Danielle Deadwyler, photo courtesy the artist
with Philip Auslander
Danielle Deadwyler is a multi-disciplinary Atlanta-based performer. There are many places you may have seen her perform: on a street corner, in a gallery, on stage, on television. Deadwyler first made her mark on the stages of the Alliance Theater, the Horizon Theater, and the Southwest Arts Center, among others. She is the recipient of a Suzi Bass Award, Atlanta’s equivalent of the Tony, for her work in the theater. A graduate of Grady High School and Spelman College, Deadwyler holds both a master’s degree in American Studies and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing and Poetry.
Deadwyler’s first major film role was in A Cross to Bear, 2012, in which she worked with Kim Fields. Her first television role was in a 2015 episode of Being Mary Jane. Since then, she has appeared in several films and such well-received series as Watchmen and Atlanta. She plays the fiery Quita Maxwell in Tyler Perry’s The Haves and Have-Nots. She had a major role in the Southern Gothic series Paradise Lost (Spectrum Originals) and will be seen as graphic novelist Miranda Carroll in the timely mini-series Station Eleven on HBO Max, adapted from the dystopian novel by Emily St. John Mandel that depicts the aftermath of a pandemic illness that destroys civilization. Deadwyler’s acting is characterized by versatility, energy, the intense physicality and emotional directness she brings to her roles, and an absolute commitment to the characters she portrays. As actor Enoch King puts it, “She is unexpected. She’s kind of like water — she can flow in and out of any situation.”
In addition to acting on screen, Deadwyler is a performance artist who shows her work regularly at such local galleries as Eyedrum, Mammal, Mint, and many others. MuhfuckaNeva(Luvd Uhs: Real Live Girl (MNLU) was a series that combined video installation with street performances and culminated with BustItOpen, presented by Living Walls in 2017, for which she received the inaugural Laura Patricia Calle Grant. Much of her work in this genre is movement-based, cross-referencing dance moves with the body’s engagement in everyday actions and work. In an artist’s statement, Deadwyler describes the impulse behind her performance art: “My work explores how lines are blurred in the labor of black women, especial are domestic and sexual work, and the impacts on the black body. I’m interested in emboldening black women subjectivity within live performance engagement in local communities, a framework for navigating what I call a Black Americana chaos.”
Danielle Deadwyler recently spoke with The Art Section about her work in and across a variety of media and what she’s been up to since her last appearance in TAS in 2008.
Danielle Deadwyler, The Haves and the Have Nots, Oprah Winfrey Network. Episode 222: "Dianne Winchell" Officer (Diandra Lyle) questions Quita (Danielle Deadwyler) about her brother, Quincy.
Danielle Deadwyler, Do Not Resuscitate, video. 2014
Philip Auslander: Time flies! You first appeared in The Art Section as a poet—we published a beautiful poem of yours in 2008. Your career as an actor started to take off soon thereafter, first in theater, and also in film and television. Tell us a little about your trajectory from then till now.
Danielle Deadwyler: I remember that time vividly. The inception of the Obama era. I ended up not experiencing the first year fully, as I lived in Vancouver, BC temporarily. I was definitely exploring multiple mediums then, as I am now. There was a segue to theatre/film/TV due to locale (Vancouver was a major TV hub before ATL) and a missing feeling from the past few years. My focus while in school was much more academically driven. Then, I was pondering how I would manifest marrying the academic and the artistic. So thereafter, a fervor for performance grew in all forms. The above mentioned forms, with performance art following soon after. A desire to create one's own was always roiling beneath the surface. I loved performing the ideas of others in more commercial forums, but performance art enabled me to experiment with critical concepts/experiences directly affecting me. The last several years were the cascade into fusing all of the above or learning how to allow for fluid coexistence of them all.
PA: I like your idea of fusing different media and finding ways of working through and across them to say what you want to say. Can you say a little more about how this process of cross-pollination works for you and how we can see it in your work?
DD: The multimedia works come out of a need to represent what it feels like to be in multiple worlds and to work in a non-linear process. It is in effort to meet myself, the multigenerational community in which I engage, and myriad others where they are...be that in movement, film, performance, public/private, et. al. It's a stretching. And it comes in no one format. Each project calls forth its own modalities and mapping. Often one form leads, and calls back to the others to join the party.
PA: Does doing your own work in writing, film, performance art, and installation allow you to explore issues, questions, and characters that you might not get to explore in your screen work?
DD:Oh of course. My own works/experimentations are much more personal themes, to myself, my family, lineage/ancestors, community, all black women/femmes, folks who come from spaces and terrains I have developed within or seek to go and imagine. And it manifests in all kinds of anachronistic, nonlinear modalities. I enjoy the filter of the screen and the showing of the slip in all of the other forms too.
PA: What are some of the themes you wish to explore and some of your own works in which you have pursued them?
DD: Some of the themes I engage include, but are not limited to: public/private work, race/gender/sexuality, and public performance/community dialogue; domestic and sexual work, endurance and the impacts on the black body; black women's subjectivity and Black Americana chaos.
PA: The cultural context of a commercial television program or film and that of a performance piece or museum exhibition seem quite different, if not far apart. How do you experience the different cultural realms in which you work and the relationships between them?
DD:I don't know if their wholly experienced as different. The main difference is budget. I experience them all as labs with their own argot. Parallelisms in how to achieve an intent can be discovered if we make less muddy the languages we speak, I find.
PA: I see what you're saying. But isn't it the case that these different forms and institutions reach different audiences? What are your thoughts on audience? Whom do you hope to reach and what do you want to say to them?
DD: I think they meet myriad audiences. Some audiences are surely overlapping. The initiative I practiced in my works after the Black Box Series entailed public, on the street performances because I am speaking with a specific community. The Black community. The themes I work through, the personal and historical, come from that cultural framework, hence my first community to engage. Everyone else happens to be a witness.
PA: know this is a corny question, but what are a couple of the roles or projects that you are especially happy to have done?
DD: I'm always excited for the first one, the first of any of the mediums. There is a visceral gratefulness I have for the initial effort, the recognition for a want for more. The first performance exhibition I did was at Spelman Museum's Black Box series. There are so many things that still hold true for me from that initial opportunity, and so much transformation as well that seeped into everything that I do. For that I am full of gratitude.
PA: Another corny question. If a young performer were to come to you to ask for advice in developing their work and career, what would be the single most important thing you'd want do say?
DD: Experiment with the personal, the intimate. Play. And again and again.
Danielle Deadwyler was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and raised in Southwest Atlanta. Deadwyler began her career appearing on stage productions, including Charlotte's Web, The Real Tweenagers of Atlanta, and For Colored Girls. She received positive reviews for leading performance in Alliance Theatre’s The C.A. Lyons Project. She made her film debut playing the leading role in the 2012 drama A Cross to Bear directed by Travon Potts.
In 2015, Deadwyler had guest starring role in the second season of the BET drama series, Being Mary Jane. Later that year, she joined the cast of Tyler Perry’s primetime soap opera, The Haves and the Have Nots playing LaQuita "Quita" Maxwell. She left the soap during season fourth. Later she had secondary roles in films Gifted and The Leisure Seeker, and well as guest starred on Greenleaf, Atlanta and Watchmen.
In 2020, Deadwyler was cast in a series regular role on the Paramount Network drama series, Paradise Lost opposite Josh Hartnett, Bridget Regan and Barbara Hershey] Also that year, she was cast in a recurring role in the HBO Max miniseries Station Eleven, an adaptation of Station Eleven novel by Emily St. John Mandel. http://www.danielledeadwyler.com/
Photo: BreeAnne Clowdus
Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section. His seventh book, Reactivations: Essays on Performance and Its Documentation came out in 2018 and In Concert: Performing Musical Performance will be out in 2021, both from the University of Michigan Press.