Editor’s note: In celebration of ArtsATL’s 10th anniversary, we will republish each Friday a story from our archives that sparked strong reader reaction, showcased great writing or marked historical hallmarks in the evolution of Atlanta’s arts community. When Kelundra Smith profiled Danielle Deadwyler in 2015 for our “Maker’s Dozen” series, the 32-year-old Deadwyler was playing a 15-year-old girl named Chaos in the Alliance Theatre production of “The C.A. Lyons Project.” In the four years since, she has solidified her place as an actor, performance artist and filmmaker.
It is opening night for the Alliance Theatre’s The C.A. Lyons Project. The stage is black. Then a bright white spotlight illuminates Danielle Deadwyler standing center stage with two tall, muscular men behind her.
For a moment these three Brown bodies appear to form Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, though Deadwyler’s character of Christine, also known as Chaos Unit, is far from ideal or perfect. The men lift her off her feet and start to spin her like a human pinwheel. The stage goes back to black.
Deadwyler’s character Chaos is a 15-year-old girl who’s trying to reconcile losing her mother to drugs, living in the projects and being the mother of a little boy named Cosmo. It’s the 1980s, her outlet is dance and her patron saint — the choreographer Cal Lyons — is dying of AIDS.
Deadwyler’s performance is both touching and jarring. Chaos is angry and antisocial — a stark contrast to Deadwyler’s lively, witty, bubbly personality. She leers in the background, poking her head around corners; her entrances and exits are always abrupt.
Chaos has few lines in the play. It’s not until a tear-jerking conversation with her father that the audience truly sees the girl beneath the oversized clothes and face tattoos. Deadwyler communicates her character through movement and voice. She gives Chaos jerky sporadic movements, staccato speech and a Southern drawl perhaps mined from her childhood in southwest Atlanta.
“Chaos is a part of a marginalized group of people,” Deadwyler says. “She does not code switch. She’s the people who live on Stewart Avenue, my old neighborhood. She is a part of a Black identity that people don’t want to mess with.”
The last time Deadwyler, 32, was on the Alliance stage (in 2013), she was spinning silk using aerials as Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web. She pulled a rib and an ab muscle during a performance.
She always uses her whole body as an agent of empathy for the other, whether hamming it up in the Horizon Theatre comedy The Book Club Play or channeling a woman who has contracted HIV from an ex-lover in For colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf at True Colors Theatre Company.
“The first time I saw her perform was in For colored girls, and I was like ‘who is this tiny pregnant girl jump roping onstage?’” says actor and friend Enoch Armando King. “She is unexpected. She’s kind of like water. She can flow in and out of any situation.”
Deadwyler’s older sister Gabrielle Fulton is an accomplished playwright who received a $10,000 Reiser Atlanta Artist Lab grant to develop new work with the support of the Alliance. They have a symbiotic working relationship in which they read and offer feedback on each other’s work.
“She has this Whoopi Goldberg, ingenue thing about her,” Fulton says. “She has leading-lady potential, but it has to be the right thing. You can’t put Whoopi Goldberg in My Best Friend’s Wedding.”
Her mother was a legal secretary, and her father works for CSX Transportation. Her mother enrolled her in dance classes at Marlene Rounds School of Dance when she was 4, and she’s been performing since.
“My mother possesses a whimsicality, and my father provided financial stability,” Deadwyler says. “My mom gave me the impetus to be an artist, and my father is the source of my rigorous work ethic.”
The Grady High School alum earned a master’s in American studies at Columbia University in 2006 — her thesis was on sex-positive images of women in hip-hop — and taught elementary school at Neighborhood Charter School. She knew, however, that her life was meant to be different.
“My first professional play [in 2009] was For colored girls at Southwest Arts Center directed by Jasmine Guy, and I haven’t pursued anything else since,” she says.
When Deadwyler is not acting, she’s spitting rhymes under the name didi xio (pronounced deedee she-o). Her flow is similar to Da Brat, and she has released two hip-hop mixtapes and performed in the RAW Artists Atlanta showcase.
“Didi xio is in your face and highly energetic,” says Deadwyler. “She is my way of talking about the marginalized Black woman’s experience, sonically.”
Deadwyler recently received a grant from IDEA Capital to do a public performance of her piece Real Live Girl. In a series of 30-minute public performances, she will twerk in front of projected images of Black women doing household chores. The work will serve as an examination of Atlanta’s strip-club culture, a place where race, work and sexuality intersect. Deadwyler started going to strip clubs when she attended Spelman College, at a time when straight women didn’t commonly go. It attracted her as “a place of performance” and “heterosexual convening.”
In her upcoming performances, Deadwyler will contrast the physical labor of domesticity with the physical labor of dance. “My work is personal,” she says. “When I think about women grinding — single mothers, strippers — [they are] working.”
Deadwyler, who is married and has a 5-year-old son, has a busy schedule. Last weekend, she appeared in Ladyfest Atlanta, a collaborative music and performing arts festival that showcased work by women that addressed women’s rights.
She’s in rehearsal for Theater Emory’s production of Jose Rivera’s post-apocalyptic dark comedy Marisol as the title character’s sharp-tongued guardian angel; the play runs April 2–12. The IDEA Capital performances will take place this summer.
“I like characters that are on the fringe, on the outskirts,” Deadwyler says. “I am creating the work that I want to see address the issues that I care about.”