Fresh from a racial-boundary-blurring run as the star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, Taye Diggs is releasing his second children’s book, Mixed Me! — starring a vibrant, fast-moving kid named Mike who won’t let you box him into one category. EW spoke with Diggs about race, reading, and illustrator Shane Evans, who he’s known since they were 14.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKY: How did you meet Shane?
TAYE DIGGS: I call him my pretend cousin, but we met at performing arts school. I was really into style, and Shane had a really cool style. He was really good looking: I didn’t know if he was mixed, or if he was Latino, or if he was light-skinned black. He had this cool, curly hair, and had a kind of preppy style, but then his jeans were really baggy. I walked up to him and I said, “What are you?” [Laughs] And he looked at me inquisitively and said, “What am I?” I said, “Yeah, are you a prep? What is your style?” He said, “I don’t know, man! I’m just me.” He told me that he was an art major, and at the time, graffiti was really in, so he said he’d draw my name in graffiti. After that, he invited me over to his crib to watch TV and have ice cream. And that was all she wrote: We were off to the races.
How did he help you with your first book, Chocolate Me?
I never thought I would be a writer, but I used to just write random poems, and leave them lying around the dorm. Shane saw one, and because he was an artist, he would take some of my writing and put them to his art. It was very cool. So the first thing that he put on display was this poem I wrote called “Chocolate Me.” In its original form, it was more for adults. So he put the poem to some really strong imagery, and he made a book.
Then, years later, after he became an established and successful illustrator, he remembered that poem, “Chocolate Me,” and he thought it would make a really great children’s book. I changed up the style a bit, and in that, created kind of my own style of writing that I was content with, and just started along that path.
Were you worried that it would lose anything when you distilled it down for children?
Sure, at first. But then I thought the book could help people at that age, because I didn’t have anything [when I was a kid]. I had my mother, but it would have helped if I had a book as well. So that’s what propelled me, and, to this day, makes me continue to write for younger people.
What inspired you to write Mixed Me?
Chocolate Me is about my own experience. I wrote Mixed Me after I had my son [with ex-wife Idina Menzel], and for me, it just made sense. I’ve always been exposed to people of mixed race. Being around them, you’re exposed to all of the silly, or ignorant, or interesting questions they get asked. Even me, when I met Shane! I tried to force him to delineate who and what he was, on every aspect.
It was just a natural progression. I want my son to not feel discouraged in any way, or feel any of those negative feelings, if and when people may approach him, because that’s just what people do. He shouldn’t have to explain himself to anyone, you know?
I loved the line, “Sometimes when we’re together, people stare at whatever.” Mike acknowledges the stares, but dismisses them — he doesn’t give them any bearing on his happiness or sense of self. How did you decide to give him this confident tone?
I don’t know, to be honest. I just write from the feeling that I have. But even looking at Shane’s perspective when I first met him — he didn’t make me feel bad, but at the same time, he didn’t give me an answer. He was just like, “I’m me.” It wasn’t dismissive, it was just very logical. And when I look at [my son] Walker, I don’t know if it’s the way we raised him, or just his own inner spirit, but he’s very matter-of-fact about stuff like that. Because I introduced Chocolate Me to him at an early age, he will refer to people as chocolate or light chocolate or vanilla, but he won’t judge them. It will just be, “That’s the flavor that they are.” He’s very nonchalant.
It’s got to be an interesting dilemma for you: Do you address questions of race after they come up, or anticipate them so Walker knows how to deal with them?
Yeah, I’ve been wondering about that, because I don’t want to make up a problem out of one that doesn’t exist. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with just saying, “Some people are like this, and if you come upon this, this is how you act.” Kind of like, if you see a car coming to you when you’re in the road, don’t walk into the street. You want to warn them. I have no issue with opening up the discussion to give him an opportunity to say how his experience is different.
I think it’s always great — and I’m saying this fresh off of doing Hedwig and the Angry Inch — it’s great to open up that dialogue of why. Just to get young people talking about what’s going on. It’s always better than silence.
Do you have any favorite books from childhood that might have influenced your writing?
I was a huge reader when I was younger, and then I convinced myself that I didn’t like it the older I got. Now I’m trying to get back into it. But I was huge into The Snow Day, with the little black boy in the red snowsuit, because there were a limited amount of books with black characters. Corduroy was important to me, and then the one with the badgers: Frances!
I’ve read every single Charles Schultz animated little storybook that was in my library. Every single one. Loved them. And then when I got a little older, it was Encyclopedia Brown: read all of those. C.S. Lewis: Huge, I read those books like eight times each. I was heavy into A Wrinkle In Time, all of those. I was a nerd, and then as soon as I started to get a little bit more popular, I was trying to catch up with my social life, so the books were jettisoned.
Now you’re bringing the books back.
Yeah, now I’m just trying to figure out why we’re here, how we’re supposed to act, why stuff happens to us, and how we can just be better people. Especially with a kid, and approaching middle age. It’s more than just the money and the fame. Trying to figure it all out.