds and being able to give a testament of what’s going on psychologically and how we can look at pedagogy differently for students like me, especially in the arts, will be helpful. There are not many professors who look like me or who’ve gone through what I’ve experienced, especially here. And there’s no way that (White) professors who are just learning this at the same time can impart the knowledge to younger people who are coming up in the industry. In doing this work I just want to make people aware that it's an issue. I don’t have all the answers about how to fix it, but maybe if we get to talk to the right people and keep talking about it, (things will improve)."

Love also understands that a degree of code-switching is inherent to the human condition. “Everybody does code switching, no matter their color. You speak to your principal different than your friends. I just think that the difference is the stakes are higher (for people of color). There have been studies that say it takes only 30 seconds of people speaking for them to make up their mind about you. If you are a person who looks like me and you’re speaking to a (police) officer, those 30 seconds can be so life changing. And that’s a talk that we’ve been given from our parents. Everyone gets that talk. I think that’s mostly the difference.”

Upon graduation, Love has many areas of interest she would like to pursue. “I hope to continue doing activism and finding avenues for special needs kids to be able to get involved with theater. Two of my siblings are special needs, and one has done some theater. I see how important theater and entertainment are for helping kids to communicate and express themselves. To give them the tool belt they need so that they can at least, if not express themselves the way we usually do, help to give them an avenue to be able to communicate with other people.

“I also want to look at bilingual theater. My grandmother was my Spanish teacher at the school I graduated of two students! (laughs) She has such a love for helping students who are, or want to become, bilingual. She always asks me to help figure out skits and other ways to help bring theater into the school. I want to study how we can make that an actual thing.

“There’s so much that I want to do! I’d also like to look at ideas of ‘heightened language.’ We look at Shakespeare and believe every kid should learn and understand how heightened language works. I also want people to be able to understand how different dialects of American language work, like African-American vernacular English, and Spanglish, and how those could be valuable for kids to learn about as well, instead of always looking at this old, White idea of what the crème de la crème of English language is. A lot of this involves kids, because I love them and working with them! But I also want to have my own acting career and continue doing what I love!”