On Acting and Identity

By Emma Miao (’22)

How do you know who you are?

Recently, my English class had a lively discussion on identity. Bill commented on how our identity was based on the physical like genetics, while Rose countered identity is based on actions. Others argued both could be true, while another person argued the opposite, how identity was forever shifting, and it was impossible to gauge and pinpoint. 

Over the weekend, I read The Vanishing Half. In the book, identical light-skinned black twins Desiree and Stella run away from their hometown of Mallard, Louisiana after witnessing the lynching of their father by a gang of white men. Carrying this shock, they marry opposing races: Desiree marries a black man, while Stella passes as white. She hides her secret well, but it wears on her slowly, gnawing at her friendships, interactions, and relationships. 

Fate pulls the family back together. Jude, Desiree’s daughter, watches Stella’s daughter Kennedy star in a production of The Midnight Marauders at a local theatre. They strike up a friendship, and soon, Jude is a regular in Kennedy’s dressing room, helping her before her shows. Once, backstage, Kennedy says to Jude, Acting is not about being seen. True acting meant becoming invisible so that only the character shone through.” While she was talking about performance art, her statement also applies to race and one’s broader identity. Stella tried (and succeeded in) making her blackness invisible. As she became increasingly white, was her “real identity” put on pause? 

Perhaps, to a small extent, we all act in performative ways. I perform the act of going to school. I do my homework. I read. I write. Are these autonomous decisions, or am I following an invisible script, a subconscious wiring in my brain about being a good student, a good daughter? At times, I feel like I’m on a hamster wheel, mindlessly churning through the motions of life without investing in the moment. I constantly feel like I’m creating a body for my future self to glide into. There’s this disillusionment with the present as if when I step off the theatre stage of high school I’ll transform into another person. 

“Stella had spent too long lying to tell the truth now,” Brit Benett writes, “or maybe, there was nothing left to reveal. Maybe this is who she had become.” In the end, Stella renounces her blackness. She marries a white man, gossips with white neighbors, and abandons Mallard and Desiree. In a profoundly helpless and aching way, Stella becomes what she feared most. 

What happens when we try to protect ourselves? When we deny our quiet sides, our secret passions, our “I wish I could, but”s? Do they, too, disappear after being buried for too long? There is never enough time to complete the proverbial to-do list, so we must choose what is most important to us: the future, or happiness in the moment. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t separate the two, but like Stella, we are confined to the sore passing of the present. And like Stella, we constantly chip at our current selves in reaching for something more, our discarded moments mere fragments lost to the tide. By burning our bodies and our minds, we singe our finite possibilities by the day.

Over the weekend, I zoomed with a recent grad. We talked about his WPGA legacy: swim team captain, student council. He said he missed high school and the possibilities of who he could be then. Although he was smiling, his voice carried a rueful tinge. Perhaps the more important question to ask is, what is our identity to those that matter to us? What is the legacy we leave behind? As Louise Gluck wrote: “Once one begins, there are only endings.” Identity – which is ever ambiguous – is actualized by yearbooks, speeches, memories. But sometimes, it is created beneath our knowing, by what is not obvious or spoken. By our kindness. By what we pay tribute to, or what we find intimate, radiant or vast. We are formed by these day by day, decision by decision. This is our legacy. This is who we are.

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