Angela Bey: The art of life

Angela Bey

Oscar Wilde once said, “the stage is not merely the meeting place of all the arts, but is also the return of art to life.”

During this long pandemic, art has been missing from many stages throughout the city, but happily — with the compliance of many of us who took the vaccine — we are seeing the return of life again as we knew it. Theaters are beginning to open back up and folks are returning to see thoughtful and entertaining art once again. 

One of the artistic companies diving back into live in-person shows is Azuka Theatre. Azuka is kicking things off with “Young Money,” a World Premiere by a Philadelphia Playwright Erlina Ortiz and featuring a cast and crew of all Philadelphia-area artists. “Young Money” has been described as a fiercely funny, energetic play and the perfect way for Azuka to re-emerge into a season of live theatre. The play is a music-filled story of people from different generations and differing perspectives coming together to find common ground when Kila-T, Hip-Hop’s newest chart topper, meets the woman cleaning her dressing room moments before a big concert. Tragic circumstances force the two women together, and questions of morality, success, and redemption are danced around as these women discover they may have more to learn from each other than they think. The role of Kila is played by actor Angela Bey. Hailing from Southwest Philadelphia, Bey is a multidisciplinary artist and co-artistic director of Wings of Paper Theatre Co. and Shoe Box Theatre Collective.  

So give me the 411 on Angela Bey. 

I live in West Philadelphia, right down the street from my childhood home. I went to high school at Friends Select, which was not my first choice, I wanted to go to the CAPA, the performing arts school, but my parents were like, “No, you got a scholarship and you’re going to be the first one in the family to go to a private school!” So I went against my will and it ended up being one of the best decisions they could have made. I’ve always been interested in the arts, and I went to a performing arts charter school before going to Friends. I loved writing poetry and then was introduced to music and got into musical theater and did plays and musicals but quickly realized that I didn’t want to leave my writing behind. Being one of the few black kids in my grade, I had a need to tell my own stories so I discovered “straight” theater as opposed to musicals and started writing my own plays. At Friends, which was a small Quaker school, it was much more liberal in terms of the kinds of people who went to the school, much more diverse than the charter school, which was mostly straight white students. At Friends I was introduced to what it meant to marry your identity with your artistic practice. It helped me develop vocabulary as to how I felt as a closeted, black, young person in middle school. It’s such a formative time. I doubt that anyone really had the tools to express themselves at that age, but at that school I made friends and had a community that was much broader and inclusive and that was really important and lovely in helping me become the person I have grown into. I joined the GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) as an ally, but it was a first step. I’m still coming into who I am in all aspects of myself, not just gender and sexuality. My mission statement is all about making the world a better place for all people, but centering around Black queer stories. The one thing that has stayed constant was the acting. I’ve been working consistently in theater and film since high school. 

That’s great. Let’s jump back a little, I want to find out more about your roots and the family. 

Sure; I have a younger sister and we’re very close. Growing up, my mother used to dress us the same way so everyone thought we were twins. Same clothes, and she’d braid our hair the same, the whole nine. My father has two older daughters, but I didn’t grow up with them. My mom is very straight laced. She has a doctorate in education. She was a high school teacher and then when she got her doctorate she went into administration but hated it. She’s retired from that now but still teaches as an adjunct professor. My dad’s held a billion different jobs, right now he’s a general contractor. Even though we weren’t religious, there was still some of that Black Baptist influence. We didn’t go to church regularly or read the bible, but if my sister or I had done something wrong, they’d make us go to church as a punishment. [Laughs] Or at least it felt like a punishment to me!

Tell me about a fun family tradition?

Every year we’d spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with my maternal grandmother. She would cook, she’d make mac and cheese, candied yams and sweet tea and she’d always make deviled eggs for my father. And I’d look forward to all of it. She just passed away this summer and I miss her terribly. 

When did you first begin to express yourself in terms of queer identity?

Growing up as a transperson or non-binary person, before I even had the vocabulary for it, was strange. I’ve always been uncomfortable with gender, I think especially black womanhood. Growing up in a predominantly Black, underserved neighborhood, I had parents who loved me and gave me all that they could, but in society, the default is white womanhood. So I’d look at them and think, why can’t I be more like that? I thought that was the standard of femininity and that I was falling short. I didn’t really want it, but I thought it was what I needed to be liked and fit in. I would alternate from a hyper femme persona with a lot of pink in my wardrobe (and I hated pink) to a real punk, goth aesthetic which felt like it had a masculine edge to it. Then in high school I got into a preppy look because it’s something my mom wanted, she envisioned me going to Wharton business school. So I ran for student government and did mock trial and became class president. I even straightened my hair! I became the girl on all the diversity brochures, but in reality, I disliked all of that too, so when I went to college, it was a chance for me to be true to myself for once and say fuck you to all of those expectations. I gave myself permission to explore and come into a more true version of who I was. I now identify as trans or non-binary. 

Cool. Let’s talk about your work. Favorite musical role?

I’m not a legit singer but I played Maureen in “Rent” in high school. I was gunning for Mimi but I was apparently a Maureen! I was such a diva in high school! The funny thing is at the time, I went to the teacher and said, [in a dramatic voice], “Donna, I can’t play that role, I’m not gay…” and she was like, “Ang, just give it a try, I think you can do it.” She and the director knew more about me than I did! 

Favorite non-musical role?

I really love the character I’m playing in this show. She’s everything that I hope to be in my convictions. She’s strong, she’s passionate, she’s smart as fuck, and she will tell you what is on her mind. I’m a poet and she’s a rapper, so we both understand the power of words. She can also twerk really well, so I had to learn to do it for the show and now I’m pretty good. And I love her fashion. The show is fast paced and witty, but also touching and poignant. The two women connect in a very tense situation and bond through humor, and being a trans actor, playing this role has really helped me embrace my femininity and start to unpack my internalized misogyny. I’m grateful for this opportunity to show the world this work.

[Laughing] Maybe I’m getting old, but I’m not a big fan of the Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion explicit music being mainstream. I’m more old school. 

Ha, the other character in the show has the same opinion, and a lot of the show revolves around that. Sorry, I love Megan Thee Stallion. I do understand that, ‘OMG, what are we listening to?’ impulse, because it is explicit, but I think what a lot of them are trying to say is that women should be allowed to be dirty and explicit without a value judgement placed on their character. Cardi B was asked why was just doing music about shaking her ass and having sex, why didn’t she do music about police brutality or socialism, things that she’s said she was passionate about and she responded, “Well, I would if y’all bought it!” 

I hear your points, but in my head I think, “Yeah, but the reason there’s money in it is because that’s what white guys at the top, the powers that be, etc. want to push on us!” 

And the play is also about that! It’s about the white record execs who sit as the head of these labels and are manufacturing these women! Literally, as they tell them to get plastic surgery to make their butts and boobs bigger. In the show Kila says, “It’s not my fault that I’m thriving in a broken ass system.” We get into a lot of stuff in this show. 

Okay, I’m now really excited to see the show but I want to go out for drinks after and continue this discussion! 


Alright, some random questions. Do you have more than 10 hats?

No, but I have more than 10 hair accessories. I have a lot of hair and I like to do things to it. 

If you could own an original piece of famous art, what would it be?

I’d have a Basquiat. Jean-Michel Basquiat. Anything of his. 

What nervous habits do you have?

I twirl my hair, and I usually bite my nails, but I’m wearing acrylic nails for the show so I can’t.

Historical figure that you identify with?

Josephine Baker! 

What’s the farthest you’ve traveled?

Jamaica. I was part of a civic engagement group in college and we went there to build houses and stuff. It was the first time I was out of the country and it was to a majority black country, which was incredible.

Something that gets better with age?

Cheese. I love cheese. 

Any paranormal experiences?

Yes, I have trained myself to lucid dream. I was under a lot of stress in college and sometimes that would turn into night terrors. I had a recurring night terror of a very tall, very pale man standing over my bed staring at me. I’m also tapped into ancestral energy. I don’t know if those are strictly paranormal, but close. 

I’d say so. Who is your emergency contact?

My mom, Marie Antoinette Bey. That’s her full name. And my dad’s name is Antoine Bey, he doesn’t have a middle name. My full name is Angela Antoinette Bey and my sister is Sanniyah Antoinette Bey, so I grew up thinking that everyone had the same middle name, derived from their parent’s names!

The last 3 shows you binge watched?

I’m almost finished “Midnight Mass”, and we just finished “Patriot” and “The Leftovers.”

Ever been lost?

Yeah, on that trip to Jamaica! Me and my friend — his name is Will and we shared the same birthday — were staying in the countryside for the volunteer job. It was on the grounds of a church and we decided to sneak out and check out a Sandals Resort that was a mile or two down the road. We were in pitch black darkness on a dirt road walking through the Jamaican countryside, which in hindsight was not something you should do with all the wild animals and snakes around. We got to the resort and tried to get in by pretending we’d lost our passports and needed to get in to find our parents. They called the police on us. So we ran, but the police easily caught us and demanded our ID. We were like, “Oh sorry, we were at the church and decided to take a walk and got lost.” They scared us straight with a lecture on the dangers of walking around and let us go. We ran home and then went skinny dipping that same night! 

Favorite quote?

It’s from James Baldwin. “But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness.”

That’s lovely. Finally, what do you hope people will take away from the show?

There’s a saying, “Protect Black Women” which has been quoted from Megan Thee Stallion to umpteen activists and artists over the years. Very simply I want people to walk away from the play with that action statement in their heads and in their hearts. What that means to me is to really humanize black women, to realize that we’re not perfect and that we’re not supposed to be. Our nuance is what makes us human. You may not agree with the music or the way that one expresses themselves, but that shouldn’t negate their humanity.

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