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X Mayo

With 80 bucks and a dream, The Blackening’s X Mayo is proof that sometimes the risk is worth the reward. 

There was no plan b. When X Mayo decided to stay in New York City after fashion week concluded, there was no plan, barely any connections, no friends, and no safety net. Regardless of the odds being stacked against her, X’s mind was made up. Nothing and no one was going to talk her out of it. Least of all, herself. All she had was a passion for creation, a hunger to learn, and a desire to hone her talent. Along with $80 to her name and a suitcase. She knew she’d have to hustle and grind for any opportunities afforded to her. And she was ready. New York City is not for the weak. It has a different vibe, a different mindset. X immediately set to work, establishing herself in a city known for dashing the hopes of dreamers since its inception, despite what the Frank Sinatra song says. Everybody thought she was crazy to uproot herself, but it took a healthy level of delusion to make the move. Taking risks is a messy business, but better to take the shot and miss than not take it at all.

So many people were focused on what could go wrong, but she was solely focused on what could go right. As X says: Do you want to make art? Or do you want to be famous? Oftentimes, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Making the art you want to see in the world takes tenacity, love, patience, and a willingness to let yourself fail. It’s a lesson that every artist learns the hard way, and it can either make you or break you. In X Mayo’s case, it only served her narrative and strengthened her resolve.

In conversation with 1883 Magazine’s Dana Reboe, X Mayo discusses the origin behind her Instagram handle, the time she auditioned for The Daily Show, what lessons she’s learned about herself and so much more! 

 

When I was doing research for this interview, I came across your Instagram handle. Can you explain the story behind 80 dollars and a suitcase?

80 dollars and a suitcase is basically my origin story of New York. It’s my testimony all rolled into one. I went to New York on vacation to work fashion week, and it’s always been my dream to be there. When I decided to stay, that’s all I had.

 

From New York Fashion Week to when you are today, what has that journey looked like?

I quit acting (like most actors do) a couple of times. I have been at this since I was 12. And at that point, I was 26. It had been 14 years of ‘no’s’ at that point. On an industry-standard level, I’d always been making my own shit. I started writing and directing plays at 19. I was always very adamant about making my own things, but it was just the constant rejection. When I thought I had an opportunity to do makeup and that fell through, I reached out to all my contacts in LA, and was like, ‘Hey, can you help me with any connections in New York?’ And so, I got connections to not do makeup, but to dress the models. And while I was there, it was an out-of-the-body experience to be there in fashion week. The weather was perfect. There were so many parties, I was connecting with people. I was just living a fucking dream. And then my friend got tickets for us to go to Motown: The Musical the day before I was supposed to go home. It was a big fiasco for us to get tickets, but we finally did. The lady at the counter was being a bitch and didn’t know that she gave us orchestra seats, not just any seats. I got to see the musical up close. And I cried. My friend knew the whole cast and we went on stage, and I was on 42nd Street in an empty theatre. I auditioned for Alvin Ailey Summer Intensive, straight out of high school because I started out as a dancer. I was always focused on performing on the stage. There was nothing else I was supposed to do. The director Charles Randolph-Wright was like, ‘You live with fear, and you have a responsibility to live your dream, and you have to do it now.’ I called my mom and I told her I wasn’t coming back to LA and that turned into eight years. 

 

Wow, that must have been like an out-of-body experience.

When I look back, everybody was like, ‘X, we thought you were crazy.’ But I feel like because I’m a believer, and when I’m set on something, I don’t give a fuck what the circumstances are. I knew I was a survivor. I knew I was a hustler. And I know that community is everything. I was very focused on utilizing what little community I had. I was just applying to 10 jobs in person and 12 online a day. And in three days, I got a job. I was making $8 an hour at a thrift store in Brooklyn.

 

You got to do, what you got to do, to make ends meet and pursue that dream. You said in an interview with Fab TV, ‘Do you want to do the art? Or do you want to be famous?’ What does making your own art mean to you? And what was the spark that led you to be a creative?

I grew up born and raised in church. I was around 18 when Tyler Perry’s plays started making their rounds. So many of my family and church homies were going to his place just to hear his origin story, of how he started out homeless and made his own shit at 19. It cemented into my brain – and it’s still how I feel – you only get on, by putting yourself on. Having that mentality is great, it makes me feel amazing because my career is not at the whim of other people that are outside of my control. I have autonomy and I have full creative control over what it is that I’m doing.

 

I love that so much. Having full autonomy as a creative is so important and is a rarity in most cases. Is there a particular piece of work you’re proud of? One that really resonated with you?

That I created or was a part of? 

 

How about both? [Laughter]

The proudest I’ve been of something I’ve made is Who Made the Potato Salad, which is my sketch comedy show, slash community resource hub. Our shows have inspired black and people of color to make their own things. They’ve cited us as an inspiration that has helped the trajectory of their creative process and careers, which is exciting. We also have helped facilitate opportunities for black and brown people. We’ve done workshops and pivoted during the pandemic. Being able to facilitate opportunities for my community is what I will forever be most proud of. The thing I’m most proud of that I’ve been in, that’s hard. I will say, probably, The Daily Show. It was literally a one in a million fucking chance to get a late-night show, let alone that specific late-night show. I’m proud of how I bounced back from my failures there because I was really bad at writing jokes. Writing jokes is hard. And writing jokes during the reign of 45, He Who Should Not Be Named (Donald Trump), was very hard as well. I’m grateful The Daily Show was so patient with me because it was a year and I think, three months before I got a joke on air that I wrote by myself and got no help on, which is very fucking hard to do.

 

I can imagine. Could you walk me through that experience? How did you come across that opportunity?

I didn’t even come across it, it came across to me! [Both laugh]. Because I was at UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) and UCB you know, is a huge collective of the who’s who in comedy, it’s basically kind of a pipeline into SNL. But at UCB I just wanted to get good at comedy. I was very happy doing Who Made the Potato Salad. And when this opportunity came to me by the grace of God, I was already about to leave New York. We were about to have our one-year anniversary of Potato Salad, I did a Facebook series called Strangers, I finally got my SAG card, got a manager, and an agent. I tore doing improv. So, I was good. I did New York for five years, New York didn’t beat me. I was ready to go back home. I was so blessed at UCB. I kind of sped through the ranks a little bit. You start off on Lloyd night, you get bumped up to Harold and then finally, the last bump, you get is weekend teams. And weekend teams are where you want to be. It’s the best of the best. They have the best shows. And it’s a weekend, they’re always sold out. It’s a great slot to be in. 

I was on a Llyod team and was asked to sit in on a weekend team. I’d come and play with them on the weekends. And one of the people on their team was Zhubin Parang, who’s a producer at The Daily Show. Zhubin, to this day, is like an improv God to me. It was an honor to fucking do improv with him. And I was always very kind. I always showed up early. I was always supportive in scenes. Because I really wanted to get good at improv. That team was like a sparring partner for me. 

So finally, Zhubin was like, ‘So what are you doing, X? What’s going on?’ I was like, ‘Oh, well, you know, I’m going back to LA. I’ve done New York, we’re good.’ He texted me a week later, he was like, ‘Hey, do you mind if I pitch your name to Trevor (Noah) to write for the show?’ I hit up my home girl who knew him and I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘He at The Daily Show. Bitch, he’s a producer.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m from LA, everybody’s a producer. Everybody got a couch and then they want to fuck you.’ Shit, I don’t trust any of these people. [Both laugh]

When he said that I was like, ‘Okay, so this shit is legit.’ I knew who Trevor was and was a fan of his stand-up, but then I studied him back and forth and submitted my packet. I got an interview with him, and I will never forget it. Because it was September 2018, the day of the Cavanaugh hearing, it was playing everywhere. I was so broke. And I said to myself, ‘I fucking have to get this train, if I miss this interview, this is the fucking end. This is the only shot I got.’ 

I asked my mom if I could use her debit card because I only had 67 cents in my account. I didn’t have enough to get the fucking bus. I made sure to look good, like money. My mama raised me to never look like what you’re going through. And I went in there, and I was making Trevor laugh. It was fucking crazy. Like he was turning red. I was making everybody laugh. I just kept looking at the clock trying to take it in. 

That was on a Thursday, that Friday, I landed, and Zhubin said, ‘Hey, can I call you?’ And I was really me in that interview. I wasn’t cookie-cutter. I was just me. I was like, ‘He’s going to call me and tell me I didn’t book it. That’s so sweet.’ He was like, ‘Hey, we really weren’t looking for anybody. But Trevor likes you. We want to give it a shot.’ And I said, ‘Get the fuck out of here. You guys are all on drugs.’ It turned into three years. I’m very blessed. They gave me a lot of room to fail there at The Daily Show. I learned a lot. And it’s made me such a better actor, a better asset on set. My mind just goes a mile a minute, I’m so quick. That wouldn’t have happened had it not been for my time there.

 

That’s incredible! It was almost as if dominos were falling into place? From UCB, being asked to play with the weekend team and meeting Zhubin, then interviewing with Trevor. It all snapped together! With that said, where do you pull your inspiration from?

I’m often not inspired. I think that word is overused. The people I get inspired by are the ones around me. I have friends that work extremely hard. They really want to take risks and put stuff on stage, on film, and TV that’s genre-bending, that’s not the typical thing we see. That inspires me. My friends around me, my little brother. I take being a big sister very fucking seriously. And I think wanting him to have an easier life, a better life than I had, inspires me. My mom and the women in my family are very strong, and they work very fucking hard. That really inspires me. 

The last time I was truly inspired in the stereotypical sense, was when I watched Tyler the Creator perform in concert. I was blown away. We’re from the same hood, and he talks about riding the 212 bus. I used to ride that shit all the time and would dream of a better life. And when he said that, he pulled up on stage in his Rolls Royce and I fucking lost my shit.

 

Were you able to get tickets to his next concert by the way? I saw on Instagram you were looking to go.

No! You saw my post? Did you get a ticket?

 

No, [both laugh] I’m in Toronto!

I was like, girl, you need to do IG live for all of us! To all the wellness girlies who told me not to look at social media first thing in the morning. Fuck you. Look what happened. I’m going to sleep with Twitter now because guess what? The toxic girlies are at the fucking concert. This is some bullshit and I knew it wasn’t going to be expensive. Like, $20 at the El Rey Theatre because I know he’s just trying shit out. My brother and I are heartbroken. I literally was like, ‘fuck this.’ I ordered some Starbucks, I got me a strawberry lemonade.

 

Emotional support Starbucks to ease the pain?

One hundred percent.

Starbucks does sound like a really good idea, right about now. What are some lessons you’ve learned about yourself on this journey?

This is such a great question. Some lessons that I learned, especially starting at 19 up until now, is that you, as a collaborator, have to learn how to lose. It doesn’t matter what you do, you’re going to have to collaborate with somebody, even if you’re a standup, or you’re doing a solo show, you have to collaborate with the director, the DP, the lighting design person, and you have to learn how to lose.

I’m very grateful that I’ve gotten a lot of reps in that. I’ve learned that many hands make light work. I think because I started so early, I learned that quickly and I can tell when a person is really green because they’re not open to notes about their project, they have so much ownership, they have so much emotional attachment to it.

You have to release and destroy that because it’s not yours. I want 50 producers on this show, however many we need to fucking make it. I’m not saying that I’m not creative. I’m saying that having multiple people on a project means they see shit that I don’t see. We just have different lenses. I feel like you have to live in a certain level of delusion and healthy delusion. It’s a spectrum. Because you have delusion, like, people who think they’re in a relationship with you and they’ve never even met you, but then there’s delusion, like me saying to my mom I’m going to New York with no money and nowhere to live. And here’s the thing: nobody could tell me shit. Now I look back I would have had me committed [laughter]. 

Like what the fuck? I had no resources. I only knew a few people. They were not my friends, Dana. We were not buddies. I had no connections. I was working the connections I met during fashion week. Oh, I did know Larry Powell. He’s like my brother. I’ve known this since I was 16. But he was about to leave New York. You have to have a certain level of delusion to do some shit like that. I didn’t have a conversation with no fucking body, when I made the decision to do that. I called all my besties, called my mom, and said ‘Yeah, I’m not coming back.’ It is what it is. I was so focused. Plan A was making it, there was no plan B. But looking back, if I was outside myself, I would be like ‘Oh yeah, that bitch is a looney tune.’

 

Switching it up a little, what was your first thought when you read the script for The Blackening?

I thought I am Shanika. I really did. She’s just a heightened version of myself. When I read it, I was like, ‘Oh, I am Shanika’ and Dewayne Perkins is my baby. I knew it was going to be written really well. So, I was like, ‘Oh my God. Yes. Let’s fucking go!’ And I was asked to play the part. I worked really hard and my homeboy Justin coached me. I made sure I had the wig and makeup. I wanted everything to look like her and it was great. She is me, and I am her, let’s go.

 

You know, my friend and I watched the trailer, and we couldn’t stop laughing. But then after a minute or two, it gave us pause, because we were like, ‘Wait a minute, when was the last time we watched a horror movie where a black protagonist lasts more than like 10 or 15 minutes?’ We could only name two or three at most. I cannot wait to see this movie and how it plays out. What do you hope is the main takeaway of the film?

That it’s funny! We’re not making anything highbrow. We’re not trying to save lives. We’re not trying to have people think differently of black people. We just wanted to make a comedy. So, I hope the takeaway is that it’s funny and that they want to see more of us, and that they saw seven amazing actors and comedians do great work.

 

And lastly, will we see the return of Who Made the Potato Salad?

You will! I’m working my damnedest on it. We pivoted during the pandemic and all that stuff is available on my Instagram and Potato Salad’s Instagram. We did a writer’s assistant panel, and we’ve done a script coordinator panel. We did the Day in the Life of Late-Night workshop; we did the black woman joke writing workshop. We’ve been doing stuff, but you know, it’s just me and I don’t have equity. I don’t have money. It’s just me out here. So, it takes a little more time. And by the grace of God, I have been booked for more on-camera stuff, which is very hard to do, and then do other stuff. I’m working hard to bring it back. Be on the lookout for that in the future!  

 

The Blackening is out June 16th. Follow X-Mayo @80dollarsandasuitcase

Interview Dana Reboe 

 

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