Sudan born, Minnesota raised. I am the living definition of fresh off the boat. My first job in life was a translator for my parents. I would translate to the best of my ability, but then again, I was just a kid. If I couldn't comprehend something that needed translation, I would make it up. This is where my creativity began. I wouldn’t lie. I would…let’s call it, creatively making up the truth. It worked: I never got busted.
Watching shows and movies on television, I was particularly inspired by a diversity of actors, particularly African Americans. Even if they were characters in a world I knew nothing of, their presence on the screen made me feel included. Jada Pinckett Smith’s scene at the end of Set It Off, where she finds herself with all the money stolen from a bank heist and no friends left to share it with, brings me to tears even writing about it now.
But acting didn’t seem in the realm of possibility or my reality. So, I pursued another interest – architecture. I took an acting elective course as a lark, to create a space in my life to have fun with no expectations on how well I would do. When Peter Lewis, my acting teacher, took me aside one day, and said, Shahd, you’re the real deal, around the time that I was also spending too much time daydreaming about the characters and monologues I would be playing and performing rather than the architectural schemata I was tasked with drafting, I knew what I had to do.
I never looked back or regretted my decision. Acting is therapeutic. Acting gives me the ability to access different parts of myself, to bring to life characters who are, both nothing and everything, like me. Acting enables me to give people watching me the chance to escape their own lives, and bear witness to those I inhabit.
Much like I did with my parents, when I act I get to play the translator, and medium, of the words of other people – playwrights and screenwriters. Sometimes I feel like that young girl all those years ago, fresh off the boat in a strange world. Sometimes, I don’t.