The lights dim and Yu Ling Wu strolls to her starting position at the second showing of the solo performance series, “The Mom, the Dad, and the Holy Spirit.” The audience grows quiet. Wu and her cast mates, Aliyah Hakim and Joshua Lacle, set up to rock-paper-scissors it out for the first performance. Wu says, “Oh, are we doing a three-way?”
The crowd erupts in laughter.
Nearly everyone in attendance at the Friday, April 13 performance had some personal connection to Wu. During the chatter before the show started, Wu was greeted by dozens of people on the stage of Mabou Mines Theater in the East Village.
“No freaking way!” Wu said to one guest. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“I’m excited, really excited,” she called to another.
Wu is a senior BA/FA student from San Francisco, studying integrated design at Parsons, and theater, with a minor in ethnicity and race at Lang. Warm, charismatic and, funny, Wu stands at “four feet, six and one-fourth inches tall.” But she has had an outsized presence on the New School campus and was unanimously chosen as the 2018 student university-wide commencement speaker.
Commencement speaker applicants went through two rounds of interviews, and Wu was unanimously selected at the end of the process.
Wu ended up attending the New School almost by chance. She applied after her dreams of attending an Ivy League school didn’t pan out, and the prospect of attending nearby University of California, Davis, loomed in front of her. “I was told at a young age that those who go the farthest, grow the quickest,” Wu said.
After Wu worried she wouldn’t be able to complete the Parsons portfolio application requirement, and missed the deadline to apply for the BA/FA program, the New School reached out to her, and made an exception, giving Wu about a week to create her entire portfolio.
“And so, I scrapped my entire common application essay, I rewrote the whole thing. I sent it in, and I was like ‘Damn, they accepted me,’” Wu said. “My mom was like, ‘You’re not going to New York,’ and I was like ‘Too late, I already said yes.’ And she was mad.”
While at The New School, Wu found a passion for solo theater performance.
“I think it took four years for me to find my voice and what I wanted to do with theater,” Wu said. “[Solo performance] is so intimate, and it’s also like you are the only one on the line there. You have so much more at stake when you are the only person on stage.”
Wu’s solo work, titled, “Dream American,” is the final piece in “The Mom, the Dad, and the Holy Spirit.”
Wu’s piece, which doubles as her senior thesis project, opens comically. “When I was your age I was 100 pounds and had hair down to my asshole!” Wu said, imitating her mother.
However, the performance quickly took a more serious tone, as she discussed her family’s experience emigrating from Guangzhou, China, when she was four and her relationship with her mother.
Wu’s mother grew up in a provincial Chinese village, eventually becoming a doctor focusing on women’s health. However, upon arriving in San Francisco, she was relegated to janitorial work at her daughter’s school. Wu’s performance cuts deep into the intricacies of her relationship with her mother, unflinchingly examining her insecurities concerning her mother’s job and language skills.
“I was so ashamed of it that I didn’t want to be seen next to her,” Wu said, reflecting on her childhood embarrassment over her mother’s occupation.
Wu concluded the piece, praising her mother’s dedication to her and her sister’s futures, “She’s the Batman of SF,” Wu said.
Wu impersonates her mother as part of her performance, “American Dream.”
Wu will be performing a more in-depth version of her performance, at the United Solo Festival, the largest solo performance festival in the world, in October 2018, on theater row in Midtown.
“She has an extraordinary gift for acting,” said Zishan Ugurlu, an actress and associate professor of theater at The New School, who also directed, “The Mom, the Dad, and the Holy Spirit.” “Her work is surprising, innovative, thought-provoking, and she always pushes the boundaries.”
“Her creativity and intellect intersect in a way that makes her voice and work so critical to our moment,” said Joshua Lacle, 21, her castmate. “[She’s] able to make you laugh but also think about why you’re laughing and then make you think about why you’re thinking about why you’re laughing and so on.”
“We’re friends. I can say she’s very energetic, very intelligent and extremely funny. She’s very funny,” said George McLane, a security officer at the 13th Street Dorm. “That’s the sum of it, great personality. I think she has things waiting for her in the future, good things.”
Wu said her move to New York was a growing experience.
“My freshman year was like the hardest year for me, just because I was getting adjusted to New York City culturally. Being from SF, yeah it’s a city, but it’s a small city and it’s also California. Then I realized, New Yorkers are just direct,” Wu said. “And it’s just like, yeah I don’t have to be extra nice to you because I just don’t have time. Let’s cut the bullshit, let’s get shit done.”
“I also think that you know, coming to terms with my own identity sort of would be the biggest thing that I’ve learned at the New School,” Wu said. “Because the first year, approaching this idea of social justice, or identity politics, or just in general, l like having a grounded understanding of systems of oppression and like structural, you know things in place, those are really hard for me. Because I just couldn’t understand it.”
Wu recalls that her friends and classmates, however, helped her adjust to her new surroundings, and grow as an artist and a person.
“A big thing is this idea of unlearning or thinking that I knew everything coming in or that I knew who I was,” Wu said. “And I think it was through discussions and through literally, people who just have so much care, love, patience and, I think, a desire to make space for my messiness, that I was able to actually think about my identity in a different way.”
Wu has been a resident advisor at the New School’s 13th Street dorm for three and a half years and currently works at the boba tea shop, Boba Guys, on Waverly Place and Mercer Street by Washington Square Park. She has worked internships at the New Museum of Art and Buddha Comedy Group in New York, and at Zoetic Data, Patchwork Films, and Sunset Media Wave in the Bay Area.
“Yu Ling is just so important to my life, to me personally, and to my well-being,” said Mina Mattes, a fellow RA and friend of Wu’s at the 13th street dorm who is studying religion at Lang. “She’s a coffee bean.”
“She’s a good RA. Very good with the kids, understanding, patient and very effective. She’s a very hard worker,” Mclane added.
Wu was awarded the Lang Global Ambassadors Award and the Gilman scholarship to study abroad. She traveled to Edinburgh in the summer of 2016 and in Berlin in the summer of 2017 to study and perform solo theater. She traveled to Colombia with her cohort during spring break in 2017.
Twice, she received a diversity scholarship to attend the Upright Citizen Brigade improv academy, which was founded by Amy Poehler. “I was able to complete their improvisation program and meet a lot of cool improvers, and sketch comedy artists and other comedians and actors,” Wu said.
Wu has also worked as a research assistant for the New School’s Designed Realities Lab, which works across university combining design, liberal arts, and social thought to achieve innovative solutions. Wu works as a freelance makeup artist.
Under the Gural scholars program, a competitive Lang scholarship program, which exposes students to work in social justice and activism, Wu worked on several community projects.
She has created several independent publications, including “How the Fuck to Vote,” a streamlined explanation of the intricacies of the electoral process, and “Unlearn, Relearn, Reteach,” a zine focusing on the educational experiences of New York City students as they relate to specific demographics.
“Like I said before, a lot of these ideas were so big and so intimidating to me when I first got to the New School. I craved for a way to make this language less scary in a way, less elitist, and less inaccessible,” she said about the forms her projects have taken.
Wu also created an immigrant information book, “Know Your Rights,” following president Trump’s election and the increased ICE raids that came with it. The accordion-folding book is also wearable as a pin, to show solidarity.
“I am an immigrant myself so it was just hard for me to see that happen,” Wu said. “I woke up to news of people being deported in the mission district of San Francisco.”
The booklet won the 2018 Sekou Sundiata Outstanding Creative Project in the Arts Award.
The booklet informs the reader of what they can do in the case of an ICE raid. “These are very emotionally charged situations we are dealing with, so why are we putting them into posters that look clinical and sterile?” Wu said.
“Also it’s like, there’s a community that’s backing you. You are not alone in this. I also did portraits of immigrants in my own community which is like family, friends, here and in SF, and professors,” Wu said.
“My art falls secondary to people. It’s never privileged above other people. That’s just kind of ridiculous to me. The thing shouldn’t be what we celebrate, it should be what it does,” Wu said.
“For me, my design work, it’s really about creating dialogue and being in dialogue. I think that it’s more successful and it makes more of an impact when we’re always in conversation with communities or people, because if you’re not, then what are you making your art for?” Wu added.
“Yu Ling presents the exploration of ideas in a way that is entertaining, intelligent, and accessible,” Ugurlu said. “With her discipline, maturity, sense of humor, energy, creativity and positive attitude, Yu Ling has been a constant source of inspiration to her peers as well as to me.”
Wu also has a significant following on her YouTube page, where she reviews makeup products and creates tutorials. In addition, her review of Lady Gaga’s album Artpop went viral and acquired has more than 75,000 views.
“That video was so problematic,” Wu said. “It just shows that I have a past, that I’ve grown. So, if people wanna like drag me for it, like totally.”
“Yu Ling, for me, is just the ultimate renaissance person. In terms of the insane amount of things she manages to do with so much care, precision and love for the different crafts and arts she has mastered.” Lacle said.
“It’s like when Voldemort and Harry Potter fight wands together,” Wu said, yielding an imaginary wand, and adding explosive sound effects. “And the direction has to go somewhere, it’s not like one person can overpower the other, but it goes somewhere, and that’s what I think happened to my brain at the New School.”
Photo by Orlando Mendiola