Featured Artists



YaliniDream’s performance work incorporates a unique blend of theater, spoken word poetry, storytelling, song, and dance to explore issues in the Sri Lankan Diaspora using gender and sexuality as a lens. She directs and facilitates community based theater productions that bring under-represented voices to center stage. YaliniDream has been facilitating workshops and performing at Asian Arts Initiative since 2002. In 2005 and 2006 she was an Artist in Residence at the Initiative and taught performance and writing for the YouthArtsWorks summer program. With support from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, her performance piece Strange Rain was developed in residency at the Asian Arts Initiative and then performed at the National Asian American Theater Festival.
Photo Credit: Ren Hsieh

How has art inspired you?

I thought spoken word as an art form was so much more freeing as far as being able to claim my own voice, being able to also bring in the elements of acting and performance that I was trained in, in a completely different way. And I also loved that you could do spoken word poetry anywhere, at any time. And that I could bust out in a poem in the middle of the street. Or I could do it in a theater for hundreds of people or a rally for hundreds of people, thousands of people, or in somebody's living room. It just felt like something that you could bring to people instead of asking people to-in our case, at that time-to come onto a [college] campus that many people found oppressive and alienating. And then, once on campus to ask people to come into the theater. And even when I was out in Austin, too, a lot of theaters-there were only a few theaters that were really creating work for nontraditional theater audiences and for people of color. But with spoken word poetry, I could bring that to a community setting and do that there. But we were still doing spoken word theater, so we were still . . . working collectively, we were using our bodies, we weren't just behind a microphone. But I feel like we just found the blending of the two forms as really liberating.

How do you see art connecting to social change?

Mango Tribe is/was an Asian Pacific Islander American women's interdisciplinary theater company that believed that art is one of the most powerful tools for social change. And, I mean, that's the heart of it. I think the seeds of Mango Tribe started after the Color of Violence conference in Santa Cruz, where people were extremely inspired, but also saw a lack of APIA women's voices. And so, I think also, in the context of September 11th and the acceleration of the kind of right wing agenda given by the War on Terror, Mango Tribe felt it was really important to address violence against APIA women and our communities. So taking a look at domestic violence, rape within intimate settings, as well as looking at how neo-liberalism and war impact our communities. So we did work that touched on the Khmer Rouge, on mail-order brides, as well as the war in Sri Lanka, and of course, at that time, the war that the U.S. was waging against Afghanistan. And so, yeah, it was a pretty incredible project. I feel like there was a lot of excitement about Mango Tribe when we first came together. And people were just so excited about seeing this many APIA women coming together and doing their thing. And also about a topic that was so important and necessary to be speaking about. And we were really fierce and continue to be fierce around our anti-war sentiments.

How do you identify yourself as an artist?

I definitely feel like I'm a community-based artist in many different ways. So not just in that I believe in work in the communities, but I think that also my stories are so informed by community and I think that I needed a community setting to be able to affirm my voice. And I also believe that academic institutions of higher learning are unfortunately very racist, and sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist spaces, and I don't believe they're necessarily about cultivating spirit, which I think is a core of creativity. And that professionalization is about preparing us to work in a capitalist society, which often is in conflict with cultivating a spiritual core, which I feel, as an artist is what I'm trying to do. And what I feel like is at the heart of creativity is spirit, right? So I needed a community setting-as opposed to an academic one-in order to affirm my spirit to be able to grow as an artist.

Why do you believe that art is important?

Facilitating the summer YouthArtWorks program at the Asian Arts Initiative really grounded me in how powerful the arts can be. How claiming our creativity is also a rebellion against these destructive forces in the world - whether it is racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, heterosexism, or neo-liberalism - whatever you want to call it.

Just being in a room together, and singing together, is such a powerful act of rebellion. That's why the next summer I was really hungry to come back, because I felt we had started something so deep and so transformative. I do think, though, that the culmination of the summer was going to the summit in Boston-2005 I think it was. The young people were really stepping outside of Philadelphia, going to a different place amongst artists they really admired, some of whom they had studied in class. And they were like, "Oh my goodness, there are real people in front of us. No... You're going to make us perform in front of them!" Just the way everyone held each other. We almost had a little collective breakdown where people were like, "We can't do this! We can't go in front of everybody!" We were able to circle up and move through it and everyone performed and did amazing and blew everyone away. I am still in touch with a lot of the young people who were participants in 2005 and 2006. I am so proud of who they are becoming in the world, who they are, what they have accomplished. I feel truly blessed to have been witness to their growth at that time . . .

So many young people just really took a risk-huge risks. For somebody on the outside they might be like, "Oh, that's not a big deal, you just get up on stage and do some acting or play some games." But it takes a lot of emotional work. Different people are at different places, and have completely different relationships with their bodies, or their voices, or telling stories in the English language, even. Many of our young people weren't necessarily-did not feel-comfortable with writing and had really struggled in school around it, and were being asked to be poets and were poets.

How do you seek to grow as an artist?

I do think that one struggle that I had, and something I am continuing to struggle with, is how to be a community-based artist but still be able to develop your own aesthetic; really be able to give yourself the space and time to be able to truly develop as an artist, but at the same time be able to give yourself to the community as well . . . I sometimes struggle with being able to develop my aesthetic while also working with young people as well, just because it takes so much energy and space. I do think that it is extremely important to have people who are working artists-established artists and emerging artists, artists at all different stages of their development-to be able to grow and also to be able to share that and carve out more space for other people to step in. One of the most powerful things that I feel like I've witnessed at the Asian Arts Initiative is that it has been a space where people who do not identify as artists could step into it and claim themselves as artists, and then from that place continue to grow and develop and be able to expand as well.

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