We had the good fortune of connecting with Marla Lou and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Marla, where are your from? We’d love to hear about how your background has played a role in who you are today?
My upbringing as a Haitian Immigrant and Jehovah’s witness are the backbone of my whole story.
I was born in Haiti and came to the states undocumented when I was 8 months old. In my early development (up until I received US citizenship in middle school), my “illegal” status impacted me directly because I had to hide my origins to attend school and feared many activities in the city like a doctor’s visit or trip to the mall. I distinctly remember the fear of being separated from my family off of an anonymous tip if I told anyone where I was from or if there was a way for people to just look at me and decide to report me for looking foreign. I was painfully shy and awkward in school and anywhere outside of my family’s home because of it. Like many families with undocumented members, the goal was to assimilate and not preserve the culture that was left in Haiti – everything but my grandmother’s delicious Haitian food and speaking the language were left untapped in my upbringing. All I really knew about the motherland was that we were revolutionaries, how to say “Kolon gyet manman’w” under my breath when white people would assert themselves in my space ie touch my hair, walk right into me on the street etc.
When I was 4 years old, my mother and father began studying with Jehovah’s witnesses which in combination with a conservative Haitian culture delayed my impassioned my involvement in the arts, exploring my personal style (beyond the calf-length skirts and covered collarbones), the people I loved as a queer youth, going away to college, and so much more. I say often that the bulk of my acting training comes from living 3 different lives coming up: one at home, school, and in the church. There is a lot I choose to reject from my 17 year upbringing in the faith, but had it not been for that introduction to Jehovah’s witnesses, I would not be afforded the same educational and development opportunities that paved the the path to my liberal arts education at Fordham University (where I learned about intersectionality, the insidious histories that are a part of the Black experience America, and more that set the stage for my activist work to dismantle white supremacy and save Black lives.)
Let me explain. Before Washington Heights NYC started gentrifying in the early 2010’s, the schools in my area were underfunded and one of the many communities of color that were the breeding grounds for the school-to-prison pipeline. Cop cars were always patrolling the streets and my family was actively searching for options that would set me up for success as an undocumented youth. I remember my mom saying “we did not bring you to the states to become a statistic.” Thankfully, one of the Haitian sisters who preached the faith to my mother lived across the street from one of the best public elementary school’s on the Upper West Side, PS 166. Since schooling is relegated to the district you live in, this sister offered to have our home address listed as hers so I may have a better education in a better neighborhood which ended up being predominantly white space – The Richard Rogers School of Arts and Technology. This one introduction opened the pathway for me to be in the Gifted and Talented program (which my mother had to advocate for me in 3rd grade to be in when I was bringing home picture books from school but reading well beyond that level at home or in the library). The arts liberated me from the religion when I was able to leave home and tour the country with the Broadway show, Beautiful the Carole King Musical in 2017. I was able claim my power to be my full self authentically, no more living 3 lives.
As a result of my separation from the Jehovah’s Witness faith for reasons listed above and beyond, my desire to reconnect with Haitian roots and history has burned brighter. My grandmother is my biggest influence – her strength and sacrifice to raise my mother and aunt with all odds against her as an illiterate machann (food vendor) and later leaving the only country she knew at 55 years old to raise me, my cousins, and other kids in the states? Phew! The resilience. The spirit of revolution. The sacrifices that woman has made in the name of love and family. I had the honor of living with her during the pandemic, so many stories I hadn’t heard about her experiences and the island at large, peaked my interest to dive deeper into my roots and tell the un-colonized story of my people, the first independent Black republic, through my art and activism.
Honoring my ancestor’s precedent and my boundless passion to see a world where Black people are truly liberated directly impacted the founding of my activist nonprofit Claim Our Space Now and tell unapologetically Black stories in the summer of 2020. Last year was a lot for people, but it was a deeply healing and clarifying time for me and allowed me to find purpose is to make the revolution irresistible in everything I do, just as my ancestors did. Though I haven’t been back to the island since I left and the country has been routinely destabilized by imperial powers, I will always elevate my motherland and am actively looking for ways to get involved beyond fundraising for organizations and my direct family on the island. I’m looking forward to connecting with Haitians across the diaspora to make an impact because the island birthed many legendary people across all kinds of spaces: creative, political, educational, scientific etc. We have to make a decision to go back to the island and bring our legendary changemaking energy to uplift and transform our country. We are the one’s we’ve been waiting for!
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
My story starts by saying Yes. Which is the first rule of improvisational theater ie the rule of life haha! When I was a senior in high school, I did an exceptional production of Caroline or, Change directed by Jo Ann Cimato. In our second week of performing the story set in the Civil Right era of a 39 year old Black single mother of 4 in Louisiana as a 17 year old, offers to perform started lining up. Off of an audience member’s suggestion to submit for an awards program called the Roger Rees in NYC for best actress, I said yes and decided to give it a go. I won at the city level and found out there was another competition called the Jimmy’s that took place in NYC too. For those who are unfamiliar, the Jimmy’s are essentially the High school version of the Tony Awards.
Saying yes to the Jimmy’s meant I had to skip my high school graduation ceremony in Lincoln Center to be a part of the competition and it paid off. After 10 days of intensive style training and working on my craft as part of a 52 person collective, I won the award for Best Actress in a Musical in 2015 for my portrayal of Caroline.
Winning opened the door to me being signed with my talent agency and family over at A3 Artists where I learned the art of auditioning while studying to get my computer science degree. I got to work with James Earl Jones off-Broadway, sang with amazing people in cabaret concerts, but the opportunity the changed my life was when I said yes to go on tour with the Beautiful tour. I said yes to finishing out the semester virtually while performing and it brought about a level of freedom that would change my life forever. I said yes to living in my full truth at 20 years old traveling the country and find who would become my forever family. When I got back, my eye-opening experience coupled with my distaste of the conservative ways of the faith, I said yes to parting ways from the faith I was raised in ultimately, that choice resulted in me losing contact with my mother, sister, and the whole community of “brothers and sisters” in the church.
This is a challenge I have to overcome every day. There’s no handbook to navigate being shunned for your queer, artist, sexually and all kinds of liberated identities. The last three years have not been easy in the least but in learning to say yes to myself, I was able to lean into my purpose of storytelling unapologetically and trusting the universe’s timing for next steps (if you follow me you’ll see how many times I’ve manifested and created the reality I am living). I am only as strong as my chosen family that I have collected over time in creative, educational, and Black liberation spaces – people who have had similar experiences with their family or believe in my story and galvanizing voice for what is right. If it weren’t for me saying yes to living in my truth on July 23rd 2018 (what I like to call my rebirth day), I wouldn’t have been creating at all. I wouldn’t have found my love of creating community to make a difference for marginalized, creative direction, styling, performing, modeling, and my growing number of hyphenates that have been featured in the Trap Music Museum, Vogue Italia, Oprah Mag or SavagexFenty, named as one of 44 Black creatives and change makers by the Creative Collective NYC, and so much more that has happened in my 6 years of creating professionally.
I want the world to know that by working through my healing from a traumatic experience that defined my livelihood, I found my path in the arts and found my place in the revolution. The decision that scares you the most is usually the one that has a breakthrough at the other side – a breakthrough for you and your community all in one! I hope to inspire everyone to step in their individual power, tell their story, and encourage others to do the same by way of their testimony. That’s the revolution I’m tryna see!
I also want the world to know that I worked hard for everything I am building but I am in no way self-made. Without the family that has seen me through each step, like finishing my computer science degree in 2020 while founding a nonprofit and working with Black creatives across the nation when the world was on pause, I would not be where I am today. I am community made and my Haitian ancestors’ wildest dream!
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I’m not from LA but honey I have every intention to move out there when the universe decides it’s time to make the leap for my art. I had the opportunity to live over in LA for three weeks when the Beautiful tour played at the Pantages. My itinerary when I get back and take a bff along with me is as follows:
Visit my dear friend, actor, and accomplice in the fight to dismantle white supremacy Izzie Schnall. We missed each other for the link up when I was on tour and I’ve been waiting for the day we get to troll across the city with her.
Griffith Observatory is a MUST
Universal Studios for the thrill
Watch Hamilton and catch my love Julian Ramos slaying across the stage
Grab coffee with Auntie’s LA the first black owned coffee shop in West Hollywood, owned and founded by Suni Reid
Chances are, they’d see me collaborate and vibe on spirit with my fave capricorn and super stylist Beoncia Dunn
I only care to go to gay or black/POC owned bars in this life because I know where the vibe is at – I had most of my fun at Micky’s WeHo
I’m always down for a stroll and letting the day tell us where to go as well – so whoever I take with me will enjoy a spontaneous, nature filled, and creative ride, all while supporting Black, Indigenous and POC businesses along the way!
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Jo Ann Marie Cimato. If it weren’t for an email I received from her in 10th grade inviting me to be in the choir, buying me lunch when my father was unemployed in high school, advocating for me to be in the show Caroline or Change my senior year which opened the door for all my creative ventures and passions thereafter, I would not be here. Thank you for your support, love, continuous mentorship and for encouraging me to press on through finishing my degree, being shunned from family members for turning away from the faith, moving into my own space, the list goes on. I would not be the woman I am today without her.
Kumo Shai Aaron Gousse Michael Kushner Alex Stavilla Flatbush Misdemeanors on Showtime Still Beautiful The Carole King Musical Ellis Dawson