Michael's Daughter. Actress. Mentor. New Orleans, Louisiana native. Each of these words can be used to describe the talented and beautifully spirited Ciera Payton. Most notably recognized for her Off-Broadway autobiographical production, "Michael's Daughter," Ciera Payton is an inspiration to young women everywhere. She embodies character, strength and resiliency, as she has defied the odds and is making a name for herself in the entertainment industry and the community.
INTRODUCTION TO CIERA PAYTON
Growing up in the Third Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana was not always a bed of roses for Ciera Payton. The loss of her grandmother to cancer and eventual incarceration of her father while she was a teen may seem like the beginning of a sad story, but becomes one of triumph for Ciera. With a love and passion for the arts, Ciera Payton was able to find a creative outlet in performance. Graduating from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and the North Carolina School of the Arts, Ciera defied the odds stacked against her and earned opportunities to utilize her talents for good. Hoping to provide encouragement to other young women who share similar experiences, Ciera brings her story to the light in one-woman play "Michael's Daughter."
Ciera Payton shines on the big screen as well. With roles in Spike Lee's "OldBoy," USA Network's "Graceland," and TNT's "The Closer" under her belt, Ciera can now be seen in the CBS sitcom "Bad Teacher" as well as Issa Rae's webseries "First." And when Ciera isn't filming, she can be found mentoring in her hometown, as she is the Associate Director of the program What Girls Know and has also partnered with Girls for a Change and Step Up Women's Network. It is so refreshing to see that Ciera Payton shares her passion with us all-through her play, her acting, her contributions, and her mentorship.
GETTING FAMILIAR WITH CIERA PAYTON
What inspired you to share your story with the world in your Off-Broadway production, "Michael's Daughter?" When I first moved to Los Angeles from New York I came across a shoe box of letters--the prison letters my father had written to me over the years. To my surprise I forgot how encouraging, uplifting, and funny my dad was. I mean he’s in a tiny backwoods prison in the middle of nowhere in Louisiana, and he’s telling me keep my head up and stay positive?!?! In addition to his empowering letters, he shared an array of stories about his childhood and what impacted him to make the decisions that lead him to spending time behind bars.
My father is a product of an interracial affair, which took place in the ’60s in rural Louisiana, and has memories of being confused as to why he wasn’t accepted among Blacks or Whites. His memories includes explicit racist encounters; all I could think is, “You can’t make this stuff up!” It’s raw, honest, personal, and just the makings of a unique story. I HAD TO SHARE IT!
In what ways have the performing arts shaped you as a person? As a woman? How has the performing arts changed the lives of the young women you've mentored? I started getting involved in the performing arts when I was in sixth grade. New Orleans is a city that prides itself on culture and creative expression. It’s in our music, our food, our accents, and our everyday way of life. So when I set out to speak up and allow myself to be seen and heard as child from the third ward neighborhood of New Orleans, it was invigorating! Being on stage and experiencing the feelings of accomplishment did that for me. I became confident, which has carried over to adulthood. As a woman, I know there are many people out there who relate to my story and who I am. This is why I have always felt it necessary to mentor young ladies and young men who too have come from underprivileged backgrounds. Sometimes it just takes one person to say, “I believe in you, you’re awesome, you can be anything you want to be.” Many young people don’t have that type of encouragement in their lives and they need it. They are the future. When I would do my work with What Girls Know it was amazing to see the growth in development in those young ladies. The first week, they’d come in arms crossed, quiet, unwilling to participate. By the end of our workshop, their light would shine so bright! It was truly amazing and inspiring.
I'm excited to see you have a role in the new CBS comedy "Bad Teacher." It was cool to see you in the "Evaluation Day" episode! What can we expect to see more of from your character? The show? I’m super excited about it, too! My résumé is filled with some amazing dramatic roles and I’ve been dying to do comedy! My character was originally meant to be in one episode, but something awesome happened and the producers invited me back for a few more and created a pretty cool storyline with David Alan Grier’s character. The series is hilarious and I know it’s going to be a hit!
Your life's story is one of remarkable inspiration, triumph, and resiliency. Through everything, what has been your greatest source of strength? Without a doubt I’m a spiritual person. I know there’s no way I would be where I am today without a higher power. I do a lot of praying, a LOT! Ha! Meditation helps me with balancing stress. And I know my grandparents are my guardian angels watching over me and protecting me.
Tell us more about your partnerships with Step Up Women's Network and Girls for a Change. Step Up Women’s Network (SUWN) and Girls For a Change (GFC) are two amazing organizations. I’m truly impressed and inspired by all of the hard work of Angela Patton (GFC), Kaye Popofsky Kramer (SUWN) and Alyssa Zito (SUWN). Making a change to empower and uplift youth is no easy task. I tip my hat to those ladies and the staff members at both organizations. They put in long hours with limited budgets and truly work from the heart. I’m fortunate and honored to mentor the participants. My participation is only a tiny grain in the sand in comparison to what those ladies have achieved with their organizations. I’m just thankful that I’m able to help and be a role model for the youth participants.
As a woman who will be turning the big 3-0 next year, I am motivated by your hard work and altruism. You have accomplished so much as an actress and mentor thus far! Are you where you imagined yourself to be at 28? Where would you like to see yourself by age 30? Oh noooo! Please don’t remind me, ha! I made a pact to myself a few years ago that I wouldn't mark off “where I want to be in x amount of years.” I’m consistently bombarded with bright and bold ideas in my mind and have so often pressured myself to get those things done by a certain age. When I didn't accomplish those things by said age, I would get really hard on myself, hence feeling like a failure. With that said, I knew that where I am now would get me closer to my dreams. As I got older, I knew in order to get there, I had to drop the baggage that was dragging me or blocking me from achieving my goals. So yes, in my future, I am projecting that I will be among the Hollywood elite and on the short list of the top ten Hollywood A-List Actors. I imagine myself having a strong dynamic career in which I have the pleasure of telling fascinating stories and giving life to a plethora of characters. I want a family and solid relationship with someone who loves and accepts me for who I am. All of the above is what I want and I am confident I will get there. If these things happen by 30, that would be amazing-- but I know it’s all in God’s time.
If you could go back to give your teenage self one bit of advice, what would it be? What advice would you give to younger girls reading this who are experiencing similar situations as you have? I would tell myself to keep working hard, but child come up for air and have fun every once in a while! Life ain’t always so serious! Things can be bad, but that’s the beauty of life. You have ups and downs. Your resiliency is how you handle them both.
To the younger girls reading this now, as hard as it is to do, know that everything will work out. If it doesn't seem that way now, know and believe it will! And please understand that the adults around you now were once your age. They too are human and nobody’s perfect. It’s life and we all have to live it. Treat yourself good and go for your dreams!
In what ways can others help empower the youth? Do you have any suggestions on how to extend this help throughout our own communities as well as other parts of the country? There are so many non-profits sprinkled throughout this country. Research the ones in your community and donate your time. Stay committed. Most of the time children of underprivileged backgrounds are used to people coming in and out of their lives. Showing up one day and never coming back doesn't display a sense of commitment or responsibility. Make it a point to get involved monthly or quarterly. If that isn't possible, find out what those organizations need and figure out how you can help. Financial donations are always a big way to help. And try to keep in touch with the kids you've mentored. Send them cool postcards, write on their Facebook wall. Check in every once in a while. Let them know they are important.
I thank Ciera Payton kindly for the inspiration she has given me and my readers with this interview. To keep posted on all things Ciera, be sure to check her out on Twitter (@CieraPayton) and Instagram (@cierapayton.) Please stay tuned to the CBS sitcom "Bad Teacher" to see how things develop with her and actor David Alan Grier! And be on the lookout for her indie feature Film Respect the Jux which will be theatrically released at the end of the year.