Trae Harris is a performance artist pushing the boundaries between writing, acting, poetry and producing. A Baltimore native now living in New York City, Harris went to the New School where she studied Arts in Context with concentrations in Theater and Writing. From here she’s gone on to be involved in a myriad of creative projects including a starring role in indie film Newlyweeds, guest appearance on Orange is the New Black, starring in an off-broadway play called “And I and Silence,” working on some web series and continuing writing poetry. She sat down with BGM to tell us about creating roles that transcend stereotypes, her love of villains, being comfortable in her skin and representations of women of color on tv and film.
What are your favorite types of roles to play and are they similar or different from you in real life?
I haven’t gotten to play it as much as I’d like but, I love villains. I absolutely love villains. Especially the very surreal and majestic ones. It’s how I viewed the Wicked Witch of the West as a child. I never wanted to be the princess. I definitely feel that in some ways I relate to them. When I was in high school people kind of saw me as a bitch, but when I got to college I thought about how I didn’t want to come off that way, so I thought, what do I need to do so that people don’t perceive me like that? I realized it wasn’t just about what I did, but also the people that I surround myself with, the crowds. Once I was on my own I didn’t have any friends, I had to start building my own community. I realized that I was also surrounding myself with people who didn’t have my best interests in mind, and weren’t really supportive of me in a positive way. They only really reinforced my negative behaviors. I do appreciate balance but there’s also something I really love about the deviant aspect of who I am, and I love that it can be problematic in a mainstream way, like, there’s certain perceptions of black womanhood that make other people uncomfortable, that I’m actually really comfortable with, and if we’re going to grow at all in the craft of acting and performance, we have to see all these different dynamics and you can’t just be a superwoman that can save the world type of
You also have to see that there’s this deep, dark devious aspect of who we are that brings the balance. So I think that I definitely relate to that the older I get.
What’s it like being a performer of color and how do you make space and community for yourself within that?
I don’t really have friends that are actors, I feel that’s mainly because I think it’s a very, very specific thing. Most of the friends that I have that are creatives, consider themselves to be performance artists because they also write, they direct, they produce. They do it all. They’re not just a body or a prop. I feel like that’s more of the direction I hope I see more women of color move towards. To not be comfortable with being just a prop. Not being comfortable with being- the girlfriend, or the friend, and really push that if you’re not being casted as the lead, you start creating those roles for yourself.
You mentioned in an interview with StyleLikeU that you, “want to inspire as opposed to influence young women of all colors to go beyond the status quo and be the beautiful goddess beings they are by nature." Can you elaborate on this, and have your sentiments on this shifted since this interview?
Around that time, Vogue was doing something where they were calling people “influencers,” and I was so turned off by the phrase, and even to this day, sometimes I’ll be a part of something and then on the back end I’ll read the write up on it and it’ll say “these influencers.” And I’ll like, cringe, I do NOT want to be associated that way, mainly because I don’t do anything thinking that there are people who are going to do exactly what I’m doing, exactly the same way I’m doing it. I’m not interested in that. I have so much respect for the performers who came before us, but I am inspired by them. I see the things they do and then I find ways to create things that are my own and tell my story, a revelation of my narrative. I feel like, if you’re in the space where you just want to influence people, that could be something as fucking rudimentary or like, superficial as like, shoes, hair, makeup, and I don’t give a fuck about that. But, it’s hard sometimes, people are like, oh, I love your style I love your look and I’m like….I don’t give a fuck…I don’t do it for you to like it. Or for you to love it, or for you to care about it. I finally found a place in me where I am just comfortable in my skin and the way that I choose to reflect and express myself and it has nothing to do with anyone else. If you’re inspired by that then I want to make sure I’m doing the work that highlights me and my narrative in the way that I want it to be perceived, so I’m not going to be out here twerking naked on a LGBTQ float not because I feel like there’s anything wrong with that but that’s not the story I’m telling and I don’t want the narrative to be like Trae’s inspiring girls to do that.
If you want to do that on your own, do that on your own. I don’t want to be the inspiration behind it. So I’m also really conscious of that as well. I think there’s a really thin line and I’m trying to be as careful as I can, but it’s hard because the media co-ops certain language and then that language becomes the norm for everyone. Oh, influencer…but no not really.
How are truth and representation important to you as an artist of color?
Representation is immensely important, especially in the film, theatre and tv world. It’s great that there are so many representations of women of color on tv and film, but I still feel like there aren’t enough, because when I look out, I still don’t see something that I feel represents me. I still feel like things are relatively heteronormative, and still within a really safe box that makes the viewers feel like oh, yeah, I could work with this person. But what about the ones who you can’t. What about the ones who squat in lofts in Brooklyn and make their money selling street art or maybe going out on dates at night? There’s a woman who’s out there and I feel like her story should be told. We shouldn’t be shutting away from those stories because we feel like they don’t represent us in a proper light. One of the things that I hate the most is when people feel like that type of representation is making us look bad. I think that happens because there’s so few representations, and if there were more it wouldn’t feel that way. If you are one of the three that are being represented and the way that you’re doing it makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable, then they’re going to feel like it’s okay to say that and it’s not. If you see black woman who might’ve beat the hell out of her child on the news and you’re embarrassed by that, you feel like that’s poorly reflecting on you that says a lot about the way that you’re still feeding into the system. I also feel like, if we all remain true to our narrative, especially artists and women of color, then there shouldn’t be a reason why there isn’t more representations. Being honest about what your experiences are, where you came from and how you arrived at your place isn’t going to do anything but help the ones behind you into where it is they need to be. I feel like, sometimes, if you have…like Scandal, I’m trying to catch up on the last season, you have the actors start to talk to you a little bit more about Olivia and where she came from and how people from the outside were like, Oh, she pulled herself up by the boot straps, being from the ghetto, making her way to the top.. like the truth about the character is she went to one of the best international prep schools in Europe, and she didn’t have to pull herself up out of nowhere, she was born into privilege, she’s going to die in privilege, she spent her whole life with privilege, but you still see elements of what it means to be a woman of color. Her privilege doesn’t really change the fact that she still has this narrative. I feel like that’s really honest and important to see that, to know that even if you went to the best schools in Europe, and that it’s supposed to be better than going to public school, she still gets treated like she’s poor is very telling, tells a lot of truth. It’s important for people who aren’t women of color to see that and know that. That’s why it’s important to tell the truth, so that the ones who don’t identify with us can also see our the multi-dimensions of being a black woman.
Who’s been a mentor to you during your journey?
I never had a mentor. I have always wanted one though. However there are lot of people who inspire me. It’s a bit cliché, but the older I get, the more I’m really inspired by the fact that my mom was dead broke raising me and my sister alone and I’m amazed by how she did it. That’s inspiring to me, the mystery behind how she was able to do it is inspiring to me, because I don’t have kids and I’m still struggling. Like, damn, how did she do it with two of us, by herself, food, clothes, we always had all the things we needed. That kind of magic is deeply inspirational to me. I believe if she could get through it, so can I. I feel like sometimes she doesn’t realize how much she really kicked ass with me and my sister.
What are the ingredients to personal growth for you?
Being really self-reflective, holding yourself accountable, allowing others to hold you accountable, and being open to receiving that kind of critique and love. Being really balanced and having a spiritual grounding, whatever that is for you. Spending time to figure out who you are, I feel like you never quite know, it’s one of those things like when you die, it all rushes to you, but I definitely feel like you should make sure to make space for partnership. Partnership is super important, I didn’t always think it was, I thought like, you can do your own thing and not have anybody and then I’m with my partner for 7 and a half years and I realized that is not true. There’s a different type of glue when you have someone who reflects you in that way. There’s a different type of reflection.