Hailing from New Orleans, Ciera Payton is a rising star who has appeared in numerous television shows, including NCIS Los Angeles, USA’s Graceland, and The Mentalist. When she isn’t gracing the screen, Ciera can often be found volunteering at non-profit organizations such as Step Up Women’s Network, Girls For a Change, and What Girls Know, where her influence on the youth has been vast.
This summer Ciera is working with inner city youth in Los Angeles by partnering with Casa Esperanza on the Michael’s Daughter Project: Aspire to Inspire, based on the one-woman show inspired by Ciera’s life with the same name.
Participants aged 12-20 have the opportunity to create and perform an original stage production that will be presented to the community of Panorama City on Friday, August 8 at Casa Esperanza.
Ciera Burch: What drew you to acting in the first place?
Ciera Payton: There are so many different reasons. When I was growing up in New Orleans, it was a very artsy city, one of the places where you have to choose what you are going to do. Are you going to take dance, do music? What are you going to do? Living in a crazy, dysfunctional household, I used to make little plays with my dolls and stuffed animals. One Christmas my dad bought me a karaoke machine and I fell in love with it. I would narrate plays and reenact Disney movies.
In junior high school…I decided to go into the drama program and I was just reminded of how much I loved doing that as a little girl. So, I stuck with it and it was just one of those things that really gave me a voice and empowered me. So around the seventh grade is when I was like ‘I’m really serious about this’, because it makes me feel amazing.
Ciera B: You volunteer a lot with the youth. Can you tell me a bit about what made you want to volunteer and why you do it?
Ciera P: When I was 14, I was working at a summer camp and I got to be a camp counselor teaching acting. The following year, I was hired as an assistant for Brenda Currin, the creator and founder of What Girls Know, a theater program that originated in New York, geared toward teenage girls. It was crazy because I had a lot of similarities with the girls…we all were coming from very similar backgrounds of having parents that were incarcerated or family members that dealt with drug abuse, so I related to them and they related to me.
From there, I would work every year with Brenda and eventually she promoted me to associate director. With me moving from New Orleans, and then New York and L.A, I just saw the benefit in all of that, giving kids coming from poverty stricken backgrounds the platform to express themselves.
It makes me feel good to be able to work with kids that way, to give them some kind of voice, an outlet, to continue that work on my journey to becoming an actress.
Ciera B: That’s great. You’ve probably helped a lot of them discover their dreams as well.
Ciera P: I think so. I keep in touch with a lot of the kids throughout the years. The program that I’m doing right now, I was able to hire one of my former students who lives out here in Los Angeles.
Ciera B: So the current program you’re involved in now, Casa Esperanza. How did you get involved with them?
Ciera P: When I wrote my one-woman show, Michael’s Daughter, a couple years ago, I realized a lot of people responded to it in phenomenal ways. I didn’t realize that so many people could relate to the story of having a father who’s incarcerated, and so I wanted to figure out a way to marry the work that I do with the youth and my one-woman show. I went to a meeting with Los Angeles’s Department of Cultural Affairs and they were trying to figure out ways to give grants to performing artists in a way to serve the community.
I was awarded one of the grants and one of my assignments was to work in District 6 of Los Angeles. So District 6 just happens to be Panorama City, which isn’t too far from where I live. The main thing is that you have to work with a host organization, so I searched and came upon Casa Esperanza. They’re a community organization housed in a very, very rough part of Panorama City and they just keep their doors open Monday through Friday to the kids and to the community. They have sewing classes, reading classes for the parents and cooking classes. In the summer they teach the little kids about reading and writing. It’s amazing. Every Friday afternoon they have a community night and they play games and serve food.
I really commend them. So, that’s how I got involved with them. They accepted me and what I wanted to do with the kids. Every day, Monday through Thursday, 10:30 am to 2:30 pm, I’m working with them and we’re creating an original stage production that we’re going to perform for the community on August 8.
Ciera B: That’s great, I’m sure they love it.
Ciera P: Oh my gosh. I was a little intimidated at first. I thought it was going to be different because I come from New Orleans, a city that’s predominantly Black, now going to a Hispanic community. I didn’t know if these kids were going to respond to me because my Spanish isn’t that good. But the kids really, really responded to it. I think that they’re all amazing; I love working with them.
Ciera B: You mentioned your one-woman show Michael’s Daughter. How hard is it to do a one-woman show, especially one about your own life?
Ciera P: It’s very hard. I really have to read up on all the people that have done it and get courage from that. It’s a challenging thing; you’re taking your life and trying to put it into a cohesive story. I think that was the hardest for me because there were so many things that I wanted to share, and then the next thing you know I have a three hour play that had to be cut down to the bare bones. Every time I perform it I’m always cutting something or changing something or adding something, just to make it better.
At first, the very first time I did it, it was my way of venting and getting a lot of stuff off my chest. Once I kind of stopped making it about me, it started to shape and become something inspiring, and the story started to make more sense. It really is a story between a father and his daughter, and also a story of forgiveness and unconditional love. I think that’s why so many people are moved by it, because a lot of people can relate to those themes.
Every time I’ve done it it’s definitely been a challenge. It is emotional and a lot of the stuff I’ve pulled from you have to look back and reopen it. It’s hard to at times, but I realize that the more I take myself out of it and make it about the audience, it’s more for them to take something away from.
Ciera B: Can you tell me a bit about the workshops for the youth that you have in conjunction with the performances?
Ciera P: I’m using the performance as a template for the kids to write their own performance pieces. We’re using my scripts, I have it on DVD. The premise as a whole is that we are aspiring to aspire others. I want these kids to think of it in terms of not just telling their business just to tell it, but to share their story so they can inspire and be strong for kids with similar backgrounds.
Ciera B: With such a busy schedule with acting, both on television and in your one-woman show, how do you make time for a personal life?
Ciera P: I don’t. I try to, I really do. If I have any personal time, it’s just watching TV. This weekend I’m planning on going to the movies and just having a good time, but it’s hard to try and find time sometimes. But I do it when I can.
Michael’s Daughter. Actress. Mentor. New Orleans, Lousiana 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 (@callmececee.) 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.
Look into the life of actress Ciera Payton, the New Orleans born native who is the daughter of Michael Payton. This actress is not only making new moves in her career on screen, but she’s acting off the camera as well in the community. With new opportunities such as her new shows “Bad Teacher” and Spike Lee’s “OldBoy”, she has made avenues to do her own thing. Take a look…
Ciera is storming onto the scene starting off with her new one-woman show “Michael’s Daughter”. Michael’s Daughter will be showing in New York on November 23, 2013, after showing a successful premiere in Los Angeles, CA this past March. The encouraging autobiography entails stories about loving her father from far, while he’s incarcerated. The emotion filled dialogue places you directly in the wet ink of their conversations.
“Majority of the dialogue comes from what he writes me in letters” expressed Ciera. Written, directed and produced by Ciera herself “Michael’s Daughter” is also co-directed by Faythallegra Coleman. The young actress got her inspiration to write the play after leaving New York and setting sail for Los Angeles. There she sat in an empty apartment with her father’s letters in hand that were filled with stories of her grandparents’ love; an interracial romance amongst a white married woman and her black lover. These letters may have been just letters at the time, but a masterpiece, “Michael’s Daughter”, was being birthed all the while.
Ciera’s relationship with her father spawned her passion to help girls in similar situations. This caused for partnership with Girls for a Change and Step Up Women’s Network. Ciera shared that the founder of Girls for a Change held an event last year, called “Dance With My Father”. This dance was held for girls with incarcerated fathers which for some of them was their first time dancing with their fathers. With inspiration from the program, Ciera teamed up with KissableMe Lipstick Line. A lipstick line based out of Los Angeles with a variety of different lady flavors (“Whine” being Ciera’s personal favorite)! Every time a purchase is made of any color from the line of lipsticks, a portion of the profit goes to Girls for a Change and Step Up Women’s Network.
When Ciera isn’t helping girls’ one lipstick or letter at a time, she is on the set of “Bad Teacher” which is the movie turned sitcom, where she plays a love interest to one of Hollywood’s elite. “I didn’t know much of the movie, but once I researched it, I found it to be really funny and I think the show is going to be the same” Ciera states. I personally loved “Bad Teacher” as a movie, so I’m super stoked about it being a show, even more so that Ciera gets to give a glimpse of those acting skills! I will be tuning in.
Here’s how you can help Girls For A Change and Step Up Women’s Network by purchasing from the KissableMe Lipstick Line: Customers making a minimum purchase of $25 or more at www.kissablemelipstick.bigcartel.com, using the code EmpowerYouth, will receive 10% off their order. In turn, KissableMe Lipstick will donate a portion of all EmpowerYouth sales to Girls For A Change and Step Up Women’s Network.
Want to see what Ciera is up to? Follow her on Instagram @Cierapayton, or check out her website www.CieraPayton.com
By: Desire Faulk