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Meet the 2021 Sherwood Award Winners: D’Lo and Mikaal Sulaiman

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(L–R) Mikaal Sulaiman and D’Lo, 2021 Dorothy and Richard Sherwood Award Winners

Despite a year of shutdowns and the closure of venues around the country, theatre has survived, and art continues to go on. That’s why we are honored to announce that Center Theatre Group has selected two winners of the Dorothy and Richard Sherwood Award—D’Lo and Mikaal Sulaiman, both multi-talented theatremakers, artists, and changemakers. “My mother and father shared a deep love of the arts and acted on that shared passion as they championed young artists and innovative new work,” said Ben Sherwood. “I know that they would agree that these challenging times require a redoubling of our dedication to the artists that will move theatre into the future.”

D’Lo and Mikaal Sulaiman will each receive the full $10,000 prize given annually to nurture innovative and adventurous theatre artists working in Los Angeles. D’Lo is a solo-based theatre performer-actor-writer-comic that makes and collaborates on work for and about the QTBIPOC community, to create healing spaces for the community through story and laughter. Mikaal, who originally hails from Rochester, NY, has been working as an artist that creates across sound, music, writing, and directing for live and recorded content for the last 20 years in Philadelphia, London, New York City, before settling in his current home, Los Angeles.

We are so excited to welcome D’Lo and Mikaal into our Center Theatre Group community of artists. As the 2021 winners, they are now inducted into an exciting cohort of Los Angeles theatre artists dating back to 1996, which includes recent recipients Mat Diafos Sweeney, Kristina Wong, Hana S. Kim, Pablo Santiago, Ann Cross-Farley, Robert O’Hara, and more. Help us give a warm welcome to our newest Sherwood Award recipients and learn more about their work and creative process as we celebrate their tremendous achievement!

Tell us about the project you highlighted in your Sherwood Award application. What inspired you and what is the message behind your work?

D’Lo: The show I highlighted was a piece called To T, or not To T, which is about my personal journey through the decision to take testosterone, my relationship with my Appa (father), and my exploration of what "beautiful" masculinity could look like—a masculinity that aligns with my feminist and queer politics. I was inspired by the general lack of concern or interest with queer and trans BIPOC folks—specifically those who exist outside of the mainstream connotations of “being gay.” I wanted to shed light on how queer peoples' freedom is what liberates others—so I created a comedic trilogy to share my journey as a trans Tamil Sri Lankan American, my experience transitioning into queer adulthood and my trans-ness as a feminist, and share the lessons I learned about vulnerability in communities where intimacy is hard won and hard fought against.

Mikaal: I presented a work in development called Project Black Plague, a headphone sound performance experienced as a clandestine presentation that reveals a comprehensive diagnosis and trial-tested antidote for racism through deep epigenetic research. This program presumes that we are currently amidst a great Black Exodus and all of the violent Black Death is occurring by design—you know, light fare. I created it when I was trying to process all of the Black Death that continues to happen in America; trying to metabolize it emotionally, spiritually and politically. Project Black Plague is the result of that.

What is your creative process? Has COVID affected your process and the way in which you would traditionally present your art? Have you found any silver lining?

Mikaal: I am an introvert, so this time has been helpful for me to think more deeply about my project and find new layers. I've also started creating in other mediums like podcasting—it's the perfect melding of my sound and writing work. I can't believe I never thought of it before. It's called Black Enso Podcast, which you can check it out on most podcast platforms.

D’Lo: The content of my solo shows is 100% from my lived experiences and topped off with 100% theatre magic. My creative process is to live life and to engage meaningfully in the relationships I value, with the people I love, learning and growing with(in) my communities of chosen and blood family. It also includes me unlearning behaviors that don't serve me as I move to more solid, compassionate ground for myself. In COVID-19, my creative process has included creating filmed pieces online and outside, instead of creating work for live performance and theatre. My creative process of theatremaking has changed and forced me to think even deeper about the questions that I'm exploring in the third play of the trilogy.

How did you discover the Sherwood Award and what urged you to apply?

D’Lo: I’ve known about the Sherwood Award for over a decade, and I applied this year knowing that I had a strong portfolio to present. Patricia Garza, Center Theatre Group’s former Line Producer of Special Artistic Projects, also encouraged me to apply. I am so grateful for her.

Mikaal: I was actually nominated by the incomparable Robert O'Hara. I've been a big fan of his directing since I saw the original Slave Play at New York Theatre Workshop. When someone like that encourages you to apply for something like this, it's a no brainer. I'm glad I did.

What does this award mean to you? How will you use the award to support your future artistic endeavors and aspirations?

Mikaal: Despite living in L.A. for seven years, not many people know that I exist. My hope is that by receiving this award I'll be able to be woven into the fabric of the Los Angeles creative community more deeply and be exposed to more collaborators and opportunities.

D’Lo: Receiving this award means that I am being recognized, affirmed and celebrated for being a queer, trans artist of color who has made significant contributions to the world of theatre. I also know it's a blessing to even be alive during this time to work on new projects, and I'm humbled that this award will allow me the privilege of imagining new ways to expand my live performance through VR technology.

How would you describe the arts and theatre scene in Los Angeles compared to other theatre cities like New York and Chicago?

D’Lo: My personal understanding of L.A. is that while there is incredibly deep and beautiful theatre created by local communities of immigrants, refugees, queer, BIPOC and other marginalized folks, that work doesn't get featured or funded easily (if at all). Every playwright or actor has gotten the hint that the money is in the TV/Film industry, even though theatre might be their passion. Because they are working at smaller theatres that don't have commercial prospects like Broadway, there's less financial sustainability in theatre. I do wonder what would happen if L.A. became the place where writers and theatremakers felt they could receive the support they need to build a long-lasting theatre career.

Mikaal: Los Angeles is a unique place for theatre because there is a lot of space. I really admire a lot of the immersive theatre that happens here. I've been fortunate to work with the likes of Annie Saunders and her team at Wilderness on an epic immersive project for Asics. I'm also a fan of artists who use the influence of cinema into their productions. I worked with Lars Jan and his company, Early Morning Opera, on his project called The Institute of Memory (TIMe) along with the projection artist, Pablo N. Molina. The design of that production was cinematic and theatrical all at the same time. I think that's the edge that L.A. has on other theatre communities.

Over the last year, the entire theatre community has had a huge transformation, both due to the pandemic as well as a call to action by BIPOC theatre practitioners across the country. Where do you hope to see Center Theatre Group making changes, and what do you want to see from us in the future?

Mikaal: I hope they continue to seek guidance and leadership from the BIPOC artists in L.A. Listening is important but being willing to be led is even more important—trusting that the BIPOC artists know what their community needs and what type of productions and content their greater community would be most inspired and excited by. None of the changes will be quick fixes. They shouldn't be, but I hope it's not just cosmetic but fundamental change that will give way to a new theatre community in Los Angeles as we progress past the lockdowns.

D’Lo: The uprisings were a big part of 2020, and many institutions paid attention to the changes that were being asked by BIPOC in every field—but paying attention isn't enough. The issues of representation and racial inequity in theatre has persisted since its beginnings, and though it's hard to change the way "things have been", it’s not impossible.

I hope that Center Theatre Group and other arts institutions put more attention and money into the careers of L.A.’s BIPOC playwrights, writers, and artists, and that they do it through a less transactional model. Developing careers and resourcing BIPOC artists and establishing deeper relationships with theaters of color are crucial for not only the next generations of immigrant/BIPOC communities but for theatre in general. All institutions should be daring in their efforts to engage with and market to non-white communities. If audiences don't reflect the city, it's a problem. There is a whole world of theatremakers of color in L.A. who are ready to create change with their art.

What is next for you in your artistic journey?

D’Lo: Currently I'm writing two plays, co-writing a film, and will be working with Center Theatre Group again later this year. I am also starting my "legacy work" of co-creating a QTBIPOC theatre/film production company that pairs young artists with mentors.

Mikaal: Create, create, create.

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