By Liz Ohanesian / KCET / May 29, 2016 –
Almost immediately after this interview officially begins, Joshua Silverstein begins talking about Los Angeles. We’re sitting in front of the California African American Museum in Exposition Park, not far from Jefferson Park, where Silverstein was raised and still resides. The 35-year-old writer/performer recalls the L.A. of his youth: the long walks that he took when it was too late to catch a bus, the exploration that young people did when your neighborhood didn’t have nearly everything you could need.
“L.A.’s become more and more segregated,” he says. “You could grow up in Beverly Hills and never see a person of color if you choose to live like that. You could definitely be isolated from what makes L.A. so amazing and diverse.”
We talk for a little more than an hour before Silverstein has to head out to CBS studios to do some beatboxing for “The Late Late Show with James Corden.” In that time though, the discussion moves through a myriad of topics. Silverstein talks a lot. When he’s not beatboxing, that’s his job. He has performed in stand-up settings and on web series. Most recently, though, he just finished a run of his solo show, “Tell Me I’m Pretty,” at the Bootleg Theater.
The conversation veers into race. “People think we’re post-race,” he says. Silverstein, who is biracial, doesn’t agree with that assessment. “I always talk about slavery as being something that, if you break a bone, you’ve got to let it heal, but slavery was, we broke the bone and put a Band-Aid over it and kept going. So I feel like racism was kind of swept under the rug and because of the systemic nature of it and the constructs that are created because of it, now we’re living in this time where we’re blind to it and you have people like Trump who get to say things that are aggressive and agitating and people cheer because he’s got a mouth, but those who are sensitive to what he’s saying are like, ‘How can he say that thing?'”
Silverstein, however, is not stunned by the reactions to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. “I’m not surprised because you don’t have to be conscious now. You don’t have to be aware. You can live in your little bubble and be happy and be safe and never be affected by real world problems or other people who are being oppressed, or be oppressed.”
While the conversation may seem at first off-topic, it’s not. Exploring issues of race and gender as they affect the topical issues of the day is what Silverstein does. “This is my work,” he says. “I don’t know how to differentiate between art and activism.”
Silverstein describes himself as a satirist. The routes that role may take vary. Sometimes, as in the case of “Tell Me I’m Pretty,” it’s a live performance. Other times, like his the “Pocho Joe and Silverstein” web series he and longtime pal Joe Hernandez-Kolski did for Mitú, it is something that lives online. “It could be a stage play. It could be a video or a web series or an art project, but the content is key,” he says.
Silverstein has been performing since childhood. His roots in activism go back that far too. He talks about how he was influenced by his educator mother and his father, who spent years doing community outreach work for Action Agape. “My family raised me with non-violent ideas through King and Gandhi’s principles and practices,” Silverstein says. They were strict about certain things, like toy guns and disrespectful language, and that stuck with Silverstein as he grew older. “My parents had strong philosophies that were very clear in the house and I could not violate those philosophies,” he says. “It was very obvious that my parents believed in something greater than just wash your hands after you’re done eating your food or wash your face.”
He also recalls the nights celebrating Hanukkah with his grandparents, who were atheist, as influential as well. “Hanukkah was such an interesting thing because we didn’t do the traditional prayers for Hanukkah,” he says. “We would light the candles, light the menorah, for peace.”
He adds, “My Jewish roots were rooted in activism, rooted in celebrating people and valuing humanity. These are ancient Jewish traditions as well, but that’s how I experienced it.”
Gathered together was a multi-ethnic group of people who were family. “They embraced my mother, who was an African-American woman,” says Silverstein. He recalls relatives and neighbors of various ethnicities enjoying the Jewish holiday together. “If you were at the dinner table, you were family,” he says. “My atheist Jewish grandparents, I learned how to embrace the world through them, that everyone is family.”
That all comes together in Silverstein’s work, where he challenges people to reflect upon the issues that come together in his performances. He says that he aims to “reveal” facets of life. “Sometimes revealing is painful,” he says. But, maybe it can be cathartic too. “I don’t want to make you feel better. If you leave the show that I do and you’re sad and that leads to your growth, then I’m happy.”