‘I have to live in hope’: Tazewell Thompson gets personal

‘I have to live in hope’: Tazewell Thompson gets personal

Tazewell Thompson is a man of many parts. Many creatively dynamic moving parts. An internationally acclaimed opera and theater director, playwright, librettist, actor, and educator, Thompson has created an expansive body of work over decades in every genre of the performing arts, be it classical or contemporary. His trajectory as a theater artist might be summed up as a “Constant Star,” the title of one of his very own award-winning productions and more than 150 directing premieres around the world.

He’s returning to Arena Stage after a little gap — you know which one — to direct Seven Guitars at the Fichandler. It had been set to open in spring 2020 when this August Wilson play that bops to the jazzy blues music of the 1940s shuttered just in time to mask up and socially distance.

The pandemic has not slowed Tazewell down. He was appointed last year as the Director of Opera Studies at the Manhattan School of Music before taking leave to catch up on other impressive projects. Among them, directing Blue on stages around the country, an opera he created with renowned composer Jeanine Tesori that won the 2020 Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA) Award for Best New Opera in North America.

Molly Smith, Arena Artistic Director, has called Tazewell Thompson “one of America’s best directors.” Thompson has had a long association of some 25 years with Arena and was an Associate Director with commissioned works including Mary T. & Lizzy K. and Jubilee, an a cappella musical he created about the Fisk Jubilee Singers that premiered at Arena in 2019, among many others over the years.

Seven Guitars will be Thompson’s third time at Arena directing plays by “theater’s poet of Black America,” August Wilson, whose entertaining yet complex stories show a range of humanity and “raise consciousness through theater.”

Seldom do you encounter a theatermaker like Tazewell Thompson, so completely comfortable creating and directing for stages in the European model of classical opera yet similarly at ease directing works set in the poor, inner-city environs of the Black experience of an August Wilson play.

His personal life histoire could be the subject of its own American success story of overcoming the odds and what’s possible when God-given talent and inspiration meet up with preparation, opportunity, and hard work.

My conversation with Tazewell Thompson was a fascinating and very personal connection. An enlightening romp into the past, present, and hopeful future for the theater arts and for America.

Tazewell Thompson

Ramona Harper: Seven Guitars takes place in the 1940s and all ten of August Wilson’s Century Cycle plays about Black life in America happen during the 1900s. How does Seven Guitars speak to us today for Black as well as white audiences given the tumultuous events in America that are happening in this century?

Tazewell Thompson: What is so fascinating about great works of art is how they transcend not only the time in which they were written but the time in which they were set. The cast and myself are amazed as we go through the scenes — how prescient, how prophetic, how things have just not changed and are probably even worse as we go from scene to scene — the way Blacks are treated in the Hill District in 1948, when the play is set, and the way they are treated now, especially by the law. There’s a scene where the men recount, how and why they’ve been arrested — every single one of the three musicians in the play of this blues band led by Floyd Barton — Floyd is the blues guitarist, Canewell plays the blues harmonica, and Red Carter plays the drums. And they list a whole pile-up of things. One was arrested because when they stopped him for something so incidental that nobody should be stopped for they found he had a lot of money in his pocket. And so they said, Well, how could you possibly have all this money? You must have stolen it. They arrest him. They put him in jail. And so it goes — for things like crossing the street while being Black, sitting down at a street corner while being Black, playing harmonica while being Black. And it’s fascinating how the theme of the play resonates with the divisive nature of what is going on in our country today.

When I was in high school I marched for fair housing, voting rights, gay rights, but mostly around civil rights. Nothing has changed. I feel we are in worse shape in so many ways. Fascinating when the world saw that police officer with his knee on the neck of George Floyd, that was a “woke”-up call for the majority of the world, but for members of the Black community, it was nothing new.

It was not really shocking.

It was not shocking at all. What was shocking is that there was this outpouring of demonstrations around the world. If that teenage girl had not taken that video from her phone, it would have been one other Black man who died under questionable circumstances while in police custody.

Right. Exactly.

You know, the play Seven Guitars has music and song. It’s very entertaining, but it’s a very gripping drama as well. August Wilson is a masterful storyteller. He had the courage and did it with such artfulness to write about the perils of the Black community in general, about this Hill District in Pittsburgh in particular, and did it so well — but how we are still confronting and shaken by the events that still go on in our country.

Roderick Lawrence (Floyd Barton) and Joy Jones (Vera) appearing in August Wilson’s ‘Seven Guitars.’ Photo by Tony Powell.

This is your third time directing August Wilson’s plays at Arena Stage. What excites you about directing his plays?

I’m attracted to plays that have wonderful characters who speak with wonderful language — August Wilson, his dialogue, his words, he’s a poet. It may not seem so when you read it on the page, because it’s not set in a poetic form, but he’s a poet. He’s captured the rhythms, the jazz blues-like expression of how African Americans speak. He has captured that in every play of the cycle that he’s written. In Seven Guitars we have musicians — bluesmen, jazzmen — he has brilliantly cornered how these particular men would behave with each other, their language, the colorful lingo that they speak.

When I’m involved with an August Wilson play, I know I’m going to get several things. I’m going to get great characters, great complex characters, wonderful language, really classic language, language that lives and vibrates off the page and out of the mouths of these actors. And they are all great storytellers. Wilson would sit around barbershops and beauty parlors or cafes or listen as he was walking down the street; if he heard some conversation going on, he would try to follow without making it seem like he was stalking people; but he was open, not just his ears, his eyes were open to behavior, attitude, temperament. He allowed himself to be the receptor of what was going on in the community that he lived in in Pittsburgh.

It’s almost like opening up a time capsule. If someone were to say: I need for you, August Wilson, to capture the life in the late 1940s of a group of musicians who return to the Hill District in Pittsburgh and still have hopes and dreams of becoming stars and making records and making their family and their community proud; if you could mix in a couple of other characters: some women who love them or who have felt betrayed by them or who have felt joy from them or who felt the need to nurture them; mix in another very complex character who more than any other on stage has this feeling of Black Pride, Black activism — this is the man who’s the oldest in the play, Hedley, he spouts these incredible words that you might’ve heard during a much later time from Angela Davis and Huey Newton and Malcolm X and, yes, Martin Luther King. Seven Guitars is a wonderful combination. You have those who just want to survive and find love in their lives, those who reach for a star where their talents can be pressed into a record, those who warn them: Judgment day is coming, one day we might even be wiped off the face of the earth as Black people if we don’t know how to fight back and bring ourselves together. So that’s the time capsule that’s released in the 1940s by August Wilson.

You’ve been quoted to say, “My spine is in education and I always wanted to teach.” What lessons do you hope we have learned in the performing arts during this pandemic and a year of racial reckoning?

Education is extraordinarily important to me because I had great, great teachers as a child and in high school. I admire teachers more than anything. I grew up in a home, a convent, where there were Dominican nuns and Dominican priests and everything about them was a lesson. They were teaching. And I began to understand how important that was.

I feel that what has saved us as a race — and not just Black but all of us in this country — is the more we know about history, the more we know about who we are, understand, respect, and appreciate where we came from. Just knowing that will guide us and bring us together. I think more than ever, it is really vital that we understand [as Martin Luther King Jr. said] that we all came here on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.

When I saw that young Black poet at Biden’s inaugural —

Amanda Gorman. She was incredible.

Oh! my heart leapt up, it was so beautiful.

She was not afraid.

And so unafraid! At that age, I would have been terrified. She was just breathtaking. Here she is a young woman of scholarship and a brilliant young poet. And look what that did and how we have fallen since. We are regressing in such a terrible way. And it really boils down to a lack of education. Being uneducated is dangerous.

Education teaches you how to look around and think about those who are wearing different shoes than yours. Those whose hair is of a different texture, whose eyes are shaped differently, whose skin color is different. Why is that? Where do they come from? What did they have to go through, they and their peoples, to survive? What were their ancestors like? What did they give to this country? What did they have to sacrifice to come to this country? What will they never get back because they live in this country? What have they lost because they live in this country? What have they gained because they live in this country? And how we can learn from each other. To me, education is the spine and the base and the heart of who we are.

You have also been known to say “culture needs to be changed.” How do we change culture? Where do we begin? And what role can theater play?

I think in the opera house and in the theater, it’s important that we come in and we see stories that are not exactly our own. We see a different culture on stage, so that an audience sitting in the dark can see on a lighted stage the hopes, the dreams, the conflicts, the habits, the day-to-day life of how a specific culture, a specific race behaves on stage — and what in it is like our own. And if it’s not like our own, what can we learn from it? What can we take away from it that either reminds us of our own, or teaches us something about ourselves through the lives of what we are witnessing on stage?

I think it’s vitally important, especially when young people go to the theater, or go to the opera and they see a wonderful singer walk downstage and open their mouth, singing gloriously, and that person looks just like them, that they see someone of their race singing with a magnificent voice over an orchestra, how enlightening and how inspiring! And for audiences to come in and see the plays of August Wilson or Lorraine Hansberry or James Baldwin or Lynn Nottage, or, you know, it goes on and on — it’s vastly important.

What do you think August Wilson, who passed away more than 15 years ago, would have to say about the current trend to create more equity, diversity, and inclusion in the performing arts?  Do you think August Wilson was a skeptic or a believer in the possibility for lasting social change?

I never met him, but from what I’ve read, I think he vacillated. I think he had hoped for a united country, but he was also skeptical about that we don’t homogenize who we are as individual cultures and races. I think he thought that for African Americans or Mexican Americans or Asian Americans or Latino Americans or Caucasian Americans, the American part is very important. We all are that who have been born in and live in this country. But he also felt it was extraordinarily vital and significant that the first part — the African, the Latino, the Asian et cetera — that we also hold on to that part of us that makes us an individual. It’s the American part that makes us united. That’s what makes us the same. But he knows that we don’t all share the same experiences. We don’t have all the same privileges. We are to this day being denied the opportunities to vote, to live where we want to live, to walk peacefully down the street and not have the fear of encountering a police officer coming toward us, what that could mean. So I would think from just what his plays have to say to us that he straddled hope and despair.

Roderick Lawrence (Floyd Barton) and Joy Jones (Vera) appearing in August Wilson’s ‘Seven Guitars.’ Photo by Tony Powell.

And what about you? Are you a skeptic or a believer in the possibility for lasting social change?

I have to live in hope because as a Black man in this country I know that most Black males have had what I’ve shared, our encounters with law enforcement. I feel that we have regressed in such a major way that I have to live in hope because I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning and do what I do unless I felt that I could be part of an instrument for change.

I’ve been fortunate. I know that, and there are more Black spaces that appear everywhere now on stages and film and television and in the opera world, dance. While we are recognized and we have been given the space, it’s still a part of us that some of us were just kept back. I wouldn’t say I’m a skeptic. I’m cautious and I’m optimistic. I’m also filled with fear that things could get worse. And that’s extraordinarily depressing to me. I feel good when I’m at work and I’m with my colleagues, rehearsing a play and creating something that’s going to be seen by others, hopefully might inspire or change their lives in some way. But then the house lights are up and you walk out of the theater, then there is dealing with what’s out here in the world, those who are rising up around us who want to oppress us, who want to bring us back to a time that was very Jim Crow in this country.

I directed a couple of years ago a brand-new opera called Freedom Ride in Chicago. About the freedom riders who rode public transportation, long-distance buses, they wanted to integrate the buses. A group of men and women, mostly of college age, Black and white, got on these buses. Many of them started in DC and it went through the South and they were beaten up. The buses, some of them were bombed or set on fire, and some of the brave activists were run out of town. Some were beaten and almost lynched, couple of them were killed. That’s part of our history. And as I was directing Freedom Ride, I said, Oh, well, we’ll never come back to anything like this again, but we have, we certainly have.

The cast of ‘Seven Guitars.’

Is there anything else that you would like to tell us about Arena’s upcoming production of Seven Guitars or anything else I might not have covered?

Yes. I would like to say this. What is so wonderful is that we are all with each other in person. Yes, masked, yes being socially distanced when we’re not actually working in the room. I have been blessed with seven actors who are some of the finest actors that I’ve brought together as an ensemble — the way they listen to each other and react on what’s given to them and how they’ve bonded through the work, how we can laugh about the idiosyncrasies of living while being Black in this country, how we can expose ourselves, our souls in particular, to get to the bottom of the truth of what’s going on in this play. I’ve directed wonderful companies, both in opera and theater, but this is especially a very fine group. We had a run-through today of Act One. And those who are not in the scenes were gripped by what was going on as they were watching their fellow actors. And there was laughter and there was a sense of pride. And at the end of our rehearsal today, we all embraced and said: This is really something. This is a very special moment.

Seven Guitars runs November 26 to December 26, 2021, in the Fichandler Stage at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($40–$95) may be purchased online, by phone at 202-488-3300, or at the Arena Stage sales office Tuesday through Saturday from noon until 8 p.m. for phone purchases and beginning 90 minutes prior to each performance until curtain for in-person purchases. For information on savings programs such as pay-your-age tickets, student discounts, Southwest Nights, and hero’s discounts, visit arenastage.org/tickets/savings-programs.

COVID Safety: Proof of vaccination against COVID-19 and photo identification must be shown to enter the building. Arena’s complete safety protocols are here.

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