A Conversation about Black Odyssey with Joe Wilson Jr.

joeIt’s commonplace in theater for a show to get a lot of press leading up to its opening, then reviews, then disappear off our critical radar even though most professional productions run for weeks after that and, in fact, get even better as the actors and artists working on them settle into the work.

In an effort to dig deeper into some of the more innovative theatrical work happening in Rhode Island right now, I had a conversation with Trinity Acting Company Member Joe Wilson Jr. about co-directing and acting in the incredible Black Odyssey by Marcus Gardley that finished its run this weekend. It’s a production with a massive scope that still offers an intimate look at the American experience in ways we’ve never quite seen onstage before, and Wilson and his co-director Jude Sandy, along with their actors and designers, did an incredible job putting it together.

Here’s our conversation.

Kevin Broccoli: I was lucky enough to see the play in previews, but it was already clear that a really strong ensemble had formed, which is especially impressive knowing that some of you have probably never worked together until this production. Can you talk a little bit about what sort of work you did in rehearsal to create that unity that’s so visible onstage?

Joe Wilson Jr.: Quite frankly it started with the play. It started with this play that assembled and required African-American actors to come together and tell this epic story. The opportunity for actors of color to be able to work on this kind of material with each other is a rare thing. We, the American theater, have been struggling to expand our canon and continue to expand our canon, and we’ve done it by embracing new playwrights and other voices, but we have a lot of work to do when it comes to having a full representation of stories. But yes, the play was the thing. And the event was having nine actors of color come into a space and tell a story that was by and for them. We don’t have that opportunity very often, so that in and of itself became a wonderful galvanizing tool for our project. And I think what made our process very special and different was that Jude Sandy and I co-directed this production. I don’t know if that’s ever been done at Trinity Rep while both directors were also in the show. I think that forced Jude and me to be open and transparent with every member of the company. To be a voice and a sounding board. We weren’t looking to have typical actor/director relationships. When you get us all in a room we all have license and agency and ideas, so we created a process of openness and transparency out of necessity.  So we needed very early on to create a sense in the room that everyone had to have ownership of their work, because of the nature of our process. Remarkably, from day one, our room was open and empathetic and compassionate and honest and celebratory. We laughed a lot. We were able to look around the room and see that just us being in the room together was indeed special, and we had in our hands a remarkable piece of writing.

KB: The play is this gorgeous, sprawling epic that’s sort of like a kaleidoscope of history, folklore and mythology. It’s the sort of ambitious work some theaters are afraid to tackle, so I was thrilled to see it onstage at Trinity. What was your first experience with the piece? Did you find it and bring it to others at Trinity or was it given to you?

JW: This play was chosen a year ago and I wasn’t a part of that process. I knew I would be in the show, and due to unforeseen circumstances, the original director was no longer able to be part of the production. So with a month to go, it became a matter of all hands on deck. My first impulse was to say to Curt [Columbus, Trinity’s artistic director], “Maybe let’s try having Jude and I co-direct it,” and Curt thought it would be an incredible idea. So Jude and I had to switch our hats from actors to directors. First we had to cast the play and we had to make sure our design team was still onboard. Jude and I then had to go into crash course mode of re-reading and re-reading the play over and over again. We literally had a month to figure this all out. Casting was a challenge. It required a lot of phone calls, it required a lot of people being recommended to us. We’re discovering that as an institution we can’t just do this work in a vacuum. It requires years of relationship building the same way we build relationships with our audiences. If you don’t have the internal support and the external support, there’s no way we could have pulled this off. If we didn’t have existing relationships that we built over the course of years to have the people in those relationships trust us enough and believe in us enough, there’s just no way. So I credit my institution and the work we’ve done with community engagement.

KB: Can you talk about the music in the production? It’s an incredibly important element of the storytelling and I thought it was just remarkable.

JW: Our music director, Michael Evora, actually arranged all the music for acapella voices for us; he’s incredible. We love him. Music became the second most important thing in the play after the text. Music is so important to African-American experience in this country. Gardley goes through an historical retrospective in this piece. We knew from scene one that the playwright found the music in this play very important because in the beginning he takes us upon this episodic journey of music through the African-American culture. How are we going to handle the music? How are we going to incorporate instrumentation? How we were going to create the soundscape was critical. What made it a little more intuitive to us was that because we had to treat the sound it in such a unique way, it allowed for each of the actors to bring their own voice to the music. We were able to craft the music around our artists.

KB: One of the things that struck me about the show was how fresh it feels considering its core is a story that’s as old as time — a hero trying to get home. Marcus Gardley is both a poet and a playwright, and the play is full of this lush language, but it’s also full of theatrical events and moments. There’s sometimes a misconception that professional theaters get tons of extra time to put shows together, when really it’s the opposite. How did you decide how much time to spend on the different facets of the script — like the language and the events, for example?

JW: Well, it’s about how do you maximize the idea of creating imagery and being as evocative as possible without literally trying to be in different places? How do we allow the audience to use their imagination in as many ways as possible? How can we be evocative with bodies and space? We’re an actor-driven institution. Working with the set designer, in terms of trying to make the space as transformable as possible as quickly as possible. We knew that walls and doors and practical structure would not be our friends. Those chains that form the back wall of the theater is a mile worth of chains from end to end. We wanted something we could move easily through. This show I think is about breaking chains, it’s about breaking the cycles of oppression. And the idea of seeing through the chains, the idea of seeing past where we are, we did not want any kind of walls in this production — we have a relationship with the audience as we have a relationship with our ancestors. That idea of looking into the past as looking into the future, so we’re trying to work metaphorically on different levels. We needed the space to create evocative images and we wanted to train our audiences to not think in terms of the literal. All too often people come into a theater and they want to sit back and have a passive relationship to the work and Marcus Gardley requires that we lean forward. The message in this play is we have to stop having passive relationships to history. We have to want to understand and try to see each other.

Working in theater is a collaboration. It’s also a collaboration of scheduling. A lot of how we divide our time has to do with that. We have a cast composed of our acting company and our Providence-based artist community and members of our company who are from Boston and we have members of our company from our graduate program. Scheduling dictates a lot of how we work on the play. But to not put it all on scheduling, Jude and I committed on day one that there are a lot of times in a four-week rehearsal period where there’s an anxiousness to get on our feet as much as possible, and we committed to spend as much time around the table as needed. We read the play and talked about the play and talked about, first and foremost, what are the mechanics of the story? What does this chess board thing mean? Who are these gods? What are their relationships to African deities? And we did not rush to get to our feet. We knew that if our cast understood the play, they would understand how to behave in the world of that play. If you don’t spend enough time getting a cast on the same page of what the rules are, you get onstage and you hit a wall because actors are saying, “I don’t understand the sense of this. I don’t understand where we are and how we got here.” We knew we had too much to do in the second week of rehearsal to have actors not clear on all that. The play had to win out. We knew we could tell this story with just bodies and space. Approaching the play to tell it with that kind of clarity was the most important thing.

KB: I’m curious to hear about the process in terms of working with a co-director.

JW: Having two directors became our great strength. I work very much from the inside as an actor — very character-driven, psychologically-driven. Jude said early on, “Joe is going to be on the inside on this play.” It worked because I’m playing the emotional center of the play. And Jude is very much more of a visual person, because he’s also a dancer. So the nature of how we work individually as artists gives him a great gift. So we could tackle this play from both sides. Jude had a hand in crafting what this show was visually. We were also transparent to the cast about that. We were never afraid to say, “I don’t know. What do you think?” That gave our cast and our production team as well a sense of agency and ownership over the work.

KB: How would you tell people to watch the show? I’ve been telling friends who are seeing the show that watching it in a traditional way would be a mistake. That you sort of have to take it as it comes, because it’s this wonderful collage of music and poetry and theater all at once. Do you think that’s inaccurate? It’s such a unique piece, it feels like it needs something unique from its audience.

JW: I think it’s a very different kind of theatrical experience, but I think it’s an experience we’ve all had before. It’s using the Odyssey as a framework, but the lens is through black people in this country over the past 390 years. I think when you deal with these kind of sweeping epic productions, if you don’t allow it to wash over you, you don’t give yourself a chance to understand and be confused, and I think that’s also a metaphor for the African-American experience over the course of our existence in this country. I think African-Americans have had to find a variety of ways to exist in this country and survive, whether that be through drama or music or laughter. I think this play goes from being a study in poetry and then becomes absolutely pedestrian in its scenes in Oakland. It is a reflection of the coping mechanism of the way African-Americans have to survive this experience called America. We live in a culture and a time when we want instant gratification. We want to know now. We want the information now — without allowing ourselves to operate in spaces of not knowing. Of spaces of not understanding. Of spaces of not being comfortable. The form of the play then becomes a metaphor for that. That’s why this play is an epic journey. Ulysses finds himself floating in spaces where he doesn’t exactly know what’s going on.

KB: Now that you’ve been performing the show for awhile, what’s the cost to you as a performer?

JW: I guess what fuels us going forward with this production is the joy that we see from our cast. The gratitude that we see from our audiences. That, as an experience, it gives us the strength to keep going forward. I don’t know any play that doesn’t take a toll, but I think part of what makes this play repeatable eight times a week is what Marcus Gardley has built into this play. The resilience that comes through the music. The resilience that comes through the humor of the play. The form of the play mimics how we, as a people, have survived. The play rejuvenates us. The play keeps feeding us. There are moments in the play where I feel like I can’t go on emotionally, and the playwright gives us a song or a line or a laugh and it propels me forward. The play remains the thing and the experience is rejuvenating. Yes, it’s taxing and emotional, but it’s thrilling.

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