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 episodes from the previous version of the podcast here but to get new episodes, you will need to resubscribe to our new podcast feed (look for the all-red logo).
The Friends sat down and recorded over Skype on June 14 and talked about “We See You White American Theatre,” an open letter that got more than 50,000 signatures (including from a bunch of celebrities) and what can be done to solve racism in the American theater. Then they whistle a happy tune and discuss The King and I. They watched a video of the 2015 Broadway revival and talk about how it’s problematic but they love it anyway, and how they would improve The King and I. #YourFavesAreProblematic
Their guest this episode is actor April Matthis, who was the star of the play Toni Stone by Lydia Diamond, and who’s been up for every acting award in New York City for her performance. This Obie-winning star has also been in Gatz by Elevator Repair Service, and she called in to discuss Playing on Air, a theater podcast where she acted in short plays by Dominique Morisseau and Ngozi Anyanwu, and trying to create theater in the time of COVID-19.
Here are links to things that Friends talked about in this episode.
- The We See You White American Theatre letter.
- Washington Post: “When black people are in pain, white people join book clubs.”
- Montana Levi Blanco’s Instagram video about racism in the theater.
- Rachel Chavkin’s apology to Montana Levi Blanco.
- Diep’s article about the American musical’s obsession with Asians.
- Playing on Air: website/iTunes
- Night Vision by Dominique Morisseau: website/iTunes
- G.O.A.T. by Ngozu Anyanwu: website/iTunes
- The Skin of Our Teeth at Paper Chairs Theatre Company.
- Ronald Peet doing the 24-Hour Plays.
- April Matthis doing the 24-Hour Plays.
- 2666 by Roberto Bolaño at the Goodman Theatre.
Below is the transcript from the episode.
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 Jose was even thinking about it while he was out of town this past week. How was the nature Jose?
Jose: Well, all the world is a stage and I pretended that the wild animals that I saw were part of a play.
Diep: You’re like Rosalind going out into the Forest of Arden.
Jose: I love your background so much. I’m obsessed with it.
Diep: Yeah, you cannot see this on the podcast but I have changed the background of my screen to the toilet in “Parasite” because that is where my mind is at right now.
Jose: We do have a video version also so you can appreciate and worship and praise Diep for her very thoughtful very funny, funny, funny background.
Diep: Yes, the weirdest thing about this new venture that we have created is I have to be on camera for like an hour now. I’ve had a hard time like listening to myself but like watching myself, like I don’t know how you edit those videos and just not cringe every single time you see your own face.
Jose: Oh, I do constantly, which means I need to talk to my analyst more about more self love.
Diep: I guess there’s no such thing as self love when you’re a journalist and you have to listen and watch yourself.
Jose: On the bright side, you look flawless. Your skin looks flawless. What are we gonna be talking about this week?
Diep: This week is a little bit you know, we’re all over the place this week. First off, we’re going to be talking about a petition that’s been circling around the internet. It’s called, We See You White American Theater and over 50,000 people have signed it, including some very famous people like Sondra Oh.
Jose: Yes, that’s why we stan “Killing Eve.”
Diep: So we’ll be talking about that and what we hope to see from that. And then, this week, we wanted to do with something a little bit lighter, because last week’s discussion was quite, everything’s been heavy. Life is heavy, and we want to, we don’t want to talk about sad things. We want to talk about happy things, some happy talk. We’re going to be discussing “The King and I.” In the second segment of this episode, it does not make me happy, but it makes Jose very happy. So we will dive into that. And for the interview today, who are we talking to?
Jose: Today? Well, before we say that, I want to clarify that the reasons why it makes me happy are not the reasons why it makes you unhappy just to say that. Today we are going to be talking to the fantastic April Matthis who you have seen on stage in plays like “Toni Stone,” which was around about last season, for which, for which she was nominated for Drama Desk Award. So April, but today we’re going to be talking about work that a lot of actors have been doing in quarantine and April has been collaborating on a podcast called Playing on Air. So we’re going to be talking to her about that, about her career and it’s a fabulous interview. So stay tuned for that.
Diep: Yep. And for the first segment, Jose, do you want to run down the We See You WAT letter?
Jose: Okay, sure we are going to add a link to the actual letter. So let me just paraphrase what it was about. At some point last week, there was a letter that came out. I love the logo because it’s like an eye and it’s like, very tarot it’s like super cool.
Diep: It looked Egyptian to me, like, you know, the eye of Ra.
Jose: Oh, remind me to make do your tarot reading with my new Egyptian deck then. But yeah, it’s all seeing eye. That’s what that presents, basically. And it’s a wake up call to white theater. It’s called We See You White American Theatre, which kind of feels like I don’t know, like very redundant because white and American theater goes hand in hand, but whatever. That’s a whole other story. This letter, the people behind it, were basically saying, and I don’t want to like pat our backs, but they basically have been saying what we have been saying for two years while we’ve been doing this. And also what you have been saying your entire career when you wrote your op eds about “Miss Saigon,” and all those other things that are bullshit. They’re a little bit late, and I’m not gonna judge them for that. I’m proud and so happy that this is finally happening because there’s a reckoning coming and I don’t want to sound like Prospero or some crazy old man out of a Shakespeare play. But there will be a reckoning and we are at the beginning of what needs to be a revolution in the American theater of restarting and seeing that we have been doing very, very, very poorly, but especially white people have been responsible for that they have been keeping us down. They have been keeping Black artists excluded, you know, they face racism 24/seven. And One of the most heartbreaking things that I’ve seen recently was that testimonial that Montana Levi Blanco did. He’s one of my favorite designers. He’s a fucking genius. And when you hear him talking about something like that, when he would, you know, like, you think he’s so respected, and he’s so loved. And the thing is, when you see that something like that is happening to someone who you think is doing all right. Imagine all the people whose names you don’t know. Imagine all the stagehands and all the managers, imagine all the lighting people, all the tech people, you know, all the people who haven’t broken through to talk about that, because it’s really scary. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’m always terrified before I click send to a draft to an editor or whenever I hit publish, when we’re working on self publication. I’m always terrified of how the words I write are going to land because I’m so tired of being angry, and I’m so tired of being sad. I’m tired of being disappointed in people. And I’m taking this like on another like, you know, like, a different road. But it totally relates to We See You. And the fact is that we have seen you for a long, long, long time, American theater. So I’m sad. But I’m also proud that we are finally seeing a lot of people and most importantly, famous people and celebrities because they are the ones who are heard. And they’re finally talking about this. So, you know, the letter is admirable, the design is beautiful. My only concern about this letter is that it’s coming off as a little bit too vague for my taste. And it’s like, you know, it’s like we see you, it kind of feels almost like the MTA saying, if you see something, say something. Well guess what? We have been!
Diep: Yeah. Oh my god so much stuff that just happened right there and everything you said. Okay, so first off, the We See You letter was originally created by 30 theater makers and then they released it and then it expanded to 50,000 signatures and then I’ve been told that they’re going to compile a list of demands for white theatre producers and institutions and so I’m really looking forward to seeing what those demands will be because—and I’m currently writing, figuring wrapping my mind around like writing about this—but I feel like it’s kind of like that Washington Post op ed that was about, “When black people are dying, white people join book clubs.” It’s about like how some people, a lot of people think saying, “Oh, I hear you, I understand you. I’ve done so much reading, let me know how I can help.” Like saying those things are enough when they’re not and the fact that that’s always a go to and it never gets to another part of the conversation, which is, “I will commit to doing this I will commit to not working with all white creative teams, I will commit to making sure my season, the plays that I finance are from diverse writers.” Like there’s no, there’s never any real big concrete commitment that you can see, that you can measure. And so I’m really hoping that there will be and that all of us, every one, white people, you know, Black people, all of us will, will keep them—the powers that be accountable—for know for making sure those demands are met. You know, we’re all in a pause right now. And we don’t know when theater is going to happen again. But I hope we don’t forget about our list of demands. When in 2021 when Tony season rolls around, we don’t all go back to pretending Oh, we’re one big happy family. And oh, such an honor to work in the arts, when it’s not sometimes.
Jose: Yeah, this is such a time of heartbreak. I think for all of us, it’s like we are all going through a period of mourning and grieving for the things that are going to be lost, which are great things. If If things go well, you know, these are things that are gonna be lost, white supremacy fucking sucks. And racism in theater fucking sucks also, but it’s just, I don’t know, it feels like a lot right now. And I do wish the best of you know, break a leg to that We See You people and if we can help in any way we want to help that we want to see more—
Diep: Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jose: Or find us on Twitter or wherever we’re easy to find, we’re loud and we’re always there. But you know if we, I don’t know I want to see more than letters and I want to see more than Susan Collins reactions. I want to see more than people being concerned and I want to see people taking action. We need to take the figurative streets of Broadway and theater and go make those people listen to us.
Diep: You brought something up that I actually haven’t talked about with a lot of people, I want to talk about because I think it’s one of those like, like sticky little issues. Is is Montana Levi Blanco’s Instagram video. Montana Levi Blanco is an award winning costume designer and in 2018 he worked on this musical at Williamstown Theatre Festival called “Lempicka,” which I did see, which is which is coming to Broadway. And directed by Tony winner Rachel Chavkin, and he said that he was dismissed from the production because she said that his designs weren’t good enough basically, and they went back and forth on it, tensions rose and then she called her agent and said that he was threatening her. And then later Chavkin issued an apology and committed to doing better. What was really interesting is that I feel, because I love Rachel Chavkin as a director. And I love Montana as a costume designer. So it was one of those times where, wait, I thought these were two people who were on the right, who on the same side or on the right side, like Rachel’s always talking about diversity. And if you seen her work, she doesn’t tokenize people—it’s always a wide array people on that stage and behind the scenes and so how, how, how is this happening?
Jose: I don’t know. There’s such such anti-Black sentiment in this world that I by default, will believe the Black people, because Latinx people, Asian people, everyone who’s non-Black, but also a POC, we are raised on anti-Blackness. I was raised in Honduras, which is in Central America, where people who have very dark skin will make jokes about being Black. And I’m always like, Okay, look at yourself, you know, where do you think, who do you think your ancestors are? And all that. So by default, I’m always inclined to believing the Black person who is not accusing, but who is speaking out about the way they’ve been treated by someone. Because we have seen the way in which white women weaponize whiteness, but also hide themselves behind being a woman to Amy Cooper their way in the world. And sometimes this is done unconsciously. Sometimes it’s not like Amy Cooper, or that monster who, you know, accused Emmett Till of messing with her and the poor kid ended up beaten to death. But it’s, you know, I was, I was so sad to see all of that unfold. And so heartbreaking because yes, I love Rachel Chavkin’s work and I love Montana’s work. But I was very, I don’t know, I was very pleased, I would say, with the way in which Rachel’s apology came across as not as like, No wait, I didn’t do any of that. It came across as like, I will sit down, I will shut up, and I will listen. And that gave me hope.
Diep: Yeah, I think it’s definitely one of those times where even if you think like you’re doing everything, right, as a non-Black person, like there’s always some blind spots or some like some things that will come out of your mouth that you don’t intend to be racist. And you’ll treat people in a certain way that you don’t think is racist because you think you’re better than that. But we all live in a society. And unfortunately, I think these conversations wouldn’t be happening in a public platform like Instagram, if we somehow could figure out how to have it on a one-on-one basis that is productive. Unfortunate, and I don’t know either of them very intimately, but it just seems like there was just no way for it to happen productively just between the two of them, and it escalated to being on social. Which is to say, try to solve things amongst yourselves. Otherwise, it’s gonna erupt on social media and we’re gonna have to hear about it and feel very yucky about it.
Jose: Yeah, just listen to Black people, please. I guess it’s hard because we have anti-Blackness ingrained in us. Just hearing you say that right now made me, so I had the most shallow thought that I’ve had recently. Because when I was rewatching “The King and I,” the first thing that I thought was, “I will pray to God and every God in the world, that Kelli O’Hara doesn’t ever do something racist because how am I going to quit Kelli O’Hara.” And, you know, she’s a white woman. And we have seen white women weaponizing who they are to bring violence to Black men specifically. And oh my god, I just please Kelli, please, please, please, please never say something racist. I love you too much.
Diep: I’m sorry to say Jose, your faves are problematic.
Jose: Oh they always are always, always are problematic.
Diep: But you know, we’re all gonna learn from this experience, we’re all gonna figure out how to better, better talk to each other so that creative disputes doesn’t turn into racial disputes. I think now’s a good time to just like reassess, reassess language and just reassess how we treat each other on like a one-on-one level and to learn to not dismiss each other just because we’re busy or we’re overwhelmed or we think we’re right. To like just approach it all with just more generosity.
Jose: Yeah, it’s also the time to see color. Cuz even if theater prides itself in being colorblind, it’s time for you white men and women who have positions of power in the theater to acknowledge the color of your skin and acknowledge the privilege that whiteness brings to you, before you interact with a person of color, and whether it’s a Black person or a non Black POC, acknowledge that you are a white person, and acknowledge the optics of what you are doing in the moment the emails you’re sending, the texts are sending, how you’re reacting, what you’re writing, how you’re talking to people. Acknowledge that, and remember that you carry within you a legacy of violence, legacy of oppression and a legacy of hatred. You don’t necessarily have to be those people. We are not saying you’re your ancestors, but those things are in your blood. And I mean, you can block me and you can burn me later if you want. But it’s true. That something that none of us who are not Black can lie. You know, one of the most horrendous things that people in my home countries say for instance, when a Latina woman marries a white man, and they’re having kids, people say that this woman by marrying white men are improving our race. So think about that. Think about how insidious and how perverse and how dehumanizing. Trying to live up to whiteness is not only for us, but also for you people. You’re probably good people inside. Don’t let whiteness get the best of you.
Diep: That’s a great note to end on everyone. Listen to Jose. For our next segment, we’re gonna sing a different tune. Whistle a happy tune, they say. We’re going to be talking about “The King and I,” because Jose loves Kelli O’Hara and I have opinions about “The King and I,” and we think, you know what, it’s a fun time to just have a discussion about, you know, these quote unquote timeless musicals.
Jose: We picked this on purpose because we were so exhausted after “American Son” and “Pass Over” last week that we were like, let’s talk about something else.
Diep: Yeah, like racism! Racism against Asians, that’s much lighter. I mean, technically, it is. It’s fine. It’s fine. So okay, let me get my notes. “The King and I” is a 1951 Broadway musical written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, who were kind of obsessed with Asians, because their other musical “South Pacific” and “Flower Drum Song” were also about Asians. “The King and I is about a white woman named Anna Llewellyn who travels to Siam in order to teach the children of the king there—King Mongkut. We watched the 2015 Broadway revivals, starring starring Jose’s inner white lady Kelli O’Hara and daddy with a capital D Ken Watanabe—who have a, they hate each other and at the end they kind of love each other. And Ruthie Ann Miles and Kelli O’Hara both won a Tony for their performance. So if you would like to watch the King and I, it is currently on BroadwayHD and PBS. I actually did an article a couple years ago for “American Theatre” about Broadway’s obsession with Asians. And I did some research and in his autobiography “Musical Stages,” Richard Rodgers wrote that quote, “Even though our view of Siam couldn’t be completely authentic, Oscar and I were determined to depict the Orientals in the story as characters, not caricature, which has all too often been the case in the musical theater. Our aim was to portray the king and his court with humanity and believability while avoiding the disease Oscar used to call research poison.” So whenever I think of “The King and I,” it’s one of my problematic favorites. It’s one of Jose’s problematic favorites. I love the songs. The Lincoln Center production I saw live. That boat came on stage, I was on it. Ruthie Ann Miles started singing and she hooked me. And when they start dancing, I’m spinning in that ballroom with them. I’m swept away by the romance and also really uncomfortable with the fact that everyone speaks pidgin English and they don’t know that the world is round or that snow is a thing, and they need a white lady to teach them how to be quote unquote civilized. And so when I think of “The King and I,” I’m always like, yes racist, but also they try.
Jose: Oh my god, they try to not be racist.
Jose: That’s so funny. Sorry, I’m laughing but it’s so funny because you’re right. A few years ago I interviewed up Oscar Hammerstein grandchild, and he told me that his grandpa would spend hours and hours and hours and hours doing research on racism and race and why it was so wrong. Yeah. He tried. Why it was so wrong that white people discriminate it, you know, against Asian people, against Black people, against Hispanic people. I mean, hey, I mean every time I remember that Stephen Sondheim thought that “I Feel Pretty” was too smart a song for a Puerto Rican girl to sing. I want to burn everything down. So yeah, Sondheim you’re alive, you’re still problematic, sorry. But it’s this whole thing where it’s you know, the history of the Broadway musical is so fascinating to me, because it’s almost a history of well, obviously, of racism, but also of the people who think they’re trying to fix it, but then they end up with like, fucking “Oklahoma,” which like, there’s not a single like, Native American character in the show. It’s so good. The music is so wonderful about that. But you know, the question I think that this makes me think of is, if the people who were trying for so bad at it, holy fuck that people who aren’t are trying to unleash hell on all of us.
Diep: Compare it to Hollywood, like what kind of you know works featuring Asians was Hollywood putting out. Probably not very much right? Like Anna May Wong couldn’t even get work at that point.
Jose: Yeah and then like she’s like getting all this like, you know, recognition when she’s been dead for like 2000 years. So fuck that like recognize people when they’re alive.
Diep: Exactly I was thinking, the history of musical theater is a history of white people trying to be less racist, and just being two steps behind where it should be and then thinking like they’re supposed to get credit for it.
Jose: It’s that participation diploma. I don’t know. And so I don’t know. I don’t know. I thought even like “The King and I” was gonna uplift me, but not even, when Kelli O’Hara can’t uplift me it means that I’m in need of like more rosé.
Diep: Your failure was picking “The King and I” as a thing that’s gonna uplift you when I knew when you’re like, let’s talk about it, I was thinking, oh man, we’re gonna go far into a whole other thing. I hope you’re ready. Oh, fun fact this is just a side note. I was just doing more research when I was watching it. And apparently Yul Brenner who played the king, who’s not Asian, he played the king in the original 1951 musical, and then again in the 1956 movie, and then again in the 1977 and the 1985 Broadway revival. So it wasn’t until the 1996 Broadway revival that they finally had an Asian actor play the Siamese king.
Jose: Who was it?
Diep: Lou Diamond Phillips. He was opposite Donna Murphy. Yes
Jose: Who won a Tony. So Annas win Tonys so let’s all play Anna and get a Tony.
Diep: Ruthie Ann Miles won the Tony for playing Lady Tiang. So maybe in the future, that role also will get an Asian actress her Tony.
Jose: Yeah, and Ruthie is so fucking luminous in that performance. Oh my god, she’s like made out of like, Oh, I remember. I mean, now I’m talking about something else. But do you remember the Tonys that year? Remember the category for best future actress in a musical?
Jose: So it was basically I’m gonna like out gay myself right now because I think I remember everyone who has not made it. I haven’t Googled it so let’s see how I do. It was basically the “Fun Home” women, Judy Kuhn, Sydney Lucas, the actor who played middle Allison, what’s her name? I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name. I love your performance. Then Ruthie. And I’m missing someone else. Everyone thought Sydney was going to get it, especially after “Ring of Keys,” and everything like that. And then Ruthie winning was very surprising to a lot of people. And then even though back then I was rooting not for Sydney, but I was rooting for Judy Kuhn, who’s magnificent in “Fun Home,” but when Ruthie won I was like holy shit, this is such a great win and then seeing her performance so many years later and seeing the power that it has and how she grounds that entire performance, Kelli I love you but Ruthie grounds it. It’s just like, this is like one of the best Tony wins, probably like ever.
Diep: And I don’t know if you know this but when—so the version that we watched, it was filmed at the London Palladium in 2017. And it was actually filmed a couple months after the death of Ruthie’s two children from a horrible driver, who just ran over her and her two kids basically and they died. I watched it I was like, god damn actors are magic because she’s able to—not six months after this terrible thing happens to her, she’s still able to go back on stage with a cane because she’s still injured, and do that performance and inhabit that character with just gravitas. And with no clue that all this is happening in the background. Give her more Tony’s just for that.
Jose: She’s so great. Okay, now we’re avoiding all the problematic stuff.
Diep: We’re gonna do it. We’re doing it. We’re doing it. Okay. Okay, my problem. So people position it as an East meets West kind of—Oh, these two people, they’re so different and then they learn from each other. But if you really think about it, does Anna really learn anything from the Siamese court at the end of this? No, it’s mostly her just showing these people what to do, and she has this whole song about how they all really piss her off, and how they’re like frogs. If you want to do a show about East meets West, like two different cultures, like there actually needs to be like an exchange of ideas. But you know, it was also 1951. What do you expect? But it was so interesting to me to watch it. Like really, really watch it because previous times I’ve watched it, it was very, I was in the theater, so it’s very much like, ooh, pretty. Everything’s so pretty. And now just like watching it with my hat on it occurred to me, everything that Anna criticizes the Siamese king for, like, you know, having a lot of wives, not believing in love, like seeing women as inferior. That was also a thing in Western culture. 1951, it was only 40 years after the woman had gotten the vote. And at that point, married women in America couldn’t have their own bank accounts. And so the musical kind of positions Western ideals as superior without realizing that Western people funny, Western people are just as messed up and you don’t get to go around the world and try to spread your ideals when your ideals are false.
Jose: Yeah, I mean, let’s not even go that far as to all the social hypocrisy that Anna has. Look at her fucking clothes. I mean, she has to wear this like giant thing, because like all those like Victorian assholes were too horny. And if they see an ankle, they would just like harass women and touch women, so women have to wear this like really uncomfortable looking giant hoops, and like metal things. Women have to wear freaking armor so men won’t touch them and how dare she comes and then she’s like judging at all the hot guys with their pecs out. And like all the women in their slim clothes and like, it’s the tropics it’s very hot and she’s judging these people cuz she wants to see them decked out in these ridiculous, horrendous stupid Victorian garb. I mean like no, come on, get a grip girl.
Diep: I love that point because you know, like those Thai dresses, unlike that fucking hoop skirt, like you can run in that, you can move, you can kick people. And they’re not wearing shoes. Which is, you know, like the whole thing like, why do white people like to wear shoes in the house. I have no, I
Jose: That’s how we got Corona.
Diep: I’m hoping that’s the thing that dies off in the COVID because it’s nasty. Stop doing it. It’s imperialism. It’s American wars and invading foreign places under the guise of spreading, you know, democracy. But it’s just trying to force other people to hold your values when you don’t when you don’t do it,you’re at home. No.
Jose: And probably Anna brought with her anti-Blackness and she taught the children of Siam about anti-Blackness.
Diep: how would we improve it?
Jose: Maybe just like skip to “Whistle a happy tune,” and “Getting to know you” and then stop it. And then we’re like, okay, or I know, I know, I know. I know. So we get a performance of “Whistle a happy tune,” and then we meet in the cold,
Diep: “We kiss in the shadows”
Jose: We do that and then went to “Getting to know you.” Do you have a problem with “Getting to know you?”
Diep: It’s cute. It’s the ideals what this musical wants to do.
Jose: Right? So they’re really getting to know you. And then we do, we do not do “A puzzlement” because no. We do not do the song of Anna complaining about people not being white. So then we do those three songs I guess. Wow.
Diep: And “Something wonderful”! Ruthie needs to have her song. Actually I don’t mind a puzzlement because it actually, and the musical doesn’t do this well at all but you know, hashtag it tries. It gives a king a song, which for the time, Asian characters did not have like their own songs where they had interiority and they had like concerns that was separate from whiteness. Like the song “A puzzlement” is the king trying to figure out how to be a better ruler and trying to figure out like how to be more modern and how to like, be a king and have authority while also taking in other people’s opinions. It’s very relatable if you’ve been in positions of power as a person of color. The only problem is the fact that he speaks in pidgin English. And the rest of time he’s just yelling at everybody. And so I think if you made the king, maybe just rewrite his lines so that it’s actually fluent English. He speaks in fluent English. And they actually have real conversations where he’s not just being like a brute to her and he actually teaches her things. Lauren Yee or Young Jean Lee, or like somebody just come in and just do a little bit of tweaking. You don’t need to change Anna’s stuff, like she can be problematic. You just need to change the Asians.
Jose: Right, give them agency because like, I guess my problem with “A Puzzlement” is that all these things that he’s dealing with are things that have been questioned by white people, you know, all the things all the way that he’s proving, for instance, it just doesn’t feel right to white people. So that’s my problem with the song. But yes, if they change it, they keep it. So we have “Getting to know you,” “Whistle a happy tune,” “We kiss in the shadows,” “Something wonderful,” “A puzzlement.” And then after those five songs, what about “Shall we dance”? Because it is so sexy. I love that song. I mean, not the song itself, but Kelli and Ken. Anyway, Kelli and Ken for “The 50 Shades of Grey” musical. So we keep those songs and after they sing those songs and the costumes and everything, we applaud the curtain closest and when the curtain rises, we get to see “Soft Power”!
Diep: Yes, boom, double feature. I love it. Yeah. Because what was always a cop out to me about “The King and I” was the ending. I feel like Rodgers and Hammtersin just couldn’t figure out how to end it. So they’re like, okay, he died. Kill him. Though he was completely fine, and if you have younger actors playing him, like Daniel Dae Kim played the King. He was a replacement for Ken Watanabe in like 2017. And who could believe that Daniel Dae Kim would just like die suddenly?
Jose: Not me. Unless he was in “Lost: and people dropped like flies all the time. So maybe he was like, the “Lost” monster took him.
Diep: Like this whole thing isn’t real. We’re just on an island. It’s just all a fantasy. Oh my god. oriental fantasy.
Jose: So now I’m wondering if I got any pleasure from rewatch.
Diep: I mean, I had fun.
Jose: Yeah, I mean, I have to say I guess what I wanted was to have Kelli and Ruthie’s voices just like fill my home and my ears with some beauty. There’s so much chaos and so much sadness and darkness going on everywhere right now. That those songs you know, they’re so beautiful. I guess I wasn’t paying too much attention to the rest of the show. I took what the musical could give me. And I excised everything else that it did wrong.
Diep: Yeah, I think it’s, I think it’s one of those things where I, and I think we both got used to just viewing entertainment that way where, oh, it’s this isn’t for me. So I’ll just take what I can get from this.
Jose: So depressing.
Diep: I know, but it’s like, it’s so such an instinct, because that’s what happens to me when I watched “The King and I,” was like, Okay, I know it’s kind of pissed me off if I think about this too hard. So I’ll just shut off my brain and just enjoy the pretty. Yeah, skip the book, just have a song except for “The House of Uncle Thomas,” which is fucking bullshit. Still doesn’t work. Stop trying to make it happen. It’s never going to happen
Jose: And it’s like 40 minutes long. I’ve never thought about that and what I what I said earlier, I was right that is teaching anti blackness. Anna how dare you.
Diep: I had this on my notes when I was watching “Uncle Thomas.” It’s like a racist sandwich. Because it’s Asian people as written by white people interpreting a story about Black people but written by a white woman. Like “Inception” layers of racism and appropriation and like none of it works.
Jose: It’s like Rachel’s trifle, remember Rachel’s trifle from “Friends” when she puts meat in her dessert. It is that gross. Gross, gross.
Diep: What I really want is, yes, we can revive it on Broadway with a gigantic budget and Asian actors. I just want community theaters and like low budget places just stop doing it because you cannot pull it off. It’s gonna be offensive, it’s just gonna be a bunch of white people in eyeliner. Just don’t do it. I know multiple white people who have done all white productions of “The King and I” when they were in grade school.
Jose: That’s horrifying. I want to go to April’s interview because I’m getting depressed.
Diep: Don’t be depressed. This conversation is something wonderful.
Jose: It’s nice getting to know you, “The King and I,” racist musical. I’m gonna repeat this to our listeners or viewers. What can I watch for some joy right now? Like I’m very sad right now and I’m going through a lot of stuff and we all are. But what can we watch for some joy, you know, something mindless, and not that we want to escape, but it’s important also, the reason why we wanted to talk about “The king and I” is that it’s one of those things that I grew up on and that I love because it makes me think of my grandma. And it makes me think of being a child. And now knowing everything that I know now about racism and about how xenophobia works and how it oppresses. So that’s what it makes me think about. And I’m not saying this in, in a romantic, like, Make America Great Again, you know, bullshit sense, but I’m saying it because it has, you know, it has some great memories for me. And see Kelli, for instance, I went to see the final performance, and I was just a wreck. So it has all those connotations for me. I don’t want to escape the world because I can’t escape the world. It’s important that we are in the world right now and that we are doing something, that we’re working. But it’s important for us to find ways to deal with self care and healing because if we’re depressed all the time, and we’re exhausted all the time, and we’re working all the time, and we’re just watching racism all the time, how are we going to be able to wake up the next day and wanted to go over again? It’s exhausting. So if you have any recommendations for something, I need some levity and I don’t want to think for a few hours and then I want to recharge while not thinking for a few hours and then come back.
Diep: And on a sad thing is BroadwayHD, the only other Kelli O’Hara musical they have on there is “Carousel.” So someone someone bootleg “Bridges of Madison County” and send it to Jose, he needs it.
Jose: Yes. It’s very sad. But yes, I can I can deal with that. That I don’t think has racism? I don’t want to think about it right now.
Diep: No, it doesn’t. It’s just about white people just singing to each other.
Jose: I do love about “The Bridges of Madison County.” The very first song specifically talks about Francesca realizing that she had to renounce her Italian culture to become white. So good for you, Jason Robert Brown and good for you, Kelli. You should have won a Tony for that.
Diep: Yeah, and feeling disillusioned by America. Mm hmm. It’s underrated. Where is the bootleg, people, where is the bootleg?
Jose: Yes. Jason Robert Brown. If you ever listen to this, please give us “Bridges.” Please, please, please.
Diep: Okay, let’s uh, let’s go to our interview with April Matthis of “Toni Stone,” which she was nominated for every single acting award this season for her performance, and Toni Stone was the first female baseball player in the Black league. She was fantastic in it. So we’re so happy to talk to her about that and about her newest project, Playing on Air, which is plays that you can listen in your ears. Wow. So let’s go to that interview now.
Welcome April Mathis, hello, thank you for talking to us. We’re talking to you today because you just did a podcast, two podcast episodes with playing on air: “Night Vision” by Dominique Morisseau and “G.O.A.T” by Ngozi Anyanwu. And can you tell us about that project? And when did you record it? Because it just came out like right after we all got locked up, at the most convenient time.
April Yeah, yeah. It’s really great. The roll out of audio right now when we can’t be in rooms together. We did it a while ago. I don’t even know, maybe sometime last year. Sounds about right. Because I think I was doing Toni Stone and would like do these during the day. I hear Dominique Morisseau and I’m like, yep, here. Ngozi Anyanwu, yes please. It was just fun to do and to be in the room with them. And you know, these are really quick and dirty, like you might get a version of the script beforehand. But then you basically read it with the people you’re going to read it with that day and meet them that day if you don’t already know them. They’re just great to do. I like reading. I like reading plays and like doing readings, that’s kind of like, how I’ve gotten most of my theater jobs is not so much through auditioning, but through doing readings and workshops that turn into full production. And I’m big podcast person. So of course, I was like, ooh, you guys have a podcast? Let me investigate. So that’s pretty cool. Listening to your guys’s archives a little bit.
Diep: Well, thank you for that.
April Oh, I’m just getting into it. But there’s so much more than I want to investigate.
Diep: Well this is a reboot of the podcast.
April Yeah you’re, out on your own.
Diep: Exactly. Yes. You’re the technically, you’re the second guest in the podcast lineup, but you’re the first guest that we’ve interviewed.
April Okay, so yeah. How’s it feeling?
Diep: Oh, scary.
Jose: Yeah, a little bit scary. It’s intimidating. But I would love to learn a little bit more about the difference for you. Because one of my favorite things when I was watching you play Toni Stone was how much she seemed to be so present in the moment. And that’s something that, you know, it’s so refreshing to see an actor who’s playing a character who’s also listening. And I felt that a lot of your line readings and a lot of the way that you interacted with your co stars depended on that and how you know, the way that you saw them move, the way that you saw them deliver a line, and I wonder when you’re recording a podcast on your own in a studio somewhere and you can’t see your co stars, how is that different? And how did that, I don’t know, challenge how you act onstage?
April: Well, we’ll see because I haven’t done it that way yet. These because we did them last year, we were all in the room together. So we could all see each other. We didn’t have that time to marinate as a cast as it were. But, you know, I could see and react to, you know, Denise, or Ngozi. What we’re talking about with Playing on Air is now maybe in the fall, doing some remote recordings, where it’s going to be me in my own little makeshift Sound Studio. That is what I did recently. Last week, I did kind of like a web series on Zoom. But it’s hard because my direction was to look like just below the camera so I couldn’t really see the people I was acting with. I could hear them of course, but I couldn’t see their faces. Like now I’m looking down at your guys’s faces. And you know, I missed that because I do get so much with the guys in Toni Stone, the best cast, you can imagine and like everybody just has their own school of performance and where they come from. And, you know, some people like Jonathan [Burke] has a really strong musical theater background. But then Eric Berryman has like this kind of avant garde background, which is kind of where I live. Philip [James Brannon] does it all and is a wonderful, really thoughtful, lived in actor and then Harvy Blanks, you know, has been around and does a lot of August Wilson, he was doing a tour of August Wilson right before this happened and you know, it’s just like a stage veteran and like, has his own particular way of interacting with the audience. So they all kind of kept me on my toes. So I had to, you know, flex to them as we say in kind of corporate speak. But that is what is so fun is acting with actors that come from totally different—we’re all kind of pulling from our different toolboxes and just seeing how we work together and it was exciting and different every night. Is that in the alchemy of like, what an audience brings? Which, that’s, that’s what’s really missing right now. Which we didn’t have in Playing on Air but like, yeah, that’s, that’s what I’m gonna like, how do you do these disembodied performances where you’re not in the same room? You might not even get to look at each other. And there’s no audience. There’s nobody. There’s no even real time direction of somebody being like, Okay next time can you try it like this? Or how about this?
Diep: And have you been consuming any like of the Zoom theater experiences? And do you think like, that’s good? Do you think it’s a stop gap or you think that’s like a potential future for the art form?
April I think it’s a stop gap. Of course, nobody wants that to be how it’s going to be, like everybody wants to be back in space together. And I’ve been kind of brainstorming with like, different theaters across the country, which that’s one thing that’s been cool about this. It’s like you don’t have that barrier of like, I can’t travel. It’s like now we’re gonna do we can we can meet now we can meet and plan and scheme now and do something that’s maybe for public consumption or not. I’ve been working with this theatre company in Austin, Texas with a couple friends of mine, Paper Chairs with Dustin wills and Elizabeth Doss. And we’ve been brainstorming about a piece, Eugene O’Neill piece “Skin of Our Teeth.” The ways that we’re thinking in and around like the medium of social media and digital media and what can be idioms, like theater stage idioms, for that is those are interesting ideas to think about, but they do feel like temporary. And me I haven’t been consuming a lot of them. I’ve watched some of the 24 hour plays because they’re a little easier to watch. Get this one person, look at this one. Crazy amazing actor. Ronald Peet did one recently that I was just like that, yes, yes to that. Um, but like, the ones that I’ve been a part of, I feel like maybe it is more for us. You know, maybe it’s more for those of us participating, like the act of doing it is satisfying. Because you’re not scrolling scrolling scrolling on your phone. You’re not obsessing about the news. You’re not like you know, putting hazmat gear to go buy, like, some old milk or whatever, like you’re doing what you used to do, which is like acting, saying words with folks in real time. And the only thing I can think of that is equivalent, as far as theater is, it’s in real time. And so I’m trying to keep that, like, Jose, you mentioned like being in the moment like, we can still keep that even if we’re not in space together, we can be in time together. So there’s something that I’m hanging on to In the meantime, about the immediacy of theater that we can maybe approximate for, for the time being.
Jose: This career you’ve been able to navigate, there’s a really wonderful balance between doing like super experimental work, you know, like “Gatz,” for instance, to work with Elevator Repair Service, but then you can go and do like “Streetcar” and you can do Tennessee Williams and something like that. But as a huge fan of your more experimental work, I wonder if there are elements about what’s going on right now in theater work to me. People think I’m crazy when I say this, but I’m so excited to see right now where theater can go because we don’t know. And instead of like letting that paralyze us, I feel that it’s the time for us to like experiment. And as someone, April, who has lived for so long in like the experimental world, are you seeing things right now that also excite you about you know, things that you’ve learned to be this kind of work that you want to see apply to stream theater, or to Zoom theater or to things that can happen right now because we don’t we don’t have a choice right now to to gather and to be in the same space together.
April: I have conceptual ideas, and I’m like, should I share them? I think it has something to do with like time and what are the idioms and then, but like I haven’t tried them, so I don’t know how long they stay interesting. And that’s the thing with Elevator Repair Service. We work on things for years, you can see that in the work, like it’s not just something that somebody throw on the wall—the dumbest little moment will be something that we have worked on for weeks to get perfect, to get the timing perfect. When this person does this, this person goes over here and picks this thing up and flashes it and puts it back down goes over there. And I’ve seen, like, directors try to like, do that in a rehearsal like, one time we’re going to like, do this kind of device moment, and it’s like no. Now, those things you can tell when somebody’s like, let’s come up with this thing right now. And when somebody has been like, let’s make this perfect, because this dumb thing is essential. And it must be done this way to get the maximum perfect dumbness out of it. Like you have to be that nerd serious about it. It’s interesting about like, this moment, and responsibility and safety and how art and especially experimental art is not always responsible or safe. And what does that look like right now? Can we be transgressive, like folks going outside in large numbers in close proximity, because they must, but is it 100% safe? You can’t say it is but like, I don’t know, I don’t know what to do with those thoughts right now. What do we say is essential? And what do we say? What? In our work as artists? Is that essential that we say I’m gonna risk it anyway, but without being harmful? How do you do it in a way that’s not harmful? So I don’t know. I mean, like, What does outdoor performance look like? What does performance that’s distance look like? Do you ventilate the theater? And I’m not talking about like institutionally because that’s a whole other question about, like, how are we going to retrofit, you know, spaces to accommodate social distance? And, you know, that’s what my artist brain just has a lot of ideas and, like, trying to find receptacles for those ideas and testing them out, while at the same time being where we all are, which is like, Where are you today? Where are you right this second? Do you need to like, take care of your body right now? Do you need to go lie down right now? Do you need to, like, scream and make make some stuff happen? Those are those are questions that I feel like we’re all kind of asking.
Diep: Yeah. And I don’t really know if you’ve seen the petition going around from all the Black and indigenous POC artists. Yeah, yeah. And, and I feel like additional dimension from from these protests have been happening is the theater industry looking at itself and figuring out like more equitable conditions for artists of color? And I lately, like, I’ve just been wondering, like, what does that look like in a new environment when we’re also trying to navigate like physical health safety and we’re asking actors essentially to risk their health in the future in order to do the art form and how do you ask people that people to do that while trying to have these conversations that we’re having around around representation and around—
April: You pay them what their worth is? Very easy answer. Hmm. Because what I will say is, like, oh, maybe week two or week three, after we shut down, I got a lot of things coming into my inbox from institutions being like, will you do a Skype version of this or do a video version of that? And no mention of pay.
April: Yeah, no mention of pay. And this was right when unemployment was crazy. Like I spent my full 72 hours calling non stop the line just trying to get through. And, you know, that didn’t start kicking in for me until like, maybe like a few weeks ago. You know, so this was like, lost all your jobs, no prospects. And now you’re asking me to perform out of the goodness of my heart and like, put on makeup and look good and be chipper and like, dive into characters. What? Like, I don’t know, where I’m going to get groceries. So I start with that because when the dust started to settle, and I got things in my inbox, and I’m not talking about just theater, I’m talking about TV and film and all kinds of like, you know, hey, let’s support, you know, small businesses and like, and I’m a small business, you know, independent contractor. So when I got the first thing that was like, this is an audition for something that pays union rates. This is something that is not enough but will not negatively impact any benefits you’re receiving, or here’s just some money, because we know you’re having a hard time. Those meant more to me than any kind of like pat statement or expression of, “we understand going through and it’s hard.” It’s like currency is what makes a difference in a lot of these things, and a lot of movements and boycotts. And you know, like a few years ago, I was part of the Fair Wage OnStage campaign that fought for, and won like, historic wage increases Off Broadway and Off Broadway. There are lots of other contracts. But I think there’s this idea that because you love it, you’ll just do it. But, you know, we all have a bottom line and we all need to eat. And we can win awards. And those awards don’t come with monetary benefit, you know. So I would say that first, and, you know, yes, of course, health coverage. And when I was dreaming beyond like those things that should be basic. I was thinking, what would it look like, if I could be in a show with like, five of my favorite Black actresses, instead of like all of us in the room, being nice to each other being like, “if I don’t get it, I hope you do,: like, what if there were room for all of us in the cast? Like, I got a little bit of that with “Fairview.” But I would like that more and more and more and more and more and more and more and more and more. You know, there’s just so much talent out there and this idea there, there can only be one or two. I have issue with, like, the white institutional theater of like, you know, and the tokenism that’s in there. And there can only be one or it becomes like Black play. Well, let it be a Black play. And plus, can that be the default? Can that be the universal default story? Instead of just okay, we’re going to do “Raisin in the Sun” or we’re going to do one of August [Wilson]’s plays. Like there’s so many people writing out there. There’s so many new fresh writers. And there are people who’ve been writing for like 20 years, who, like, let’s bring back some of their work. Like, you know, what are they doing now? They they’re not early career writers, these people have been writing like, you know, Kirsten Greenidge is one of my favorite playwrights on the planet. I would love to do a season of Kirsten Greenidge. That is what’s exciting to me.
Jose: I love it so much. Well, thank you so much. April, you have been a delight. I’m sorry that we can’t meet in person, I hope someday we will be able to, but I’m a huge fan of yours. So can you, do you mind telling our listeners or viewers where they can find you and what projects you have? This is your moment for you to push all the projects that you want people to be aware of that you’re enjoying right now. So where can they find you on social media? What projects are coming up for you?
April: Instagram is where I put stuff. So I’m at April Matthis with two T’s. That’s where you would be able to find stuff. There’s the Playing on Air stuff. There’s other stuff percolating that I don’t know what will happen to it. But I feel like if you want to know, Google me.
Diep: Oh yeah, and I feel like because Jose and I are both on like different awards committees and we can’t spoil spoil anything because everything got postponed but I feel like we have to congratulate you for your performance in “Toni Stone” this season and all the accolades that are coming to you for that. How does it feel to know that this thing you did PC you know, pre-Covid is gaining recognition but like we can’t all be in the room to celebrate it.
April: It’s sweet because you know, if I had known then like, man, suck it up, enjoy every moment cuz this is it for a little while. And also like I lost a friend at the end of last year, Christine Chambers. She’s well known photographer and playwright in the community. “Toni Stone” was like the pinnacle of a great artistic moment firing on all cylinders, finally getting to work with Lydia Diamond and Pam McKinnon and being at the Roundabout. So all the nominations and virtual, like award ceremonies that have come up, have been just really sweet to say that like this, this is important, and they’re not just you, but there’s a whole world of people also in their homes, going through this that go, we value that, we value what you did. So it’s been really heartening and some of us from the “Toni Stone” cast and crew have been getting together. As these little celebrations pop up, we come up just to like, you know, watch the awards and like really just hang out together. Yeah, it’s been fun for that. And usually like, the announcements have come on, like, a terrible day. Like, it’ll be a day where I’m like, I don’t know, man. I don’t know how long I can do this and it’ll be like, it’s like, oh, oh, I remember you. It’s been nice. It’s all a whole lot. So, there’s a little bit of niceness, I’ll take a little bit niceness,
Jose: Congratulations and break a leg.
April: Thank you. Thank you, and all the best to you guys and everybody, and we’ll be all right.