An artist is defined by their voice — a unique point of view that governs the art they create. Actor, activist, writer and photographer Billie Krishawn has dedicated her life to honing her voice and translating it through multiple mediums with the same end goal: to heal her community.
“As a woman of color, I am overflowing with stories of my own and all those who came before me,” Krishawn says, reflecting on the meaning of her work. “Both as an artist and as a person, I’m a healer. As a storyteller, I want to tell the stories of as many people as possible, weaving the line and filling the gaps that connect us all.”
Although she prefers to pursue purpose over accolades, Krishawn, a Duke Ellington alumna, is certainly no stranger to awards. She’s performed on some of the city’s biggest stages, including Arena Stage and the Kennedy Center, and in 2019 she was nominated for a Helen Hayes and a BroadwayWorld Washington, DC Award for Outstanding Lead Actress for her work in “Melancholy Play” and “Treasure Island.” In 2020, she won her first Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Performer for her work in “Blood at the Root,” a play that examines racial double standards and injustice as it explores the story of the Jena Six.
From Krishawn’s work in “A Raisin in the Sun” to the Smithsonian’s “Greensboro Lunch Counter,” her credits speak directly to her artistic mission: healing generational divide and injustice by giving voice to characters who are often rendered voiceless in society. On stage, Krishawn delivers electric performances filled with authentic vulnerability, which create new pathways to empathy for viewers who may be unfamiliar with the struggles of the underrepresented communities she brings to life.
“I feel, as Black folk, it is our responsibility to participate in the fight against racial injustice in some way,” Krishawn says on the importance of increasing the visibility of Black voices both on and off the stage. “It’s not my responsibility to educate the uninformed, but when we simply tell them to educate themselves we leave room for miseducation. This allows other people to put their voices
in our stories.”
It was that same desire to narrate the stories of her people which led Krishawn to the front lines of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Her photos, which have been published by DC Theatre Scene, document the stories and resilience of the unarmed protestors surviving nights of tear gas, mace and rubber bullets.
“Our ancestors didn’t have a pause button,” Krishawn says in response to why she risked her personal safety to document protests during a global pandemic. “I had to fight so hard just to figure out who my ancestors were because their stories were erased, so I feel like it’s my responsibility to keep these stories alive for generations to come.”
As a published writer, Krishawn has a voice that’s equal parts grit and grace. Her fierce intentionality with words, gift-wrapped in the warmth of her personality, can penetrate even the most biased defenses. She’s the “spoon-full-of-sugar” that helps the medicine go down, as Mary Poppins would describe it. However, finding her voice wasn’t an easy journey.
She recalls a moment in 2016, after speaking out about the murder of Mike Brown when her concerned father warned her she might be risking work opportunities. But Krishawn says the workplace is exactly where her voice is needed.
In 2020, after a collection of Black, Indigenous and people of color theatre workers wrote an open letter to White American Theater challenging discriminatory practices, Krishawn launched the SoSu Series — a collection of filmed interviews of Black indigenous women (cis and trans) and nonbinary people of color working in the D.C. theatre scene. SoSu Series highlights their work and engages in conversations around the untold struggles of being a woman or nonbinary, “in an industry that often neglects, mishandles and silences them,” Krishawn says.
Krishawn has even suggested creating a new theatre position titled Culture Consultant, who would be an advocate for artists of color throughout the process of a play.
Acknowledging the value of her voice, Krishawn is well aware of the impact it has on herself and others.
“As a Black person, I carry the weight of all those who came before me. As a Black woman, I carry the silence of those who never got to speak their truth. As a Black woman in America, I carry the strength required to push past the barriers intricately stacked against me.”
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