The Sri Lankan community dinners that comedian D’Lo grew up attending in Lancaster, Calif., and Los Angeles were lovingly chaotic — 100 or so people sprawled across someone’s living room, the "aunties” clustered around the couch, the “uncles” outside drinking beers and singing. There were fragrant trays of chicken, fish and vegetable curry, vats of steamed rice and sweet watalappan custard for dessert.
D’Lo was a goofy, amicable kid, often found entertaining other children with jokes and imitations of family members or friends. He remembers provoking uncontrollable laughter in an aunt and uncle, when he was 7 years old with a ribald joke involving a cowboy, a banana and penis-growing pills.
At a young age, D’Lo, assigned female at birth, knew he was a boy and a comedian.
Now, the self-described queer/transgender Tamil Sri Lankan-American cultural-worker-activist-poet-writer-actor-comic is a performer of solo-based theater, stand-up comedy and mainstream TV and film work while, over two decades, bearing witness to a shifting comedy scene.
D’Lo has toured the U.S. and internationally performing stand-up, he’s appeared on “Transparent” and “Mr. Robot,” among other TV shows, and he plays a role in Billy Eichner’s upcoming movie, “Bros,” which opens in September. But his solo theatrical shows are his most personal works to date. “To T, or Not to T? A Comedic Trans Journey Through (T)estosterone” — the second in a trilogy of plays — is currently running at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
What binds all the work, D’Lo says, is comedic storytelling as an agent for both healing and change. Now more than ever, in such socially and politically tumultuous times, speaking one’s truth before an audience is an act of survival, he says in this edited conversation.
Tell us about the performance trilogy — how do the three plays fit together in conveying your life story?
The first is a journey through queer adulthood, when queer folks don’t get validated in a lot of these profound ways that are there for hetero and cis folks. It follows the journey with my mother. The second is ‘what does beautiful masculinity look like in a toxic masculine world?’ and it follows the journey with my father. The third piece is called “Queer Noise” and it follows the journey with my sister, both when she was alive and as a spirit ancestor in my life. It’s about how queer people sustain, live loudly and boldly in this world, which is ready to kick down so many people, especially when we look at trans folks of color, nonbinary folks of color, the statistics around declining mental health and suicide rates [being] super high.
All of the theater pieces are really about "how do I share my story in a way that people get a chance to reflect on their own stories?" And in my heart, what I know I want to do as an artist is make offerings to our community for our wellness, for our mental health.
You’ve said you see comedians as “practitioners of joy” and healing — how so?
I think that as comedians we have a lot of power. We can say what we need to say in a way that people will receive a lot easier than anything that’s overtly or overly political. For me, as a trans comedic artist, I was like ‘I know that so many of our narratives out there are around our tragedies — and we all have our tragedies, we’re alive during this moment in time, s— is not OK — but there’s also a lot of joy. And I think that queer and trans people are practitioners of joy. We’ve existed not just as our big and bold selves, but in a way that we show up for the rest of the world and our communities. And we do that with joy, particularly when we’re connected to community. “In the middle [of “To T, or Not to T?”] I say “being witness is the only way I know how to stay alive.”
“To T, or Not To T?” is about so many things — identity, family, community, love and loss. Why center it, specifically, around your testosterone journey?
All of the shows mark specific moments in my life that are milestones — and T would just be another one of those milestones. I wanted to share with both queer people and non-queer people that all of our decisions aren’t just like: you wake up one day and you want to do this. It’s more like you’re sitting there contemplating whether something is right for you or not. Sometimes I think the outside world, people who don’t understand transness, think, "Oh, these trans people are asking for too much and what’s up with these pronouns?" And it’s like: we’re just trying to be seen and live our lives.
I believe that every single trans and queer person — in the same way that every single person of color in America — grapples with internalized racism and colonialism. Trans people, on top of that — especially trans folks of color, nonbinary folks of color — are also grappling with internalized queer phobias, transphobias, homophobias. So it was important for me to talk about testosterone in this way. Not a lot of research has been done on this. A lot of the questioning that I went through was like, “Should I even do this? Is this my journey?” And I think a lot of people who consider medically transitioning grapple with these questions. It’s not an easy decision to make. It’s never quick. It’s a big, long process, and I wanted to share that with people.
In your view, how is the transgender comedy scene changing?
There are still definitely folks pioneering. But there are so many more queer and trans comics now because there are so many more queer and trans people, in general. That’s why I always make that joke: "queer people and folks who think they’re straight." Because this world is changing.
I tour the whole nation but that’s usually the college circuit. In L.A. and New York, where I perform stand-up, I perform in the alt rooms or clubs. And I’d say it’s become more expansive. Not that long ago — five to seven years ago — it was a different situation. Seven years ago, it was harder to find a space that would take you seriously if you were a trans comic. Yes, the alt rooms would take you; but in some of the major clubs you’d have to be a part of that bro atmosphere to even get on. And that’s hard for people who are queer or trans. But the climate has changed. A lot of queer and trans comics do play the big houses now. We have bookers who are very queer and trans friendly. Some of the main stages are still known to be a boys club, but a lot of them have changed. The Laugh Factory had a produced queer night — I think it was a monthly — but now I feel like there are queer comics in every show.
Have those opportunities crossed over into to mainstream Hollywood?
For me, it’s a huge difference. Five to seven years ago, I was going out for more gangster roles and for comedic characters, rather than "We’re looking for a queer character or a trans masculine person for this." Those [roles] are still hard to come by, but they happen a lot more now. Back in 2003, when I was younger and trying to get an agent, I would showcase all the time and managers and agents were like, "Yeah, no doubt you’re talented, but we don’t know how to pitch you." Fast-forward to now, many of my friends who are trans and queer actors have reps and management and are able to get gigs. But still — I always joke that any time there’s a trans [masculine] role, it would be like a reunion. I’d run into all of my friends, all going out for the same role.
What comedians did you look up to when you were starting out in the late ‘90s and early 2000s? Were any of them queer and transgender people?
I don’t think I necessarily had queer and trans folks that I looked up to. I’d say the people who were close enough were Margaret Cho, Wanda Sykes — when I first saw Wanda, I didn’t even know she was identifying as queer. The really strong comics of color that were queer or queer adjacent. As far as comedic solo-based theater: John Leguizamo, Whoopi Goldberg, these were all people I was just, like, in love with. I’d watch whatever I could.
How would you describe your comedy now?
My comedy really revolves around the relationships I’ve had and what I’ve observed — I just happen to be a trans person and talking about my journey as a trans person. But a lot of this stuff is kind of about the relationships I have with family or friends or in community. Me as a person and how I show up in this world. It’s personal and there’s a pinch of observational; and depending on what kind of show I’m doing, there’ll be some observations on our political world as well.
Have your parents seen “To T, or Not to T?” — and did the show bring you closer to your father?
Oh, yeah. In our Tamil Sri Lankan culture, it’s not like you get to sit there and talk about your feelings. As in a lot of immigrant cultures, once you come to the States, it’s like, "OK, now we have to put our heads down and make this thing work." There’s not a lot of time to just sit there and say, "Oh, I’m feeling s—y because this racist thing happened to me." You just go: "OK, this is America, and we’re not welcome and we have to just make sure we survive this and become successful." Especially after my sister passed away, we were not really talking about what was happened for us.
In the same way as when my mother saw the show about her, there’s a way that my dad is seen without having to say the things. It’s their child who’s understanding the trajectory and how things unfolded and did the emotional processing. Just like I say, “Being witness is the only way I know how to stay alive,” I think that’s the truth for every person. When we’re witness to each other’s pain and tragedy and joy and celebration, we actually provide not just a salve, but we go, "Yeah, I see you. You’re OK. You belong.”
Did it bring us closer? I would say it did — it opened doors for us to see each other.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.