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All God's Chillun Got Wings

nytheatre.com q&a preview by Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr.
September 3, 2013

What is your job on this show?
Director.

What is your show about?
In 1920s Manhattan, a black man marries a white woman, making them outcasts in their community -- but they've got each other...right?

Where were you born? Where were you raised? Where did you go to school?
I was born on Lakenheath Air Force Base in Lakenheath, England. I grew up in England, then Rantoul, Illinois; Omaha, Nebraska; and finally the Tidewater area of Virginia where I went to middle school, high school, and college. I graduated from the College of William and Mary with a Bachelors in English and a boatload of theatre credits.

Complete this sentence: My show is the only one opening in NYC this summer that...?
will divide the audience according to race. In O'Neill's stage directions he explains that the street where All God's Chillun Got Wings takes place is black on one side, and white on the other side. Dividing the audience as O'Neill wanted onstage puts the audience inside the play in a different way. I want the audience to feel like the play is happening right in front of and around them and that they are implicated. We don't want the audience to feel like, "oh that was the 1920s...that doesn't happen now!" With the racial climate in the U.S. so strident and combative, it could be instructive to watch these characters, especially Ella, grapple with the sickness of racism. And it's important that the audience not feel superior to the characters in terms of how they deal with race.

Why did you want to write/direct/produce/act in/work on this show?
Good question: why would a perfectly sane theatre artist decide to direct/produce an obscure O'Neill play that deals with race, no less? It's time for this play to be revisited. It would be easy to look at the language and situations of the play and think "Wow this play is dated." But it feels pretty modern to me. So many times in the play it's hard to tell whether or not certain things done or said are about race or class or just being in high school. Also, full disclosure: I'm a black man married to a white woman. So there are certainly issues in the play that I'm working out myself. No I don't think my wife may be crazy, but something does happen when you intermarry. Things change and society looks at you differently. Once Jim and Ella make that decision, they can't go back to home base again because of where they came from. There's no place for them with either of their people. I feel like they keep looking for a new tribe to belong to and keep getting doors slammed in their faces. And while my wife and l are lucky enough to have amazing families that celebrate our union, the rest of society looks at us and our 2-year-old differently.

Which cartoon character would you identify your show with: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Mickey Mouse, Marge Simpson?
Daffy Duck. Definitely. Hardly anyone in this play gets what they want by the end of a scene. Daffy is always trying to be liked and just when it seems like he'll get a standing ovation, he gets crickets. The characters in All God's Chillun keep making offers to rise above their issues and their baser instincts win out every time.

Can theater bring about societal change? Why or why not?
There's something vital about that moment when an audience has to catch its breath along with the performers onstage because everyone in the room experienced the same thing, right next to each other. There's no replacing the real time experience of theatre. This makes theatre a place of communal ritual, and though theatre might be waning in popularity there is nothing like the discussion of a show's themes with strangers right after seeing ordinary people make extraordinary decisions onstage. In the theatre we can affect how people engage in civic discourse in multiple ways. This may not mean societal change per se, but certainly their subsequent conversations about political, cultural, and social issues will be forever affected by their experience at the theatre, whether they know it or not. In All God's Chillun, O'Neill has set out to examine one couple's struggle to stay together despite the enormous odds against them. I doubt he thought he'd change the world with this play. On the contrary, when you google this play, maybe two to three productions pop up, and two of them are the original production in 1924 and the Broadway production in 1975 directed by George C. Scott. We don't do this play. And yet the play is his most economical full length and certainly his most political, which is why I think it doesn't get done. The conversations this play engenders are dangerous and may turn off subscription audiences. But I think those are the plays we MUST do. We must risk losing our audience if we're going to keep them.