“We need someone young to fix this,” Oskar Eustis decides.
My new, top-of-the-line recording device, purchased for this interview, is not working, and I don’t know why. I make a joke about age and technology.
Eustis, a producer of the revolutionary musicals “Fun Home” and “Hamilton,” doesn’t laugh. He just wants to solve the problem. He’d been up late the night before, directing a preview of “White Noise,” Suzan-Lori Parks’ searing exploration of race. Fine-tuning the show — in which four friends from college are confronted with the history of slavery lingering in their relationships — would keep ordinary mortals sleepless, in the best sense of the word; during last night’s preview, Eustis, battling fatigue, almost smiled as the characters debated the benefits of insomnia when woke.
“See if any 20-somethings are in the building,” Eustis tells an assistant — “the building” being New York’s Public Theater, where he’s artistic director.
Meanwhile, I flip open my reporter’s notepad and begin our interview the old-fashioned way, pen to paper, just as I’d done the first time we met, in 1988.
Then the new kid at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A., Eustis had agreed to come south from San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre to become the Taper’s assistant artistic director and dramaturg. He had one condition: He would bring a new play he’d been developing by a relative unknown named Tony Kushner. Over the next decade, Eustis and Kushner would develop the one-act into the seven-hour, two-part “Angels in America,” which won two Pulitzers for drama.
Find a young person to fix it. Back then, it was a theater scene that primarily ignored AIDS even as the disease decimated its ranks. Kushner and Eustis focused a hard light on the epidemic with “Angels in America.”
This kind of unwavering loyalty to risk-taking playwrights is what makes Eustis who and what he is — one of the foremost developers of young talent in the American theater. It was certainly a primary reason the Public Theater made Eustis artistic director in 2005. But such loyalty is never unconditional with Eustis.
“As long as the writer is willing to torture him or herself,” Kushner said, “Oskar’s right there with you.”
Personal commitment plus time lead to creative friendships and significant new works. Like Lin-Manuel Miranda and “Hamilton,” and now Parks and “White Noise.”
Seeing Eustis and Parks working at the “White Noise” preview brought to mind, surprisingly, “Game of Thrones.” Eustis, with his beard and long hair, his 6-foot-2 height and battle stance, reminded me of Eddard Stark. Parks has an ethereal gaze and dreadlocks that evoked Daenerys Targaryen, a woman also engaged in a war for freedom and democracy.
Parks has become one of the most successful playwrights in the country. She’s the first African American woman to earn the Pulitzer Prize in drama (in 2002 for “Topdog/Underdog”). The year prior, she had received the MacArthur “genius” grant. More recently, she won the Dorothy and Lillian Gish prize, along with its $300,000 award. Her film adaptation of Richard Wright’s classic novel “Native Son” premiered on HBO this month.
When Parks met Eustis, however, she was relatively unknown. After a 1990 performance of her haunting “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World” at the BACA Downtown, run by what’s now known as the Brooklyn Arts Council, Eustis and Kushner expressed their admiration. “I didn’t know them by sight,” only reputation, Parks said. “Back in the day, I used to meet a lot of people, but meeting the giants you’d go, ‘Wow, gee.’ ”
Eustis invited Parks to the Taper for a reading of her “Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom.” And so began a nearly 30-year working relationship that Eustis describes as “a mutual admiration society. We found affinities very quickly.”
In 2002, after she won the Pulitzer, Parks moved to Los Angeles, but by then Eustis was in Rhode Island as artistic director of Trinity Rep. Parks taught at CalArts and wrote screenplays as well as plays. But she never felt California was the right fit. In 2008, as if reading her mind from across the continent, Eustis phoned Parks and asked, “Do you want to come home?”
He offered her a job she couldn’t refuse: residency at the Public through a master writer chair position funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. “American playwrights need what the university system provides scholars: a place to practice her craft free of commercial pressure,” Eustis says. She would be free to write plays, or not write at all. No strings, no fine print: The Public would neither own nor control her work.
The first child of their artistic marriage was the Civil War epic “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3).” Modeled on Greek tragedies, it became a Pulitzer finalist. While watching her play night after night, she conceived “White Noise.”
“I started writing it before the Trump administration,” Parks said. “For years during the Obama administration, people would come up to me and say, ‘Isn’t it great to be living in a post-racial society?’ It was very clear to me that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done, on all of us in this country. It’s really hard to look at your own business and go, I really have to do some house cleaning first.”
However, “the play was very hard to write because it went to some deep, painful places. Often, I would start writing and not be able to withstand the intensity of the story. The characters are like friends of mine — college-educated, hip, woke, successful, nice people. And you’d never think that behind this love they have for each other, there’s this whole other thing. Racism is a virus and we all have it. So, what do we do with that information?”
Perhaps the play was hard to write because of the interracial conflicts?
“It’s not so much I’m feeling for the black folk and not so much for the white folk,” she says. “I have great love for all four characters and could not have written this if I didn’t. When we start writing about topical issues, it’s very important that we make sure we aren’t throwing anyone under the bus. It’s fashionable these days to write a play about something [political] and treat some of your characters with disregard.
“It’s not about ‘them,’ ” Parks said. “It’s about us.”
In summer 2017, Eustis and Parks were working on another play when she pulled him aside. “I’ve been writing this other thing, and I wonder if I could get the actors to read the first act.”
“She hadn’t even told me she was working on this,” Eustis says. “We just read it cold, sitting around the table. It was like she was totally in the pocket of the sound of this play, of who the characters were. We were all shocked and, by the end, in tears.”
Parks resumed the arduous excavation of “White Noise” with Eustis as director and an ensemble of Daveed Diggs, Sheria Irving, Thomas Sadoski, and Zoe Winters.
Eustis says rehearsals with Parks’ work require an idiosyncratic process. “Suzan-Lori is completely different from my friend Mr. Kushner in that she doesn’t lean into explaining things. One of the virtues of having known each other so long is that I know what she’s after, often without me having to articulate it.”
Parks doesn’t want to talk about theme and symbolism, Eustis says. “And with an actor like Daveed, you don’t have to explain.”
Parks has her own take on his method of direction: “As smart as Oskar is, all the notes for the actors come from here, his heart. They’re not like intellectualized things.”
Eustis does articulate for me and my notepad a key theme: “Suzan-Lori doesn’t believe that despair is a morally acceptable option. So she tries to find something, no matter how dark, that has some hope in it. In a way, finding the reasons to hope is one of her main themes.”
Besides working together on world premieres, they team-teach a drama course at New York University on … collaboration.
Their latest has won mostly praise. Vulture critic Sara Holden called “White Noise” eviscerating and likened the play’s mounting racial tension to “something huge and disastrous rolling toward us like the boulder in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ its speed increasing by the minute.”
Back at the Public, before our interview ends, we’re interrupted.
“Oskar, here’s the only young person I could find,” says his assistant, bringing someone in to fix the audio recorder.
I recognize the “young person” from “White Noise.” And also from “Hamilton.”
“Is this it?” Diggs picks up my recorder and does something in two seconds. “OK, I think it’s recording now.”