Conversations on A Strange Loop - Continuing with Jason Veasey and Nemuna Ceesay
Part II of an extended interview with Jason Veasey and Nemuna Ceesay about their formative roles in developing the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical A Strange Loop for its Broadway production where it won a Tony Award for Best Musical. Picking up on our live interview event at JCC Harlem, Jason – an original cast member for A Strange Loop who plays Thought 5, and Nemuna – Associate Director for the Broadway production, talk about the show’s ideas ranging from family to religion to self-acceptance. For more information on A Strange Loop, visit strangeloopmusical.com, and follow Nemuna and Jason on Instagram at @_nemuna_ and @veaseyville
Conversations on A Strange Loop - Live at JCC Harlem
At a live interview event at JCC Harlem on October 24, 2022, I spoke with two artists who were integral to the Broadway production of A Strange Loop, the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical by Michael R. Jackson. These artists – Associate Director Nemuna Ceesay and original cast member Jason Veasey – spoke about the show’s development and themes . This episode includes highlights from the live event. For more information on A Strange Loop, visit strangeloopmusical.com, and follow Nemuna and Jason on Instagram at @_nemuna_ and @veaseyville.
Ma Rainey - Interview with Michael Potts
This is the second of two episodes focusing on August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and its recent film adaptation on Netflix. Today’s interview is with actor Michael Potts who starred in the Netflix film as Slow Drag, the bass player in Ma Rainey’s blues band.When I watched Michael Potts as Slow Drag, I saw something recognizable: the way his character can convey so much with a glance or a knowing look. It is the tendency to observe rather than jump into action. To see a situation from an intellectual distance. I went back to re-watch three roles from his TV work, all HBO series: True Detective, Show Me a Hero, and The Wire in which he played the notable character Brother Mouzone.The art of observation is apparent in each of these characters. As Michael says in the interview: “It’s part of my natural inclinations as a person, as Michael, to observe everything. I’m very aware of where I am in situations. I’m always checking the temperature of the room, which the actor training simply reinforced.”
Ma Rainey - History, Play, & Netflix Film
In April, I had the pleasure of leading an evening event about August Wilson, specifically his play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. This event was hosted by the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Maryland, where the program I co-direct, Exploring Black Narratives, first took off. This conversation includes background on Wilson’s life and the Great Migration in America, as well as a comparative discussion on the script of Ma Rainey and the Netflix film adaptation.
"Pipeline" - Nya
This episode is one of two classroom interviews with 11th grade students at Shalhevet high school in Los Angeles, CA. As part of the Exploring Black Narratives program, we studied Dominique Morisseau's play "Pipeline" and interviewed actors who starred in productions around the US. Today's interview is with Andrea Harris Smith who played Nya at the Studio Theatre production of "Pipeline" in Washington, D.C.Pipeline centers on a public high school teacher named Nya whose own teenage son, Omari, attends a private boarding school. Nya’s ex-husband Xavier, Omari’s dad, believes that the private school will give Omari the best education though it’s a distance from his home and Omari would be one of the only Black students in his classes. At the start of the play, Nya calls Xavier with the news that Omari has gotten into an altercation with his teacher. The teacher had pressured him to talk about Richard Wright’s novel Native Son as though Omari were the representative to speak about Black characters. Feeling increasingly cornered by the teacher, Omari physically pushed back and winds up suspended and at risk of being arrested. Nya worries that the school administrators will see Omari’s appearance and respond harshly, channeling him into the school-to-prison pipeline. While Nya is confident in her role as a teacher, she feels inadequate as a parent trying to protect her son.If you'd like to learn more about Exploring Black Narratives, here is an article about the program that I wrote for American Theatre magazine: https://www.americantheatre.org/2021/03/19/the-familiar-and-the-new-teaching-black-plays-in-jewish-high-schools/
"Pipeline" - Jasmine
This episode is one of two classroom interviews with 11th grade students at Shalhevet high school in Los Angeles, CA. As part of the Exploring Black Narratives program, we studied Dominique Morisseau's play "Pipeline" and interviewed actors who starred in productions around the US. Today's interview is with Heather Velazquez who played Jasmine at the world-premiere production of "Pipeline" in 2017 at Lincoln Center Theatre in New York.Pipeline centers on a public high school teacher named Nya whose own teenage son, Omari, attends a private boarding school. Omari and his girlfriend Jasmine are among the only students of color at their school. When we meet them, Omari is about to leave school. He has been suspended after an incident in class in which his white teacher singled him out repeatedly as a Black student and Omari physically pushed back. Jasmine is understandably worried about the consequences for Omari. And because she’s in love with him, her desire to shield him is wrapped up in her need to keep him around. While Jasmine and Omari’s relationship is intense, Jasmine’s presence onstage is filled with humor. She’s tough-talking but uncertain. And though she’s onstage only a short amount of time, she’s an unforgettable character.If you'd like to learn more about Exploring Black Narratives, here is an article about the program that I wrote for American Theatre magazine: https://www.americantheatre.org/2021/03/19/the-familiar-and-the-new-teaching-black-plays-in-jewish-high-schools/
The Power of Speech
In Will Arbery’s play Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize last year, a group of 20-something friends, all of whom are Catholic and politically conservative, gather for a party to toast their college professor who has become the president of their Catholic university. One of these friends is a young woman named Theresa whose right-wing views cross into alt-right territory. When I watched this play, I found the character of Theresa fascinating, particularly the way she wields speech and language to assert her political views. I agree with almost nothing she says, but her love of debate is thrilling to behold, and her confidence is magnetic. Much of that is due to the actress playing her. Zoë Winters, my guest this episode, starred in Heroes of the Fourth Turning in its world premiere production at Playwrights Horizons and reprised the role for a virtual performance during COVID that happened live on zoom. It was a remarkable difference from the last time I saw Zoë perform, which was in Bess Wohl’s play, Small Mouth Sounds – set at a silent retreat where Zoë’s character Alicia spends the play attempting to withhold her speech. Both plays are about seeking a deeper truth either by speaking out or by being silent. In Heroes, the gateway to truth is vociferous discussion of religion and politics, while in Small Mouth Sounds the gateway is silent reflection. Zoë has performed in numerous roles on stage and screen, so it was a real delight to delve into two of her performances and examine their points of comparison around the power of speech. https://www.zoewinters.com/
Classix is a team of theatermakers and scholars who provide universities, theater companies, publishers, and readers with resources to expand their exploration of classic Black playwrights. As founder Awoye Timpo says, the intention is "creating access to the plays for the widest possible audience but really by centering Blackness." Awoye and her teammates - Dominique Rider, Arminda Thomas, Brittany Bradford, and A.J. Muhammad - bring a wide array of skills to their work, including directing, producing, dramaturgy, archiving, and acting. Learn more about their work at https://www.theclassix.org/our-vision.
School Girls Series: The New Girl Who Seems to Have it All
I'm excited to share a series of conversations with actresses who starred in Jocelyn Bioh's play, School Girls: Or the African Mean Girls Play. These interviews were recorded with students at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Maryland. This fall, I developed a program for Jewish high schools, which are majority white spaces, to explore plays by Black playwrights, to read and watch those plays, discuss the themes, expand the art they love, and perhaps most importantly, to interview Black actors and directors who have made those plays come alive in performance. This interview is with Joanna Jones who played Ericka at the MCC production of School Girls in New York. Joanna talked to us about her similarities to Ericka, particularly the experience of being the new girl in school. The depiction of Ericka as a light-skinned young woman who gains social capital at her new boarding school in Ghana draws on themes of colorism, which Joanna calls "a prejudice within a prejudice". Joanna also answered a few questions about Hamilton, in which she played the dual role of Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds on Broadway.