A conversation with playwright Antoinette Nwandu

A conversation with playwright Antoinette Nwandu
photo credit: Gregory Shutters

When I met playwright Antoinette Nwandu for the first time I wanted to give her a hug. I felt like I knew her because she wrote Pass Over an electric play produced at Steppenwolf Theatre. A filmed version recently debuted at Sundance Film Festival produced by Spike Lee.

Pass Over was the catalyst for a watershed moment in the Chicago theatre community. It was also a watershed moment in my life. More on that later. (I shook her hand by the way. I didn't want to scare her away.)

Antionette is New York based and grew up in Los Angeles. She is in Chicago because Victory Gardens Theatre is producing her play Breach: A Manifesto on race in America through the eyes of a Black girl recovering from self-hate sharply directed by Lisa Portes. I saw it last week and it is a hilarious, savvy, complex and exciting wallop of a play that I recommend you see for yourself.

We met at the Chicago History Museum and walked through their exhibit called "Race: Are We So Different?"  Here are excerpts of some of the ideas, tips inspiration and tools for life two Black-female artists in the time of Trump shared:

On hair:

You cut your dreads why? "...The five years before I got my agent things were really hard professionally, personally, spiritually, relationally and I just felt like I was carrying energy...Once Pass Over happened and I got back to New York, right after it happened--I knew a cut was coming soon and once the show happened it was that first validation and even if I had to go back to a full-time job I thought whatever. This has happened. I can let it go."

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Our best "serious interview" poses

On pop culture, books and plays:

What are you a fan of in pop culture? "While I've been in Chicago I've watched all 8 Harry Potter movies for the first time."

Wait a minute there's 8 Harry Potter movies? "There are. I really think there are. And they're all on HBO and I needed something that isn't my work and isn't anything I'd ever write..."

Had you read them? "No! No!" (laughing)

Are you a reader? "God's honest truth I'm not as much as a reader--I'm not one of those people who slides easily into books all the time. My default storytelling mode is television. And that's something it took a really long time-- especially as an English major--"

To accept? "Right. To be like this is who I am. Reading is always pleasurable but it always tends to have the tinge of work... I read a lot of magazines. Huge fan of The New Yorker obviously. Check in with The Atlantic pretty much on a daily basis and read stories there. I read a lot of plays that satisfy me on the page and if it does then I'm actually suspect of the play. The great plays when I read them I'm like, "I have to see this. What's happening here?" I read a lot of plays and it's like, "This is great. I don't need to see this on it's feet. No shade to anybody's game but it's like you already gave me what I needed."

On process:

What is your writing process? "A lot of it is being in touch with that inner voice. I don't like to get super mystical about it. I do think there's a craft element to it that is just sitting down and doing the work...Ideas are constantly flowing at me and so what I need to do is wrangle them...I think of myself more as a servant to the work as opposed to in my fear and trying to control it...trying to fetishize some kind of--"I wake up every morning at 6a and then I write for four hours!" There's such a glamorous fairytale version of what the process is. ...Yes... It's a lot more fast and loose. I have my phone. I do it now on my phone and I use Evernote--Me too! That's where my questions are! Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Right! So much of the process is like collage making...collages of words and pictures and ideas..."

On ethnicity:

What is your ethnicity? "My identity--my sense of my self is as a Black American: slave descendant Black American. My biological father is a Nigerian immigrant but I've never met him...I don't have any of those immigrant story plays which I think are so beautiful and wonderful but that's not my lived experience." 

On navigating race and self-care: 

How often do you find yourself thinking about race?... I'm learning to healthily detach more in my everyday encounters because it was starting to make me sick. How often are you bumping against the issues of race and how do you take care of yourself and grapple with it?"...Touchstones and rituals... For me it's really about that meditation time and setting intentions for the day. I start with some really basic questions for myself, "What are you feeling?" "Where does it hurt?" To kind of check in with myself on an emotional level before I can get to the work. And then doing a lot of journaling and clearing the mental space." 

On those Pass Over reviews and the watershed moment:

Because of the controversy around the reviews of Pass Over (including a reviewer who used the n-word in reference to Antionette) I wrote an article that tied the ignorance of those reviews to the not guilty verdict for the officer who killed Philando Castile. And that introduced me to a fleet of young Black artists in this town who are kicking ass and taking names with receipts. It led me to  diversity, inclusion and equity work on a level that now feels like a calling. I connect a lot of that to you in a big way and I wondered about you during that time and wondered what it did to you psychically. "It was painful. I was at O'Hare the morning after opening and I was in a crazy space. I told myself I wasn't going to read the reviews and I my phone starts blowing up. And that's where I read--and I was crying and trying to get my bags through security...For me it was mostly and first and foremost an emotional experience...Once the dust settled... I was like the positives far outweigh everything--people are talking about the play--people are talking about these issues, people are talking about criticism. The Chicago theatre community announced itself as a place where real engagement happens and where real conversations are happening...I haven't seen anybody with that kind of skin in the game before...I was like, "These people mean business." 

On art and activism: 

Where do you want your place to be in terms of the marriage between art and activism? "...I try to keep it as simple as possible. If I recognize a truth in myself then I have to put it onto the page. A lot of the time I'm finding that those truths are deeply embedded in my identity as an American citizen and how do I as an American citizen write work that reminds the body politic of who we are meant to be and what  we are meant to be...More and more I want to highlight the part of the identity which is citizen...There is a real key change for me and my understanding of civil rights...I believe we are taught on a certain level this, "Please give us, please give us. We need this from you...When really as a co-equal citizen I have to say, "You have been withholding from me something that is rightly mine and has been mine since day one. I don't have to say, "Please or thank you. You are withholding something that is mine."

Before we said goodbye we stood in front of the Chicago History Museum. "You're from Chicago!" she announced. "Does it smell like chocolate?" I confirmed that it was the Blommer Chocolate Company not to0 far from where we were. "Okay," she said with relief, "I'm not going crazy."

Antoinette starts writing for the second season of Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It on Tuesday. I would have put money on that one. The dots are connecting quickly for her of late. They must. She is a voice for this moment and it must be heard now.

Full audio from our conversation available here:

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Thanks to Chicago History Museum for hosting our conversation and tour.

Photos credit: Gregory Shutters

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