In this artists' conversation, director Deena Selenow and playwright Antoinette Nwandu discuss the return to live theatre in the wake of COVID-19, their approach to work and rest as women of color theatre practitioners, and the reopening of Broadway in fall 2021 with Nwandu's award-winning play Pass Over.

DEENA SELENOW (DS):

During the pandemic, I had my students do a little interview project and connected them with some [theatre practitioner] folks. And something that I love that they started all of their interviews with was the question: How are you doing? And so I wanted to pose that to you. How are you doing?

ANTOINETTE NWANDU (AN):

To be completely honest with you, I'm carrying some grief in multiple areas of my life. Creatively, I feel like I'm at the place where—I don't know if there's a word for this—but I'm making the soil rich again. So I'm doing a lot of intake. I'm watching a lot of television. I'm reading a lot of books, and I'm noodling on ideas and I know where I need to go. In the theatre world, I've been seeing a lot of shows. I'm grateful to be a Tony voter again so I can see everything on Broadway, and then I'm just going back out there—mask on—and seeing a ton of off-Broadway stuff. I think I'm in that place where it's like, okay, after the forest fire, the soil's actually really rich. I'm trying to make the soil rich again.

DS:

Yes. And when you're talking about "the noodling," I'm trying to rediscover that too. I was talking to a writer the other day (and this is for "entertainment," which is a different grind [than theatre]), but she was asking about some deliverables, like when are they really going to want this and that? And she goes, "I know you know, but, I just need to say it aloud. I need to take a walk. Part of my process is I need to take a walk and think about this. And I know you're advocating for me. And I just want to express that [with] the whole 'but we need it tomorrow' [attitude], they're never going to be happy because I need to take a walk." She said that, and I thought, I need to make more time to read. I need more time to read and I need more time to write. I journaled for the first time in a long time and my hand got sore!

AN:

I've totally been there.

DS:

And I was shook because I used to be a big journaler. And I was literally sore.

AN:

Right. Like your body is literally saying, I haven't done this in a while. I've totally been there, yeah. And finding the voice to push back on those deadlines, as in, "Do you really need it tomorrow or are you just accustomed to demanding it tomorrow?"

DS:

Because you're not going to read it tomorrow!

AN:

You're not going to read it tomorrow! So do you really need it tomorrow?

DS:

It's so funny because I was driving the other day and I was replaying a conversation in my head and I remember driving and saying out loud, "Twenty-four hours is enough in the day." Because I remember someone saying, "Oh my gosh, we need more hours in the day." And actually twenty-four hours is enough time. There are enough hours in the day.

AN:

There are.

DS:

Rachel Spencer Hewitt, who helms the Parent Artist Advocacy League, and I were chatting during the pandemic. And she was saying that sometimes her phone rings and she just thinks to herself, "Let it burn." Because she's like, "I'm with my kids. For an hour. So let it burn." So, I have a little "let it burn" mantra.

AN:

I love that.

DS:

And then I wonder, is my authentic self salty? [laughter]

AN:

Salty or even just a little nonresponsive?

DS:

That's the word.

AN:

I had a similar thing. I was speaking to a writer who said, "You get to a certain place where you can go to bed with five urgent emails unanswered." And I was just like [shocked silence]. And then you get to that place, and you realize, it's never going to go away, you know what I mean? And that's the other thing. You think you clear the deck: "Oh, I checked off all my boxes," and then tomorrow comes and wait, there's five more.

DS:

Right, and then it's like, how do I deliver? I want to deliver, and that's also my own stuff that I'm working through; this idea of being a productive, participating, moving-it-forward member of a community or of a group. [I want to be sure that] I'm positively putting myself into the project and helping others and making sure people have support, so then I'm also kind of trying to balance that. … I'm trying to reevaluate grind culture in my mind and think about what systems I want to be a part of, while also participating in systems that I'm in conflict with at times. And it's funny, because [my husband, who is white] has his thing when someone challenges him or it's too much, and his thought is: "F-you, I'm going to deliver and I'm going to deliver more than you could have possibly thought." And he does and it's amazing. But I also see the toll it takes on him. And I used to wonder, "What's wrong with me that I don't do that?" And then I was like, fuck that, and started judging him for it. And now I'm kind of like, "No, we all are doing this in different ways." And I think what you were saying, about the unresponsiveness … that my way of kind of taking that control back is taking a step [back].

AN:

That's so interesting. Everything that you're saying is totally sparking things for me, because I do think that's definitely something that can be coded along racial lines. But I also think—and again, I don't want to reaffirm the gender binary—but I've been speaking to so many women … actually I've been speaking to women writers specifically in relation to the hero's journey, and that idea that when an opponent comes, I'm going fell that opponent and I'm going to be the one to best it. And as a woman writer, I have never actually felt the hero's journey in my bones. My answer is to be unresponsive. My answer is to deflect. My answer is to sidestep. It's not always about conflict and beating [someone], you know? And makes me think, "Where's my hero's journey?" How do I validate the fact that actually protecting my peace or protecting my time or giving a conflict some time to simmer a little bit is actually how I naturally respond sometimes. Again, I totally love the times when I can respond with "No, I'm going to do it. I'm going to." But what if that's not my natural response? In this world where every MFA class, every writing [event], talks [about] the "hero's journey," I'm saying, "That's actually not how I go through the world."

DS:

Right, it's not a narrative that lives in me. That's something that I've been trying to not judge [in myself].

AN:

Right, yeah.

DS:

And I think what you're talking about is something I'm finally starting to really understand: that there are certain structures that don't live in me. And actually, when I'm brave enough to say that, other people feel the same. Do you ever look back, though, and recognize something you've done in a different way, that in retrospect is like a Hercules and Cerberus moment [of triumph]?

AN:

I think it's mostly just interrelational stuff. I think for me, it's less the hero aspect of it and more the pleasing aspect of it, which can also be so draining. And learning to be a little bit more comfortable relationally without feeling the need to please or to be pleasant. Again, I have that question all the time: "Oh my gosh, am I being salty? Am I being perceived as salty?" But it's usually that either your timeline or your time frame or the framework upon which this question or this ask has been set up doesn't quite work. And so I can't participate as pleasantly as I used to … but that also might be [due to] age.

DS:

I know, maybe it's a little bit of both. But I've been seeing that [tendency] with my students, and generally with young people these days, too. They can voice things that I didn't know [when I was their age], they have vocab that I didn't have. They literally have vocabulary that I maybe had a pang or a feeling of but didn't know the words for it.

AN:

Or that the conversation could even be had. That's interesting. I haven't been back in the classroom in a few years and a couple of times I've wondered, "What would it be like to be back in the classroom [now] to see the differences there?"

DS:

Yes, now more than ever. I always try to center my practice on health and care, even though I'm not necessarily the best at it myself. But we have to try somewhere. And I've noticed that since 2020, there's just so much more [awareness of health and care]. Just by redoing syllabi to slow things down and by asking the students for their feedback as a real fundamental question: what are you capable of doing and feeling? Are you still getting out of your education what you are investing? Because I understand that you need time and space, but you also are going to be in debt for the rest of your life for a degree. So I need to make sure I'm serving in a couple different ways. Because I remember in college, the students that [felt] like, "Oh my gosh, I'm so overwhelmed, why won't they give us a break?" And then there [were] the students that [were] like "I'm paying for this!"

AN:

Right, [the ones that are saying] "Help me, motivate me, get me going in a [direction] where I can do this."

DS:

Going back to the subject of connecting with your authentic self, finding space to noodle, and working in institutions, can you describe how the events unfolded that led to Pass Over opening Broadway after the shutdown? Perhaps both practically and also emotionally. How did that unfold for you?

AN:

The nuts and bolts of it are that my now former agent had introduced me to a producer [Matt Ross], who had done "What the Constitution Means to Me" and taken it to Broadway successfully. And so literally in the last week of February 2020, he and I met. I had just gotten off the plane from London, we did small talk about this crazy virus that was on that cruise ship! And then fast forward fifteen months, I'm getting my second vaccine and he's asks, "Do you want to keep meeting about this [possibility]?" Because over that time, he had made himself an authority on how Broadway could come back by using HVAC stuff and filters and things like that. And so he wanted to keep meeting and so we did. And then, I got Danya [Taymor] and the cast in that conversation, and then Jujamcyn Theaters said they really, really wanted to do it. And they also had been the forerunners during that downtime because Jordan Roth [president of Jujamcyn Theaters] redid all the HVACS in all six of their [Broadway] theatres. So it was mid-April [2021], we're having these conversations to see if it could happen. We paired with a COVID scientist who walked us through how to do it. And they said if you make sure that everybody has been vaccinated and has masks, you will be able to do it. There were a few things about my show specifically [that made it feasible] because there are only three cast members. It's very different than those musicals that are coming in with twenty, thirty, forty people. But we tested daily. We did spit tests every day. And we had no COVID closures.

It was one of those crazy things … because I didn't grow up [imagining] the day that my shows would be on Broadway. Broadway was never really my scene or my culture. So on the one hand, it was like this beautiful experience was being plopped in my lap because this producer is saying, "Your show is so nimble and so small we can really make it happen." But on the other hand, it was this unprecedented thing and we didn't know … I mean, it was in that window of summer before [the] Delta [variant] happened. So everybody was feeling more hopeful than they'd felt in a year because people were [getting] vaccinated. But during that time (when literally all the rich New Yorkers hadn't really come back to the city, everybody was gone) we were able to offer discount tickets to everybody who was here. So that was also a beautiful thing: yes, the capitalism of it was failing, but when you looked at the audience, if I had to guess, I think the average age in the theatre was 35.

DS:

That's amazing.

AN:

Black people, Latinx people, people from all sorts of marginalized cultures [came to the show]. The number of New Yorkers that I met (when I was outside, either taking pictures or signing programs)—New Yorkers who had never seen a Broadway show, who were saying [to me], "This is my first Broadway show." It was a daily happening.

So part of it felt like the heavens opened up. In the first meetings I had with Jordan Roth, I had said I'd love to start a week or two after the legacy shows because I didn't want my show to be the canary in the coal mine. But they said "No, the space that we have is August through November." And I said "Okay, if that's the only time you have," because Broadway, I now know, is all about real estate. Theatres open up so infrequently—though [right] now it's crazy, every show is new, and I feel like people are just throwing anything at the wall, seeing what sticks. This is the most interesting [Broadway] season. I've seen so many bonkers shows, not to mention all the Black shows that let people know that we are not a monolith.

DS:

Right, and [that we] can be experimental. I remember in an interview a few years ago I was asked, "Do you feel like you have a uniquely Black aesthetic?" And I was like, "I don't know what that means." I felt my back get up a little bit.

AN:

Totally.

DS:

I said, "I'm not sure I know what that means. I come from an experimental, physical theatre background. My mother is Black, my father is Jewish. I work in new play development. I work primarily with women-identifying playwrights of color. My perspective is from my identity and my experience and in part by how I'm perceived, but I don't know what you mean by 'aesthetics.'" I was being kind, but I think they didn't really know how to [respond]. And like what we were talking about earlier with structures, there's aspects of how I'm thinking [that] might not be straightforward with regards to identity … it might be something a little stranger or crunchier. But that's also experimental practice. It was a really interesting [moment] … a "Black aesthetic?"

AN:

Yeah, I would call foul on that. If I'm an artist who identifies as Black and I have an aesthetic, then I have a Black aesthetic. And that's the definition that's going to include me. Otherwise, what does it mean? That somebody who's not Black can say, "Oh, there's the Black aesthetic"? 

DS:

Right, it's similar to the idea of a "Black play." And yes, I tend to and prefer to center Black people in the work I make and the work I participate in. I say that unapologetically—enthusiastically, actually. But the word "aesthetic" got me. I guess I [knew] what [he] meant, but also, experimental practice is super Black. People don't think of it [that way] though.

AN:

No, not in any way, shape, or form.

DS:

Writers like you, Jeremy [O. Harris], Aleshea [Harris]—that is experimental practice. Full stop. I saw Slave Play the other week. It was my first theatre show [since the shutdown], and this actually brings me to something that I want to chat about Pass Over. I didn't realize how much I missed theatre—the act of being able to sit and watch theatre, because I've been working primarily in live entertainment, but not necessarily theatre, the last few years. And it's a different grind. But I missed that feeling of leaving the audience with a crunchy question. And it is very rare, very, very rare that I leave a show and really go, "I don't know." I'm still interpreting it as I'm leaving, I am still working this out in my head. And it was so exciting.

And then you sent me the Broadway production script [for Pass Over]. My jaw dropped. Because I have the play memorized. So when the [new] ending hit, I did my best to not cry.1 I was in public, so I did my best to not cry. But my jaw hit the floor. And what a cool conversation you're having with yourself and with your collaborators. The end keeps changing because the world keeps changing, revealing itself. And I'm almost like, did that ending exist all along?

When we first had a conversation a couple of years ago, I asked you what you pictured, what you saw in space [for the play's setting]. And you said, there's a piece of land and there's this pole and this light, and then underneath are layers [of history]. And you're talking about those sedimentary layers. And I thought about these other endings, and then how many more endings will there be that are in those sedimentary layers?

AN:

Yeah, yeah. I don't know.

DS:

And then the rest, I'm unpacking. So I don't even know if there's a question in this. I think that I'm just offering gratitude—gratitude for that experience of leaving us with something awesome. Really awesome, and crunchy, and complicated, and gray. It was like yes, thank you, more please. And it was on Broadway.

AN:

Yeah. It's crazy. We're about to publish it, and we're actually publishing both versions together in the same book, because I've given people permission to do whichever version they feel their community needs, even though right now everybody is like, we'll do the Broadway version! And I'm like, you can think about it.

But that whole decision-slash-discovery was rooted in self-care, because the other side of that coin, when everything was happening around April [2021] and they were saying, "Go for this, go for this, this [opportunity] doesn't happen again." I was like, "Okay, that's amazing. And, I can't work on that play again." You know what I mean? The audience is one thing, but I was like, for me. I can't tell the story again after everything: after George Floyd, after Breonna Taylor, after COVID, after people not being in a theatre sitting next to one another. I thought about those last five minutes when people would walk out of that theatre, masks on. And I think the world still needs it [the original version of Pass Over]; it wasn't so much like, "Oh, let's stage racial reconciliation." But I needed to be able to offer myself something hopeful every night. And it's interesting, people have interpreted it different ways. But for me, in the 2018 version, I thought, "If he can overcome the cop's gun, literally, then why isn't he the same person? Wait, we just saw something magical happen. He got up and he overcame the cop's gun." So I thought, "Why can't he still do that when Mister comes?" And I remember, because I made those changes while we were in process and we started the first read through. The director [Danya Taymor] does this thing where she makes the playwright do the first read through and everybody sits [and listens]. And that's when I asked them the question, and literally for twenty minutes, we all just sat there and [processed it]. And it was the same cast from [the] Lincoln Center [production]. And they were just like, "Wait, no, why?" [And I replied], "If Superman is Superman on Tuesday, why isn't he Superman on Wednesday?" That was the way I asked it. And I do think in that moment—like I said, I had just been vaccinated [and what was] flowering was … hope. This man doesn't have to die every time you tell this story. Before, it felt like that was the only way the story could end. And now it was like, I can't tell that version again. And it was literally one of the scariest things I've ever done. Because people were like, I'm sorry, you're doing what?

DS:

It was wild.

AN: Yeah, it was an unprecedented move. But that's the kind of thing you can do when you are coming from outside. The fact that I didn't grow up within the Broad-way sphere I think was an asset, because so many people were just like, "You can't do that. You can't [change the ending]." And I said, "Well, I can. And we're going to, and that's what's happening."

DS:

What was the difference between the actors rehearsing and discovering that scene in previous stagings [like the Lincoln Center version] and then in this version? Did you notice something different in how they experienced it?

AN:

There were so many differences. First of all, just the triumph of the [new] ending. It was interesting, specifically the moment when [the character of] Ossifer becomes Christopher, which is a little magical and unexplained, and his going to the promised land was the hardest moment for [the actors] Namir [Smallwood] and John [Michael Hill]. They were just like, Why? We talked through it and they got it enough to perform it, but I don't think (to be perfectly honest with you), I don't think they ever fully bought it, that he would go [to the promised land]. And it's interesting because in conversation with Kevin R. Free who directed it at Marin [Theatre Company], Kevin himself comes from the church and understands some of that theology stuff a little bit deeper. And so he was able to get, I think, his actors onboard and was able to explain it to them. Whereas I think for Danya, the literature and the Beckett side of it is a lot stronger for her than the Bible side of it. And so that was the biggest hurdle, where they [the actors] were literally just like, "Why? He doesn't deserve it." And I was like, "But that's the beauty of the promised land. Nobody deserves it."

DS:

Yeah, I mean, my mouth dropped. 

AN:

Right. It's a big ask. But to me, that's the power of those kinds of stories. And then also, I think, because we had a little bit more money to do some actual Beckett training, it was also a little bit more fun in the room, because we got some physical Beckett stuff finally in their bodies, which was nice.

DS:

Which is what it calls for. And again, going back to "what is a Black aesthetic?"

AN:

Exactly.

DS:

It makes sense. It makes sense and clowning makes sense.

AN:

Yes, and it's so interesting how Beckett's clowns get to be tramps, but the second they're Black, [people think], "Oh, they're minstrels." And I was like, "No, there's [no] minstrelsy. They're tramps." But it was so crazy. The second you see Black men dressed this way or doing these physical gestures, people think it's minstrelsy. No, this isn't. They're tramps. They are not minstrels. This is not rooted in minstrelsy at all. And it was a racial coding that people couldn't [comprehend] that Black men could be tramps. And everything with that legacy and the clowning, it was a very interesting tell. Very interesting.

DS:

Wow. Yeah, that blows my mind a little bit.

AN:

Yeah. For a moment I thought, "I have to get back into academia to dig into what that it is—but wait, or Black men can be tramps too."

DS:

Yes. And there are certain kinds of comedy styles and genres that we can all grab from. It doesn't just have to be limited to who looks like me, who has certain plays, theories, practices, and that's what I'm rooted in. But no. Good writing's good writing.

AN:

Yes, and the body can be free to perform in that aesthetic.

DS:

Yes. I wish I could have seen it. I just appreciated reading it. And the [original] Lincoln Center version, I've reread a couple of times over the last couple of years and I love good poetry. It's also that you write [in such a way] that it tells the actor what to do … your words give the actor what they need to create a physical interpretation. There's so much direction without you giving direction that the actor just gets to meet it.

AN:

Oh, wow. Yeah. Yeah.

DS:

They just get to meet it and they just get to bring that in and find it in their body. And these are characters that live in their body. Mister is a character that lives in that actor's body and is probably a demon ancestor that he's trying to exorcise. And that's why that performer needs to be the most kind, compassionate, open, vulnerable, gritty soul to be able to hold that.

AN:

Yes, oh my gosh, yes.

DS:

To be to hold that and know that it's not about them holding it. For them to just hold that door open. The words, just give them space to just do the thing—I'm being very inarticulate right now. But it just gives them that in a way that is, I think, very unusual—that freedom in words.

AN:

Thank you. I need to hear that.

DS:

How have you celebrated this? Did you give space for celebration?

AN:

That's such a great question. I guess you can call it celebration. … I spent a month in LA right before we went into rehearsal, just sort of being cavalier and seeing my family. And that was the closest to celebration. It's definitely been a little challenging to fully celebrate. I think I'm due for some real celebration-slash-genuine vacation. Yeah, I have not really celebrated. … I haven't had real rest in that way. Life has not been kind. But, you know, the work remains in the midst.

DS:

I love how you just connected celebration and rest. I feel you on such deep levels connecting those two things.

AN:

When I think of celebration, that's what it is. I definitely think of rest. I definitely think of rest. 

 

Footnotes

1. In the earlier version of Pass Over produced off-Broadway, the main character, Moses, is killed by Mister, the wealthy white man who opposes his freedom. In the Broadway production, however, Moses bests Mister, saving his own life and ushering in the promised land for which he and his best friend Kitch have been longing.