Over twelve years, Vilma Jackson has worked across screen, stage, and public service broadcasting with both hearing and deaf actors & directors.
Last year, Jackson produced the video project Triple Oppression which conveys her struggles, aspirations and successes growing up as a Black, Deaf, Woman. Triple Oppression was critically acclaimed and won 4 awards including Los Angles Film Awards, New York Film Awards, FilmCon Awards and Festigious International Film Festival.
Jackson’s latest commissioned piece is The Vilma Jackson Show, a show which features a panel of Deaf artists who discuss their work and experiences via debate around diversity, inclusion, and equality to highlight that these issues do not only apply to the hearing world; they run deep into the deaf community and every corner of our society.
We spoke to Jackson to find out more about her career so far and what we can expect from The Vilma Jackson Show…
Please introduce yourself…
My name is Vilma Jackson, I am a performance artist. I have been working for 12 years in a variety of mediums from TV, film and theatre to music videos. More recently, I have added directing, writing and editing to my repertoire. I have worked in both hearing and deaf productions and like to bridge the two worlds. I keep an open mind and grab the opportunities that present themselves. My heritage, I would describe as British, Portuguese, and Mozambican. I was born in Mozambique, moved to Portugal, and then onto the UK at the age of 13, where I finished my schooling. I am blessed to come from a large and loving family from a wide variety of backgrounds, and I feel this diversity gives me a rich sense of different cultures.
Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now.
Right now, I feel different. I have produced two projects, both close to my heart. I feel more professional, I feel more confident in my work, and I feel privileged to be able to work on these projects in a field I absolutely love.
So, firstly, congratulations on your award-winning video project Triple Oppression! What inspired you to create this piece after twelve years of working in the entertainment industry?
Thank you. The inspiration came from my experience as a young person and the lack of role models I’ve witnessed in TV and Film. In the back of my mind, I always had the urge to create ‘something’ to respond to that lack of representation. I would look at hearing people, especially Black actors/artists who were becoming successful and I would think – where are the Deaf people? Where are the Deaf, Black people in Hollywood, on the BBC, in the limelight?
I was looking in the Black Deaf People UK Group (Facebook Group) and I really sensed a lack of confidence and an absence of frank and open discussion of matters that directly affect us. I wanted to create a platform to inspire people, so they could feel that they could voice their concerns.
During the first lockdown last year, I set up my own production company – Vilma Jackson Productions – to allow me some creative freedom and write, produce and direct my own work. Lockdown was the perfect environment for me to have a quiet, reflective time to allow my ideas to flourish.
You finish Triple Oppression with the words: “When you feel like quitting, remember why you started.” What is the starting point that you think of whenever you feel like quitting?
Whenever I feel like quitting, I remember that when I was young some people doubted me, but I told myself that I would never give up on my dream. There were no role models representing my dreams and aspirations to look up to. In terms of the starting point, especially in regards to acting, there were a lot of barriers. I remember at some point the challenges and barriers were getting so frustrating for me and the lack of progress was really taking its toll. I wanted to step back from it, but I started to look back at the journey I had already taken and the steps I’d already been through.
Perseverance is the key, no matter what industry you are in. Persistence, belief and not giving up despite the knocks along the way. During these moments when you feel like you are digging and digging and you will never find your moment if you step back and take a look. You realise, actually – look how far I have come, look at the journey I have been on.
When I was first offered a role in a hearing production, it felt like ‘I’m really in this industry now’, it was a professional production, and I could really see the potential for myself and a future in the industry. I looked at the Black hearing actors and I realised the only difference was that I was Deaf. My mindset after that was to put aside my being Deaf and focus on my art form. I wanted to look at them and be inspired by them and take confidence from them and push forward with my career.
In Triple Oppression, you discuss your relationship to television and being inspired by artists you saw on screen. Are there any particular artists you were thinking of when you wrote these words?
I would say my inspiration was my parents. They would always show me films or productions with Black actors or performers in them to inspire me and influence me to keep going. It was my parents’ efforts to encourage and inspire me to fulfill my dreams of acting and performing. I do remember when I was very young, I was fascinated by the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin because they were physical performers and I could relate to their artform being very gestural, expressive; using facial expressions and mime. Being Deaf, I could relate to this because it was very visual, and it was as if they were communicating with me. It had an impact on me because they were able to tell a story and express emotion through their physical performances.
How important do you think onscreen representation is for challenging structures of inequality?
Up until recently, the representation of Black and Asian Deaf Women on screen has been a rarity. If Black or Asian Women are cast it would often be the stereotype – a sassy Black girl or a Muslim terrorist. What kind of role model or inspiration is that for the younger generation? Those younger viewers would be watching these films or TV productions and seeing a mirror of themselves and it’s a terrible representation of them.
We need a diversity of casting in a diverse range of roles. The issues are that Hollywood has its own perception of perfection, but real life is nothing like that. We need to reflect the real world. People of all size, shape and race playing a variety of roles not the stereotyped roles for those particular
people. Representation in the entertainment industry has a big impact on people’s mental health.
Do you prefer to be asked about your experiences as a deaf creative, or just to be asked about being a creative and how have you navigated this space where your hearing isn’t what defines you but is also acknowledged?
I prefer to be referred to as a ‘creative’, first and foremost, as a skilled professional. I don’t want Deaf to be the first label attached to me with all the negatives stereotypes that people wrongly associate with that. I want to be seen primarily as a creative professional and recognised for all the skills I can offer creatively. This way, subconsciously, people will see me as equal to that of the other performers and directors. Every time a casting agent, director, or fellow performer says – “Oh, you are Deaf”. I strategically don’t challenge them. I don’t respond to comments about my deafness. I would talk about my work, the material and try to push aside this Deaf, primary question to try and deflect its importance in their mind. I want to move beyond the narrative of deafness because if I use the word ‘Deaf’ all the time, it influences them in how they treat me and label me. When I’m on production and take these steps, soon after, people begin to treat me like Vilma, the person, Vilma the actor or performer, Vilma the creative, which is exactly what I want. And exactly what I am.
Let’s talk about The Vilma Jackson Show. Where did the idea for this show come from?
With the Black Lives Matter movement, there was a lot of open discussion about representation. A lot of people have been brought on to mainstream media outlets to discuss these issues. But I wondered why before the Black Lives Matter movement there was no interest. I also asked myself, where are the Black or Asian Deaf people discussing their experiences of discrimination? Even within the BLM movement itself. That’s how the idea came about, I wanted to discuss these issues and I wanted to host the show to give an opinion to those that aren’t being given a platform. I watched the Oprah Winfrey show and Jada Pinket-Smith (Red Table) and was fascinated by how they conducted the interviews and navigated the topics.
In the Deaf community, these discussions were definitely lacking. Bearing in mind that English is not our first language. British Sign Language is our first language, so barriers exist when discussing sensitive topics and depth can be lost in translation. So, producing a show in British Sign Language would really inform the Deaf community. Within the Deaf community, there was a counter-movement on social media – Deaf Lives Matter / All Lives Matter. There was not an understanding of what BLM actually stood for, so it was important for me to show people this is what we are talking about, and these are the issues we face every day – even within the Deaf community.
Episodes of The Vilma Jackson Show are currently available to watch via your Facebook page. In the future, do you hope to platform the show on television channels or streaming services?
Absolutely, I hope if any production company watches my show, they can identify its potential, and get this out to mainstream audiences. It’s original because me being a Black, Deaf, Woman presenting the show discussing issues that relate to society but looking deeper. When you watch my show, you will realise that there is a rich complexity in the community and that there is equality between issues that affect the hearing and deaf world.
The first episode of The Vilma Jackson Show features actress Kelsey Gordon, artist and art therapist Rubbena Aurangzeb-Tarig and performer and lyricist Kevin Walker. In the future, are there any guests you’d be particularly keen to interview on the show?
I would love to talk to people about different subject matters and their own experiences. I definitely want some hearing guests and some celebrities to really explore their struggles and boundaries. What were their boundaries growing up, how did they make them feel and how did they go about overcoming them? I would love to understand their opinions on the Deaf community and the barriers the Deaf community faces. The high-profile guests obviously have a great platform and that could have a great positive impact in raising awareness of these issues.
Have you got any other projects on the horizon that you’re excited about?
I’m very excited about releasing the second episode of The Vilma Jackson Show. So, stay tuned to my social channels for updates about the release. I am quite spontaneous with my work. I take inspiration from the world around me, and I really like surprising people with new work. I find it’s better for my creativity, to be able to go away and allow the creative process to happen and refine the project. Instead of being under pressure to produce something for a deadline.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU…
- A book you have to have in your collection? – I have so many books, but The Perfect Chemistry is a book I really liked. The author is Simone Elkeles and I would definitely recommend it. The story revolves around two different worlds, two different races but one true love.
- A song /album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? – I love so many songs but an inspirational track for me is Lose Yourself by Eminem, he really communicates his struggles and breaking through his barriers and getting on with life despite people’s opinions of him. I understand his struggle regardless of his race and gender. I just felt a connection with the emotional expression he applies to the song. I also love Tupac’s songs, and he also provides powerful lyrics.
- A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? – I can watch repeats of Friends for 24 hours without getting bored. This show is incredibly funny and also cheers me up whenever I feel down. In fact, I loved the episode where Gabrielle Union played Kristen Lang and the episodes featuring Aisha Tyler as Charlie Wheeler. I wish they could have cast more diversity in Friends, nevertheless, this show was absolutely amazing.
- The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance, or concert)? – I really liked Stomp, they used random instruments from things that could be household items or from the street. I love music, which does surprise people because of my Deafness – just understand that we literally “feel the rhythm!”. My 18th birthday party was a disco – but we needed a soundproof place for the sake of the hearing neighbours! I also translate songs into British Sign Language. I love the rhythm and how it’s used to take us on an emotional journey. I loved the ingenuity of Stomp and it had me captivated.
- What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week?
- Definitely mad and frustrated about the state of lockdown still! I like to connect with people but these lockdowns and the restriction plus wearing masks have prevented me from connecting with people, friends, and family. Deaf people need to lip-read, not easy with a face mask!
Sad – as to be what’s happening in Palestine and the effect it is having on the people there. What is also sad is the hypocritical nature of society. If we can support the BLM movement, we can support movements around other issues for social justice, why isn’t the same support being applied to the Palestine movement?
Glad or happy this week would be the culmination of my work with The Vilma Jackson Show and the imminent release of episode two. Part of my positivity regarding the release of episode 2 was the ability to look back and how proud I am of the production. The positive feedback I received from episode one was so overwhelming, I can’t feel anything but pride and happiness. Artistic success is about the feeling of accomplishment from putting your heart and soul into a work of art and seeing others appreciate it. I was also, surprised and happy when I received your email to conduct this interview. I have followed your work and interviews in the past and was genuinely delighted and surprised when you contacted me. So, thank you very much for that!