By: Sai Siddhaye
Borne of the turbulent political climate of this era, Aliya Hunter is one of a generation of young artists channeling their activism into their creative pursuits. Originally from southern California and presently a student at UC Davis, Hunter’s interest in performing arts collided with her passion for social justice during college, creating a drive to use her talent to make waves. Her calming presence and charming manner are still present within our socially distanced phone call, through which her infectious laughter crackles merrily.
“I think it was a series of moments,” Hunter ruminates, “that made me realize I wouldn’t be happy without [theater] in my life”. Hunter has been acting for several years now, and recently began exploring new facets of theater. “I love acting the most; I’m hoping to get my MFA in acting… but I do really love directing and writing too”. Hunter is dedicated to creating multidimensional characters who embody the marginalized identities that are so rare to see in the media. Her conviction to create the representation that she would like to see is evident in her work, which focuses on the complex process of navigating life during and after trauma, and carries strong feminist undertones.
Hunter began her newest endeavor of writing and directing this year. “In terms of writing, I really like drawing from my own lived experience as a woman. Watching a lot of representation of gender minority characters is really frustrating sometimes, because I don’t think there are a lot of realistic and nuanced representations of them”. Hunter’s work is heavily colored by her own life as a queer woman of color. It illustrates the most brutal parts of living in a world that was not created for you, yet also showcases the silver lining of finding pleasure and community by virtue of being human.
Hunter’s forthright manner of speaking about her work alludes to her passion for creating positive change through theater. She recounts that her favorite theater experience was acting in and directing OurStories, an annual production about survival and healing that the UC Davis Women’s Resources and Research Center runs. “I didn’t think it was a stereotypical theater experience; there were a lot of people who wanted to perform but weren’t necessarily involved in theater. So very different kinds of performers, but they all had incredible stories to share.” The use of theater as a form of group therapy is an innovative way that Hunter’s work has impacted her community, but she aims to spread her reach even further.
Hunter is also a member of Theater for Social Change, a performance arts group at UC Davis. “Our main goal is to highlight and give a platform and a voice to students of marginalized identities and allow them to develop their own work… and have more of a space than they would within the rest of the [theater] world”. Theater for Social Change was created in the summer of 2020, during which they collaborated with the Davis Shakespeare Festival and several UC Davis alumni to debut their online theater productions. They not only use classical and well-studied methods of production, but also use new technology and innovation to redefine what theater means.
Her most recent project with Theater for Social Change, Stricken, was a multimedia production that took place on the day before Halloween. “I had just had this idea to get a bunch of artists together and see what they could come up with about the idea of fear, which is what the showcase is about”. Stricken showcased many different types of fear in several different mediums; from interpretive dances about existential dread to comedic sketches about irrational fears, this performance displayed the full range of human emotion and creativity. Hunter’s performance in Stricken, titled Appetite, was the first time I had seen her acting. Her subtle emotional cues and authentic performance brought to life the stir-crazy yet exhausted character she played. This piece confronted disordered eating and a crumbling sense of reality in a candid manner that I have seldom seen in the theater world, and was the prime example of ‘showing and not telling’. As ever, her powerful performance was loaded with a poignancy that reflects the larger sociopolitical issues that influence her work.
During the start of the statewide lockdown, Hunter began writing her first play. Entitled THREE, this piece draws inspiration from her personal experience of isolation. “I wrote THREE in quarantine, and that was one of the first scripts I ever developed fully, I think just because the ideas I was thinking about were so heavily influenced by COVID. The idea of a person wanting so badly to avoid certain aspects of their life was really compelling to me, and inspired me to start writing THREE.” THREE examines the mental, emotional, and physical struggles of isolation, and was planned and performed entirely over Zoom.
Perhaps because of the creativity that quarantine has sparked for Hunter, she is optimistic about the future of theater amidst the transition to virtual life. “I think acting–at least how I’ve seen it–can actually translate really well through Zoom. I feel confident in the future of virtual theater, actually. I think another perk of quarantine is that a lot of people are going to virtual plays now, because they have free time and they don’t have to go to physical theatres, which are unfortunately pretty expensive because they’re geared towards an older audience. So I think this is a really exciting time to gain a new audience of younger, more diverse people.”
Hunter represents a generation of trailblazers who have used the momentum of our geopolitical moment to pave the way for new artists to expand the medium of performing arts. It is people like her who will bring progress upon us.