As an up-and-coming actress in New York City, Michelle Matlock realized early on that being Black meant a more shallow pool of opportunity.
Where her path diverts from that of typecasting and stereotypes is through a decision to hand-deliver her own vision to theaters across the country.
In 2001, Matlock addressed the media’s color crisis in America head-on by developing and writing The Mammy Project, a one-woman stage production, which extensively explores the influence of the “Mammy” icon on American culture.
The Mammy Project’s critical acclaim led Matlock to taking the role of a lifetime as Cirque du Soleil’s leading ladybug in the production of OVO, which is billed as “an immersion into the teeming and energetic world of insects.”
As OVO makes its stop in the Windy City from June 29 through July 31 at the United Center, N’DIGO got the chance to catch up with Matlock for a conversation on the experience of being a main character, a struggling actress, and what it really means to create your opportunities.
N’DIGO: Let’s talk about you being the lead in Cirque du Soleil’s OVO production. How does that feel for you? Has to be surreal?
Michelle Matlock: I wake up everyday really thankful that I have this opportunity to be a main character in a Cirque du Soleil show, that they had a vision that I can play this part and that they wanted me to create the part. It’s been a rollercoaster ride; it’s been absolutely fantastic.
For me, it’s like I sort of dreamed about playing something outside of the box, in terms of being put in a stereotypical role. This is definitely something different. You don’t see my type necessarily being the romantic lead. Of course, it’s a circus and I’m a ladybug, but still at the same time, it’s a beautiful love story.
Is there a sense of satisfaction you get being a Black woman leading one of the world’s most recognized circus productions?
I guess so. I didn’t really realize that aspect of it. For me, it was just like I’m a performer and I’m getting to be the main character. But the more and more that I talk to people that have seen the show and get interviews like this, I realize that it’s not something that has happened before.
The more and more that the character I am playing is the face of the show, and you’re seeing it all over as publicity, I think it’s really unique. I feel very proud and privileged to have brought that to this company and I feel privileged that they’ve chosen me to do that.
It’s definitely commendable. Let’s talk about that ladybug character. How do you identify to her?
The ladybug holds the story of the show, which is a love story. She is a hopeless romantic, lonely but confident, hopeful that she’s going to find this love of her life, this other bug out there.
In between all of the amazing acts that you’re going to see, there are three main characters and we’re telling this love story. We’re all the little funny, quirky, clowny bits in the show. Hopefully we’re going to make you smile and laugh.
You relocated to New York from Washington State. Tell me about that experience and how it moved you?
I was studying at a university in Washington State, which is where I grew up. I went to a summer program in upstate New York, a Shakespeare program, and it was only supposed to be for the summer. But I got accepted to a two-year program out of that Shakespeare program and I ended up studying there and graduating from that program and just staying in New York and working in New York.
What were you studying in school prior to leaving Washington State?
I was a theatre major. But going to New York, it was such a concentrated program. It was all of the classics. George Bernard Shaw … I had ballet, I had a little bit of clowning, I had modern dance, I had vocal training. So it was a little bit more concentrating on the art of performance and also creating your own way in the business sort of. Teaching us to become producers, and directors and independent artist.
Just the idea of making it happen for yourself. Not waiting to be discovered. Not necessarily waiting for that agent to call you for that gig, but to create opportunities for yourself in terms of writing your own material, submitting your work to theatres, producing your own work. Those are sort of the skills I learned from there.
As an African-American actress, I found that the meatier roles weren’t necessarily there. Or even the interesting stories, coming from the classical point of view.
In school it’s fine to do Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, but really it’s not written about us and the vision isn’t necessarily there to cast us in those roles. So I quickly learned that if I wanted to continue to work and grow, I would have to write and produce my own work.
The Mammy Project, which you developed — explain the concept behind the name.
The Mammy Project tells the story of the icon myth of Mammy in America, which is born out of slavery, that sort of caretaker. She was a slave, but she took care of the master’s children, sometimes even slept with the children.
I sort of tell the story of how this Mammy icon became popular, and became a stereotype, and became something that we as a society wanted to see Black women playing. There were a lot of roles that fit that Mammy stereotype — Hattie McDaniel played Mammy in Gone with the Wind.
You see these types of characters throughout history for artists, but what I found out from research is that it also plays in everyday life for a lot of Blacks. They get put in this role of being the best friend, or the caretaker, the go-lucky happy slave.
I realized that it was a really painful stereotype for Black women and Black people, but on the other side, White people saw this character as really beloved. I wanted to fill the gap with the show. Why can we be living here in this country and have such opposite polar reactions to this icon and myth?
I did a lot of research and actually found Nancy Green, who was the first woman to be hired to play the part of “Aunt Jemima” and actually debuted here in Chicago at the 1893 World’s Fair. So I wanted to tell her story and also the surrounding story of that fair.
People like Hattie McDaniel, Frederick Douglas, Ida B. Wells were here at the same time fighting for Black citizenship. That wasn’t so popular, while “Aunt Jemima,” Nancy Green, was really popular.
They sort of butted heads because Black people didn’t want that image, but White people loved that image. It sort of explores how it was born.
I also think it shows how it has lived, why it’s such a controversial figure, why people want to see us in that role. I wanted to dive into something that was very painful … to basically grow out of it and not have it be something painful.
You’ve been described as having gone through a “struggling actress” period. How is that so, being that you were so widely exposed at the time?
Like I was saying, I had to learn to create my own opportunities. Before I joined Cirque, The Mammy Projectwas very popular amongst a lot of the colleges and universities in the country. I was beginning to find my way financially with this show.
It’s just a journey for any artist. There’s a struggling period and you have to find your way. But the thing I discovered is that I have the capability of doing anything. I can write my own show and get paid for it.
As an actor, you don’t have to necessarily have an agent and do these big things. There’s plenty of work that you can create for yourself and you can survive as an actor doing that. It takes a lot of dedication and hard work, but I learned it as a necessity.
When you’re struggling, you’re in New York — one of the most expensive cities in the world — and you’re hungry, if you can find a way to make it, it’s there.
Especially for me as an African American, where I may not have necessarily as many roles to choose from or I might not get picked as much — you can create it yourself if you’re passionate enough about the art.
(For tickets and information on Cirque du Soleil’s OVO production at the United Center, visit www.cirquedusoleil.com/en/shows/ovo/default.aspx.)