Building Bridges: An Interview with Alys Dickerson

When Alys Dickerson and I first met to do this interview, I knew immediately that I was in for a treat! For many people, when I interview them about who they are, and what matters to them, the answers are more about their jobs, volunteer work, families, neighborhoods — the stuff outside of their being. With Alys, I felt like I got to glimpse the inside workings of her soul. It was a delight to interview her.

As I sit down to write her story, I feel the need to clarify my role. I am a white-bodied woman. Much of our interview grappled with what it is like for Alys to be a brown-bodied woman in 2021 in Spring Green. I am about to tell you, the reader, who she is, and yet, I am profoundly aware that I cannot know what it feels like to be a brown-skinned woman. In all my interviews, I attempt to step into the shoes of someone with a different story than my own. When the story grapples with race issues, I want to be especially clear that my efforts to wear another’s shoes are imperfect. Having said that, let me introduce you to this dynamic, grounded, powerful and exceptionally thoughtful young woman.

Alys was born 33 years ago in Japan of U.S. Air Force parents. As a military child she has lived in innumerable places. Her family finally settled in Indianapolis, which she still calls home, as defined by the place where she goes to celebrate Christmas and where her family still lives. She is the second of six siblings and is clearly grounded by her family.

First and foremost, Alys is a singer-songwriter. But it took us nearly two hours to get to that. She is a mixed-race woman. Since she was in kindergarten and a classmate told her that her mother couldn’t be her mother because she was white, she has walked through her life trying to negotiate a world in which she is an “other.” Before that early experience she was just a kid. Afterward, she was a biracial kid. As she shared her stories, I listened to this incredibly open and approachable woman tell of how she has come to know herself and how she has had to navigate how others know her. I heard pain, and strength, and hope for change. And through it all, her joy in her life shone through.

In 2019, Alys came to Spring Green to play Lady Macduff with American Players Theatre. She had traveled the world, but standing outside of the Slowpoke Lounge & Cabaret on a summer evening looking west down Jefferson Street at the purples and oranges of the setting sun, she felt like she had been transported to a magical place. And she fell in love with APT. These were people not just of an amazing acting caliber, but an amazing human caliber. They were kind and generous. They were welcoming and supportive. They had created an “affinity space” where people of color could have a safe space to hold each other up; to say the things they needed to say; to encourage each other without fear or concern for how their white peers might respond or feel. The environment at APT felt heavenly. So, when she was invited back for 2020, she enthusiastically found someone to sublet her place in Chicago, and prepared to come back to Spring Green.

And then pandemic shutdown happened. No work. No shows. No music. And now, no place to live. In that historic moment, most of us had a place to shelter. However, Alys, and others, had just given up their places in anticipation of making the annual trek to Spring Green. The decision, by APT, to cancel the 2020 season, appropriate as it was, left them without work and without a home in which to shelter in place. APT reached out to those displaced people who normally fill our village with energy, art, beauty, words and so much more, and offered them housing here in Spring Green to weather the storm. Because of that generosity and compassion, Alys was able to shelter in Spring Green and spend the pandemic as a time of great personal growth, building her relationships with others who were sheltering here, and with her God. She remains grateful to the people at APT for that time.

However, the Spring Green that became home for Alys was the Spring Green of the theater. The village remains a place where she sometimes feels welcome, and all too often feels “othered.” She has received cucumbers and tomatoes on her front step from neighbors, and received a note asking her to change the clothing she wears in her own backyard. To have received microaggressions does leave scars, and yet the woman I interviewed presented as strong, positive and grounded. She did freely acknowledge that she was showing me her highest self. And I was left wondering (attempting to know) that part of being brown means putting those scars in a safe place where white people won’t see them. She called that safe place a pouch carried on one’s side.

The community from the theater has held her up, provided her with local family, haltingly attempted to provide impossible comfort in the aftermath of the seemingly never-ending murders of black- and brown-bodied people in this country. And all of that happened in a town she perceives as both unbelievably beautiful and caught in time. She can see the incredible sense of community and is moved by that, and she struggles with the othering she feels in many places within the community. The dualities of life came up often. Alys sits with those dualities with a straight back and open arms. She brings that openness to her walk with God and with humans. She is truly a shining light.

Within the duality she experiences here, she would love to see a deli in town, a place that was open after 11 p.m. that wasn’t a bar, another restaurant! The speed of Spring Green runs at a one or two, and that suits her for a while. The Mayberry vibe is comfortable until she needs to go back to Chicago for some nine or 10 to get her energy back up! And then she can come back here. She hopes to keep returning, but I wonder if she will ever settle here — if the Mayberry vibe would ever feel welcoming enough for her to stay and raise her someday children?

When I spoke of her strength, when we talked about dealing with adversity, Alys spoke of how black and brown people have always had adversity, and have learned to hold it in a pouch, to put it aside, so they could function. I appreciated that reminder. So when I think of her strength I am left wondering what that costs her. I have described her as “dynamic, grounded, powerful and exceptionally thoughtful,” and I believe that those words do describe her. And she reminded me that sometimes, for some people, and maybe especially for people who have been “othered,” being vulnerable is just plain too dangerous. I am grateful for the light she shared with me, and I hope that it didn’t cost her too much.

In what seems to be a time of ever-increasing strife, this column is a small attempt to build bridges with our neighbors. The broken bridges and steel-clad social bubbles that keep us apart can begin to mend and thin as we get to know the stories that define each other. In this space I interview community members of all walks of life from throughout the Voice readership area. May you enjoy meeting them, and may this build bridges for us all. Thank you for joining me on this journey.

Jennifer Moore-Kerr is a mom, a free spirit and a barefoot dancer living in Spring Green where she can walk to the river and commune with friends. She can often be found around Spring Green welcoming locals and visitors alike. To suggest ideas for future “Bridges” columns, email jennifermrkrr2@gmail.com.