Photo credits: left: RoganJosh (MorgueFiles); right: Amber Godfrey, from her portfolio.
Welcome to Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang’s monthly column about adult Third Culture Kids (TCKs) who work in creative fields. Lisa is herself a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she recently debuted her one-woman show about being a TCK, which I had the pleasure of seeing during its too-short run in New York City in September: stupendous!
Happy Thanksgiving, readers! I’m thankful to be bringing you today’s guest, a kindred spirit of mine. She is Amber Godfrey, an actress-writer who, like me, has written and performed her own solo show about growing up as a TCK of mixed heritage.
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Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Amber! I’m happy to have met another solo performer whose TCK story parallels my own. Since your dad is a Canadian diplomat, you grew up in eight countries. Can you tell us which ones?
Besides Canada, I’ve lived in the USA, Ecuador, Trinidad, India, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka and England.
Growing up, which of these countries do you identify most strongly with?
I identified, and continue to identify, strongly as a Canadian probably because of my dad’s job and the fact that we always connected with the Canadian expat community wherever we went. I also heard on more than one occasion (usually when I was being busted for some rebellious act): “You represent Canada!!” I’ve spent most of my adult life in Canada and the US, so I feel very “North American” at this point. At the same time, though, I do feel like a “citizen of the world,” and the bond that I feel with other TCKs is unique.
“Are you adopted?”
Your family is particularly diverse. Let’s see if I can get this right. You are the daughter of an Ecuadorian mom and an African American father, but you were raised by your mom and a Caucasian-Jewish Canadian stepdad, who then had your brother, David. Was your family’s status ever challenged by strangers, like mine was? In grade school, no one believed my brother was my brother, and people asked my mom if I was adopted.
Yes! This still happens all the time. When the four of us go out for dinner, servers will assume my brother and I are a couple. If I check into a hotel with my Dad, we get stares. When I was in fifth grade, I had to go to the school nurse and, when she realized who my brother was, she asked pointedly: “Are you adopted?” I panicked and said “Yes,” even though that wasn’t the whole truth. Looking back—what an inappropriate question to ask a 10-year-old!
Do you feel offended when that happens?
Honestly, it sort of tickles me that people don’t know what to make of us. I figure, that’s their problem and it doesn’t have to ruin my day. As an actor, I get irritated by the under-portrayal of mixed-race families on stage and in film. When I was auditioning a lot, I became really frustrated realizing I would most likely not be considered for “sister of” so-and-so because the other actor had already been cast as white.
Love the place you’re in
I completely relate! So, with such a mixed background, which culture(s) form the core of your identity?
I grew up with a lot of focus on Jewish history, tradition and heritage, which I resisted up to a point—I chose not to be Bat Mizvah’d—but to which I also really connected. As a pre-teen I was obsessed with The Diary of Anne Frank and wrote short stories about young Jewish girls in the Nazi era. In my early 20s, the combination of acting roles I was being sent out for and my burgeoning adulthood piqued a stronger curiosity in the African-American side of me, which ultimately led to me reaching out to find my birth father. Now, in my 30s, I find myself seeking to connect with my Latin American roots. Of course I also identify with the cultures of the countries I grew up in! I think the quest to understand my “identity” is ongoing…
Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time?
I guess the short answer is: I aim to be happiest in the moment I am in. Every place I went to had its good and bad moments…
What were your school experiences like growing up?
I went to private school in California, international schools in India, HK and Sri Lanka, and the local public school in Canada. During high school I had to contend with three completely different school systems, which was a challenge to say the least.
How about college?
I went back to Canada for college: I studied theatre at Acadia University, in Nova Scotia. It was hard to get good information back then (the Internet was just a baby!), but my Dad pointed out that as a small school in a small town, it might be an easier transition than if I went to a big school in a bigger city like Toronto. And Acadia has a good theatre program.
“It’s all in me…”
Did your TCK upbringing influence your desire to become a performer?
Being in school plays or performance groups was a good way to get involved and make friends when moving from place to place. But I also think that portraying characters on stage allowed different parts of myself to come forth and was a way for me to work out my identity. I’m laughing because I’m thinking of Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman”—I’m a hippy at heart and believe we are all one and connected. Seeking to experience and understand life/truth from multiple viewpoints is an essential part of who I am.
Before we get into your solo show, let’s talk about your series of performances of Anna Deavere Smith‘s solo show Fires in the Mirror, a docudrama for a solo performer about the racial tensions that erupted between blacks and Jews in Brooklyn in 1991.
I was asked to do Fires in the Mirror by Jesse Freedman, a fellow performer and prolific director, whom I met in a SITI Company Suzuki/Viewpoints workshop. I jumped at the chance to engage with this epic piece because it is constructed so thoughtfully and allows me to play with my Black/Jewish roots. I initially performed Fires in the Mirror at the Limmud Conference, which took place in Coventry, England. Then the Jewish Theatre Workshop in Baltimore requested the show as part of an initiative to continue dialogue between Blacks and Jews who share space in that community. I also had a short run in NYC at the New Yiddish Repertory Company Theatre.
Moving over to your autobiographical solo show: why did you create DipKid?
I’d been thinking for many years about telling my story but couldn’t decide which way to tell it. After taking a Soulo-Show Workshop with Tracey Erin Smith, I finally started writing. I submitted a proposal to a small festival in NY, and when I got in, I realized it was time to start making the show! My efforts resulted in a short but sweet twenty-minute piece (you can watch it here).
How was it received?
The reaction was fascinating. I had assumed my story was unique, but it seemed that people could relate to it, and wanted more! That’s where the struggle began for me. I didn’t know how to finish the piece because I felt I wanted it to link up with my current situation—but that kept changing! The next time I performed the show, I expanded it to 45 minutes but felt less satisfied. I’d watched the video of my first performance so many times I felt sort of stuck in the past. I also found myself listening to many differing opinions on where my show should go and how it should be crafted—my vision got a little lost in the din. Finally, the festival format was crazy-making—especially as I was holding down a full-time job. Trying to write and rehearse this piece all for just one evening was too much pressure. My dream would be to take the show to the countries I lived in and beyond. I’d love to perform it at international schools and for expat communities worldwide.
As the interviewer, I think I can permit one question that’s of particular interest to me, which is: how do you like solo performing?
Solo performance is relatively new for me and I do miss getting to work with other actors on stage. That said, the medium allows me to be a bit more in control of the work and my approach. And it’s wonderfully vulnerable!
I understand you’re planning to film a documentary. What will it be about?
The focus will be on other children of diplomats (i.e., “dip kids”) and how their lives have been shaped by their upbringing and the jobs of their parent(s). I plan to tell the story from my perspective and also weave in my experiences as a mixed-race individual who continues to search for an understanding of and connection to my identity, heritage and all the parts that I am made of.
Do you have any other projects coming up?
I am writing a memoir that will delve deeper into the stories I reveal in DipKid.
Best and worst (Canadian) Thanksgiving memories
Canadian Thanksgiving was in October, but since American Thanksgiving is today, please share with us your best and worst Thanksgivings.
The best occurred when we were living in New Delhi. We were invited to the Official Residence of the High Commissioner for a Canadian Thanksgiving celebration. It was a big party with live music and food sprawled out on the grounds. At dusk everyone looked up and gasped as hundreds of bats swarmed the sky. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen!
I think the worst was my first Thanksgiving away from home. My parents were in Sri Lanka and I was in Wolfville, Nova Scotia (where Acadia U is). Everyone I knew at school had family nearby, but it was only October and I hadn’t bonded with anyone enough to get an invite. I ate Pop-Tarts and drank Dr. Pepper and felt homesick for my family and a bit sorry for myself…
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Thank you, Amber, for being you, a fellow TCK theatre-maker! Readers, please leave questions and comments for Amber below. And if you want to keep up with her creative undertakings, I suggest you also follow her on Twitter: @DipKidAmber.
STAY TUNED for next week’s/month’s fab posts!
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