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Cover Story Interviews

The Clothes Are Always Talking

By Mark Blankenship

Dede Ayite

Before she became a costume designer, Dede Ayite studied behavioral neuroscience, and the two disciplines aren’t as different as they might sound. 

“Part of my training [in college] was focused on understanding psychology, and the process of research and uncovering gave me skill sets that come into costume design,” she says. “I’m trying to go past what you’re seeing on stage to add depth and layering to the character. What makes them come alive? What moves them? What breaks their heart? I love finding ways to express that, and to my mind, it all translates to costumes.”

The breadth of Ayite’s expressive power is reflected in the current race for the Tony Awards, where she has two nominations for Best Costume Design of a Play. On one end of the aesthetic spectrum, she’s been recognized for her work on Slave Play, Jeremy O. Harris’ formally audacious satire about interracial couples who enact plantation fantasies to work through their sexual and personal baggage. On the other, she’s also been nominated for the revival of A Soldier’s Play, Charles Fuller’s drama about the murder of a Black soldier in he 1940s. 

Production Still from “Slave Play”

With Slave Play, she knew her clothes had to match the heightened world of the script. In the first scene, for instance, the audience doesn’t know that the characters are modern people pretending to live in the antebellum South. “I wanted to drop little hints, so that we didn’t get ahead of the satire,” Ayite says. 

Production Still from “Slave Play”

That’s why, when the character Kaneisha entered wearing a slave costume, it read as “traditional” from the neck down: a dirty blouse, a cloth skirt, and a well-worn apron. “But I also threw a head scarf on her that was a bold blue color,” Ayite notes. “During that time, a slave wouldn’t be wearing such a vibrant head wrap, so that shifted it enough to make us aware that something was a little off.” Similarly, she added lacy black gloves to another character’s plantation mistress outfit, hinting at the sexual fetishes she would reveal later. 

With a more realistic show like A Soldier’s Play or David Mamet’s American Buffalo, which Ayite will design for its upcoming Broadway revival, the costumes have to do just as much storytelling, but it has to be almost invisible. “Those are the hardest kinds of shows!” Ayite says, laughing. “A pair of jeans is never just a pair of jeans. You’re sorting through potentially 50 pairs of jeans to find the one that moves the right away and has the right tone and color.”

Production Still from “A Soldier’s Play”

In A Soldier’s Play, all the characters wore similar military uniforms, but Ayite was still able to reflect their individuality. “I personalized their uniforms through several distressing techniques:  sweat, wear and tear, the degree to which a uniform has been cared for,” she says. “Did a particular uniform have a crease because that soldier was adamant about always looking sharp? Or did it fit a tad looser based on that soldier’s relationship to their role in the military?” 

Dede Ayite

Currently her preparations for the American Buffalo revival have her thinking about how Donny, a junk shop owner in 1970s Chicago who will be played by Laurence Fishburne, might present himself. “I want to honor where he is and what survival means to him,” she says. “He might not be dressed in something from the time period of the play. He might be dressed in a garment from a slightly earlier time period — a time when he was at the height of who he thought he was. He might be dressing as the person he used to be.”

This deep thinking is crucial to Ayite’s work. She explains, “The first read of the script is the most important to me, because after I read a play for the first time, I give myself a moment to tap into my immediate emotional reactions. I make a point to hold that somewhere in my mental space. I’m always hearkening back to it to make sure I then can capture that for an audience member.”

Dede Ayite’s work in “American Son”

In some ways, that first read of the play is the closest Ayite will ever come to being an audience member for the production herself. Acknowledging her own first reactions helps ensure that her designs keep the audience in mind. “I want to remind myself about what happened to me when I read it,” she says. “If there was wonder, how do I create wonder? I want to take audiences on that type of journey through specific choices with the clothes.” 

Mark Blankenship is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper and the co-host of Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs

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Interviews

David Cromer: The Sound Inside

By Harry Haun

Tony Award Winning Director David Cromer

‘Even though I know how to write a play, I want a novella in the theatre.’ I was excited by that. You couldn’t put the story down. It was so evocative. It was like diving into a beautiful novel.

Because director David Cromer more or less specializes in drama—much more than less but not exclusively—he was surprised to get his 2018 Tony for a musical. Granted, “The Band’s Visit” was a character-rich musical and he fortified it with three Tony-winning performances from the cast (Tony Shalhoub, Katrina Lenk and Ari’el Stachel), the turf was still unfamiliar to him. It was to be Hal Prince’s last show, and, when he couldn’t make it, its producers scouted around for a likely replacement, their sites finally settling on Cromer because of the care and craft he showed drama.

Production Still of “The Band’s Visit”

Currently, Cromer is contending for his second Tony more comfortably with something right down his alley. “The Sound Inside” is a play that theatrically pushes the envelope. 

Its author is the prolific Adam Rapp. Like Cromer, he is a Chicago native who started his invasion of New York’s theatre scene in 2000 by transplanting his Steppenwolf productions Off-Broadway. In 21 years, he has turned out 26 plays, one of which (“Red Light Winter”) was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2006. “The Sound Inside” marks his first time on Broadway and his first shot at a Tony. 

Adam Rapp with David Cromer

“I’ve known Adam forever, in Chicago and here,” Cromer says. “We actually have the same agent. When this play came up, I was given it to read. Usually if I get a new play, I procrastinate, fearing the worst. This, I whip through in one sitting and said yes.”

Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman in “The Sound Inside”

At first glance, the director found much to admire about the piece. “It was just so rich. I love that it challenged the theatre form. Adam is a very gifted playwright who wrote a play which he was aggressively turning back into prose. He said, ‘Even though I know how to write a play, I want a novella in the theatre.’ I was excited by that. You couldn’t put the story down. It was so evocative. It was like diving into a beautiful novel.

“I was drawn to trying to explore the feeling of reading prose by yourself, reading a great novel on a cold night, with only one light on, at home—but in the communal experience.”

David Cromer in “Our Town”

 “The Sound Inside” had its shakedown-cruise premiere in June of 2018 at Mandy Greenfield’s Williamstown Theatre Festival and opened on Broadway in October of 2019 at Studio 54. Mary-Louise Parker, who’s performance is Tony-nominated, carries a star’s load of the show alone, playing a seriously ill Yale creative-writer professor who narrates the play verbally but constantly scribbles in her notebook as if she’s writing the story she’s living. A Broadway-bowing Will Hochman plays the only other character in the play, a wannabe young writer she takes under her wing to mentor, hoping he can come to her aid. 

Parker, one of our most articulate and persuasive actresses, was already attached to the project when Cromer came aboard. “I don’t know what Adam was thinking when he wrote it, but he may have done what he always does, which is to write and then he finds an actor later,” figures Cromer. “Mandy and Adam and Mary-Louise had already decided that they wanted to do that play at Williamstown, and I was the last piece of the puzzle and I think she and I were a good team. I would love to take credit for that performance, but I can’t. She’s one of the best there is.

Mary-Louise Parker in “The Sound Inside”

The amount of memory work Parker’s part requires was pretty staggering. “It was, I’m sure, very difficult for her to do. It was a problem because it also kept changing. It evolved. Mary-Louise has great instinct about the progress of a play, and Adam was doing beautiful work rewriting while we rehearsed. It was hard, and we all just kept making it harder—but to the betterment of the play.”

Mary-Louise Parker

“Mary-Louise must manifest so much of it and not have anything but her voice to do it. She was alone a lot of the time. We were happy when Will came on, but she had to spend most of it alone.”

David Cromer with Will Hochman

Hochman was a find the director is particularly proud of. “Will was the last guy who came in. He heard about the play, got to read it and really hustled. He came in and said—not literally, of course—‘No one will work harder on this than me. No one will give you everything they’ve got like me.’ So that was exciting. When he left the room, Mary-Louise said ‘Yup, that’s the one.’

“What’s interesting about Will is that he wanted to be an actor all his life, and he wouldn’t admit it. He went to college and studied finance, and finally, late in college—it was like coming out of the closet—he said, ‘Goddammit, I want to be an actor.’ And, a couple of years later, he’s starring in this play on Broadway. He had not spent his life preparing to do it, and then, through grit and determination, got it there. You hope The Guy is going to come in and appear. You hope you can solve this terrible problem, which is we don’t have anyone for the play. He came in and won it.”

Production Still from “The Band’s Visit”

The drama at hand comes at you in a kind of theatrical freefall where you’re offered a variety of interpretations, not the least of which is that the whole story might have happened in the head of Parker’s character. Cromer believes it’s a matter of sorting out what’s real and what’s not.

David Cromer acting in “The Waverly Gallery”

“Mary-Louise’s character wrote a piece about a kid who ran through a wall. She called the kid Billy Baird, and her name is Bella Baird. In the play she tells us her mother had neurofibromatosis, that terrible illness that creates tumors and becomes cancerous. Then later, when she finds out she has cancer, she doesn’t want to go through what her mother went through. She says, ‘I don’t have neurofibromatosis. I just have good old-fashioned cancer.’

“That’s what Adam’s mother died of. First of all, none of it is real. It’s all created. Bella’s a teacher at Yale, and Adam was a teacher at Yale. Every life is made up of a bunch of little details. It’s all constructed out of other things. Everything we look at is made out of other things. It’s all real, it’s all happening, and then none of it is happening. I change my mind about what is true in this play all the time. 

“Adam lived it–so it’s all real, and, simultaneously, none of it is real–which is the pure nature of art. It can be interpreted many ways. I interpret it many ways depending on the day, and actors will interpret it different ways on different days.”

David Cromer in “Our Town”

Harry Haun has covered theater and film in New York for over 40 years. His writing has appeared in outlets such as Playbill Magazine (“On the Aisle” and “Theatregoer’s Notebook”), New York Daily News (where he wrote a weekly Q&A column (“Ask Mr. Entertainment”), New York Observer, New York Sun, Broadway World and Film Journal International.

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pre-publish

The Sound Inside: Heather Gilbert

By: Heather Gilbert

In the before times, we used Zoom to design “The Sound Inside”. Scattered around the world, we came together on a morning in March 2018 for the first time, some in person and some virtual, for our first meeting for the show. This is always my favorite moment–to hear David Cromer’s words, to listen deeply and hear what is important, what we want to explore and where the weight is.

These are the notes I took that morning. 

So sad 

So cold

Time of year when it is dark too early

Bleak but woodsy 

Is color still a thing 

And you are 

Fast simple spare

Things appear

She stands right of center a little US and on a diagonal 

Things only appear when we need them

Trees in the common appear

Christopher invades the show

Us carving our way through the dark

My old friend, the brilliant director, is also quite the poet.

Production Still from “Our Town” with David Cromer (center).

Carving our way through the dark, things appearing when we need them.

And that is the job of the lighting designer—to combine poetry with physics and make the play shine.

Production Still from “The Sound Inside”.

The puzzle in the job is figuring out where to put each light, figure out the angle and the direction that will catch the edge of the desk just so, but not hit the huge black serge walls behind the office, that scenery so perfectly designed to hide itself until we wanted another element revealed.  What are the exact lights to shift Bella and Christopher in a mere breath to a new afternoon—and is that a fade of 6 seconds or a blink of 0?

Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman in “The Sound Inside”.

Does the shape of the window change as we move from afternoon to evening? Is a 15th light with shutter cuts just to the upper body of Mary-Louise Parker sitting at her desk to make her float slightly differently in the third scene in the office really necessary? (The answer is yes, it totally was) 

Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman in “The Sound Inside”.

Creating worlds like Bella’s kitchen and transforming it into the hotel room in Christopher’s novel was a huge part of designing the show, but I really loved the part of the design where Mary-Louise Parker would tell her story to the audience, standing in the empty void—just her and Adam’s words and my light. For me, that felt like a dance, starting from the super slow fade up at the top of the show, with Mary-Louise standing right of center, a little US and on a diagonal. Just like David said the first meeting.


Heather Gilbert
 is an award-winning lighting designer based in Chicago. Recently Heather designed Ms Blakk For President with Tina Landau and Dance Nation with Lee Sunday Evans at Steppenwolf Theatre. She was nominated for a 2020 Tony Award for her work on The Sound Inside directed by David Cromer, for which she also won the Drama Desk Award and was an honoree for the Outer Critics Circle. Other productions with David Cromer include Our Town in London, Chicago, New York, LA, Boston, and Kansas City, and BUG at Steppenwolf Theatre for which she won a Jeff Award for Best Lighting Design.

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Interviews

Making His Mark

By: Linda Armstrong

Robert O’Hara, the Tony nominated director of “Slave Play”–a play that made Broadway history by being nominated for 12 Tony nominations–is a perfect example of someone who is doing what he loves, doing what he believes in and acknowledges that he is part of a legacy that includes his mentor George C. Wolfe, Lorraine Hansberry and Douglas Turner Ward. O’Hara knew he wanted to be in theatre from a young age, as he used to perform plays in his grandmother backyard, then he performed plays in elementary and high school. When he first enrolled in Tufts University he thought about studying law and had theatre as a minor. But he recalled, “In college you find out who you are. I came out of the closet in college. I discovered ‘The Colored Museum’ by George Wolfe. I and another student formed the Tufts Black Theatre Company. Being in college, where I could concentrate on theatre as not just being something you do after class, being able to concentrate on it as a real major, was important to me. College allowed me the space and the time to discover who I was. My last couple in years in college is when I decided this was going to be my major.”  

Acting, playwright and directing in college through Tufts Black Theatre Company was something that just seemed natural to O’Hara. “It wasn’t difficult for me because I enjoyed it so much and looked at it as a hobby. I didn’t think of it as difficult, I thought of it as something I liked to do. I didn’t know that writing and directing were supposed to be difficult. In college I decided to go directly to graduate school and become a director. I knew I loved theatre and I knew I needed to get professional training as soon as possible. I wanted to be able to compete on the same level as other people in the profession. There was an arts community in college that made me feel comfortable, everybody is a bit of an odd ball searching for something,” O’Hara shared.

Robert O’Hara

Attending Columbia University where he received his masters in theatre was life changing. He was fortunate enough to intern at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre and not only meet his idol, George C. Wolfe, but be mentored by him. Here was O’Hara, a gay, Black man, who was now in the presence of another gay, Black man who was a genius and successful in the field that he loved. “The Public Theatre was seminal in my development as an artist mentored by George C. Wolfe. Being mentored by another Black, queer director who was running the institution was very empowering. The mentorship was not easy, it was tough love and it taught me and gave me a very thick skin. It was very visceral and volatile at times and challenging and rewarding. It also gave me a respect for how to work with other artists. It wasn’t just following someone as a writer/director, but the leader of an institution. He dealt with staff, maintenance, and the day-to-day operations. He was also directing one of the most important plays in history, ‘Angels in America.’ I went on to assistant him in ‘Bring in Da Noise/Bring In Da Funk’. He assisted in my first play being mounted (Insurrection: Holding History) and allowed me to direct it. So, I would not have started if it wasn’t for George Wolfe and the Public Theatre.”

Wolfe influenced O’Hara a great deal. “George always lived authentically as himself and showed all the flaws and blemishes of being a human being. He didn’t try to be a superhero. When you are around a genius you find the human being ain’t cute–he allowed me to see all his humanity. George was never pretending, when he was upset, he was upset, when he was outraged, he was outraged, when he was happy, he was happy. He knew he was in a position where people looked at him differently. We didn’t talk about being Black and gay, we just did the work. It was the example that he led by his talent and artistry that allowed me to be proud of who I am. My relationship with a Black gay mentor is that I am enough and who I am matters.”

Through his career O’Hara has written and directed several plays and received accolades for his work. Works that often dealt with unconventional subjects. His play “Insurrection: Holding History” was about a young gay, Black man at Columbia getting his masters and at the time O’Hara was doing just that. The play received the 1996 Newsday Oppenheimer Award for Best New American Play. This same play Wolfe opened at The Public Theatre on Oct. 11. 1996. “Brave Blood” talked about a psychiatrist trying to help female prostitutes with their lives. “14: An American Maul,” talked about reinstating slavery to harvest cotton by hand. “Antebellum”, focused on social injustice and won the 2010 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play. “The Etiquette of Vigilance”, continued where Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin In The Sun” left off, following Travis, the boy in the play, daughter Lorraine’s life and hopes to go to college.

Production still from “Bootycandy”.

“Bootycandy” that used vignettes to share comedic and satirical themes on what it means to be a gay Black man in America won the Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Drama. “Barbecue”, looked at a family coming together to do an intervention for a drug abusing female member.

Production Still from “Barbecue”.

Considering what he wants audiences to come away with when they experience his work, O’Hara said, “What I ask an audience to take away is the diversity of voices and experiences. My work is unique because of the way I walk through the world. I’m not allowed to work in a superior manner. No one makes me comfortable as a gay Black man. Why am I here to make you comfortable when I live an uncomfortable life? I think my job is to take you on an adventure. I don’t’ think of myself as trying to provoke or make people upset, I just tell interesting stories that are interesting to me. Others who don’t look at the world through my eyes might think it risky. All my life I’ve been different, different is a good thing. My sexuality and race as a gay Black man doesn’t lead me out the door, the world tells me that every day. I don’t think about it in my work, it just shows up. For my survival I have to be aware of who I am as Black and gay and more importantly who other people are.”

Danai Gurira and Robert O’Hara.

In Los Angeles, O’Hara received the NAACP Award for Best Director for “Eclipsed.” Discussing his vision for that poignant drama he shared, “It is a very powerful play. I had already worked with Danai {Gurira} and I was lucky enough to have her there to guide me and the cast. I wanted to give it the weight that it needed and that these were real people and that this behavior existed, though it’s set in a foreign land. I’m aware of the imagery we present about Africa. My job in directing it was to allow the women to lead and to make space for them. I did the research that was necessary to participate in directing them. I think Danai is such an amazing talent that I was just there for the ride. I had to make sure that the play didn’t come so harsh that one can’t watch it or so light that one didn’t know the weight.”

Jeremy O. Harris, playwright and Robert O’Hara, director.

Considering all the productions he participated in either as playwright or director and him getting to direct “Slave Play” at the New York Theatre Workshop, O’Hara humbly said, “I think that everything in life sort of prepares you for the next thing and Jeremy {O’Harris-playwright of ‘Slave Play’} was a fan of my work and a student of mine after he wrote ‘Slave Play’. He has admired my work and I see a lot of myself in him. To me this was just an extension of the work that I had already been doing. My career prepared me to deal with a play that dealt with sexuality, race, humor and society. Jeremy and I can acknowledge to each other that there’s a legacy that links us to George Wolfe, Lorraine Hansberry, Douglas Turner Ward, no one operates in a vacuum.”

Production Still from “Slave Play”.

Talking about what stands out for him with “Slave Play”, O’Hara explained, “The race and sexuality are secondary, what’s most important is the human condition of each character and that was colored by whether it was gay men or a white woman. We start with–what is the play saying at this moment? The 2nd act of the play is an hour of people sitting and talking. How do you make that active? You do that by giving each of them humanity. You have to know what everybody’s journey is so that you don’t step on it. Everybody has to be telling their story. To the audience it feels natural and seamless, but everything is orchestrated.”

“I didn’t believe it,” O’Hara shared as he talked about when “Slave Play” was being moved to Broadway. “I told the producer I don’t believe a word coming out of your mouth. I was too skeptical, I have seen Broadway, I know what’s been on Broadway, I didn’t believe it. The general managers called my agent and he said ‘believe it’. I had never seen anything like ‘Slave Play’ on Broadway and that was both glorious and terrifying,” O’Hara admitted.

On the morning of the Tony nominations O’Hara recalled doing a zoom call with the full cast, toasting each other and giving each other love. Feeling that they weren’t going to be nominated at all. O’Hara’s feeling of disbelief continued, though a couple of hours later everything changed. “It was the most nomination of a play in Broadway history, we thought they made a mistake. That’s how I protect my heart,” he shared.

O’Hara is proving himself a force to be reckoned with.

Linda Armstrong is a theatre critic with the New York Amsterdam News, Theatre Editor for Neworldreview.net, A&E Editor for Harlem News Group and has written for Playbill Online, had a Theatre column “On The Aisle” for Our Time Press, Network Journal Magazine, Show Business Weekly Newspaper, Headliner Magazine, Theatre Week Magazine, Black Masks Magazine, and The New York Daily News.

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Interviews

The Sound Inside: Adam Rapp

By Will Hochman

But I knew deep in my bones that I was the right person for the job and I did everything I knew how to make that a reality.

“I think there’s something about the life force of making a play that is sort of the antithesis of cynicism,” Adam Rapp tells me on the phone. “You know, we don’t get paid very much money. We don’t get our lunches paid for. We show up and we do this absurd thing where we’re making a story up and we’re hurting each other and we’re loving each other and we’re creating actions onstage for an audience to witness and to digest and then we go drink together and then we talk about it and then we fall in love together and then we do another one.” 

Adam has been “doing another one” for almost thirty years. He’s the opposite of a cynic. He’s an inspiring, caring, hilarious man utterly committed to his work and to the people with whom he brings that work to life. He’s written an astonishing twenty-eight plays. His work has been produced all over New York, the country, and the world. He is a bonafide theater legend. He’s a Pulitzer Prize Finalist with his play Red Light Winter. He’s published eleven novels and two graphic novels and written two films and directed three. The man is prolific. And, at last, in 2019, he arrived on The Great White Way with The Sound Inside. He finally made his Broadway debut. And, somehow, with only a few years of experience, so did I. 

Production Still from Red LIght Winter

By the time I auditioned for The Sound Inside, which would first run for two weeks at the 2018 Williamstown Theatre Festival, I had only a small handful of professional acting credits. I graduated from college in 2014 with a degree in economics and only three semesters of acting experience. I never did theater in high school. The first time I properly gave it a go was halfway through college. I probably had some amount of natural skill. But I had infinite curiosity and an insatiable hunger to make it all, somehow, happen. And with this play, somehow, it happened. Maybe I was in the right place at the right time. Maybe it was luck. Maybe it was preordained. I don’t know. But I knew deep in my bones that I was the right person for the job and I did everything I knew how to make that a reality. It felt then, and continues to feel now, even a year after the show closed, like catching a bolt of lightning. I’m endlessly grateful. I’m in awe of the entire experience.

Will Hochman and Mary-Louise Parker

Adam says that with each play you make a crazy little family. I think he’s right. There’s a unique place in my heart for Mary-Louise Parker and David Cromer and the rest of our masterful team. Since I came on board back in 2018, Adam has become a dear friend. I admire his work and am inspired by his approach. I’m thrilled that he finally arrived on Broadway and that he did it with such a bang and, my goodness, that I got be a part of it. The Sound Inside was a hit, a critic’s pick, and is now nominated for six Tony awards. It’s quite the accomplishment. So, at the request of our fearless producer, Jeffrey Richards, I called Adam in February to talk about his extraordinary, and long, journey as a playwright.

Will Hochman, Mary-Louise Parker, Adam Rapp & David Cromer (from left to right)

“I just didn’t think it would ever happen,” he tells me when I ask him about making it to Broadway. Adam wrote his first play in 1993. He had just arrived in New York. I was, admittedly, an infant. The play was called Prosthetics and the Twenty-Five Thousand Dollar Pyramid. “It was a crazy, crazy, crazy play where a hand grenade was onstage and someone had a fake penis and someone professed their love to someone else under gunpoint,” he says. (As is often the case when talking with Adam, I find that I’m laughing.) It was his first hands-on experience with theater. He was, like I was twenty years later when I moved home to the city, totally new to it. He was hooked. “I loved what a play did to the audience,” he tells me. “I loved the social event of it.” 

Will Hochman and Mary-Louise Parker

Adam found himself in the theater. “In terms of writing plays, writing fiction, telling stories, being a storyteller, directing, working with people, it’s something that I really, really love to do. And I feel so lucky that I get to do it. I love making things with people. So it kind of became just a practical, vocational thing.” He committed himself to making it happen. This would be his life.

“You know, there’s something about creation that feels incredibly powerful,” he tells me. “You’re making something and it’s out of nothing and people are gonna come witness it and then you might talk about it and they might even be moved by it. They might even be changed by it in some small way. They might, like, go call their kid or they might call an old friend or they might reach out to somebody that they haven’t before. There’s something about that and about being able to attempt that that made me feel worthy.” I know exactly how he feels. It made me feel worthy, too. He goes on, “It made me feel like I had a place in the world, because I didn’t before that. I was just a, kind of, I was kind of lost. I was obsessed with basketball and reading and books and trying to write novels and you know that can be very, very, very lonely. I didn’t have a social life. I couldn’t find my place in the world. So the theater and making plays, it gave me incredible purpose. I feel so lucky.”

Adam had purpose. He had work. And he poured everything he had into it. I ask him about that, about his commitment and his drive. He tells me, “One of the great things that Marsha Norman used to say,” she was one of his mentors when he attended Juilliard for playwriting, “is that all of the ups and downs and the successes and the failures, they mean something. But the thing that means most is getting your body of work out there. Getting a body of work in the world and having it be witnessed and having it be digested and having it be published. That is the true mark of excellence.”

Adam Rapp

Adam became a staple theater maker in the city. His plays appeared everywhere off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway. He wrote. He directed. He directed what he wrote. He collaborated with everyone. But despite the decades and the steadily growing body of work, Broadway wouldn’t come. “I just couldn’t figure out the right way to – you know, I just didn’t have the luck or I didn’t have a good enough play or I didn’t have the right combination of things. And the few times that it almost happened, it just sort of fell short. So I was resigned to the idea that Off-Broadway is an incredibly sophisticated audience and a great way to continue to make art and make my work and I was totally fine with that. It wasn’t going to discourage me. I was going to continue to write the plays that I was going to write.”

So he put his head down and he made his work. He asked hard questions. He challenged his audiences. He, in his words, freaked people out. He churned out play after play after play and, finally, in 2019, something clicked into place and he arrived on Broadway. He made it. 

I ask him how it felt. He takes a breath. “It was definitely vindicating.” And the Tonys? “It was really exciting to be nominated,” he says. “I was really happy. It’s always nice to be recognized. I don’t know what artist doesn’t want to be recognized. It’s really hard what we do. It’s really hard to arrive at that level and to succeed at that level.” No kidding. How many people dream of working as a theater maker or making it to Broadway or getting nominated for a Tony Award? How many people are nominated for six?

Adam has been succeeding and failing and succeeding again for about as long as I’ve had a pulse. He’s well aware that as wonderful as it was to make it to Broadway and then to be recognized for it, the successes can be, frankly, hard to predict. “It’s all so weirdly random. That’s one of the things that theater has taught me. Just when you think you have the Rolls Royce, it’s not. It’s the Volkswagen Bug. And just when you think you have the Volkswagen Bug, it becomes the Rolls Royce. You just can’t predict it.” 

Brothers, Anthony and Adam Rapp

So, what does a person do in the face of so much uncertainty? How does a person navigate the unpredictable world of theater? For Adam, you control the only thing that you can. You go back to the reason you did it in the first place. You work. If you’re a writer, you write. If you’re an actor, you act. You keep showing up. You keep doing the work. “Just knowing that the play got produced and that the play is having a life and that the theater supported you and your body of work is expanding. That’s always kept me, you know, hopeful.”

“A lot of people come to NY and are trying to make work and can struggle to get the first thing done. It’s hard. It’s hard to maintain your confidence. It’s hard to feel vital. It’s hard to feel like you matter. But I’ve always said, my whole career, whenever anyone asks, “What piece of advice can you give somebody?” Don’t wait for anybody to anoint you. Just make something in your living room. Make something in a garage. Make something in a basement. And then invite your friends and your family. Don’t wait. Make work. Because that’s how you learn and get better.” 

And then, maybe one day, after the uncountable hours of learning and growth and success and failure and the years of rejection and acceptance and doing it all again, maybe you pick your head up and you raise your eyes to the entrance of a theater, and maybe there’s your name, maybe it’s glowing in the lights, and maybe there’s the audience vibrating with anticipation, heading inside to see something new and to be amazed and to be all together, and maybe, just maybe, smack in the middle of New York City, there you are, taking it all in, a person who makes theater, a person on Broadway.

Will Hochman is an actor and, on occasion, writer, photographer, director, and filmmaker. He was born and raised in Brooklyn. Recent theater credits include: “The Sound Inside” original cast at the Williamstown Theater Festival and on Broadway at Studio 54, “Dead Poets Society” original cast at Classic Stage Company, “Sweat” at CTG Mark Taper Forum. Recent films: “Let Him Go” (Focus Features), “Critical Thinking” (directed by John Leguizamo). Recent TV: “Blue Bloods.” Upcoming: “Master” (Amazon Studios)

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Interviews

The Sound Inside- Mandy Greenfield

By: Mandy Greenfield

The first time I read Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside, I felt like I’d been given access to the inner thoughts and feelings of someone I’d never met but, somehow, knew and wanted to know for the rest of my life; the characters came off the page with such arresting specificity, nuance, complexity and humanity.

Mary-Louise Parker in “The Sound Inside” at Williamstown Theatre Festival

Reading Adam’s dramatic incantation was deeply intimate—the day of that first read, alone, at home, only I got to delight in the humor, pain, brilliance and pathos of Bella Lee Baird’s relationship with her student, with her own writing, with her student’s writing, with reading, with her body, with the bracing snow that falls each winter on the New Haven Green. I loved this play instantly, and, like Bella herself says about reading a novel, “Loving a book is kind of like having an affair, after all.”

Will Hochman and Mary-Louise Parker

I marveled as Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman, under the exquisite direction of David Cromer and in the hands of a gifted team of designers, including the brilliant Heather Gilbert and astonishing Daniel Kluger, translated the intimacy and intensity of Adam’s words on the page into three dimensional, theatrical life on our Nikos Stage in the summer of 2018. It was with a mix of elation and jealousy that I listened to one hundred and seventy people exit the theatre after the curtain call of our world premiere production: I was elated that the audience responded so demonstrably, leaping to their feet for the curtain call. I was jealous that I had to let those one hundred and seventy people share in my affair with the play..

Mary-Louise Parker, Adam Rapp, David Cromer and Will Hochman (from left to right)

In the fall of 2019, nearly one thousand people listened and watched nightly as Mary-Louise and Will spun this most personal, detailed and surprising tale on a platform we, frankly, feared would be too large for so quiet a story:  the stage of Studio 54, part of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s campus of midtown theatres.  Joined by the devoted audiences of Lincoln Center Theatre, the organization which originally commissioned Adam to write the play, and led by the fearless and kind commercial producer Jeffrey Richards, audiences left mesmerized by Mary-Louise’s virtuosic, endlessly gripping and inventive performance; the actors, the design, the production, the words filled that glorious Broadway theatre seemingly effortlessly; David Cromer is, after all, as skilled a magician as directors come. I was, once again, thrilled and inexplicably crushed to share this play — one of the most intimate and beautiful works of theatre I’ve encountered. 

For, the play belonged to the vast audience of Broadway now.  Since then, Audible, with whom Williamstown Theatre Festival collaborated on the entirety of our 2020 season, has released The Sound Inside on its platform.  What began as a secret love affair in my apartment, as I read Adam’s haunting, dramatic words, was now as out in the open – and in the ears of audiences world-wide — as a thing can be.

Williamstown Theatre Festival Historic Building

Writing this, I am put in touch with how far away all of these feelings are; I can recall them but, honestly, I no longer feel them:  the global health pandemic, the year-long shut down of theatres in this country, a renewed movement for social and racial justice, a political insurrection in Washington, focus on vaccine dissemination and endless planning for the reopening of theatres all collude to make The Sound Inside – its critical acclaim, its Broadway life, its Tony accolades — seem irrelevant, meaningless. 

Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman in “The Sound Inside

And then, I think again – and I listen to the sound inside – and I am reminded by this long-lost lover that a truly great play reminds us that we are alive,  that we’re complexly human, that to live an unexamined life is not to live at all.  The Sound Inside is testament to the ancient power of theatre to provoke, move and transform us.  Just Listen, you’ll remember, too.

Mandy Greenfield is the Artistic Director of Williamstown Theatre Festival.  Prior to joining WTF, Ms. Greenfield served as Artistic Producer of Manhattan Theatre Club where she produced more than seventy-five world and American premiere plays and musicals both on and off Broadway.

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The Sound Inside: Daniel Kluger

By: Harry Haun

“What I think is so mysterious about this play is that it has the feeling of memory,” proffers Kluger. “The feeling it always gave me was that I don’t know when the text that I’m reading has been written and by whom. It creates a kind of inversion of the vanishing point of memory.” 

Given the abrupt brevity of the 2019-2020 Broadway season and the fact that not one new musical note made it to that marketplace before the pandemic rang the curtain resolutely down on all things theatrical, it’s rather surprising to find a Tony nominee contending for three awards.

No one is more surprised (and a bit embarrassed) by that fact than the guilty party himself: 36-year-old Daniel Kluger. In case it matters, he brought off this near-impossible feat as a hyphenate “These days, most human beings are,” asides the guy who designed the sound and wrote the original music for Adam Rapp’s riveting drama, “The Sound Inside.” He was nominated for both. 

With no Broadway musicals around this semi-season that are brand-new and nominatable, their usually neglected stepchild–incidental scores for plays–stepped up to the plate for consideration. 

Though pleased with the recognition his music has garnered, Kluger counts it a mixed-blessing. “Obviously, it’s sad that we didn’t get to experience all the musicals in the storefront last year,” he readily allows. “Most of the work that I do is on scores for straight plays. It’s actually a very different craft and art form, so I’m glad that some of that will be able to be discussed this year.”

His third Tony bid is for designing the sound for “Sea Wall/A Life,” a double bill of two one-man plays.  Reflecting his skill at this, all three stars–Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Sea Wall/A Life” and Mary-Louise Parker in “The Sound Inside”–came across loud, clear and nominated.

Kluger had his work cut out for him the minute “The Sound Inside” hit town from the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where it lifted off June 27, 2018. It settled in New York Oct. 16, 2019, in that vast barn of a theatre, Studio 54, where two characters command the audience’s attention for 90 minutes. As the show’s composer-sound designer, Kluger’s job was to create and maintain an intensely intimate ambience amid a nonstop torrent of words and literary illusions.

“We worked to amplify the voices in a natural aesthetic so it was really important that we stayed connected to the actor at all times. You need to believe that the resonance of the voice and the clarity of the words are coming directly from the human body. I believe we were able to distribute the amplification evenly around the room and calibrate it so you feel like it’s natural but you’re able to hear all the words. It’s a technique refined by Scott Lehrer. He essentially developed this method of natural amplification a whole generation of sound designers has benefitted from.”

Mary-Louise Parker

Words are a kind of life force for Parker’s character, Bella Baird–an isolated, tenured, 53-year-old prof who teaches creative writing at Yale, trying to open young minds while coping with a cancer diagnosis. Except for when she addresses the audience, she records her activities in a notebook, as if she’s updating the story of her life. Into that life enters a troubled freshman (Will Hockman) with his own piece of fiction for her to critique and mentor. Their lives tangle tragically. Or not: Author Rapp leaves on the table the possibility we’re at the mercy of Bella’s fevered imagination.

“What I think is so mysterious about this play is that it has the feeling of memory,” proffers Kluger. “The feeling it always gave me was that I don’t know when the text that I’m reading has been written and by whom. It creates a kind of inversion of the vanishing point of memory.” 

Regardless of whether he’s providing the sound or the music for a piece of theatre, Kluger admits that his most important relationship on any show is always with the director. With “The Sound Inside,” his guide is a favorite collaborator, David Cromer. “He really is best. You can follow him wherever he will lead you. He is, fundamentally, an inspiring director who doesn’t tell you what to make. He leads you toward the deepest human level of feeling in the story that you are telling,”

They first teamed in 2012 on “Tribes,” Nina Raine’s play, which had a deaf character and another who was going deaf. There were beaucoup options for sound design. “It doesn’t always happen, but you’re lucky when you form a collaboration of trust the first time out. That was a formative experience for me because it taught me how to take certain risks in exploring as a designer.”

Will Hochman and Mary-Louise Parker in “The Sound Inside”

Discovering the sound inside for this project was not easy for Kluger. “The piece that we wound up using—let’s just say that it wasn’t the first thing that I wrote. The best collaborations with directors—and David is an excellent example of this—is when everything comes out of a need in the story, when the aesthetic impulses are coming from the writer or the character– depending on the values of the production. A good director will make those needs clear.

“Sometimes, the most successful things we make feel like surprises, like accidents. David always leaves space for experimentation. I think we tried 12 different placements of where the music should go. It’s not always premeditated if you’re trying to capture the feeling of the unconscious. In music, you must allow accidents to happen so you can find how the music relates to the text.”

Daniel Kluger received three Tony nominations this year in two different categories: two for Best Sound Design for The Sound Inside and Sea Wall/A Life, and one for Best Original Score (music) Written for the Theatre for The Sound Inside.  Other Broadway credits include Marvin’s Room, Significant Other and the 2019 revival of Oklahoma! for which he earned a Tony nomination, 2020 Grammy nomination, Drama Desk Award, and Outer Critics Circle Award.


Harry Haun has covered theater and film in New York for over 40 years. His writing has appeared in outlets such as Playbill Magazine (“On the Aisle” and “Theatregoer’s Notebook”), New York Daily News (where he wrote a weekly Q&A column (“Ask Mr. Entertainment”), New York Observer, New York Sun, Broadway World and Film Journal International.


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Interviews

The Sound Inside: Mary-Louise Parker

By: Harry Haun

“Every single thing I didn’t think I was going to do again is in this play, but it was so beautifully written I said, ‘Well, I’ll do a reading of it,’” she sheepishly admits.

Coming off of three straight productions of “Heisenberg” can give a girl pause. It gave Mary-Louise Parker a firm, inflexible set of theatrical dos-and-don’ts that would steer her to her next stage outing. In Simon Stephens’ oddly romantic drama, she had just spent most of the play’s 80 minutes pursuing a man twice her age; indeed, she was—verbally– all over him like an ant farm.

Mary-Louise Parker in Heisenberg

Never again, she vowed. “I told myself I’m not going to do another two-hander, and I certainly was not going to play a character who talks that much. The one in ‘Heisenberg’ just talks and talks and talks. I thought that I wanted to try something a bit more elliptical with my next play.” 

To these two hard-and-fast rules, she added a third, which she had picked up 24 years ago doing Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive”: “I also said, ‘I’m not going to do direct address again.’ When I did Paula’s play, I just felt that it wasn’t something I excelled at.”

Then she read “The Sound Inside” and was besieged by a wave of second thoughts. Adam Rapp’s gripping stunner of a play checks all the boxes on Parker’s never-again list, but here she is nonetheless, Tony-contending with one of the season’s most haunting and anguished portrayals.

“Every single thing I didn’t think I was going to do again is in this play, but it was so beautifully written I said, ‘Well, I’ll do a reading of it,’” she sheepishly admits. “Of course, in my head, I was immediately casting other actresses, thinking ‘Oh, this person would be good at this,’ or ‘Cynthia would be great at that,’ remembering friends who would be so good at it and do such a good job.” 

Mandy Greenfield, Artistic Director of Williamstown Theatre Festival where the play premiered in June of 2018, blew the whistle on Parker’s mental re-casting. “She was, like, ‘No, I want to hear you read it.’ Sometimes, other people have more faith in you than you do. It was similar, actually, when I first read ‘How I Learned to Drive.’ I didn’t know if I was right for it so I asked to read some of it aloud. I knew as soon as I started speaking I wanted to do it. It just started to wash over me.”

Critics were extremely careful to keep the play’s secrets. Parker is Bella Baird, a creative-writing professor molding young Yalie minds. One pupil of promise, a freshman named Christopher Dunn, she takes under her wing to mentor and into her confidence to resolve her growing cancer fears. 

Will Hochman & Mary-Louise Parker

Will Hochman, who shared the sprawling Studio 54 stage with Parker for some of the play’s 90 minutes, makes an impressive Broadway debut in the part, and his leading lady gives him a ringing endorsement: “He was just wonderful to work with, and we’re friends to this day. He walked into the audition, and there was something about him. He had this really impressive humility, first of all, and was super-intelligent. He went out and got the closest typewriter he could to the typewriter in the play. He’d send me typewritten notes, and we shared poems back and forth.”

But Parker shoulders the bulk of the play’s verbiage. “I really love that Bella is an intellectual and an academic, that she loves words and has a passion for them. I have that. I didn’t know how strongly that would connect me to her when I first read the play aloud. I love how stubborn she is. I think that comes out of what is crushed in her when you meet her in the play—or maybe before that, because when she finds Christopher she is so struck down. She is not letting anyone in. She is not taking any risks. She has sort of sequestered herself and just made her life incredibly safe.

Will Hochman and Mary-Louise Parker

“When we did it at Williamstown, we sat around the table a lot and cut the play. Adam writes so freely. He’s kinda inspiring to watch—one of the most generous collaborators, if not THE most generous, that I’ve ever worked with. He’s not precious with his words, and he just listens to everyone’s ideas. And he’ll say, ‘Well, what about this?’  He’s so fluent. Terrence McNally was like that. It could just flow right out of him around the table. That was kinda thrilling to be around.”

Mary-Louise Parker in “The Sound Inside”, “Bus Stop” and “Proof”.

Parker heaps plenty of praise on her director. Simply put, “I cannot envision creating this without David Cromer. He allowed for so much silence on the stage, and he gave me so much freedom in the rehearsal room. I think that if he doesn’t have affection for the characters in a play, I don’t think he would end up directing it. You can feel his affection for the characters as he’s directing.”

Prior to all the quarantine cancellations, Parker had planned a double-blast of theatre for 2019-2020, following her Tony-nominated “The Sound Inside” with a revival of her Obie-winning “How I Learned to Drive,” Vogel’s drama about an incestuous relationship. “We were just about to open,” the actress laments.  “When everything shut down, we were ready to go into the theatre.”

All is not lost, however. Lynne Meadow, for whom Parker gave a Tony-winning performance in “Proof,” has arranged to slip this pandemic-play casualty into Manhattan Theatre Club’s last slot at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater next season. It will mark the play’s belated Broadway bow.

In the meantime: “I’m hoping to do ‘The Sound Inside’ again, somewhere. Honestly. I’d do it anywhere. I love it. It’s so challenging, so arduous. In some ways, it’s the most daunting play I’ve ever done—to the point of where I think, ‘If I could just get through it, I’ll be happy.’ I just didn’t have any expectation I’d be any good. I just wanted to deliver the play because it was enormous.”


Harry Haun has covered theater and film in New York for over 40 years. His writing has appeared in outlets such as Playbill Magazine (“On the Aisle” and “Theatregoer’s Notebook”), New York Daily News (where he wrote a weekly Q&A column (“Ask Mr. Entertainment”), New York Observer, New York Sun, Broadway World and Film Journal International.

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Long Form

Keepers of the Dream

By Karu F. Daniels

These great Black actors did King’s important legacy a great service.

Since his April 4, 1968 assassination, the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has lived on in pop culture through a multitude of projects spanning film, television, music and theater.

On Broadway, the iconic Civil Rights Movement leader’s likeness, message and “dream” has been brought to life in various forms throughout the decades.

In September 1976, Billy Dee Williams appeared as King in the original play “I Have a Dream,” which was presented as an evening of music based on the life and words from the slain activist’s most famous speech of the same name. 

Conceived by Robert Greenwald (who directed “Me and Bessie”) with a book adapted by Josh Greenfield, the production played 88 performances with eight previews at the Ambassador Theatre. 

Presented with special arrangement with Mrs. Coretta Scott King and Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change, the play told the story of King’s life from 1955, when he helped to lead the bus boycott Montgomery, Ala., until 1968, when he was murdered Memphis.

Featuring 12 gospel and civil rights songs used to separate the scenes, “I Have A Dream” also starred Judyann Elder, Leata Galloway, Ramona Brooks, Clinton Derricks-Carroll, Sheila Ellis and Millie Foster.

Billy Dee Williams

For Williams – a big Hollywood attraction at that point thanks to the success of his starring roles in the Diana Ross-led feature films “Lady Sings The Blues” and “Mahogany” – “I Have A Dream” marked is return to The Great White Way after an absence of 10 years.

Billy Lee Williams & Harrison Ford in Star Wars

The New York City native, who went on to gain international notoriety as Lando Calrissian in the “Star Wars” franchise, was last seen on the Broadway stage in 1967’s “Hallelujah Baby” with Leslie Uggams, which won five 1968 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

After his legacy would become the subject if numerous television films throughout the succeeding decades – starring Paul Winfield, James Earl Jones, Robert Guillaume, Clifton Powell, Courtney B. Vance,  and Jeffrey Wright, among others – his powerful presence was revived on the great stage when Samuel L. Jackson made his Broadway debut in Katori Hall’s anticipated play “The Mountaintop” in October 2011.

Directed by Kenny Leon (with Kamilah Forbes serving as Assistant Director), the two-hander play, also starring Angela Bassett, was set in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and reimagined what the leader’s final moments were before his assassination after delivering his legendary “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to a massive church congregation. 

“The Mountaintop” originated overseas and after transferring to the West End’s Trafalgar Studio 1 in 2010. The production featured powerful performances by David Harewood as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Lorraine Burroughs as the mysterious maid Camae, under the direction of James Dacre.

Samuel L. Jackson

The acclaimed show garnered two Evening Standard Awards Nominations, including Most Promising Playwright for Hall, and was awarded the coveted 2010 Olivier Award for Best Play.

That same year, the playwright received the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn prize.

Hall, a native Memphian who caused a roar on Broadway – pre-pandemic – with the Tina Turner bio-musical, “Tina,” and the creative force behind the buzz-worthy Starz drama series “P Valley,” counts August Wilson as an inspiration.  The infamous location where King was murdered is in the same neighborhood the Harvard and Julliard alum was raised.

“I grew up with this history only a stone’s throw away,” she said. “It is my bloody heritage. The Mountaintop follows Dr. Martin Luther King on the night after he gives this great, prophetic speech.”

In more recent years, King’s voice was prominently featured in Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award-winning 2014 play “All the Way” starring “Breaking Bad” baddie Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The play presented a bird’s eye view of what happened behind the doors of the Oval Office and inside the first years his presidency and his fierce and ferocious fight to pass a landmark civil rights bill.

Brandon J. Dirden as Martin Luther King Jr.

OBIE and Theatre World Award winner Brandon J. Dirden – in his first lead Broadway role – portrayed King in a light like never before.

“I think what Robert Schenkkan has done is captured a side of him that nobody’s ever seen before — as a politician,” Dirden, who originated the role at the  American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts the year before, said in an interview.  “That’s not the first adjective that comes to people’s minds when they think of Dr. King. Orator? Sure. Preacher? Yes. Civil Rights Activist? Yes. But nobody ever put politician on that list. In this play, we see how he had to straddle both sides — not republican and democrat, but politics and everyday folk.”

In 2016, the play was adapted into an Emmy Award-nominated HBO film helmed by “Austin Powers” director Jay Roach with Anthony Mackie starring as King.

Anthony Mackie & Bryan Cranston

Three years later, Schenkkan had more of a story to tell about LBJ’s struggle to fight a “war on poverty” with “The Great Society,”which played Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater to rave reviews.

For this acclaimed production, newcomer Grantham Coleman made his Broadway debut as King, playing opposite to powerhouse Brian Cox as Johnson.  The Juilliard grad, who first gained notices with the original 2013 Off-Broadway production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s  “Choir Boy,” knew he had big shoes to fulfill but was up for the challenge with a fair share of trepidation.

Grantham Coleman

“Research for the part was research I was doing my whole life, but I was worried I wouldn’t portray him accurately,” Colman confided. “The director and writer approached me about it, and they understood my fears. They were more interested in conveying the spirit of Dr. King and the person [he was] and his struggles, instead of casting someone who looks like him. A lot of his personal beliefs are mine as well, so it wasn’t a huge struggle to get to where his mind was.”

These great Black actors did King’s important legacy a great service.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Here’s to hoping there’s much more from whence they came to keep the dream alive on The Great White Way.

Karu F. Daniels has written for the Associated Press, The New York Times, New York Daily News, CNN, ABC News, Billboard, NBC News, The Daily Beast, Ebony, Essence, and Playbill among other outlets.

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The Cool World

It’s all but forgotten now, but The Cool World still points like an arrow at how the country was changing at the beginning of the 1960s.

 By: Mark Blankenship

It’s all but forgotten now, but The Cool World still points like an arrow at how the country was changing at the beginning of the 1960s. 

As Warren Miller was writing his 1959 novel about youth gangs in Harlem, JFK was promising voters he would deliver social change, the Civil Rights Movement was building toward its zenith, and the Vietnam War was beginning its years-long escalation. When he adapted the tale for Broadway in 1960, the American theatre was absorbing the impact of socially and politically conscious plays like Gore Vidal’s The Best Man and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Even a crowd-pleasing musical like Bye Bye Birdie was making audiences contend with the hero’s racist mother. 

Or to put it another way, The Cool World arrived when millions of people were actively trying to understand the cracks in the social contract. Perfectly attuned to its moment, it told a story that was lifted from the the very streets the country was learning to see. 

Miller wrote his novel while he lived in Harlem himself, watching young Black men participate in gang activity. His story follows Duke, a teenager determined to rise through the ranks of his crew, and it is brutally unsentimental about how violence, racism, and classism warp the boy’s life. When the book was published, Miller’s unvarnished style earned immediate praise from artists like James Baldwin, who called it “one of the finest novels about Harlem that had ever come my way.” 

Robert Rossen, Academy Award winning Director

Robert Rossen was another fan. Well-known at the time for writing and directing the Oscar-winning film All the King’s Men, he worked with Miller to co-write the stage adaptation of The Cool World and then directed its Broadway premiere. 

Granted, the production only ran for two performances, but it nevertheless gave major roles to future stalwarts like Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Brown, and a 22 year-old Billy Dee Williams, who played Duke. 

Production Still from “The Cool World” film

And they were hardly the last major artists to be involved with this story. In 1963, legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman produced a film version, which was directed by Shirley Clarke, who had been Oscar nominated for a documentary of her own.  

That sensibility made her film stand out: Though she worked from a script that she adapted from the novel and the play, Clarke let the movie feel like nonfiction. She cast several non-actors who lived in Harlem, and she included long, improvisatory scenes that aimed to capture the actual rhythm of the neighborhood. 

Just like the play, the movie’s cast featured future stars, including Clarence Williams III and Gloria Foster. No less than Dizzy Gillespie wrote the music, and his soundtrack album is still regarded as a classic among jazz fans. 

It should be noted, of course, that The Cool World is a story about Black boys that was not created by Black people. Miller, Rossen, and Clarke were all White, and a modern audience might be understandably skeptical of their take on Harlem. Still, the novel, the play, and the film remain excellent reminders of how American culture shifted in the early 1960s and how the arts documented the change as it happened.

Mark Blankenship is the editor of The Flashpaper and the co-author of the recently published book Madonna: A to Z.