Every week, culture critics Diep Tran and Jose Solís bring a POC perspective to the performing arts with their Token Theatre Friends podcast. The show can be found on Spotify, iTunes and Stitcher. You can listen to previous episodes from the previous version of the podcast here but if you’ve been a subscriber to Token Theatre Friends, you will need to resubscribe to our new podcast feed (look for the all-red logo).
On the second episode of the Token Theatre Friends podcast, the Friends sat down and recorded over Skype on June 8. They discuss the recent discovery that Broadway theater owners the Nederlanders gave over $150,000 to the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and why we should care. Plus, they talk about two theater productions that were filmed: Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu (available on Amazon Prime) and American Son by Christopher Demos-Brown (available on Netflix). They compare and contrast police brutality as portrayed by a Black playwright versus a white playwright.
Their guest this episode is Jasmine Batchelor, whose film The Surrogate is out for virtual release starting June 12. Batchelor discusses how the film opened her eyes to inequality for disabled people and what’s it like for your mom to be played on screen by Tony winner Tonya Pinkins.
Here are links to things that Friends talked about in this episode.
- This Tweet about the Nederlanders.
- This Change.org petition to make the Apollo Theatre a Broadway house.
- Karen Olivo’s Instagram post where she commits to not performing in a Nederlander theater.
- This profile of Christian Cooper in the New York Times.
- The Dear White American Theater petition.
- Jasmine Batchelor’s op-ed for Talkhouse.
- A directory of local bail funds that you can donate to.
- Our friends at Broadway Radio, who made a sizable donation to Token Theatre Friends.
The transcript of the conversation is below. If you would like to support the Friends and their work, click here to donate to their Patreon.
Diep: Hi, this is Diep Tran.
Jose: And I’m Jose Solis.
Diep: And we’re your Token Theatre Friends, people who love theater so much, that even after a week of protesting and collective action, we still found time to watch two plays at home. We’re not just doing this for all protesters. We’re also doing this for arts lovers. And for you listeners who, for some odd reason, are giving us money to do this. What are you thinking?
Jose: We’re so grateful, we were so excited about how supportive—it’s like such a beautiful counterpoint to all the anger and heartbreak and soul crushing-ness last week, so thank you so much for supporting us like it. It means the world to us. We’re so happy. I could cry. But I put on mascara, you don’t want to see that.
Diep: Yeah, after the inaugural episode, we realized that we both, it’s not just the female presenting part of this duo. Jose also needs to put on mascara. So thank you for doing that for our fans today. And at the end of the episode, we’ll read all the names of the people who have given us money. Out of all of the places that you can give money to and there are many really worthy causes right now the fact that you all are contributing to get this project off the ground like I am just overwhelmed and I would cry, except, except I don’t really cry in front of other people. But I’m crying on the inside. But we have a great show for you today. First off, we are going to be talking about this past week in theater news. There were some very interesting discoveries that were that we was going around Twitter about certain Broadway theaters, and who they contributed to in the 2016 election. Hint, it was not to Hillary.
Diep: And then we’re going to be talking about two shows that we saw this week in our homes. We are going to be talking about Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu and American Son by Christopher Demos-Brown. And we’ll talk about their portrayals of police brutality, and which play gets to go to Broadway and which doesn’t. Hint: it was not the one written by a black woman. Surprise! And Jose, do you want to talk to us about our guests for today?
Jose: I am delighted that we’re going to be talking to Jasmine Batchelor, who I have seen on stage a couple times. But I absolutely fell in love with her work. And I saw her as Isabella last year at the Mobile Unit’s production Measure for Measure, where she did things with her face and her eyes that you know, Shakespeare, sorry, but Jasmine doesn’t meet your words to convey all of the things that she can convey. So we’re going to be talking to Jasmine about her new film, The Surrogate, directed by Jeremy Hersh, and one of my favorite movies that I have seen in years.
Diep: So before we get to the interview, let’s talk about what happened on Broadway this week. But first off, Jose, can you explain to us how Broadway works in terms of who owns the theaters?
Jose: Okay, certainly I can. So basically, there’s a three organizations, I wanna say corporation and I keep correcting myself but are they that different from corporations? Not that much really. There’s three organizations that own every theater basically on Broadway, The Nederlanders, the Shubert and the Jujamcyn, who own altogether, you know, one of them owns like nine theaters and other owns like seven or whatever and then five. It’s so interesting because one of the first things that you learn when you’re learning about film history, for instance, is that when movie studios started in Hollywood, movie studios owned theaters, so they own each theater chain. One of the first things that needed to happen in the industry, for it to work in a more democratic way—the government had to intervene and break up these monopolies. It’s never happened for Broadway, though. Broadway’s a monopoly, it’s run by three companies. Most of them lead and started, not most, all of them and started by white men. So this week, we saw that, thanks to, I don’t even know how all of like access to information things works. And I don’t even know how people are inspired to, you know, go look for very specific things. But we found out this week that four years ago, the Nederlanders made an obscene amount of contributions to the—
Jose: —to the campaign of a certain man whose name I don’t say out loud because I break into hives. But he’s 45. He’s the president right now. So imagine this back in 2016, as all of Broadway was patting themselves on the back with like, love is love and everything’s wonderful and we love everyone and bye inequality The people who were saying all these things were celebrating love and how we were all the same. We’re performing in theaters owned by people who were supporting racism, sexism, homophobia, that disregard of human rights, etc, etc, etc. The problem is that, as with most things that matter to the rest of us, Broadway doesn’t talk about any of this. So people this week were shocked when they saw those numbers. And what’s appalling to me that a lot of people are saying that they have changed, you know, the man who has doing all that has changed. But if you look at the amount of contributions and the amount of money they’re now giving to Democratic candidates, for instance, it doesn’t even come close to all the money that went to support this man who is now trying to kill all of us.
Diep: And I know if you saw this but Karen Olivo, who’s a Tony winner and whose musical Moulin Rouge was on Broadway this season, but it wasn’t at a Nederlander Theater, right? It was at Jujamcyn, well she posted up of commitment saying and in quotes, “If the money I’ve helped the Nederlanders make is going to causes that directly and negatively impact our well-being, I vow to stop. I’ll need to see receipts from here on out.” And I feel like, and so far like, that’s the first person I’ve seen make, big Broadway star, make that kind of commitment to not be supporting the system because that’s where all this ticket money goes to. That’s like when you’re buying a ticket to a Nederlander show. And they own how many theaters on Broadway do they own? Nine, nine. Yeah, when you go see one of those nine shows plus any of the shows in theaters that they own around the country, you are contributing in some way to these political causes that you may not agree with. And so that’s why, that’s what we mean when we talk about theater can be political because we don’t operate in a vacuum of, “Oh, these people just make art.” No, at the very top, these producers get millions upon millions of dollars every year and what are they doing with that money? Well, you can go online at fec.gov and see what they’re doing with that money. What has the conversations been like online from people in the community besides Karen Olivo? Have you noticed anyone making that kind of stand?
Jose: Not yet but, I love that Karen came out and was like, show me the receipts. And it’s time for people to talk about it. It’s one of the things that I even mentioned to you. We were texting about this, but I was so horrified. It’s like, does Cher know, Cher’s one of the biggest like anti, you know, 45 people in the industry, she’s always talking about what a moron he is. And how do you like horrible he is, what a monster he is. Does Cher know, her show, The Cher Show, that told the story of her life was, you know, happening, at the theater where four years ago, all their money was going to the Republicans. Does she know that? Like, I kind of want to be like Cher, you need to know this. I wonder if she would be like, “If I could turn back time. I would not let my show happen.”
Diep: Though I do have to say I was on the FEC website last night. And I did notice that Jujamcyn, which is owned by Jordan Roth, they’ve been contributing to Act Blue campaigns and Democratic campaigns and such, but they own fewer theaters on Broadway.
Jose: Good for them. And also, it’s I don’t think it’s coincidence that they usually have the most humane and the best lines for when you’re lining up to go into the theater, it’s so efficient and you don’t have to stand in line like you do at the other theater, so good for them. That’s good karma.
Diep: And we’re hoping, you know, we know like Patti LuPone, Barbra Streisand. There’s so many people, Lin-Manuel Miranda, there’s so many people in the industry who have been very vocal against this president. And I would love to see them be as vocal about the fact that the people who own Broadway have helped contribute to the state that we’re in. Because it’s easy to criticize things that you know, happen out there. But is it as easy when it’s in your own backyard? Like I feel like that’s when the rubber meets the road? You know? Yes, Jose is nodding with me very vigorously. But did you see the the petition going around to try to make the Apollo Theater which is located in Harlem, which has like more than 1000 seats into a Broadway theater?
Jose: That would be incredible, that that needs to happen. I mean, they need to, it’s not fair for instance, that the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center which like, what, like 10, 15, 20 blocks almost further from Midtown, right, which is supposed to be Broadway. It’s a Broadway theater. So let’s fucking make the Apollo a Broadway theater and let’s have Broadway theaters in Brooklyn and Queens. Let’s break the monopoly of real estate because that is what all of this is in the end. You can’t win a Tony if you’re not a Broadway theater. So yes, I would love to make that, to see that happen. You know, I would love to see the Apollo become a Broadway theater. Yeah. And yeah, even just by, you know, by geography by itself, it can become accessible, it can give access to people who don’t feel welcome at the current Broadway theaters. Yeah.
Diep: And you know, why is Broadway important? Broadway is important because of the Tony Awards and the fact that every single year CBS broadcasts this award around the country to show people this is what theater in America looks like. And most of the time the shows that get put on Broadway, most of the time, are shows written by white people, performed by white people. Like this season there are only three shows written or directed by Black people that were on Broadway in an industry that’s very much patting yourself on the back for its you know, quote unquote diversity. Like how many pitches have you and I received about these shows being like, Look, here’s the first Black what, you know lead for, you know, Chicago on Broadway, for example. Like there’s always like these like, oh, here’s the, this is the first of this demographic. And, Aren’t you proud of us for doing this? But what’s interesting with this time is I feel like people are saying, no, that’s not enough anymore.
Jose: We’re not proud of you for doing the bare minimum. We’re not proud of you. Do more.
Diep: Yeah, exactly. Like tear down a monopoly. And we’ll link to the Change.org, that petition to make the Apollo a Broadway theater. And once we figure out how to how to make other institutions a Broadway theater, we will get back to you about that.
Jose: Now we’re gonna be talking about, we were wondering about what shows we could see that were available to stream that had something to do with what was going on right now. And we both thought about Pass Over, which is streaming on Amazon Prime. And it’s this production directed by Spike Lee. But it was important also to show like the contrast with something else. And we thought about American Son, which is streaming on Netflix, and how both shows are about white supremacy, police brutality and the effect that it has on Black Americans and Black men and women living all over the world, basically also. So one of them is written by a Black, female playwright, the other by a white male playwright. So we’re going be digging into how two things that on the surface looked like they’re dealing with the same subjects and issues, but are not necessarily doing that. So do you want to get started with summaries of what Pass Over and American Son are?
Diep: Do you want to discuss each individually, like give a summary the thing, and then discuss that thing and then we bring them all together at the end. Yeah. Okay. So Pass Over, it’s a play by Antoinette Nwandu. It was first performed in Chicago at the Steppenwolf Theatre, and that’s where it was filmed by Spike Lee. And it was inspired in part by Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which was about two men who are just stuck in purgatory and they try to get out but they can’t. But instead of being about two white man, it’s about two young black teams who are stuck on a very poor block. In the version we saw it was a poor block in Chicago and they’re trying to get out. But there are different forces that are keeping them there, from like poverty to, to over aggressive police presence who tells them that they’re useless or they’re violent every single time, bringing them down. And they’re sleeping in the streets. So it seems like they also lack you know, parental guidance or educational guidance. And it’s all of these things that prevent them from leaving this block. And the only way they can leave unfortunately is through violence. We’re not going to spoil it for you but I was really sad about it.
I knew this play from reputation when it was in Chicago because It was very controversial and then I saw at Lincoln Center and just and what’s really sad is even before even before I saw it, I knew this was not going to end well, I knew that they were not going to get out and I hate the fact that that is my assumption going in and I am not wrong. And what was really interesting to me about seeing it is like the biggest. So when I was reading the reviews for the play, a lot of it talked about the overuse of the N word in the play. And one of the negative reviews use that as a criticism of the characters. And it just made me think oh like by discounting these young people because their vocabulary isn’t as advanced as yours, you’re kind of proving the point of the play, because society keeps telling these young people that they’re not smart enough and they don’t have potential and so it becomes, this play shows like how it becomes a self perpetuating cycle. And what was really interesting to me is, is like, the playwright Antoinette Nwandu, like she shows us like, the different nuances behind the very repetitive vocabulary. Yes, they say the N word a lot. And they also use the word brother a lot, but it means a different thing, depending on how they say it. And like giving them the room to just not be like, you know, a Christian Cooper, an upstanding Black person who has really great vocabulary and who went to Harvard. So obviously, he doesn’t deserve to get called on by the cops by Amy Cooper. But by saying, just because like they don’t look the way that you want them to look or sound the way that you want them to sound, it doesn’t mean that they’re, they’re not deserving of humanity and of consideration and of love. Because like, that’s always the excuse. And so by putting these kind of presences on stage, I feel like that is the radical thing. Especially when they’re doing in some cases, I saw it Lincoln Center. So it was a lot of white people in that audience. So if you’re forcing white people to see that, to face that, to be comfortable with that, like that’s a radical act to me.
Jose: Right. I have noticed that a lot. A lot of the time, I would say, probably like, 90% of the time, or more. I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m talking about when I talk about numbers. But most of the time when I see white people, especially if white journalists and white critics obsess so much, but something like the N word, they’re forgetting that when we have that word in plays by black artists, they’re reappropriating a word that had been used against them through the entire history of Black people living in America. So what bothers those people that they would focus so much on the language of the characters in this way? It that they wish they could say that word as often as they think it. And it bothers them that these characters are allowed to say that because they know it’s not a word that they can drop themselves in public for their pieces. Of course, they’re going to be obsessed with civility and proper language. Of course, that’s what’s going to happen. So it says so much more about the critic, when they talk about something like that, than it says about the play. I love that Antoinette Nwandu does so much with this, like you said, this white frame that Beckett. And also the play might be inspired by that by that setup, and by that storytelling device, the world that she opens up, through magical characters, and through spiritual connection. It’s more heartbreaking and much more effective than anything that Beckett ever accomplished. Because it doesn’t just stay within the limitations of what aesthetics and symbolisms does. It’s a play that’s like almost crying out, that the pain of its characters is so strong, that the only way for the playwright to be even able to convey it and to be able to speak about it in a way that doesn’t destroy her in the process is through this almost magical setting. And I did not get to see this play when Lincoln Center did it. Thank you for not inviting me Lincoln Center. I will never forget that. I forgive you, just invite me to see plays at LCT3. Anyway, you know, I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be there and after a we talk about American Son, I do want to talk about the different audiences that we sat in. When we went to this place. You didn’t go to American Son on Broadway, right? Okay. Do you want to go into American Son?
Diep: Yeah, yeah. American Son is a play that was on Broadway in 2018. It’s by Christopher Demos-Brown. It was directed on Broadway by Kenny Leon, a Black man. Christopher is a white man. And in it, Emmy Award winning actress Kerry Washington plays a concerned mother whose son goes missing. She’s at a police station and no one’s giving her any information about what happened to him. And her husband comes in and and the drama of being in a multiracial household comes up. And it’s once again, I don’t have to spoil it for you tonight to tell you what you think has happened, has happened. What’s fascinating about this play is unlike Pass Over, which concentrates on the two young men who are the recipients of violence, this play concentrates on the parents and how they react. And through that it tries to humanize a son. It also becomes a conversation among Black and white people about race in this country and about whether respectability politics, whether if you look a certain, if you change yourself, and you look a certain way, and you talk more like a white person, and you’re more, you know, deferential to police officers, does that prevent you from being attacked and do people who look, the way that the young people look in Pass Over, and the way that they sound in Pass Over, do they deserve the violence? And it’s a 90 minute debate that doesn’t really go anywhere. And if you’re the type of person who consumes this a lot in media, it feels exhausting. And what’s interesting to me is it feels exhausting, in a way that Pass Over did it.
Jose: I agree with you on that point like it, you know, again, they’re visiting the same topics and touching the same themes and stuff. For instance, something out that American Son does is that it frames the action also on the three men we see on stage, as well as the son that we never see. And it’s almost also again about how gender comes into play in because you know, the son in question was a mixed-race son. The mother is Kerry Washington’s character Kendra, but the father is played by Steven Pasquale. So one of the most grossest moments in the play is when there’s a police officer who’s been talking to Kendra, played by Jeremy Jordan. And he’s been talking to her about, you know, he’s not giving her any information, he’s not helping her. He’s being condescending and horrible. And when he sees this white man, Steven Pasquale, come in, he instantly assumes that this man is siding with him. He starts talking about how ghetto she is, and about how she went from zero to ghetto. And then the guy’s like, “Well, actually, he’s my son and you’re talking about my wife.”
One of the most effective moments in the play, it’s the look in Kerry Washington’s face, the look of disbelief and what the fuck is going on, when she sees her husband who’s an FBI agent, giving this cop, who has been treating her like crap, his business card because he says, “Hey, if you need help at the FBI, don’t hesitate to reach out to me, right?” And we see the way in which whiteness comes into play for this guy. This guy for instance, he doesn’t even think about the fact that he would have never been able to the same thing for his son, because his son is mixed-race. My favorite thing about this play was Kerry Washington, I have not really been—I’ve not seen her work on TV as much. But I remember sitting at a theater that night on Broadway, I couldn’t take my look off of her. Because as the play trivializes almost everything that’s happening to this character, she’s always above the action and she’s always above the fray. That’s incredible. It’s soul-draining and heartbreaking, just horrible. I felt her fury and I felt her grief. And it’s one of those performances that I know I’m never going to be able to forget. But it’s so interesting to hearing you talk about how white critics were, you know, policing the use of the N word in Pass Over. The reviews for American Son were interesting because all this like woke white critics and journalists were criticizing that the play was written by a white person. And they’re absolutely right. That is something that needs to be criticized. But my point is that if you’re telling stories about Black characters, white journalists, always find a way to tell you that you’re doing it wrong, even if it’s being written by someone like them, they’re gonna criticize it because it’s not the way that Black characters are. And if it’s written by a Black playwright, they’re gonna be criticizing it because it’s not up to their white standards. So can Black characters in fiction ever be, you know, criticized by critics and judged on their own terms?
Diep: Not within the current ecosystem where it’s white people judging the work. I was trained as a journalist and so you’re always told that you need to be objective. But there is always an assumption when you look at somebody who is not like you. Unfortunately that is the society we live in and the media that we consume, it helps feed our assumptions about people and there’s always, especially when it comes to, and you and I have noticed this, like whenever it comes to the works by playwrights of color that don’t conform to a very hyper realistic aesthetic—most people who criticize it in the media, don’t know how to talk about it and don’t know how to engage with it because it is foreign to them. And unfortunately, when you’re reading a lot of criticisms by white, white writers of Black work, it is from the viewpoint of someone from the outside trying to engage with this foreign thing. And so the play has to do a double thing of, you got to teach the person who’s not like you to do the thing. And you have to also hold space for your community. And unfortunately, it’s really hard to do both at once. And they shouldn’t have to do both at once.
Jose: I’m nodding, ah. I want to talk about the audience reaction. So I remember one of the things that spoke to about American Son with the white journalist, who was so angry that this was written by a white person—
Diep: Why because most of the most of the reviews I read by white people, they were very complimentary of it because it was just so, you know, it was like a procedural, right? They know know what that looks like.
Jose: Yeah, but you know, a couple of people were complaining about that. Anyway, I went out with this person. It is so rare to see a predominantly Black audience on Broadway, or a predominantly anything that’s not white audience on Broadway. I’m never gonna forget, the audience felt almost like it’s given them a chance to grieve. And I have never seen so many people cry. And I’ve never heard so many people cry and be as vocal as they were at American Son on Broadway. And you know, people would shout, “What the fuck? Don’t touch her.” People were very vocal. That’s the kind of thing that you don’t get to see on Broadway. Because there’s always going to be a white person shushing you, who’s going to be telling you not to talk. So the amount of liberty that the play even with its limitations, and even when it’s like a very safe procedural in a way, and it also sometimes exploits the pain of the Black mom for its on benefit. Even with all of these things, I had never seen a play that gave people color, and Black people in particular, the space to cry and to call for justice on Broadway. And that’s something that I was, it moved me incredibly. I was not expecting that, I was expecting people to stick to these respectability policies that Broadway, just by its very nature, evokes and imposes on people. But at American Son, no one gave a fuck about respectability on Broadway, people were yelling at the characters, people were crying, you know, this woman wailed. And it shocked me. And I love that so much. So even when this colleague of ours, saying that, you know, it should have been written by a Black playwright, I completely agree. I don’t think a Black playwright would have written that, you know, at all. It would not look like that. But I was very happy that audiences who are not always welcome on Broadway, were given this space, and that no one was trying to tell them how to feel and how to express their feelings. So I’m really curious to know, what it was like, usually at LCT3, they have a younger, like more hip, like more diverse audience. So I really want to talk to you about that and know what the audience was like at Pass Over when you saw it.
Diep: It’s pretty diverse because LCT3, the reason they have younger audiences is because the tickets are like $25. It’s so affordable. But the other problem is most of the stuff sells out really, really quickly because their subscriber base is mostly older and white. These plays are performing to multiple kinds of audiences depending on the night. But I got the feeling like from, you know, watching them both in the same day that they’re made for people who—if you are unfamiliar with the conversation around police brutality in this country, and the gaslighting that Black people go through, I think American Son is a very educational experience for you because it gives you a first hand look at what that might be like. And if you’re more further along on the conversation and want to talk about more insidious forms of structural racism, then Pass Over is a great gateway to that. And so for someone who is so exhausted because we know all the names of the people who have died because of police brutality, something like American Son was very much like Racism 101 to me. And so watching it, I was just like, “Oh my god, how long am I supposed to watch this poor woman suffer while all these men tell her that she’s wrong when and she’s not wrong?” Why am I? Why am I putting myself through?
And I didn’t have that feeling with Pass Over because it was just so refreshing to be able to see the presence of those two young men on stage because that is the radical thing, it’s not the fact that they’re in pain, it’s the fact that tragic things happen to them but they’re also able to find joy, they are able to have a build a relationship with each other. That was the most refreshing thing to me about it. Which one did you like more? Or like, how did you feel emotionally watching it?
Jose: American Son is manipulative, it’s racism for white people, racism 101 as you said. But with with all that said, I do think that Kerry Washington’s performance is worth watching, even if you already know, the gaslighting that that Black women especially have to deal with in this country. So that’s my take on American Son. But Pass Over artistically and aesthetically and everything is light-years ahead of anything that American Son does so if you’re ready to engage with that kind of conversation, and that kind of viewpoint. I mean, Pass Over is infinitely better. But American Son, like you said, it’s a good intro. But yeah, I mean, it’s not even a choice. Pass Over is a much better play.
Diep: Yeah. But what does it say that it was American Son that was the one that got to Broadway? And Pass Over was done in a theater that wasn’t even 100 seats.
Jose: Yeah, it was limited run. It says everything that we already know about about theater and why we were yelling at the real estate of theater before this. Pass Over belongs at the Vivian Beaumont in a way that many other shows that have happened there, you know, Act One remember that play?
Diep: The Moss Hart play, ueah,
Jose: And fucking Oslo, it even won a Tony, no, no. Plays like Pass Over are what should be on the mainstage. I want everyone to do better, you can do better, especially if you’re a nonprofit, to better to much, much, much better. And didn’t even like get into the fact that this production of Pass Over has Spike Lee’s signature all over it. And can you imagine what it would have been like to be in that live audience, he was a control of what was happening with the cameras and the shots and everything. Spike Lee, you are a god, and if you’ve ever listened to our podcast know that you have my eternal devotion.
Diep: I would have been so afraid to sit in that audience knowing Spike Lee was gonna capture my face. Because all of those close ups, how do you even act naturally when you know Spike Lee’s filming your face. But what I really want these theaters to do is just stop putting these plays by people of color, who are trying to do something new, stop putting them in the tiniest spaces and giving them the tiniest budget. Like when we’re talking about LCT3 and a 90 seat theater versus the Vivian Beaumont, a 500 seat theater, like, Antoinette’s play should be in a 500 seat Broadway theater. And the fact that it’s not, that artists of color are always seen as you know, upcoming. They still have a lot to learn. They still have you know, years ago before they deserve to be in a 500 seat theater, whereas Christopher Demos-Brown, this is his first fucking play. Because the first play that he’s ever written somehow gets to Broadway. What is that? Like Antoinette Nwandu’s been around, she’s had other plays before this and this is her big break but still like it can only go in the teeniest space that you have like. That is the marginal marginalization of voices that we are talking about, like they are not deserving of resources.
Jose: Absolutely. And with that said, I can’t believe I’m even gonna say this out loud. But I’m grateful to both Netflix and Amazon for putting them out there. So at least we can have this conversation. So that’s also something that’s really important. If there’s a play by a person of color, Black, Asian, Latino playwright, please at least give it production somewhere, you know, so people can stream it. I didn’t get to go to Pass Over. And if it wasn’t for Amazon, I would have never been able to see it. If you’re not going to give them the Broadway space, at least, film them and make them available to people.
Diep: Yeah. And I think those artists want them to be available. Can I tell you something that’s really interesting about Pass Over. Yes? Okay. Spoiler alert. If you don’t want to be spoiled by Pass Over, please fast forward five minutes. So at the end of Pass Over, when the white character is going, “we’re taking our country back.” So at the Lincoln Center production, like Antoinette actually change the ending monologue. And so instead of him saying that, it becomes like, “Oh, it was an accident. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to do that. I felt threatened for my life.” Instead of coming from a Trump supporter, that white person became Amy Cooper.
Jose: Which potato potAto right? There’s no difference in Amy Cooper and a 45 supporter.
Diep: Do you think it’s a different interpretation of a play? Or do you think it’s all of a piece?
Jose: That version that you just shared with me is speaking directly to them, Lincoln Center subscribers. I love it. Love it. Cuz like we often, you know, especially non-Black liberals, we often, like you mentioned in your column, we don’t do enough and we pat ourselves on the back constantly that constantly. So to be read like that, to be read to filth like that at Lincoln Center. Antoinette, you have you know, you have even more my respect.
Diep: Thank you for calling out the Nederlanders, Antoinette, all the Amy Coopers of American theater.
Jose: Ready to go to the interview? So next we’re going to be talking to Jasmine Batcelor, who is the lead in The Surrogate, a film by Jeremy Hersh, where she plays Jess Harris, a web designer who works at a nonprofit in Brooklyn, who has two very close, gay best friends. It’s a mixed-race couple. One is called Josh and the other Aaron, who is the incredible Sullivan Jones from Slave Play [by Jeremy O. Harris that was on Broadway in 2019]. He’s hot and super tall and also a really great actor. So kudos anyway. So they want to be parents and they asked Jess if she is willing to be their surrogate. The movie then turns into this moral study and this very adult film, in the way that movies were being made in the 1970s, where, you know, like you went to see things about philosophical argument and about like existential things, with characters who are also very human and very alive.
So I love this movie so much. And we have to mention that, your like Token Theatre Friends, why are you talking about movies? Well, like I said, Jasmine does incredible work on stage. But also, there are so many theater people in this movie. And right now while we are in quarantine, if you’ve watched The Surrogate you can get to see Jasmine and Sullivan, but you can also see Tonya Pinkins, who plays her mom. I don’t wanna spoil all the people who we’ve seen on stage who are in this movie, but it’s worth it. We are in quarantine, if you’re watching zoom readings, you can go watch The Surrogate and pretend it’s a play. Okay, so we’re going to talk to Jasmine.
Jasmine Batchelor, thank you so much for joining us today. I am such a huge fan of your work. And I’ve seen you on stage. And it’s so funny because like when I went back to do more research on you, I saw her in this and I saw her in this I was like, oh, wow, she’s the same actor! She’s like, so mind blowing. It’s such a treat to have you on our show today to talk about The Surrogate, which is one of my favorite movies that I’ve watched in years and years. And can you tell us a little bit about The Surrogate and who you play, and also you’re an executive producer. So tell us a little bit about that.
Jasmine: Yeah, um, first off, I want to say thank you so much for having me. This is both like, such a dream to be talking about a movie I was in, to be talking about it with you two is fantastic. And I’m like, how did I get here? So thank you so much. So yeah, The Surrogate was written by Jeremy Hersh and also directed by Jeremy Hersh. And it is about a 29-year-old woman named Jess who decides to be a surrogate for her two best friends. And they are played by Sullivan Jones. And Chris Perfetti—as you can tell, by the way I say their names, I love them dearly. They are fantastic actors. And along the way, about a couple of weeks in to their pregnancy, you know, because it is all their child, they discovered that the fetus has Down Syndrome. And from there on, it’s the kind of dilemma between them and everyone that would be impacted by the birth of this child to figure out, you know, if they’re going to continue with the surrogacy. And if they do, how can they be the best parents to the child, learning about the Down Syndrome community, learning about parenting community, and in that learning, learning about each other, and if I can speak just from the person who play Jess, really learning about Jessica Harris. I like to think of it as a an odd coming of age story for myself. Because sometimes, it’s not until you run into something that is so SO challenging in a way that you get to figure out who you are. And so I think that in this movie, she gets to figure out who she is. And yes. I am also a producer on the film. I am an associate producer, and it’s my first time producing anything and yeah, I feel so weird. Someone’s like, Oh, yeah. Jasmine Batchelor is an actress and associate producer of a film. Like, I’m not saying that’s me. Really, I did that? My job was partly helping to figure out, throw ideas in for casting. Erica Hart, who is an incredible casting director, got everyone on board from the New York theater scene, and really did her job so well.
Diep: And I love it when things are filmed in New York because then it becomes like a Who’s Who of New York theater actors and and everyone’s usually in bit roles. So film people may not know who these people are, but oh my gosh, us theater nerds, we know who these people are. Give them more lines. So can you tell me about the virtual theatrical release that’s happening on Friday for the film because you know, that’s unprecedented in terms of how these things are distributed.
Jasmine: Hi, y’all, I can’t I’ve never seen anything like this. But I mean, we’ve never seen anything like COVID. So we were supposed to premiere at South by Southwest this year, but in light of the Coronavirus, doing what it did and is doing, obviously South by Southwest was canceled. And so for a while, we did not know what was happening. And so about a month ago or so here, he told me that we’re now doing this thing where they are now putting tickets on pre order for actual theaters throughout the United States. Theaters like I can’t think of an indie theater—
Diep: Film Forum?
Jasmine: There’s one. Yeah, yes. Or like there’s one theater in Dayton, Ohio that I used to go to all the time when I was an undergrad. And I was like, Oh, I’m a cool person. Because I see the real movies. They’re like theaters like that, that are actually reaching out to independent artists and and cultivating a library of incredible and nuanced art. Those kinds of theaters, the mom and pop theaters, the theaters that you go to to see the movies that fellow theater artists really want to see. A lot of those theaters are going to be showcasing the film on Friday. So you can pre-order tickets, and you can order them through those theaters. And I think they’re like $18 each and you get to watch it from home. But you also get to support your local theater, which is a big plus and a big reason why Jeremy decided to do it that way. So not only are you getting to watch us and support theater artists making films and support Jeremy’s movie, but you also get to support your local theaters and they need it right now. So yeah.
Jose: Okay, so Tonya Pinkins plays your mom in this movie, and it is like it, I’m sorry to say this. But the scene where Tonya Pinkins is yelling at your character Jess were some of my favorites. I would like her to tell me what a bad offspring I am, I want that. So if you don’t mind taking a second to brag about the cast, everyone who we know from the New York stage because it’s mind blowing. So can you get us started with that?
Jasmine: Yes. And I don’t. So please forgive me. I don’t want to leave anyone out. Because you know, my brain is in a million different places. But we can start with Tonya. Because whenever like, yeah, we’re thinking about getting someone to play your mom and I went through like a long list of like, these incredible Black actresses that I have spent so many years watching on stage or reading about and being like, who, oh my god, how are they doing that? Like, that’s what I want to do. That’s who I want to be. And when they said she’s gonna be my mom, I was like, shut up! She’s incredible. And she has such a political voice and she’s so outspoken about the things that she believes in, and she’s not afraid to say what she feels and say what she thinks And that, as I guess the world is realizing now, for Black women can be a dangerous thing and an unwelcome thing. So the fact that she is so unafraid and who knows if she is afraid, but she is so bold in her approach and her words, as well as her talent is something, it’s something to be recognized. And, you know, obviously Jeremy was like, well, that kind of person should be Karen, because you know, the woman who plays Jess’s mom is unapologetic in how she feels and very direct, so it makes sense.
And Leon Addison Brown plays my father, and Leon and I were in a play at Baltimore Center Stage together. We met and we played love interests, and that was like such a weird first, that was my first play that I did out of Juilliard and he was so kind. I was just so lucky to have him as my father. He does a wonderful job. I think there’s a scene that got cut of him like, consoling me after Tonya yells at me. But that that was cut, but it’s one of my like, most favorite moments.
And let’s see, we got Brooke Bloom, who is, Oh, she’s so good. I have no words like, She’s so good. She’s so incredible. I think she was on set for maybe like, three days, but we have some very intense scenes together. And we just fell into a rhythm and seemed to really understand each other and she’s just, one of the talents that I’m really glad I got introduced to in this film. And, I mean, there are not enough good words to say about Brooke and I’m probably going to say this about everybody because I love everyone. Let’s see, I got to work with my classmate and my best friend, one of the most beautiful people in the world Brandon Micheal Hall, who is more of a TV guy now but he is from theater. He’s raised in the theater. He was going to be in Blue [at the Apollo Theatre] which is now postponed because of Coronavirus with Phylicia Rashad. He’s incredible. It was really great to have a best friend in that kind of situation because that was my first love scene on camera. So really glad that my really good friend and someone that I trusted is there for that.
Let’s see Chris Perfetti, Sullivan Jones, so good, which people remember from Slave Play [by Jeremy O. Harris on Broadway] and Chris from his Moscow six times [Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow by Halley Feiffer at MCC Theater]. Did you guys see that? He was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. There are so many. I mean, everyone is a theater person. Literally every person in this endless project, with the exception of Leon [Lewis], who plays a little boy, is from theater. And the performances are astounding. I mean, taking myself out of it, I can watch everyone else and be like, these performances are so nuanced and layered and beautiful, and really taken from the text in a way that a theater artist can do. It’s, it’s incredible. I’m in awe of all of them. I sound like such a fangirl, you guys.
Diep: I’m in awe of how like seamlessly you and the cast were able to, because we’ve all seen you on stage so we know that you can do like big vocal moments because that’s required for the theater. But to do these like really quiet, I feel like I’m just watching your face and your eyes most of the time in this which is so just so refreshing because you never get to. But I actually wanted to ask you about just the morality question in this, because it was just something that you never consider as really woke liberals as we are like. I feel like we really haven’t reached the complex parts of the disability conversation. And so in doing this, did it open your own mind to those, like how inaccessible the world is?
Jasmine: Oh yeah. Oh my god. Yeah. If I’m being honest with you, I started thinking about that when Jeremy and I were going through the scripts. When we would have weekly meetings, almost weekly meetings, like every Saturday we would go to like a park or something and talk about the movie or talk about our lives and get to know each other. And he started opening my eyes a lot to the simple things. Like there’s a scene in the movie where Jess walks by a bar and notices that the only way that you can come in are stairs. And, you know, like I live my life and I am an able bodied person as they say, quote unquote, and I never have to worry about that. And the only time that I’ve actually been woken up to things like that or are like, when I’m coming up in the subway side note, I really missed the subway at this point. So to say, like, I’m coming up from the subway with a huge bag or my suitcase or I see a mom and her stroller, or I see someone with the wheelchair on the train, and I’m like, they can’t get off at the stop. They have to take another, the longer route perhaps, or take a bus or go out of their way when the shortest route should be accessible to them. That stuff that if you don’t see it, if you don’t experience it, maybe you haven’t really thought about it before.
So I’m really thankful to this movie for just opening my eyes to that and understanding that, you know, right now a lot of people are opening their eyes to the Black Lives Matter movement, right? And because a lot of them have not ever had to consider the way that black people look at the world, much less the way that people of any color other than identifying as white look at the world. And now they have to. And so now there’s this great awakening of people reading books and people asking their black friends what’s going on, which please, I mean, people please stop doing that, or like sending emails. But in this movie, I had to check myself and kind of do the same thing and be like, I do, I care about these people. I care about this community. So in what way can I use the privilege that I have, which is you know, a person that’s just operating without having to question, and what good can I do for them? And that also applies to like the Down syndrome community.
So Leon in the movie, I love that kid so much he is, he’s honestly the star, I think his name should be replacing mine, he’s like the most adorable. When he was on set everybody was like zoom, like looking. Cuz he just, he has a light and so smart and so just like he’s very opinionated in the way that little kids give me. But we also took a shine to each other and I love him so much but in my relationship with him, and like hanging out with him and Jeremy outside of the film, I was like, there are things that are going to get there. There are people and situations, they’re going to be obviously against Leon because of the way he was born. And obviously that is not fair. And obviously, there’s going to be hard and he has no control over those things being there because he did not ask for this. Do you know? And like none, like none of us did. Like we didn’t ask you to to be born so why do we have to, you know, put up with the shit that comes our way. But in thinking about that, I was like, what I can do. He’s a kid right now. He’s a child. He doesn’t know about half of the things the stupid shit that’s gonna happen. But I think maybe get a head start on that. And helping that not happen. And helping, like in some way, he can be equipped to know that he is loved, that he is unique, is special, that he is valued so that shit doesn’t hurt so much. In the same way that I try to do that for like, my little brother, or, you know, anyone that would have to deal with that bullshit. Or even myself. That was a very long answer to your question. Yeah, the movie had a big impact on me. I mean, I’ve been sitting with this script since 2017. So I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
Jose: I want to talk a little bit for, you know, for this generation, I would say, of actors, your generation, specifically Jasmine, where there’s gonna be a world you know, pre COVID and post COVID. And one of the things that I sound you know, I feel horrible even say this, but one of the silver linings—and COVID has been that, it has revealed how much bullshit there is surrounding the way in which we have access to art. For instance, right now, suddenly everyone can stream their plays. And suddenly everyone’s just doing digital theater. When before they were telling us that we had to pay upwards stuff like $100 to go see an Off-Broadway show, for instance. And, you know, Diep and I, for instance, if we were not theater journalists, we would not be able to afford to go see any shows, actors wouldn’t be able to afford to go see theater. Theater would be only for like, super rich, Upper East Side and Upper West Side people, right? And right now everyone’s having theater delivered to their homes.
But also, the same happens with movies, you know, an independent film like this, for instance, would first have to go through the process for its release at Film Forum or the IFC center. And it runs there for months, fingers crossed. And then fingers crossed a campaign, an awards campaign, you know, backs it up, and then fingers crossed again, maybe you get like a Spirit Award now. Maybe you get Oscar nominations. But it’s always like waiting for something more to happen rather than just like valuing the work for what it is. So right now, as an actor, Jasmine, you’re given this opportunity to have both your stage work, if you were doing anything on stage that could be streamed or live cast. And also your movie, instead of having been in one theater, which coast, people all over the world maybe can get to watch your film right now. Yeah, yeah. Fingers crossed. I’m gonna yell at everyone I know to go see this movie. So what is that like for you, as an artist, you know, to know that you’re at this crossroads. Are you hoping that things are going to open in a way that this is just like, you know, the floodgates is like bursting, and we won’t be able to go back to what it was like before COVID because it’s not fair. Now that we know that it’s possible. They cannot take us back to what it was like before.
Jasmine: I really love that you brought that up because that is the theme I think 2020 right, is that we can’t go back to the way that things were before any of this and in literally anything that we’re dealing with. And so we’re seeing that in our little community of theater and entertainment. You know, I’m so I want to bring up someone that is with one of my heroes and I miss dearly. Jim Houghton was the artist. Yes, I heard that. Yes. He is a big reason why I was even at Juilliard in the first place. And I’ve never seen someone with that much power treat my family with such respect, and love and treat me with respect, and love and to see every single person as a singular person of value, but that’s a tangent, I’m just telling you how much I love him and I missed him and but he had a really great mission for the Signature, he wanted to make it more accessible. He wanted to make sure that everyone could see what was happening there. He didn’t want to make sure that the tickets were like $100, you know, to $300 per ticket because theater is not made just for the people who are of a certain tax bracket. And if it is, what the fuck are we doing? Do you know? Because we don’t do that. But like you said, I couldn’t see if I didn’t go to Juilliard. If I didn’t know the people in the shows 75% of those shows, I couldn’t see. I wouldn’t be able to even understand what an audition was for because I wouldn’t be able to see the play. And so his mission really is, when I was in school, opened my eyes to like, you’re right. This isn’t a fancy thing. This is a lot of work for us. You know, everyone who’s behind the scenes who’s on that stage, who programs. It’s a lot of work, but that doesn’t mean that it should just be for people who make over $100,000 annually here, you know, just to come in and chill and go home and not learn anything. It’s for the people, and it always has been for the people.
So now that we have experienced, like, oh, well, you know, we’re all at home, let’s just stream it now, which, I’m very thankful for. But I’m also like, so you guys could have been doing this the whole time? Like, like, I taught high schoolers, and I showed them this play that I was telling them about. For the longest time, they could have had access to this instead of me fighting for, for a blessing that we couldn’t afford, and fighting for transportation and fighting for parental slips. But like I could have actually given them the gift of this. Interesting. So now that we know this, we can’t go back. It has to be for everyone because theater is so often how we learn and so often how we express ourselves, but it’s so often how we learn about different views. It’s so often that we get to see ourselves represented. Like, I’ll never forget. I will never ever forget. And this is not a theater. This is a movie, but I’ll never forget. I was way too young to be watching this, but I saw What’s Love Got to Do With It with my grandparents. I think I was like, five. I was way too young to be seeing it. But I saw Angela Bassett. And I was like, Oh, that’s that’s what I’m doing. That’s that’s what, that’s what that is. That’s what that feeling inside. That’s what this story of Tina Turner and her life—it changed my little life. It changed my life. But it was only because I was able to see that I could. We couldn’t afford theater when I was little, I was living in North Philadelphia. We didn’t, I mean, we couldn’t do that. And I think about it. If I could have gone, if I could have seen theater sooner, I mean we’re robbing our communities, we’re robbing our children or robbing our neighbors and our friends and our parents of the opportunity of learning, of the opportunity of changing if we restrict theater. So yeah, we can’t go back and you saw that recent letter. That’s like, we see you white American theater. We’re not going back.
Diep: Did you see the Tina Turner musical on Broadway?
Jasmine: I haven’t seen it. And I was waiting. And now I’m slapping myself because I have friends in it. And I’m like, I should have seen it. I should have seen it before. But if and when Broadway comes back, please. Y’all come back because the clips I have seen, holy shit. That’s enough.
Diep: Yeah, yeah, I know. We wish we had Adrienne Warren’s energy.
Jasmine: I wish I had Adrienne Warren’s everything. She is a force. Oh my goodness.
Jose: Are you also trained as a singer Jasmine, do you have a good singing voice?
Jasmine: I do, but not that musical theater voice. So I always say if I were to quit acting to do anything, I would want to be like an R&B singer or singing in a jazz club. I wish I had a dream. I wish I was, right, I mean, that girl. If she hears this, know that I’m stanning very hard.
Jose: I wanna ask you a very technical question for a second. And this is, you know, based on what what you mentioned Diep also about, like, how much work you do with your eyes. One of the things that I’m always like so mystified about you is that you, you know, the stage isn’t very friendly for people to like focus on people’s faces, right. That’s why a lot of theater ends up being a lot of people. shouting, basically, people yelling at each other so everyone can hear. But the work of yours that I’ve seen, and I’m so excited that people can, you know, get to see your work, they’ve seen you on stage, and they’re going to be able to see your work in The Surrogate. Because you’re doing the same thing. I mean, not the same thing. That’s not what I mean. But you’re doing the same thing that you do on stage, which is so magical. It’s almost like you’re almost convinced audience members sitting, you know, in a theater that we have the ability to zoom into you. And that’s not something that any actor can do. And how do you do that? How do you pull it off? What kind of magic Are you working on stage?
Diep: We don’t like cameras here. So I don’t know how you can have a camera that close to your face.
Jasmine: Oh, I don’t actually know either. I don’t, I gotta be honest with you guys. I didn’t know I was doing that. So I’m very flattered. I literally am just trying to live. I just try to live in the moment and so often I will leave the stage and be like that I wish it was like, or like, I tried. But I really honestly I’m just trying to be, you know what, I’m actually trying to do—let me stop bullshitting and tell you like the truth. And I’m actually just trying to connect with my partner and make them look really good. That’s what I’m trying to do. I mean, that’s one of the first things that I learned as an actor and something that I keep coming back to, is that it’s not about me, and it is about the other person. And so whatever I can do to get them involved in the conversation or give them back, you know, the same energy or more that they’re giving me, the better this thing will be as a whole. So whatever you see coming from like me, whatever that is, that is literally just me trying to make the other person look or feel as much like they’re in the same world as I am. Or I am really trying to do justice to the life that I’m living at that moment. Which is why, which is why and this is gonna be a little weird tangent, which is why I think that we got to give actors, we got to give good actors the opportunity to do that with words and words that that the writers believe in. So we have to give writers, we have to give writers power, because they’re the ones that are going to take us there. I mean, it all comes back to them. So to tell my writers out there, you know, we hear you, we believe in you. But they’re the reason why I can do good work because of them.
Jose: Can you talk about that incredible column that you wrote for Talkhouse, “Say Her Name”? Just like, oh God, she can write this well also, like what can’t you do?
Jasmine: I can’t whistle.
Jose: You can, anyone can whistle.
Jasmine: Yeah, thank you for reading that. And I gotta be honest, it’s very nerve wracking to publish it. Because I guess pre COVID I might have been like, Oh, you know what will future employers gonna say. Or maybe I might not have. I got into quite a bit of trouble with Juilliard for that very reason. But I also struggled with like, is this selfish to publish how I feel in this moment? And because honestly, it’s not about me. But then I reread it and I was like, No, this is important because I might be speaking for someone else who had a similar, or is having similar experience. And I also think it’s important that people realize realize that it’s not just about one time. And it’s not just about the past, even though this one time and the past are so huge and so disturbing, and it should be a movement. It is also about our future. And it’s also about what’s happening in our lives daily. And so I’m just really grateful to Talkhouse for letting me write about it and for donating the money to a charity, which I want to thank you guys for that. Yeah, and for Jeremy for introducing me, to Talkhouse, for letting me write it. So thank you for reading it. I appreciate that.
Diep: And will you be protesting again this week?
Jasmine: Oh, fuck Yes. Yes. Yeah, yes. I try to balance being an active protester with writing and researching because I think the two for me go hand in hand. And I realized that I protest best with my words and with my brain. But sometimes the anger is, it’s in there and it needs to be exercised in a physical way. Um, so yeah, yeah. And I support the protesters and I think, fucking whoever hears this is going to hear the truth. I also think that people are more important than things. So if you are really concerned, yes, if you are concerned with things more than you are concerned with lives, then you need to take a second look at your priorities. That’s all.
Jose: Yep, yep. Okay, Jasmine, this is your time to plug your projects and let us know if you have any upcoming Zoom performances and tell people, also our viewers and our listeners were right. Where can they find The Surrogate on Friday?
Jasmine: Okay, so, um, I am in a Zoom project, it’s written by Emily Hannon. And I’m not sure when it’s going to come out. So as soon as I figure that out, I will let you guys know. Um, let’s see, I also am just living and protesting. So the thing you could do for me right now is to support Black Lives, either by protesting or by sending your donations to the various bail funds that are taking care of our peaceful protesters out there, whether they’re peaceful or not shouldn’t matter to you. And you can also educate yourself and and take care of yourself. And for me, this is such a preachy moment but um, for me, if I can shout out to other Black women, the thing you can do for me right now is to take care of yourself. That’s it, is love yourself and take care of yourself. If you’re looking for The Surrogate, you can find us at The Surrogate movie on Instagram. And there’s a link there to see where you can purchase tickets for any of the theaters in America. It’s right there. I know everybody’s on the ground. So hop in there. And, and yeah, I think I think that’s all the things I had to say for that. Yeah.
Jose: Thank you so much Jasmine, you are a queen among actors. So I salute you and thank you for joining us. It has been a true pleasure. And please give Jeremy my love also, and my love to you. And I hope we can grab a drink at some point even if it’s like with straws under our masks.
Jasmine: Six feet away.
Diep: And please take care of yourself too
Jasmine: Thank you. Thank you both as well.