Mikala Gibson is an actress whose mixture of ferocity and stoicism would have been suited for the golden age of the New Hollywood. Over the last two decades, Ms. Gibson has been an accomplished stage actress in the state of Texas. But it has only been within the past eight years where her screen presence has flourished, with roles in 18 short and feature length films, eight of which came under the direction of acclaimed filmmaker Ya’ke Smith.
Her film work has never strayed from confronting the savagery at war with the wholesome image of America. Her last two performances, as Nona in the award winning WOLF (2012) and as the title character in the recently released short Dawn, have shown her ability to handle strenuous material with maturation as she has portrayed characters on the fringe; wanderers in search of a semblance of normal existence.
Her performance in Dawn, which she co-wrote with director Smith, brings her prowess full circle. In 20 minutes of run time, we are subjected to a simple story of recovery. But that simplicity is but a wish as Dawn struggles to get her life together after another stint in prison. You sense the ending will not be forgiving and the whole time Ms. Gibson’s sunken and barren face carries you towards the finale.
The film saw its premiere at the American Black Film Festival in June of this year. Since then it has been gaining steam with a nomination for the HBO Short Award at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival and a showing to high praise at the Raindance Film Festival in London. I spoke with Ms. Gibson about her recent films and the task of bringing a role to life.
I.H: When did you become interested in acting and where did you begin performing?
M.G: My interest in the craft stems from my Aunt Kay, who was also a stage actress until her death in 1974. I was visiting my grandparents as a child and found her acting portfolio with everything intact: theatre textbooks, journals, etc. This was my introduction to theatre.
My grandmother eventually caught me and began to teach me. That day, I learned about monologues and performed a few lines from God’s Trombone by James Weldon Johnson. It’s funny because I didn’t start acting until high school. I ended up with a theatre scholarship to the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio.
I.H: You’ve played a string of complex characters faced with daunting obstacles. How do you make yourself comfortable with the material in order to give a genuine performance?
M.G: Preparation is key – making sure I’m very familiar with my character. I do a lot of homework. I watch how people interact and interview people who’ve shared similar experiences as my character. I study their body language, facial expressions, even how their voice drops when I ask an intimate question. What they show you gives you more than what they tell you.
I.H: Does it ever feel like a “performance”, in the theatrical sense?
M.G: I don’t like to force emotions. I always keep an eye on what I’m doing and where the character is going. When I do feel like I’m “performing”, I step back and refocus on my character’s intention.
I.H: Is that intention what influences you to consider a new role?
M.G: The message of the project influences me. After reading a script, I question what the writer is saying. If I’m moved then I usually jump on board. I do not want to do anything that doesn’t move me to search for the core of the story.
I.H: Are there topics you consider taboo?
M.G: Doing anything just for a check. I never want that feeling.
I.H: Is there a particular theme that you have found runs through your characters?
M.G: They all have wanted to live a better life. Some are more successful than others. If there is a theme, it’s that I find myself portraying characters that would have been forgotten otherwise.
I.H: When I talked with Mr. Smith, we talked about his vision and his work as being a sort of ‘cinematic activism’, especially in the films in which you’ve had a role.
What struck me is the sense of community between him and his collaborators. Everyone is committed to their part. Is there something within all of the actors and crew that is on a mission to bring these necessary stories to life?
M.G: Very much so. These stories need to be told, they need to be brought to life. I cannot stress that enough. They are about situations that people may be afraid to confront and hesitant to accept, but they are needed. They are based on truth. This is life as it truly is, we have to confront it. Healing comes from facing the truth. Media had the power to heal the masses but few take that risk. It is a risky business, after all.
I.H: What was the challenge of co-writing Dawn since it was your first film script?
M.G: Figuring out the means of collaboration. This was the first time Ya’ke and I wrote together. I’ve written many plays but never a screenplay so I wasn’t as confident. I wondered why he asked me to join him in writing Dawn. Then as we began the process, I got my answer.
Ya’ke had a difficult time writing Dawn because it was based on his sister. He wanted to be respectful of his family but he also knew he needed to be truthful. I’ve written about personal situations and it can be an emotional roller coaster. It was difficult for him to be this vulnerable but it’s something I’m still very proud of him for doing.
I.H: Would you consider your characters Nona in WOLF and Dawn as two sides of the same coin? Both of them are trying to get their lives together, but run into opposition.
Dawn’s is the social caste which practically throws ex-cons under the bus. Nona has some stability in her life and family. But when that thin line is crushed after finding out about the relationship between her son Carl (Jordan Cooper) and Bishop Anderson (Eugene Lee), she fights to keep everything afloat. Thoughts?
M.G: I think both are similar and relatable in the regard that they, like all of us, are piecing together something resembling a life; trying to hold it together. They are fighters yet feel alone in their situations. They feel like failures but want to do better and be better people. They are fighting two different devils but hold the same desire to win.
I.H: If Dawn can’t have ‘the life’, or be in jail – where she felt secure – would she rather have no life whatsoever? She realizes that, in her position, the ‘regular type life’ means relying on the grace of others. Yet, she rarely finds that grace.
I see the film’s ending as being an indicator that Dawn’s fate is to continue stumbling along because she will not escape the past. She may not end up dead, but she’ll never know peace. In essence, do you believe Dawn has a death wish?
M.G: She’s lost and naïve. That’s one failure of prison. Prison does not accurately prepare convicts to re-enter society. It teaches them that if they follow A, B and C they will be successful. But what about preparing them for failure? What about preparing them to be alone without the support of friends, family or the government?
Dawn wants to succeed in life but when work, school and family fail her she becomes unsure of herself. She feels that there is no other way to survive. But as long as she is living there is hope for her. She may continue stumbling but there is hope.
I.H: Finally, a lot of detractors would say these stories will only attract a certain audience. Yet, WOLF and Dawn. – both harrowing films – have been received with praise. Do you believe it’s due to audiences wanting tangible stories and characters or is it a case of right place, right time?
M.G: Ya’ke still gets powerful messages from supporters regarding their experience seeing WOLF. I do believe audiences want something more from films and television and you’re seeing the results. More people are seeking out more and more material on the internet. Personally, I’m watching more webisodes than actual television shows. We want more!
It presents those working and those watching with an opportunity to change the course. As artists, we must create challenging work. As actors we have to be mindful of how we depict each character. As an audience we need to support filmmakers who produce challenging work. It’s obvious but a change is due. If we all continue pressing, then something is bound to crack!