By Jayla McNeill
As a teacher, artist and advocate, actress Mikayla Bartholomew is building a career out of blending art and activism.
A decade ago, when she was a freshman in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Theatre, Bartholomew found a mentor in Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, Ph.D. Known as “Dr. T” by students and colleagues, the renowned playwright, actor, poet, activist and scholar helped lay the foundation for Bartholomew’s career, which already includes projects that have won Oscar, Tony and NAACP Image awards. While pursuing her degree in VCU’s School of the Arts, Bartholomew consistently found ways to push the boundaries of traditional theater education and increase the visibility, inclusion and equity of her fellow students.
Today, Bartholomew is a member of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, where she is the community engagement and programs associate. She also serves as the coalition’s lead facilitator, teaching the Theater of Change Methodology at Columbia Law School (and most recently at UCLA School of Law’s CALL to Action Festival). In this role, she brings together artists, community organizers, policy experts, students and directly impacted people to utilize storytelling, artistry and advocacy to combat systems of racism and violence.
In addition, Bartholomew has enjoyed high-profile film roles: She was cast in the 2021 movie King Richard starring Academy Award winner Will Smith, and she starred in the short film Dear Mama …, which received a 2023 NAACP Image Award.
Here, Bartholomew reflects on her time at VCUarts and discusses her career accomplishments and current projects.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
Something that’s really important to me is starting with my name. It’s a really huge part of my identity. My name is Mikayla which is pronounced my-kayla. … My favorite joke is, It’s Mikayla, not your Kayla.
My dad was born and raised between Detroit and Pensacola, Florida… And my mom was born in the South Side of Chicago and grew up in Kankakee, Illinois.
Those two people are the reason I am the way I am today.
I think I’m a testament to the two different experiences, cultures and communities coming together. My dad served in the military for over 30 years and retired as Master Chief, an ITCM, which was beautiful. My mama was honorably discharged from the military and was rendered disabled in 1999 when we were in a really tragic car accident together. She has been a noted community mother, advocate and volunteer in Norfolk, Va, for over 20 years. She worked with our local public schools for the longest and is so well known and loved in the area that people call her ‘Mama B’ to this day, even my homies from VCU.
When did you begin to blend art and activism as a student?
To be honest? In class, I was tired of reading and studying all these pieces of theater that didn’t include me or the communities I knew (unless we were tokenized or stereotyped into the background) and I was really tired of telling those stories on stage. Especially because we were being taught that those were the only aspects of theater that mattered. And simultaneously, we were in the middle of a social reckoning much of my time at school, 2013-2017 was a wild time to be alive.
In our classes, in rehearsals and onstage, my Black and Brown classmates and I felt like diversity hires begging for a shot and forced to compete with each other for what felt like an intentionally limited space. In the streets, we were hoping not to get pulled over or shot, being called out of our names and spending our free time at protests. So I figured, why not challenge the status quo in school as well as in our society? I began asking questions about our curriculums, asking for help from my peers and teachers I could trust, challenging traditions and norms that didn’t acknowledge the needs of students coming from marginalized backgrounds, and even showed up to a faculty meeting with the homies. But more importantly, I began building resources and directing shows that could make space for us on my own by using the very art form we were training under.
[I] figured that if I started a little “good trouble” while I was there, then hopefully things would be better for the students to come up after us.
How did Dr. T become your mentor?
Dr. T is a special person to me because she went from being a teacher to a mentor, to my family. We met when I was coming into VCU in 2013 … Dr. T told all of the upperclassmen Black students, “I want you to get in contact with all of the Black freshmen and I want you to get them over to my house for dinner so that they can be in community with you guys, be in community with each other and know that there is a Black teacher that works at this school.”
She just wanted us to know that she was there and that we had a resource in her. … She gave us a home-cooked meal, we got to play music, she had djembe drums and she has a house that’s filled with culture and history… And so that’s how our relationship began and I just continued going to her as a resource. I saw in her what and who I wanted to be as an artist.
So by my senior year, I thought, ‘I want this woman to be my mentor. I would like her to be in my life for the rest of my life.’ She changed who I was, not only as an artist, but she helped me figure out how I could blend advocacy and activism with my artistry.
Can you share how you came to work with the Broadway Advocacy Coalition?
As soon as I got to New York in 2017, I found the BAC and I applied to be one of their artists-in-residence for their first-ever course at Columbia Law School, The Theater of Change…. And I’ve been working with BAC ever since.
The work that we do at BAC historically has always been about addressing systems of violence, racism and oppression that exist in America. .. We built a program called Broadway for Black Lives Matter, again, which pays homage to BAC’s first ever program back in 2016 … to raise awareness about the disproportionate impact of police brutality in America on Black communities and Broadway’s inability to say anything or protect their Black artists who were basically forced to come to work every day with all of this trauma piling up time and time again while being subjected to racism and discrimination in the workplace constantly…. We all won a Tony Award in 2020 for our calls for industry change which was huge for not only me but a step towards liberation for our people in the industry and beyond.
Do you have any particularly memorable experiences working on King Richard?
King Richard was chaos yet one of the most beautiful, unexpected experiences of my life. .. The biggest thing in that process was that I portrayed Tunde Price, Venus and Serena’s eldest sister who is no longer living. Tragically, she was murdered in the early 2000s and so taking this job, I knew that it was going to be a huge responsibility. In a biopic, the last thing you want to do is present a caricature of the person that everyone is going to be looking at. And while audience members might not be looking at Tunde directly, I know Venus and Serena Williams; Isha, Lyndrea and Oracene Price and Mr. Richard Williams will. I know that Tunde’s children will be.
I thought, ‘I have to make sure I honor who this person was and who her family knew her to be.’ My only goal was for the Williams family to sit down in that theater and actually see their sister on screen, not a girl playing out what she might think their sister was like.
That’s what King Richard was for me. It was a big job, a big responsibility, but it was all about paying honor to the people I was working with. … It was a labor of love, that film.
What was your reaction to winning the NAACP Image Award?
There is a lot of momentum happening on the heels of Dear Mama winning the NAACP Image Award, which is so strange because it’s so unexpected.
The story was about a young woman and her father, grieving the loss of his wife, her mother, being compounded by the fact that this little girl’s favorite artist in the world also just passed.
And we know how we feel about those artists that touch our hearts…The story of a little Black girl trying to make her way through and a Black father trying to make his way through and them trying to do it together, but separately, and having to find a way to come back together at the end, that’s a really universal story. It’s not exclusive to the Black experience. It’s still a Black story, but it’s for everybody.
Seeing the Dear Mama nomination, I thought, ‘Holy shoot, not only is this my second nomination where I’m actually being included in the conversation, but I’m the lead in this film. This is my work.’
Our producers on Dear Mama are incredible human beings, Xin Li, Nicole Mairose Dizon and Jordan Hart. They’re wonderful, wonderful people and it was nice to see them be honored. It was also wonderful to see Winter Dunn (director) be honored the way she deserved and to see Mike Maliwanag (cinematographer), Charmaine Cleveland (writer), my on-screen pops Garland Scott and myself be recognized for the work that we put in together for this story–particularly by our peers at the historic and legendary NAACP organization.
I actually have a tattoo, it’s a quote from King Richard that says, “For every little Black girl on Earth,” which I think serves as a testament to everything I do. I just want it to make room for people to feel seen, for people’s stories to feel heard or for people to feel like they have the capacity to tell their own stories as well. That’s what Dear Mama did for me.
What are you up to now?
I am launching a new podcast called Articulate, which is all about redefining microaggressions and taking control of the mic. It’s going to be a space for Black folks, white folks, Asian folks, Latinx folks, all sexualities, all genders and all identities. Everybody is welcome to the table to be in conversation about the things that impact us the most, be it something that’s rooted in joy or something that’s rooted in pain, or something that we need to change.
Do you have any advice for current students?
The words of advice that I would leave people with is that you have stories to tell and they are very, very, very important. So it’s beautiful to be able to come to an institution like VCUarts and be held and seen for the work that you want to create. Don’t doubt yourself, there is room for you to grow, and there is room for you to change. You may not know everything (neither do your teachers if we’re being honest), but that’s alright! Take pride in the opportunity to explore and change and evolve.
And don’t be afraid to go back and ask for help if you need it. There’s no shame in doing that. Those are the words of advice that I wish I had then, but I have them now. And if we continue making room for one another, then things are going to be so, so, so much better for the generations to come.
Lead image: Mikayla Bartholomew photographed by Nik Antonio for Flaunt Magazine. (Provided by Mikayla Bartholomew)