We had the good fortune of connecting with Tsebiyah Mishael Derry and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Tsebiyah Mishael, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
Risk is exciting to me. I love a good calculated risk. I feel like life often surprises us with options that seem crazy or out of left field because of the set of rules we are accustomed to follow. Those options might get in the way of our present understanding of the rules. They make us doubt the structures of the world and our place in it. We might think to ourselves, “who says I should even be presented with this really great chance to change my life for the better?” Simply because we don’t see ourselves as worthy. Taking risks often forces me into a new realm of seeing myself and the possibilities of my life. Of course, there’s my background, which makes risk-taking a tried-and-true method to employ in the act of survival. I am a Black woman, born and raised in New York, to a vocal coach and an event planner. My mother, Hope Daley-Derry, artistic administrative genius and elite Virgo visionary, was born and raised in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. A daughter of Jamaican immigrants, she watched her single mother (my grandmother) sustain her whole family— including folks coming to the states from Jamaica —on her beauty salon, which she owned. My father, Craig Derry, a descendent of enslaved folks from North Carolina, and the voice of soul on the Sugar Hill Gang’s first single, “Here I Am.” That first hit helped ease gatekeepers into opening the radio waves for a radical new genre of music called rap, with the second single from that album, “Rapper’s Delight.” My dad comes from a long line of musicians and creatives— a jazz saxophonist father (Louis Derry) and classical pianist mother (Rebecca Derry)—who dutifully avoided conformity and assimilation quite literally for their survival. They did not want to get caught up in the status-quo at the expense of the freedom to be their authentic selves. Risk is an inherent fixture in my lineage. My maternal grandmother, Mavis Daley, came to the States from Jamaica with her husband, following in the footsteps of elder family members. Some decades and three children later, she went through with her fourth and final pregnancy alone and named the child “Hope,” in the face of her abusive husband leaving and starting another family. Growing up, my parents have always encouraged me to take risks. To trust my gut and faith and not to let any other nonsense in. To actively seek and make the best choices for myself, and not to believe the myths we, as Black people, are told about what we are “allowed” to experience and where. On top of that, life in general is risky as hell. Just about anything worth doing carries an immense amount of risk. The way I see it, I’m here anyway, so I might as well make it really exciting. And I have. Risk-taking brought me to the artsy, intellectual playground that is Sarah Lawrence College; a place I had thought only existed in my bookish fantasises about college life; a place I applied to three times, even though I couldn’t afford it (yes, I am in a lot of debt, but I don’t care). Risk-taking landed me at the British American Drama Academy in London, my first time ever outside of the country, for my entire junior year. I had to do it on the 30-40 bucks (yes, dollars. And that British pound was strong) my parents were able to send me a week. Risks took me to African shores in 2016 when I auditioned for Dramatic Adventure Theater Company on a whim and found myself accepted and fundraising for a theatre-outreach trip to Tanzania. And finally, taking that big plunge out of my decently comfortable, salaried first-job-outta-college and into the dark, unknown waters of freelance artistry has made me better at my art. Now, I realize these leaps of faith were me choosing myself, my artistry, and my own life as I want it over the perceived “practical” paths, and I’m all the more better for it. As a Black woman and an artist, risk-taking has proven imperative to my growth.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I am a die-hard optimist. I think that matters because it means I don’t receive rejection or last minute changes at face value. I am always convinced there’s a big reason why- something better must be on the way down the pipeline. I keep trudging forward, and I always believe the good stuff is just around the corner. This, of course, doesn’t mean anything is easy. But, I do have a propensity for joy; I believe life is meant to be enjoyed, for the most part. We owe ourselves that. And that guides me to do things that are pleasurable to me. When it came to seeking out a college, for instance, I found one whose curriculum is founded upon tiny class sizes, discussion, and writing— exploration in pursuit of knowledge, in other words. That is pleasurable to me. It lead me to a place where I could follow my curiosities, and my strengths were rewarded, and encouraged. I also learned how, coming from a New York State public school drama club centered on musical theatre and one act plays, to do theatre in crazy, unconventional ways that I didn’t understand. But those lessons in theatrical devising were seeds that are blooming now, in my personal artistic practice in theatre and music. They have led me to places and spaces where artists want to play, and make from scratch in a room full of positive energies and diverse experiences. That used to be so intimidating to me, not memorizing other folks’ materials, but being in an ensemble that comes up with its own, together, from scratch. When you witness healthy fruits from that labor, you don’t realize a lot of futzing around, trial and error, and pushing through doubt went into that result. When I got out of school, I learned that the “place” I best fit into in this industry is of my own making, and often formed in spite of rules that function as counts against me— my less than perfect teeth, or my thick, coarse, naturally gravity defying hair, for example. Casting has ideas about me that greatly differ from the me that I know or the strengths I know I posses as a performer. However, as it turns out, the places and spaces I’m perfect for- the ones where the present version of me is desired —have proven to be far more joyous than the places I thought I wanted to be in out of school. As an artist, joy is what drives me. Feeling it myself, and passing it on. I am a singer; I hear everything in melody. I am an actor; I ache to feel things. I am a poet; I love words. These three parts of my artistry have lead me to amazing pieces— like Christina Ham’s successful play “Nina Simone: Four Women” at the acclaimed Philly theatre, People’s Light, where I brought Sweet Thing, one of Nina’s Four Women, to life onstage, and shared with audiences of children for talkbacks afterwards, allowing them a look into the nuances of the civil rights movement seldom seen in public school curriculums. That’s something I’m super proud of, that I have been so fortunate to have opportunities to combine my love of the arts and my passion for arts education and education equality. “Skinfolk: An American Show,” is an epic music-play by Jillian Walker, which I performed in at Brooklyn’s Bushwick Starr in March, before COVID yanked us all to a halt. It is a big, beautiful and poetic three-character celebration of American Blackness through an ancestral lens. With a seriously slamming jazz band and three Black women (including the playwright) leading the story, in the process of working on it I was surprised to learn that I had been tucking parts of myself away to be more palatable when my creativity and success actually depends on me to be fully me, straight up, no chaser. Now, in COVID times, with the theater industry, events and other major gatherings on hold, I am back to nurturing my poet, and creating things that can live separate from me someday. I have a single called “Coastline” coming out, and am working on playing a few roles in podcasts and other digital theatrical offerings. In all the things I do, I look for joy, laughter, and celebration of life, even as it may grapple with the grief it forces us to carry.
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.
Firstly, the MET. It is the first public place in NYC that took on meaning that was my own, separate from friendship and nightlife. I would go and give the person at the entrance whatever I had in my pocket, usually a dollar, sometimes a couple quarters if I was really struggling, and just wander. I would call it time-travel or a midday getaway. It was the only way I could quench my travel thirst before I started landing out-of-town work. Then, there’s The Strand Bookstore. Being surrounded by so many books (and so many I could afford with under $10), has always been super calming for me. I love wandering in there for hours at a time, thumbing through books I’ve never heard about and perusing sections so far outside of my familiarity. The Nuyorican Poet’s cafe is a place that provides so much inspiration- one of my favorite Christmas Eves was spent there. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge on a gorgeous, sunny, 70-degree day can really brighten one’s spirits. A night out on the lower east side can be fun, as well as gallery openings in soho. Sunday nights in some Brooklyn bars can be incredible too. Chill, no-frills live music sets cultivate genuine community that is a breath of fresh air when everyone is hustling hard throughout the week. But honestly, these days, nothing makes me happier than setting up a picnic dinner and drinks on a blanket on my rooftop. Nothing beats a NYC rooftop.
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?
There are so many people who need shoutouts! First off, mom & dad. What a duo to be raised by! You have shown me that I am capable of greatness and deserving of love. What an honor to come from you! Second, the teachers of the East Ramapo Central School District, for caring so much about the many diverse children who were in your hands, and our intellectual and creative nourishment. Despite a deliberate, evil prejudice that left our budget, resources and curriculum constantly under attack, while everyone in the surrounding communities and New York State government looked away and let it continue. Shout out to the teachers that care. Without you, we fall away and get lost. Lianne Garzia, Mrs. Geiger, Mrs. Grant, Mrs. Spraurer, Ms. King, Mr. Norton, Mrs. Stephenson, Mrs. Tescher, Mrs. Feniger and so many more. The British American Drama Academy & Sarah Lawrence College, for continuing to show us that educational systems should be dynamic, interactive and engaging and exciting for the precious minds lead by their curiosity. Brad Fleisher, whose no-frills, no bullshit acting workshop has saved my sanity, and strengthened my artistry time and time again. To the family I formed at BADA ’13 and SLC ’14. Ya’ll know who you are, thank you for constantly seeing and showing me my light, even when I’m feeling in the dark. Jillian Walker, for so fierce and honest with your pen and creating a space for me in the worlds you bring to life! I am eternally inspired by you. To my dad, Craig Derry, the best vocal coach in the world. Because of you, I will never be silenced. To the derryites! The countless vocalists who have studied under my father and have become both siblings and inspirations to me. To my brother, Cahleb Derry, whose very existence is a cause for awe for me. I learn from you every day. To my aunties, who have always given me the best advice and made me feel so capable. To my mom, who is just the most fabulous, beautiful, fierce force of nature that cannot be stopped.
Facebook: Tsebiyah Mishael Derry
-dark edges, three Black women, me in the center, two women on either side of me “doing my hair”: Maria Baranova (from SKINFOLK: An American Show at The Bushwick Starr 2020) -me in the bright green dress & blonde wig with white gloves + champagne: Mikiodo (from Leaving The Blues at The Flea, 2020) -me in red pants, fur around the shoulders, legs stretched out across church pew: Mark Garvin (from Nina Simone: Four Women at People’s Light, 2019) -Conni’s Restaurant, me in the white suit with wings leaning toward the mic in profile courtesy of Cleveland Public Theater -Me, Pink & brown braids, mid laugh with eyes closed, yellow spaghetti strap: Brandon Rubin