Miranda Jeyaretnam, Contributing Photographer

The Asian American Cultural Center kicked off its Pan Asian American Heritage Month programming with a keynote comedy skit from D’Lo, an award-winning queer and transgender Tamil-Sri Lankan-American speaker.

On Thursday evening, D’Lo transported the audience in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall into his world with relatable punchlines, telling the story of a young artist raised in an immigrant household and his journey to finding self-expression.

“In BIPOC communities, we know humor like nobody else, because it’s the only way we can get through the day,” D’Lo said. “Comedy is healing, and it is medicine — I do believe that in many ancient performance traditions, there is the role of the clown, and the clown is sacred.” 

His career has seen him taking on various writing, television and film roles. He is credited for contributing to the HBO series “Looking,” Amazon’s “Transparent,” NBC’s “Connecting” and Netflix’s “Sense8” and “Mr. Robot.” He also starred in his own web series, “Private Dick,” which was released in 2017 and follows a private detective in Los Angeles through a number of wacky cases and personal relationships.

Prior to the skit, Assistant Dean and AACC director Joliana Yee took a moment to acknowledge the native lands on which Yale was built, the peoples who were displaced in the process of colonization and the oppression of other racial minorities in the United States. She touched on the crescendo of anti-Asian hate during the COVID-19 pandemic, which she emphasized did not stop with the development of vaccines.

“The last time we were able to have an in person keynote event was in March 2020, right before the entire world sort of shut down,” Yee said. “For many of us, as a community, we’ve experienced and continue to mourn all sorts of losses.” 

For Yee, the month-long programming throughout this March will serve as a form of celebration and empowerment and a way to “reclaim” lost identities, see value in “collective power” and build new possibilities for a more inclusive world. 

Also opening for D’Lo was Sebastian Chang ’23, who performed an original rap spoken word piece that explored what it meant to grow up being Indian and Korean, and the Yale Jashan Bhangra dance group on campus, which awed spectators with its upbeat choreography and energetic music. 

D’Lo’s jokes were saturated with references to his upbringing and identity. His set touched on the frugalness of his immigrant parents but the enduring appreciation that he has for their struggle, the narrow career choices that family members presented him with, the feeling of using unhygienic men’s bathrooms as a transgender man and the lack of cultural recognition of mental health.

He discussed what it was like to not learn about sex until he was 11 due to censorship of certain taboo topics in an immigrant family, as well as the road to exploring his own sexual orientation. After losing his sister, he saw that no one around him regularly talked about “survivor’s guilt” or generational trauma — and hopes that through his story, others will be more willing to come forward with their own emotional hurdles.

It was in college that D’Lo first reconciled his various racial and queer identities as well as his “political understandings,” which pushed him to be more unapologetic about who he was and who he was becoming.

A question and answer panel followed his stand-up routine. The conversation turned to politics and representation, topics which D’Lo explained were heavily interwoven into his comedy. 

“Queer and trans representation of color are still lagging as such disparities at the intersection of sexual orientation, gender identity, race and ethnicity continue to be disproportionate in many aspects of life,” co-moderator Andrew Wu ’25 said. 

Wu inquired about D’Lo’s personal reflections regarding representation on screen, especially given his experience with acting and storytelling. 

D’Lo claimed that though the modern entertainment scene is at a very “different place” than it was a decade ago, entertainment industries have a tendency to usher in shockwaves of representation to satisfy public outcries for diversity in the moment, leaving queer communities of color with only fleeting screen time. 

“Finding places for shows that edit content and film that are primarily made by BIPOC artists — it’s still an uphill struggle,” D’Lo said. “Sometimes you will have a really, really strong storyline [with BIPOC representation], but it gets a little bit of life and then it goes away.” 

For D’Lo, the push to break down conceived standards of masculinity, white supremacy and “capitalist patriarchy” continues. He explained that one of the best parts of being an artist is being given the opportunity to showcase vulnerability. 

Pain is a testament to survival amid the ongoing crises and humanitarian challenges in the world, he said, and a powerful way to uplift each other is to “cry” or serve as a shoulder for another to cry on. He revealed that his future project, “Cry With Us” will invite strangers together in a celebration of emotional vulnerability. 

“The arts [are] going to be what I always come back to,” he said. “Make the arts a practice — a regular practice, because … that’s yours to hold on to and remind yourself of who you are.” 

Members of the Yale community can access the full 2023 Pan Asian American Heritage Month agenda online

Brian Zhang is Arts editor of the Yale Daily News and the third-year class president at Yale. Previously, he covered student life for the University desk. His writing can also be found in Insider Magazine, The Sacramento Bee, BrainPOP, New York Family and uInterview. Follow @briansnotebook on Instagram for more!