Monday, November 30, 2020

Life & Style

Here’s What Can Happen When You Disregard ‘Normal’

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By the time closing night of Slave Play on Broadway rolled around, those involved knew their work had created important conversations about race, sex, power, and love, along with what was possible on Broadway itself.

Photo by Emilio Madrid courtesy of Seaview Productions

By the time closing night of Slave Play on Broadway rolled around, those involved knew their work had created important conversations about race, sex, power, and love, along with what was possible on Broadway itself. (Photo by Emilio Madrid courtesy of Seaview Productions )

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Jeremy O. Harris, the playwright, addresses the closing night audience. Photo by Emilio Madrid, courtesy of Seaview Productions

Jeremy O. Harris, the playwright, addresses the closing night audience. (Photo by Emilio Madrid, courtesy of Seaview Productions )

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Right before the Tony Award nomination ceremony, those involved with its production gather in an impromptu gathering on Zoom.

Photo courtesy of Seaview Productions

Right before the Tony Award nomination ceremony, those involved with its production gather in an impromptu gathering on Zoom. (Photo courtesy of Seaview Productions )

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Slave Play, which pushed boundaries and created important conversations about the themes in the work, was rewarded with 14 Tony award nominations the most ever for a play. Photo courtesy of Seaview Productions

Slave Play, which pushed boundaries and created important conversations about the themes in the work, was rewarded with 14 Tony award nominations the most ever for a play. (Photo courtesy of Seaview Productions )

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Jana Shea, Carly Callahan, and Greg Nobile of Seaview Productions, pre-pandemic, when getting together was not a fraught affair. They watched the Tony award nominations together, but geographically separated. Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source

Jana Shea, Carly Callahan, and Greg Nobile of Seaview Productions, pre-pandemic, when getting together was not a fraught affair. They watched the Tony award nominations together, but geographically separated. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source | Buy This Photo)

By the time the Tony Awards nomination ceremony kicked off at noon one day in mid-October, it was already clear that Branford-based Seaview Productions made a wise choice when it came the decision to produce Slave Play, a wildly controversial play about race, love, sex, power, and sexuality.

It played to mostly enthusiastic reviews, including this from The New York Times, that it “reimagines the possibilities of what theater can give us.” Following sold-out performances off-Broadway, it did well at the box office in its Broadway run, grossing more than $8.7 million, and selling out during the final weeks of that run.

Greg Nobile, Carly Callahan, and Jana Shea of Seaview Productions were among those involved with the play who were adamant that it remain accessible to audiences who don’t normally frequent Broadway. While most Broadway audiences are more than 75 percent white, Slave Play in September of last year one night set aside all 804 seats of its venue, the Golden Theater, for Black theater patrons, dubbing the night a “Black Out.” Also wanting to draw in an economically diverse audience, Slave Play offered a limited number of tickets for $29, available through a lottery publicized through social media sites.

And, best of all, Slave Play kicked off an intense and ongoing conversation about the powerful themes presented in the play, fueled by those who loved it and those who despised it. Few who saw it who were left indifferent. And, as the Tony nomination ceremony kicked off, Seaview Productions was already in negotiations for a deal just announced earlier this week, one with Sony Music Masterworks, that will significantly expand both the reach and influence of Seaview Productions.

Win, lose, or draw on the Tony awards, the trio had already been handsomely rewarded for making the wise but unconventional choice of a play written by Jeremy O. Harris, a man who was young, Black, and gay, a playwright who had never before had a Broadway hit, and his brilliant and searing play that sat at the bottom of slush piles for far too long, ignored. Still, the question was, how would they do when it came to Tony nominations?

A short time later that October day they had their answer. By the time the ceremonies ended, Slave Play made history once again, with 12 nominations, the most ever for any play. As icing on the cake, another Seaview Productions play, Seawall/A Life, also picked up four Tony nominations.

“Seaview Productions is built on the belief that great things happen when you disregard ‘normal’ and challenge the way an industry works,” Shea, an executive producer at Seaview Productions, has said.

The weird, abbreviated season that was Broadway 2020 sure proved that to be true. During a phone conversation with Nobile and Callahan, I asked them if they had any idea they would do that well at the Tony award nomination ceremony.

A Rare, Joyful Thursday

“I mean, you always hope,” says Nobile. “We had hoped, right? And certainly, given the conversations we were having, globally and culturally, the play is more resonant than ever before. We didn’t go in trying to set records. And we often say, it’s like so weird to have felt this jolt of joy in this time of pain. But it was a joyful, surprising Thursday, which is rare.”

The Slave Play team was gathered together in spirit and online, but separated geographically due to the pandemic, when the award nomination ceremony took place. Seeing their teammates gathered on Zoom, in what was a last-minute gathering, was an emotional experience after having been separated for so long.

“It was acute and poignant and joyful, having been through this long period of pause,” says Callahan.

She was watching the ceremony from her office in Madison, and adds that the months before that felt a little bit like working in desert. She says the very essence of theater is the alchemy created by gathering and creating community and coming together, artists and audiences.

“I didn’t realize how much I missed those people,” she says.

Nobile was at a friend’s apartment on the upper west side of New York City with a group of friends, including his long time friend and collaborator Ryan Bloomquist, an actor and writer originally from Branford, and a small group who had worked together on this play and others.

As for the Best Play nomination, they had hoped they would get a nomination in that category and indeed they did, but what surprised them is that Seaview Productions’ Sea Wall/A Life also was nominated.

“Like many thing you might hope for something, but you don’t let yourself embrace it,” says Callahan. When imagination and reality aligned, “it was this incredibly electric moment. All of us being behind screens added to the surreal-ness of it.”

And More Awards

Slave Play also garnered nominations for Best Original Score, with music by Lindsay Jones. They were surprised by that only because it’s unusual for a play to be nominated in this category.

“It’s clear in a musical how the score affects storytelling, but you don’t always get to think about how music and composition affect the storytelling in a play,” says Nobile. “And this play is so based in music.

Other nominations included Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play for Joaquina Kalukango.

Callahan, who also is an actress in addition to being an arts entrepreneur, attributes this honor to “her way of approaching this role with extraordinary vulnerability. It was pretty extraordinary...this is one I was hopeful for and expecting and I would have been disappointed had she not received this nomination.”

Nobile points out that this was her leading actress Broadway debut. “...Now she is in the company of titans of the business, and she is a single mother who lives in Atlanta who we met in the audition process,” he says.

Other nominations include Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play for both Ato Blankson-Wood and James Cusati-Moyer. Both Callahan and Nobile loved this because both men were friends of the playwright, who helped bat ideas around when they were driving to the beach on the Connecticut shoreline while Harris was attending Yale.

And more: Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play went to Chalia La Tour and Annie McNamara. Best Scenic Design of a Play for Clint Ramos. Best Costume Design of a Play for Dede Ayite. Best Lighting Design of a Play to Jiyoun Chang. Best Sound Design of a Play to Lindsay Jones, his second nomination for Slave Play. Best Direction of a Play went to Robert O’Hara.

“This was overdue recognition for some extraordinary talent,” says Nobile.

The play itself, and the performances, and the costume, and the lighting, and the music, and all the rest of it aside, we spend a few minutes discussing the prophetic nature of parts of the play. The word and the concept of “virus” as it applies to White people was central to the play.

‘You’re a Virus’

It’s a word that is used several times, including when the character Kaneisha says to her boyfriend: “There’s no way now I can unknow…that when your people landed on this land, a third of the indigenous population of the entire continent died of disease... Your mere presence was biological warfare. VIRUS. You’re a virus. You’re the virus. That’s why I look at you as though you are infected.”

“When you are hearing now and reading that racism is indeed a public health threat, it allows you to realize the power that this has. Racism is a virus. It’s a virus in that you can’t see it, you can’t smell it, you can’t touch it, but the impact is so far beyond what you can imagine,” Callahan says.

Nobile agrees.

“I think that sums it up very well. As it relates to this moment and the awards, it’s one of those weird things, that even though the play left Broadway, it continues to be relevant. The conversations that are happening now globally, and there are so many people who are like, ‘I get the play now.’ There is an actual virus spreading across the globe. And there is the virus of White supremacy,” he says. “People are channeling this play in a way I don’t think they were at the time.”

Callahan adds: “What a gift it was to have this play live, in the before space. It had such power and it continues to have such power in this moment. This is a revelatory piece, not just within the industry, but also within the world. The timing is just so important. I feel a reverence for that and a gratitude for that.”

So, sure, it was thrilling to get all those Tony nominations and they’d be even more thrilled to be recognized with the awards themselves, and “no award is going to surpass the profound satisfaction of knowing that this seed has been planted for conversations, and it will continue to have ripple effects. We appreciate how power the interaction was and continues to be.”

‘Growing Optimism and Faith’

They are equally thrilled by the new collaboration with Sony Music Masterworks, which has acquired a stake in Seaview Productions, providing the company with more resources and clout, while leaving Nobile at the helm. In a prepared release the companies said the deal will allow Masterworks to accelerate its expansion in a way that “paves the way for the imminent launch of a worldwide live entertainment family division comprised of individual companies all helmed by creative entrepreneurs. Masterworks’ focus on live entertainment reflects a growing optimism and faith in the eventual return of the concert and theater business in the near future.”

“Under the new agreement, Greg Nobile will work alongside the Sony Music Masterworks executive team, particularly Mark Cavell, president of Sony Music Masterworks, and Scott Farthing, senior vice president of Masterworks Broadway. Seaview co-founder Jana Shea and Managing Director Carly Callahan will also lead Seaview with Nobile,” the release says.

Nobile, now the CEO of Seaview, says, “It is an absolute honor to partner with Sony Music Masterworks in this unprecedented venture. Seven years ago, Jana and I co-founded Seaview guided by the belief that we must invest first and foremost in artists, the narrators of our time. Masterworks’ shared commitment to artist-driven creative development and their impressive track record in the industry reaffirms our unbridled enthusiasm for this partnership, which will fuel Seaview’s slate of creative projects across all mediums and provide extraordinary opportunities for our beloved artists and creators. We are excited for all that is ahead, on Broadway and beyond.”





Pem McNerney is the Living Editor for Zip06. Email Pem at p.mcnerney@shorepublishing.com.

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