By Anya Shukla and Kathryn Lau
“I dreamt of a world where Shakespeare and the identities I hold could share space,” said Aneesh Sheth during the introduction to her play, “Much Ado About Nothing.”“Because the opportunity for South Asian trans woman like myself to play Beatrice is nonexistent.”
Last month, to much acclaim, Sheth produced and played Beatrice in an all-South-Asian-version of “Much Ado” over Zoom. We spoke with her to learn more about her artistic journey, the play, and future projects.
Q: How did you first get into art?
A: I started really young in terms of acting—I was about six or seven—and my parents put me into community theater as a way to keep me out of trouble. (Laughs.) There was this community theater group happening in this church basement, so I was part of that for a while, and then I started studying music: piano, flute, voice. And all of these things made me really crave being an artist in some way.
Q: What was it like to go into theater as a South Asian person? Did you face tokenization from directors?
A: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. (Laughs.) Always, and it continues to happen. And not just because of my South Asian identity, but also because of my trans identity.
I notice it mostly when I walk into a room and I don’t see anyone else like me, and I think, “Ah, I know why I’m here, so you can pat yourself on the back and say you did a good job.” As an actor, that never feels okay. Because you think: am I here because I deserve to be here, or am I here because you need someone to make yourself look good?
Q: To that end, what motivates you to keep acting?
A: It’s knowing that, when I was growing up, there was no one who looked like me. On television, the brown roles were always relegated to the day player doctor or the terrorist; there were two South Asian people on Broadway. Also, there are not a lot of actors at the intersectionality of being trans and South Asian. If I can be here and be visible, and that sends a signal to someone else, saying who I am is valid, what I want to be doing is valid, and I should continue to strive for my dreams, at the end of the day, I’m happy about the effect that I’ve had. If I can do that for even one person, I’ve done what I set out to do.
Q: Connected to that… why did you decide to produce a Shakespeare play with an all-South Asian cast?
A: I think it goes back to my education. All of my Shakespeare teachers have all come from a certain background. And that seems to be where the disconnect is. When I think about how I was taught, the thing that was constantly harkened upon was language: “you need to say it this way, with this intonation and dialect.” Well, how do I as a brown trans woman connect to this material when I’m so focused on what white people tell me it’s supposed to sound like? I’ve always loved “Much Ado,” and Beatrice has always been a dream role that I wanted to play, but in what world would a South Asian trans woman ever get the opportunity to play this role? I wanted to create that space for South Asian people to explore their own craft when others don’t always allow them to.
I was hoping to a) have Shakespeare read by a bunch of brown folks and have people say, “Hey, that’s possible!” and b) for it not to be, “oh, it’s a bunch of brown folk reading Shakespeare.” I personally think—and this is obviously a biased opinion—that if you watch the show, you get caught up in the story, because the actors are incredibly talented. You don’t think: I’m watching a bunch of brown actors. You think: I’m watching a show. I had people from so many different backgrounds come and watch “Much Ado,” and that tells me—and hopefully signals to the industry—that when you put a bunch of brown people in a show, it’s not about being a “brown show.” We are capable of doing so much more.
A: Finally, do you have any suggestions or advice for teen artists of color?
Q: Be you. Don’t be swayed by anything that anyone tells you—particularly your professors. They don’t know more than you. (Laughs.) That’s the one thing that really irks me, when I see students of color saying, “Yeah, but my professor said…” Take what you can from them, and use it the way that suits you. But don’t take their word as gospel for the way things should be. Stay true to you as yourself, and your work as an artist will deepen.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.