The "Narratorial Creators" Series is a space for radically creative teastained women to share ideas that inform their work and the resolutions they have for its impact on the world. My hope is that their offerings inspire us to Journey Soulfully, thinking differently about our humanity and creative continuance as we see what other stories are possible for us to tell with our gifts along the journey.
I met Kim at a "Black Women Write," meetup happening at Madiba cafe in Harlem. We didn't have much conversation that time, or ever, really. Just here and there, mostly bits on Facebook, commenting on the hilarious, relevant curation of posts Kimberly shares.
Why is she a Narratorial Creator? A while back Kimberly posted a Facebook status about the role of the artist in society/the world and it struck a cord deep within me. It also made me realize that this is a teastained woman who regards her work as an art form with a more compelling raison d'être which she is engaged in fulfilling. This is not just "something she does". Since then I knew I wanted to pick her brain about acting, writing, and being a woman carving a space for herself in the world as she Journeys Soulfully.
Kim just made her Broadway debut as "Nabulungi" in The Book of Mormon!!
What is/are your medium(s)?
Well, I'm an actor by trade...that's what I like to appear on my taxes. Most of my hired work has been in musical theatre and commercials, although I aspire to do more plays and television. I'm extremely interested in developing my own solo work and possibly web content, but most of my writing on the internets would probably fall in the poetry category. In college I had a fashion/lifestyle blog and blogging is something I always think about reopening, but never get around to, so the most “blogging” type writing you'll see me do is via my facebook page. All in all I guess you could say I identify as a performance artist who wants to write her own shit, but is in a constant state of procrastination.
It's fun. Mad fun. I like pretending to be in another reality. I like to create other people and observe the world only to spit it back out. It feels like home to me, but mostly it's really fun. I just really like it. And it's funny because most of the “acting” you do in the beginning is absolute bullshit, but it's still fun, and you keep going so you can get to the good stuff. Even when you have to cry it's still fun in some dark twisted weird “I may need therapy” kind of way. I just absolutely love it. It is the most certain love I have in my life besides the love I have for my parents.
How can we teastained women find that thing in our lives that makes us feel like home?
I would say don't wait for someone to give you your dream. Dreams are home for us. I feel at home when I'm chasing the dream or when I'm on stage. You don't have to wait for someone to give you that, you go get it, declare it's yours, and manifest that shit. Take control.
Five songs on your work playlist.
I actually have a playlist called “auditions are lame...you got this shit”. That has a combo of musical theatre, gospel, rap, and trap. But my top five right now are:
Too Much Sauce (DJ Esco),
My Shot (Hamilton),
Fresh Out the Feds (Gucci Mane)
Siegfried (Frank Ocean), and
Dang! (Mac Miller)....
Campaign (Ty Dollar Sign) gets an honorable mention
What is necessary for you to work well?
I like this question because it makes me think long and hard about how I work. If I can be candid I produce a lot of work when I'm in a state of heartbreak. I hate feeling lonely and lost, but it fuels so much of my work and my humor. Failure is necessary and I'm finally learning how to also incorporate success. Happy art is just as valid as struggle art. I like to be pleasant and focused when working so I typically amp up the sleep, cut the booze, run in the mornings, slow down the social media, and focus on what I'm doing.
What did you have to go through to learn to do your job well?
I had to learn humility honey. HUMILITY. Now I don't think they're going to inscribe my tombstone with “Kim the Humble”, but I had to learn that I'm not so damn important and I can't afford to lack introspection and empathy. My great grandmother always tells me that I'm a sweet girl. She says “you stay sweet” at the end of every phone conversation because she wants me to stay kind and considerate, so I try to treat people and my work how I treat Mother except with considerably more curse words, a little more edge and a side of sass.
Humility is...not easily acquired. What’s a prominent contradicting thought that arises when you’re walking in it? How do you combat mental opposition to your life lessons?
Sometimes you have moments where you think you're better than other people...talent wise, and that's not a good thing to walk in. Of course there are times when the fact of the matter is that you executed the material more effectively or you excelled and another person did not, but that's always changing and isn't a sign of me being gifted and someone else being unworthy. Excelling satisfies the ego and the ego typically resists humility. There are also moments in this business where you kill it and someone else gets the job, so you say to yourself “I'm better. I deserve that job”, and you pout, frown and talk shit. That's also damaging to humility.
I try and place myself in someone else's shoes and as I grow I notice that thoughts like the ones I mention rest in insecurity. Someone who is truly secure in what they bring to the table is confident in their expectation, limitless in gratitude for their gifts, and is most of all relentlessly supportive of other people in their field. I ask myself why I'm having those thoughts and I make a commitment to fixing that behavior.
What is the role of imagination in your work?
Imagination is the work. Without it you're just a terrible actor and a bad writer, a bad everything really. Half of who we are as people is who we imagine ourselves to be. You can't accomplish anything in life without imagination. Adults like to call imagination “vision”, but it's the same shit. I've been a realist for most of my life and let me tell you, it doesn't work! Imagination is LIT. You need it for the work and for life.
How might we use our imaginations to create ourselves and how do we keep it from becoming tainted by “realism”?
I mean imagination is always based in what you know and what you subconsciously and consciously value. There's always going to be an element of real in there, so imagination is just a different kind of of realism. People confuse being real with being negative and that's what you have to save yourself from, at least that's what I have to save myself from over and over again
What inspires you?
My friends inspire me. Women inspire me always. Theatre,TV. Film. I'm inspired by music of course... I'm equally parts a child of gospel and hip hop. Fashion is also inspiring and I'm in love with dancers and dance. The idea of thinking in movement is so infectious...it's godly to me.
How do you keep inspired?
I read. A lot. And quickly. Fun fact: I read super fast. I also work out often because it's such an amazing way to maintain and build energy, which breeds inspiration. I also have a vision board because that's really trendy right now, but surprisingly helpful, and I reread my old work so I can say “damn girl, you're good...maybe you should keep writing shit.” And lastly I consume coffee. Without coffee I am nothing.
Ohhh..!! What sort of things do you write? Do you keep a journal at all?
I mostly write poems and essay style stuff. I'm always writing for it to be possibly performed, so some of my stuff is written in a play format. I don't keep a traditional journal where I write in it everyday about what happened in my life, but I do keep a book that I write shit in. I also write in my phone because it's 2016...
Does your family understand the work you do?
Hahahahahaha. No. I would like to say they do, but no, I don't think so.
I think on a surface level they understand that I'm good at what I do and on a spiritual level they think (well some of them), that I'm supposed to be doing this. I also believe that majority of them respect me for pursuing my dreams. Both my parental teams express that respect and admiration to me often and it means so much. No shade, but when they come to see a play they're very much like the general public. Of course they have a stronger connection because they know and love me, however they are witnesses who don't have a large investment in the arts and depending on their belief system can potentially just be spectators offering up their support due to their loyalty to me. I will say that my parents at least try to connect with all the work I do, they try to develop stronger opinions and expectations as I develop and grow, but as a being who wishes to be understood on a visceral level I can't sit up here and say they “understand” when I want them to “OVERstand”, feel me?( Even though there is apart of my Scorpio-ness that loves to be mysterious and misunderstood Lol).
That's why the solo work is so important and scary for me. I don't want to feel judged by the side of my family that's super Christian and at the same time I have to produce the art that my soul needs to produce.
Regarding a shameless pursuit of our respective purposes, should we necessarily seek to be “understood” ?
Absolutely not. It's a complete waste of time. There's a difference between being clear and being understood. Your message is only going to reach a certain group of people. It's only going to be palatable for certain people. Even if people like what you've done and who you are, half of those people won't even get what you're actually trying to say the way you want them to receive it.
A lot of times being misunderstood is a blessing because you get tons of interpretations and that can influence your work. It's like in English class when we're focused on a specific detail about the shape of a chair that the teacher found to be appetizing, so she makes you analyze it and interpret it, when in actuality the author may have just been describing a really cool chair.
What are you getting ready for?
You mean Other than bikini season and Jesus coming back? Lol. I'm getting ready to be a very successful lady. I'm prepping for my life to give me everything I want it to give and then some.
Can you name 3 life changes/decisions you’ve made to prepare for these?
The best decision I made was “happiness”. I didn't know happiness was a choice until a chose it. I realized that everything I'm “supposed to do” is a lie. I don't have to do shit I don't want to do, especially if doing it makes me feel internal guilt, sadness, turmoil etc. I don't have to be married if I don't want to be, I don't have to want children, I don't have to work a job I hate, I don't have to dread living 8-10 hours of my life for money, money also does not have to be important to me etc etc. And that in a nutshell is happiness lol. I also made some tangible goals. So for acting I decided I was going to get an agent and before I got that agent I was going to book two jobs and I did that. I also decided that everything I want in life will happen. Period. If I truly want it, if it is the desire of my heart, it is going to happen. When? I don't know. How? No clue, but it's happening, and when you execute that kind of control over your life the universe has no choice but to fold.
Describe the moment when you realized your work had a space in the world.
I love being a millennial because I have always had a sense of self importance and now I have an excuse. I'm an only child so I was always made to feel extremely special and loved and I think that translates into my work. Of course there are times when I excessively doubt myself, but I'm usually able to pick myself back up because I truly do believe I'm important and special. I don't think I'm more important than anyone else in the world, but we should all know that we are important and special, just like in the help. You is kind. You is smaaaaaart. You is important.
If you want a specific moment I would say kindergarten when I wrote my teacher a poem for her wedding and she cried. I felt impelled to give this woman a poem. I don't even know how I knew what a poem was...Barney perhaps? But I was 4 years old and I wrote something heartfelt that rhymed and everyone was gushing about it and that's when I knew that there was a spot for me and I should occupy it. I also wrote this fierce ode to homework in grade 7 that got rave reviews.
Why does the world need your work?
I don't want the world to need my work. I want them to want it.
In my opinion consumption of a particular art made by a specific person is not a “need”. For instance, we don't require “Hamilton”, actually the world didn't know it wanted “Hamilton” until Lin wrote it and put it up at the Public and now there's this demand for it and works like it. The world would have kept spinning without Hamilton. We would have all survived. On the flip side, though Hamilton was amazing and I'm a huge Stan for Lin, kids in the hood have been making Hamiltons for years, and I'm sure Lin knows that because in a real way he's one of those kids. Lin is just the kid who had the gumption and the plug.
Growing up doing theatre in Baltimore, more specifically in the inner city gave me access to a world within the world, and that was essential for my growth. Me being inserted within the art in that particular community was key, me being exposed was what shaped me, what we produced doesn't even matter. We were influenced by the culture of the city, by club music and hip hop, jazz, dance, smoking weed on roof tops, skipping school to eat crab cakes at Lexington market etc etc. a specific person’s voice was not the catalyst for that, an entire artistic diaspora was responsible for that. A collective of small wants created this demand. If anything the most important role was that of the art teacher because they taught us to look at our world and twist up all the pollution to make something beautiful.
The world needs art in general, but does it need Kim Exum to comment? No. Do I want the world to shake when I say something? Yes. Do I want people to value my point of view and see themselves in that? Yes. I have a desire to contribute to the pool, but as an artist you can't take your own voice so seriously that you think it supersedes everyone else's.. Do we need another love song? Hell no, but we want them because we value emotional perspective. It's interesting though because you do have people who have changed the face of the world with their art, but that's because the people liked it, not because the people needed it. The people allow the artist to make an impact. Beyoncé has the impact Beyoncé has because we allow her to have it. We allow her access. That's why image is so important to the celebrity because without the trust of the people they can't have that impact. So am I making things for the people? Nah, not necessarily, but I am making things to be consumed. I'm creating my piece to add to the general artistic collective and hopefully people will want to see that, but it would be completely narcissistic to think that out of a literal billion people that my voice should resonate over the milkman’s. We all contribute. The bigger vision is the need. The art taking place in schools that shapes kids minds is the need. It's not about Kim Exum and what she's doing.
A while ago on Facebook you made an impassioned declaration about the role of the artist. Reiterate. Expound. Convict us.
Even though I said acting is fun and that's mostly why I choose to pursue it, I would say that being an artist is an entirely different thing, it's more of a calling. The artist in me is what keeps me going, the “having something to say” or wanting to be used to say something is what makes me not pack up my bags and be an accountant, not to say an accountant can't be artistic in what they do because all artistry really is, is using the self for purposes of innovation and change. The issue lies in people throwing around the term and claiming that just because they do something stereotypically artsy gives them the right to call themselves an artist.
Nina Simone says it perfectly, an artists’ responsibility is “to reflect the times”. I meet a lot of actors who aren't artists. Painters who aren't artists. Dancers who are not artists. People who are pawns on a chessboard with no real opinions, no imagination of their own and no desire to dig deeper. Super talented folks who don't wish to make change or execute a vision that is reflective of the world we live in. There is something oddly superficial about “art” that comes from the pores of someone who is lying to themselves about the lovely harshness of the world. Those who have nothing to say or who simply regurgitate ideas, passing them off as original or important aren't artists, they're performers trying to wrangle success for personal gain. Of course the artist can and should have personal motive (we are human,we all have bills and wanna rock fresh Jordans), BUT at the core, the art has got to stir up some type of introspective, change-inducing commentary about where we are today and ask questions about why we are here and how did we get to this moment or even be brave enough to offer solutions on how we move forward.
I choose to use story to ask, answer, and pose questions. I'm not saying the art has to be militant and direct, it can be whimsical and fun. The art can be fantasy. It can be placed in different times and universes with made up creatures and lots of magic, but it must pose a question and hopefully have some answers regarding where the human race is presently and where it can go. Even if you're doing a slave narrative or a piece about the holocaust, that work should be created for the people of today. There must be a connection to the present. We have to be able to see our communities inside of it. Our thoughts and feelings. Of course every time the artist steps on stage or writes or sings they don't think about all of these things en mass, but an artist has this objective at their core and they are always driven by this innate need to uncover the truth and dispel the lie.
It's a soul thing...it's a wokeness that you choose to entertain, and if you're pursuing something that is narcissistic in nature, as a career in talent can be, you must get past all that in order to achieve purpose. Talent is a responsibility and if you're abusing it, not using it, or simply getting by then you're being irresponsible.
What has prepared you to be here?
That's an interesting question. I think everything that has occurred in my life thus far has prepared me for this moment happening right now: Me, sitting in my bed with my hair wrapped up at 4:39 am unable to sleep because my allergy to pet dander is on the fritz. Literally every second I have lived has prepared me for this task, and completing this will prepare me for another moment and so on and so on.
I try to remain as present as possible, which is difficult for me because I'm a very goal oriented person. My mind tends to think about the future (mainly because Americans are programmed that way) and of course once I arrive to the designated goal, I immerse myself in nostalgia, wanting to reach back and touch moments that have passed because I didn't treasure them enough, or the goal really wasn't what it was cracked up to be...I'm very much a millennial in that way; never satisfied and always wanting more. As I near the end of my twenties I'm realizing how swiftly time moves and how every moment, even the shitty, lazy, procrastinating, drunken ones really do prepare you for what's ahead, even if you don't realize it. So I guess my answer would be my entire life has prepared me and it will keep preparing me and giving me what I need to go to the next moment and to be present in this one.
Can you talk a little bit more about living through those hard parts of the journey where we cry, trudge the bullshit, and keep our eyes on the “good stuff” we know is beyond these necessary processes? Because they’re all part of Journeying Soulfully.
When I'm going through the bullshit, which in the past was probably about 75% of the year, it was difficult to keep my head up. Once I began to allow myself to experience emotions and to not be ashamed I was able to pick myself back up. There is lots of anger when you're in pursuit of something and it's not popping off. You're mad at God, the universe, your roommate, your boyfriend, casting, and yourself. It's very complex, but you have to acknowledge your pain and you must address it and only then can you fully move forward and turn the light back on. As black women we are taught to bear the weight of the world on our backs, so we just pile shit on until we collapse. If we begin to address our feelings of anxiety, sadness, fear, and depression openly we can grow and create more positive situations for ourselves. That's why I hate when men say “black women are so dramatic” or we have an “attitude”. No. the black women is the most successful demographic of persons in America, and yet we are treated the worst. We aren't wanted, so allowing the sista to express her distaste with residing in such a debasing status is her right. It is her truth and she must be able to talk about it. Black womanhood is a trudge through the bullshit. It's glorious and holy and wonderful, but it is a trudge, and somehow we sashay through the mud and our hair is still laid. Being in a group of like minded women, who want to be better people and genuinely want to be happy really helped me. It let me know I was not alone.
What is your purpose?
Oh that's heavy. I don't rightly know lol. I do know I'm supposed to say something and write some stuff, that is what I know. I know I will make something that changes people and I will make a lot of things that will only work to change me. I’m very aware that my artistic voice is special and that people listen to it, so there is purpose in that, but I do not know exactly what it is that I will say, all I know is that God didn't get me to this place for me to keep quiet and put the pen down, I find comfort in knowing I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be because it's getting me to a greater purpose, but what that is, I don't know.
Thank you for that. I think I speak for many of us when I say that I can relate to this grey area in life where we know we’re going somewhere but for now we don’t know where we are. How do you keep yourself encouraged? How do you keep writing when it seems nothing is happening?
I just force myself to keep going by reminding myself that things will be better because I'm making a choice to succeed. It sounds simple and it is once you get through all the voices in your head that tell you it's impossible. “Why not me? Why not now” is something I have to ask myself often. As far as writing is concerned, if nothing is happening on the outside usually there is a lot going on in my head. The grey areas are what fuel my writing. I actually have more trouble writing when things are going really well because I have to look outside of my own emotional content for fuel. Black people in America have a very special gift because our culture gives us so much material. Even if things are going extremely well for me 9 times out of 10 they're probably going a little bit left for my brother, so sometimes I'm writing about my emotional relationship to other people's struggles instead of my own.
How does one protect her dreams?
You do all that's in your power to keep pushing, You also should try not to compare or compete. I think healthy competition in an audition is fun and driving, but the dream is usually more than a role or a resume, the dream is usually “I want to do this so I can say this”. The dream is about an idea being seen, typically your own idea, so competing and comparing is a waste of time. Even if your dream is to be a wife and mother, you're dream is to be the wife and mother that YOU are, to be the best that YOU can be, the one that rests in your imagination, not the best that Susie Homemaker wants to be. I also don't believe that dreamers should dream in secret. We have to be vocal to ourselves and the people in our lives in order to manifest it into the universe and to hold ourselves accountable. If you want it, go get it, it's waiting for you on the other side and it's addressed to no one else but you.