An Interview with Royal Family Productions

An Interview with Royal Family Productions

Alex Chester

OnStage New York Columnist

To quote “Hamilton” there's nothing like being in “the room where it happens”. I love watching a rehearsal, especially that of a new show. It’s magical getting to witness art being made. Especially good art (yeah, yeah art is subjective. Whatever), and “Thoughts of a Colored Man on a Day when the Sun Set too Early” is just that.

I’m a sucker for diversity and thinking outside the box. It gives me chills seeing something that will challenge your perspective. I think this show is just that. I was lucky to get the opportunity to sit down with the creative team and discuss this show and why diversity and inclusion are so important in the theatre arts. 

This amazing group of people are part of the solution. They are so inspiring and I hope more theatre companies will follow suit!

Take notice. This is what a theatrical revolution looks like. Rise up! 

Taye Diggs - Choreographer
Jenny Parsien - Choreographer
Chris Henry - Artistic Director/Director Royal Family Productions. 
Keenan Scott II - Playwright/Actor

Alex: Why this show? What made you decide to write this?

Keenan: This piece is very important to me, I started writing this piece while I was in college. And do to the climate, you know, the racial tension going on here in America. And a voice that I felt that needed to be told. I felt that this piece was important to write about young black men and expressing their emotions, and how they feel about the world around them, the society they live in, and their own culture.

Chris: Can I pop in on one thing (said to Keenan), which you said is one of the things you said before is that you also wanted to create a piece for people of color (POC), that didn’t, that wasn't a gangster...

Keenan: Oh, right right right right.

Chris: But you said it much more eloquently than I did. 

Keenan: Yeah, I just be talking, Um...

Chris: (Laughter)

Keenan: So I also, wanted to create a piece, that wasn’t, that didn't harp on the stereotypical plight, of African American Males in American. So... I didn't want to create a piece that centered around street life, or gang culture, I wanted to show full spectrum in the diaspora of you know, the African-American culture.

Alex: Oh, I love that. So I guess another question for you would be as an actor that is a POC do you feel there has been, um, more progress in this industry for diversity and inclusion or do you think we are kinda at a stand still?

Keenan: I believe, the last few years, there has been progression. I feel like there was a point where there was a stand still, I feel, I feel, early 2000’s there was a turn that started, then I think it stalled out for some years, but I think in the last couple, couple of years there has definitely been a turn, um, in the industry where there is more work provided for us.

Alex: Um, what do you think needs to change in order for diversity and inclusion to become the norm in the entertainment industry?

Keenan: I think people a lot of times focus on who's in front of the camera or who's onstage as far as acting, but I think we need inclusion and diversity in all spectrums of the field. So, from the actors, to the playwrights, screenwriters, to the directors, to the producers, to to stage management, and assistant directing, I think we need diversity and inclusion across the board and not just in performers, because if you have more people behind the scenes, you also have more people wanting to tell their stories as well. So if you have more diversity and inclusion as far as when it comes to directors and writers, who have more of those stories wanting to be told even before it gets to the performers. So I just think we need it front to back.

Alex: I agree. Um, so for you, for both of you actually (Chris and Jenny) Why is this show so exciting to you? What made you decide “hey I’m gonna produce this show, I want to do this”.

Chris: Ah, so, John Cariani, who is a dear Royal Family friend, sent me Keenan’s play. And it was called “Thoughts of a Colored Man on a Day when the Sun Set too Early”. And I said that’s a beautiful title. And then uh, Keenan, was so patiently waiting as we did the show last year, and uh came and saw my work, which I think is always important for a playwright to see what Royal Family is about, and what we do. And um, and then we did the reading of it, and I thought “Wow”, and Keenan put together the whole reading, cause I think it’s really important for a playwright to bring in the voices that he wants people to hear, I think that that’s really important so that it was his cast, and so I heard it, and I, I remember at the end of the reading thinking “Oh my gosh, this is gold”. I remember thinking there is so much gold in this. And I was so inspired by it and um, I just went into this “what is the next step?”. And then we took some time to figure out what the next step was and Royal Family very much, especially with, can I say Trump being president?

Alex: Yes, please do!

Chris: Ok! With Trump being president, um that there was no question and after certainly the... there was two things, I was so... Keenan and I had lots of discussions about race because the first thing I said to him was, are you sure you want a white woman directing this? And then I called every person of color that I know, and asked if they thought it was ok if I directed it? (To Keenan) Is that pretty true?

Keenan: mhmm, mhmm.

Chris: (Laughter) I came back and said, sort of came back to saying “yes” we all agreed that it was ok. And that it was about me asking the questions that needed to be asked, as somebody who is white, when I didn't understand something, that that is something I can say to Keenan like “I don't understand this”. And so anyway, I guess in the long winded part of this is that we as an organization really felt that this play had to be told. That there was no question that in this climate Keenan’s voice had to be heard and this group of men that he has brought needed to have a place to act. I feel like that was sort of everything that came together. And then I called Jenny and Taye... (laughter)

Jenny: Yeah, as multiple layers I guess for us and how we got involved. The first was wanting an opportunity, already having developed a relationship with Chris and Royal Family, and wanting an opportunity to collaborate first. And when she sent Keenan’s play, first off it just it comes and I read that title, and it's beautiful and intriguing, and I don't think anyone would read that title and not be interested in what it's all about. So right off the bat attention is grabbed, and I’m going “What is this?” this looks like something interesting. And then, um, in reading it, honestly it was for many reasons it was unlike anything I had read before. The poetry of it was so beautiful, um, the imagery, and his way with words. And so we’re talking about some really important topics, and we’re talking about race and everything, but it, but he has a beautiful way of kind of flipping it on its head and coming from a different angle.

So it doesn’t feel like something you've just seen played out before. Um, it's a different perspective, which I thought was really interesting. And again to echo what they said with the political climate and everything that is going on, it just felt like there’s this energy underneath where its like it just has to come out right now! Now is the time, this story needs to be told right now! So for us to jump on it and be a part of bringing it in front of audiences, and giving it a life, is of course very attractive and exciting, and such an honor. And then um, from a choreography stand(point), and right away I sent it to Taye and I said I think you would be really interested in this, do you want to do this? Should we do this? And um, one of the things for him was - well I don't want to speak for him - but right off the bat, it did remind him of “For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide - when the Rainbow isn't Enough” which is a play he saw when he was younger, he saw his mom perform, and it was um, something that really stood out to him as a young boy seeing his mom as an actress in this play. And it was meaningful to him, so there was also like a - that personal attachment to kinda something that was reminiscent, it was reminiscent of and obviously, you know, he can speak to you about why he’s personally involved. But from a choreography standpoint, um, it was a play that was presented to us that didn't have music, and so Chris said: you know, would you want to choreograph this? And what's so amazing is that there’s actually without there being music yet, Madison is providing beautiful music of course but, without there being music yet, there is music in the words. Um, there’s this beautiful rhythm and musicality, which was so attractive to us. And right there on the page, you can see movement, you can see choreography, it's just begging to be there. Without it being, “and then they danced”...

(Group laughter)

Jenny: It's just asking for it and so the words actually provided the music for us in the script, which was very exciting.

Alex: So, going on from the choreography standpoint, um, is there a specific genre of choreography, or like a specific style of dance you are using? Or is just like, however, the words inspire you to move?

Jenny: I think it's honestly, I think it’s... it’s surprising us, um, because I think it's actually, it is really coming from the words. I think we came into it having one approach, kinda wanting to go maybe against what was being said, and have kinda, you know, this abstract movement to go along with this beautiful kind of poetic um writing. But what we found is we were sitting in this world of wanting to punctuate the words, or-or the images, with our physicality's, so it became um, a lot more pedestrian, and gestural, um sometimes in an over exaggerated way, and sometimes in a more realistic way. Um, because we are working with all these men, these beautiful performers, but not a lot of them are, most of them are not dancers. Which is actually beautiful for us, because we’re coming from a real place and wanting them to live in their bodies, as people/actors, and so using what we have provided for us with these guys, it's kind of um, a more natural pedestrian kind of earthy organic approach of the movement, that hopefully supports the writing. I don't know if that answered your question...

(group laughter)

Alex: (To Keenan) Do you agree, do you feel it's helping your words come alive more?

Keenan: Oh absolutely, absolutely. I...my initial purpose for this play was to create a piece that had enough breath and air in it, for whatever collaboration that happened in the future, or whatever artists put their hands into it, that they would be able to make the play malleable. And move it to how they want it to move. So I purposely left things out like very detailed stage directions, musical notes and things like that, uh, for that reason. I had that foresight years ago because, I created this specific piece for artists of color to be able to uh, just really, just really, uh... be free, and not feel like they have to be stereotyped in any way that they would be handed roles that they often see in the industry. I wanted to give something different, but I also knew in my mind I wanted as many artists as possible to do it, of all different backgrounds, be able to do it and really see the work and for it to be to be able to build um... empathy.

Cause a lot of times, when you see something of one cultural group I feel people feel like it's only for them. So with this piece, I love that, especially this time around with Royal Family that um, there is diversity from front to back, that I'm speaking of. From um... this production it doesn't matter of race, background, sexual orientation, things of that nature, we have it all here. And that is what I wanted to create and I think with this team that was built here, um, for this production and this incarnation empathy is being built; due to what everybody is learning from different angles, different backgrounds, regardless from where everybody is coming from. So um, I wanted to create a piece for that reason.

Alex: That’s great! Is there anything else you guys would like to add, that you would like me to share with the readers?

Chris: I just, can I just say... the thing I think that has been very interesting for me, as a person who thought that I was enlightened... and I say that very... I shouldn't say that word enlightened... enlightened isn't the right word...

Keenan: Knowledgable? 

Chris: Knowledgable! 

Alex: Woke.

Chris: Knowledgeable.

(Laughter)

Chris: And the things that I’ve learned that I think, there’s two things I have learned. Um... one, I feel like... I don't think people of... I don't think many people think about what young black men go through on a daily basis. And I was struck in rehearsal as we were talking about things, about the idea that... (to Keenam) Is this ok to say?

Keenam: Sure!

Chris: That...I mean it was devastating to me. That they (the cast), that they were talking about how, I don't know who it was - I think, was it you that said you couldn't run? You can’t run down the street?

Keenam: I forgot... I was there.

Chris: So that it was “We can’t run down the street”. And I was like, “What are you talking about?” And that the idea of like “We can’t run, because people think that we did something wrong.” And I was gutted, and I called like five or six people and I said: “did you ever think about this?” And nobody had thought about that. And then the sort of like things that keep, you know, that keep, are being brought up to me, which are, you know this idea that if a group of black men walk in a group, they talk about spreading out... because they look... I mean this is, I to me its... it's crazy...that we actually don’t really... This is... This is stuff we don't talk about. Or I’ve never talked about. And again, as somebody who like thought I was knowledgeable... and it’s something I don’t... I am not aware of. And I certainly recognize, and I also recognize I am a woman, and certainly Keenan doesn't know what's it like to be a woman, and there’s that too... but like, but that specific thing of being a POC. And the other thing I realized too, as Artistic Director, that I think is very important, is that I always thought as being diverse, casting diversity, was being... I was a diverse person... like that we were a diverse company.

Alex: mhmm.

Chris: And now I am committed, that I am not going to do another, we are not doing plays of... that is written by a white person, except for one a season. Because I don't think we need to be... I don't think we need to hear white voices right now. I think we need to hear from people that are not white, and we need to hear other experiences, and I don’t, I think to Keenan’s point, which is like, how can I be part of the solution? And that’s the only way that I can be part of the solution, in a real way, which is I am an artistic director of a theatre... and that’s important. And so what can I... How can I give power... and how can I use what kind of privilege that I have to lift up people... Ehh that’s a terrible way of saying it...

(group interjection)

Chris: To bring voices together... to show that there’s (to Keenan) I don't know, I said it to you...

Keenan: It’s, it is, it was very important for me I think what was great about this process that I will leave you with is like Chris just said, being part of the solution. And I felt, I liked Chris from day one, because like she said earlier, you know the first thing she asked me was how do you feel about a white woman, you know, uh... directing your play? Which, you know, in our society you can't be more opposite than that, right? A white woman and a black male, um... I felt it was important because what we’re doing is being part of the solution, we’re opening up a dialogue, and people are learning, and empathy is being built.

Like Chris says, she's learning a lot of things, I’m learning a lot of things because just because I’m a young black male, that doesn't mean another young black man has the same experience as me, just because he’s black. And that's what I think people feel at times. Um so, so, so doing that in this process has built and opened up a relationship to cause a healing, not saying nobody was hurting each other, but to build an understanding of “Ok, I didn’t think about it like that, I understand that. Now how can I be part of that solution?” So we’re giving this platform, and this opportunity, it's not only been able to give me a voice on a new platform, but it's also given other people a voice and a chance to understand something that they wouldn't have understood before. Not because they didn’t care, uh... I think it comes down to just not being exposed to it, or hearing that viewpoint in a right way. So I think that's why this, this, opportunity is important, and you know, writing a play really did I ever think a day would come a white woman would even want to direct my play?

(Group Laughter)

Keenan: um, no. But now that the day is here, I appreciate it for, for, what it has opened up for all of us, and it is important that we, that if we truly want equality, then we need to create a situation that looks like equality, right? And not, and not hinder or stop anybody from, from doing anything and initially like I said I created this for all artists...

Jenny: It’s a human play.
Keenan: It’s a human play, you know it's like, I think we’ve been saying this, it's from a black lens, but it's a play, you know, about humility, human existence, we talk about relationships, you know love...

Jenny: The fact that it is all men, which I found was so interesting when I first read it too. All these men and their character names are emotions. Which is exactly the opposite of what we associate men with...

Keenan: Right.

Jenny: ...In our society. That's not what, I think. Women - emotion, men - logic, practicality, whatever. And the fact that all of them are “Depression”, “Despair”, all these important emotions, all that is an incredible way in perspective. 


Art like this doesn't happen overnight, it takes years and years of working on it and rethinking it... etc. “Thoughts of a Colored Man when the Sun Set too Early” is something so beautiful and special. I am honored I got to sit down and chat with these awesome people.

Special thanks to Jess Wu for making this happen. Here’s to changing the world.

For more info on Royal Family Productions please visit their website:http://www.royalfamilyproductions.org/

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