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Why one playwright would like her controversial work to no longer be relevant

Playwright Antoinette Nwandu
Playwright Antoinette Nwandu
(Beowulf Sheehan)

For playwright Antoinette Nwandu, recent conversations about systemic racism in the wake of social uprisings have felt all too familiar.

Nwandu grew up in Los Angeles and started attending West L.A.'s elite Brentwood School in the fall after the 1992 L.A. riots, which began when four police officers were acquitted in the violent beating of Rodney King.

Her award-winning play “Pass Over” — centered on two young black men, Moses and Kitch, struggling to survive and thrive — was partly inspired by the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin. Mixing elements from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and the biblical Exodus saga, Nwandu wrote the play as a mirror to the effects of white privilege and police brutality on Black lives.

The play itself forced difficult conversations about race and bias in theater.

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Chicago’s theater community rallied around Nwandu after the play’s 2017 premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre, partly because of a Chicago Sun-Times review, which said that Nwandu’s portrayal of a white officer was “wrong-headed and self-defeating” and that much of the violence in the Black community “is perpetrated within the community itself.”

Just one day before the play’s California premiere last year, the Echo Theater in L.A. canceled “Pass Over” because of a contentious relationship between the director, who is Black, and the L.A. theater’s white producers.

Nwandu, now based in Brooklyn, recently joined hundreds of other prominent theater-makers of color in signing the “We See You, White American Theater” protest statement calling out institutional racism in reaction to civil unrest.

An open letter protests systemic racism in the American theater. How can we can get back on track? Start by reading the plays providing a roadmap.

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In the past, the vicious cycle of Black pain was a sign to start working. Now, Nwandu is prioritizing rest.

“After the rehearsals, and the openings, and the interviews and the parties, when you’re just sitting alone with yourself, the trauma is still present,” she said. “After my work on ‘Pass Over’ was done, the ache was still there.”

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You’ve talked about your feelings around the death of Trayvon Martin while writing “Pass Over” years ago. How do you feel now, and how have you been processing everything going on?

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I feel deep mourning and sadness and a sense that the lives — George Floyd‘s life, Breonna Taylor‘s life — their lives are individually and beautifully, uniquely important. The container in which I hold my feelings feels very similar. And the feelings themselves feel very similar, that anger, that sense of defeat.

As far as my life goes, I was able to alkalize those feelings into something I thought I could put out into the world to make change, and now I don’t know. It feels like Groundhog Day, because people are like, “Oh, the play is still relevant.” There’s that constant fight between the part of me that’s like, “I want people to see my play, I want people to see this art,” and like, “Oh God, I hate that people see this play and that it’s still relevant.” The thing that makes it successful is the continued pain and the continued violence against individual Black people by this white supremacist police state.

I would love this play to fade away and not be relevant anymore — when people are like, “Oh, that relic of the past.” The feelings are very ambivalent, very mixed, but it’s mainly just couched in so much grief and so much personal mourning.

And then creatively, what do I do this time? How do I meet this moment with my creative fire this time? Because the problems are still here.

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How are you practicing self-care during this time?

Through stepping back from social media. It’s funny, I just said decrease in social media and I’m about to talk about one of my favorite social media accounts, the Nap Ministry. I have screenshot so many posts. And doing some personal work, setting up an altar in my house and literally just like a sanctuary of healing and rest.

I’ve been trying to physicalize my healing, which feels like a gift in this moment which is so, so, so dark. The time in quarantine, to actually practice the stuff that I normally just like on social media, feels like that’s a gift. The more I care for myself, the more that creative well is filled, that I’m able to do a little bit more writing.

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Many theaters have been putting out statements of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement or justice for George Floyd on social media. How have you felt about this outpouring of support?

That’s one of the things that caused me to step back, especially on my timeline and in the theater community, specifically. I keep coming back to that sense of ambivalence and I feel almost split as a human. Because on one hand, I’m deeply hopeful. But on the other hand, we are all performers. My hope is that the performance in the moment does not dissipate, does not evaporate from our collective consciousness.

And that it is the first step of deep structural change, which includes everything from certain people vacating posts of leadership, ground-level financial redistribution of wealth and finances, redistribution of time.

I don’t want to look on your feed a month, a year from now, and say, “Remember that day you wrote that statement?” I accept the emotion of the moment but I hope that the emotion of the moment is fuel to continue change. So there’s a really uncomfortable place of we’ll wait and see.

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Could you talk about your own experience as a Black woman who has made it in theater?

I wanted to complicate that notion that I’ve made it. On one hand, I’m grateful for the success of “Pass Over.” When I think about my experience and when I think about where I am as far as my relationship with my artistic self, I still see that I have so much to learn. This is a moment where I’m stepping back and letting the people who I look to as successes lead me and teach me in this moment.

Maybe “made it” isn’t the right term, but what has it been like for you in theater? What challenges have you faced within the institution of theater?

I will go to the hopeful side. My experience of myself as a Black woman in the theater feels so deeply intertwined and interconnected with my Black female peers. And so, my growth is deeply, deeply connected to the growth of other Black women playwrights like Katori Hall, like Dominique [Morisseau], like Lynn Nottage, like Aziza Barnes, like C.A. Johnson.

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Yes, I have faced institutional racism. Yes, I have felt like I’m knocking on a wall that doesn’t even have a door. But I never feel like I’m doing that by myself, in this moment, in real time.

Whereas when I look to some of my ancestors and some of the women that I learned from one, two generations back, it feels like their reporting on what they faced was so much more isolated and singular. I’m thinking of people like Adrienne Kennedy. I’m thinking of people like Seret Scott — I’ve worked with her now.

I have to lead with gratitude if I’m going to have a good evening. And part of my gratitude is I never feel like I’m fighting alone.

Are there any experiences that you’ve found particularly uplifting?

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Everything that happened at Steppenwolf was uplifting. The way the ChiTAC [Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition] community lifted me up. I felt seen and taken care of by people who were strangers to me. And I still have connections and relationships with people where it’s again the sense that you’re not fighting alone.

When we share those stories, when we collectivize, it becomes a more socialist model. A model where phrases that seemed crazy, like the redistribution of wealth or universal healthcare, can actually become realistic.

What’s really vibrating and what’s really coming to the fore is the fact that I will never believe the lie again that I’m alone. When I started this career, that was sort of the lie that I was wrapped up in. Regardless of the response from institutions, the one thing that this moment will not take from me is that I’m not alone.

What kind of specific and actionable changes would you like to see theater gatekeepers make to move the culture forward, past the social media posts?

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The complete upheaval of leadership at institutions of every size. The redistribution of institutional money and the transparency of how that money is spent. A radical reimagining of the audiences in these institutions — so who are we spending the money on? And who are we spending the money for so that the artistic offerings themselves are attractive across class, race, gender narratives. I think all of those are intertwined, because when leadership changes, vision changes, hiring practices change. Every decision point changes.

Is there anyone who is doing this kind of work now or institutions already on the path toward this model?

I think about Nataki Garrett at Oregon Shakes [Oregon Shakespeare Festival]. I think about Stephanie Ybarra at Baltimore Center Stage. I think we were in the precursor conversation about this. And now, because of the combination of pandemic plus everybody has the time, plus deep unrest, I think those beginning steps are now maybe not enough.

What are you working on now and what’s next for you? What do you hope to do when things return to some version of normal?

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I am right now going back to square one in doing the personal work so that when I do begin to write again for the stage, I will know myself and I will have divested myself of some of my own internalized, institutional [crap]. My own internalized racism and the wounds that I’ve had. So on one hand, for the theater I’m in sort of pause mode right now, but I’m healing. And then for paying my bills, I’m working on TV, film stuff.

If I could write the perfect play to heal the world — but I’m not, I can’t do it by myself. That’s the thing, the hope and the cynicism are there but I’m investing in the hope. I’m trying to get back to zero with journaling and just seeing what’s there. What a moment — how do people create things right now? I don’t know.

Spike Lee’s film version of “Pass Over” is streaming on Amazon Prime. Would you recommend people watch the play now if they haven’t seen it or want to revisit?

I’ve actually gotten a resurgence of people asking about it. If you’re coming to watch the play so that you can feel good or check off some sort of passive, activist action thing, then no. But if you’re coming to the play as part of a larger conversation and part of the larger work of dismantling racism and white supremacy, then yes, I invite everyone to that large and growing table.


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