Director Whitney White on Depth and the Magic of Theater

Actor and theater director, Whitney White.
( Melissa Bunni Elian )

[00:00:00] Whitney White: I love art, as cheesy as that sounds. And the way I take care of myself is by digesting more. And unfortunately, it's like the more I digest, the more that comes out. And it's just this cycle. So I feel very fortunate because my art making cycle is kind of like what a tree does, how it contributes to the air.

[00:00:23] It is a kind of natural cycle. I listen to a new album, it goes in, something heals, oops, I have a new idea, it comes out. So, there is a, like, regenerative process for me. That somehow is very fulfilling and sustainable.

[00:00:47] Helga: I'm Helga Davis, and welcome to my show of fearless conversations that reveal the extraordinary in all of us.

[00:00:58] Joining me today is Whitney White. Whitney is an actor, singer, author. Obie Award winner, and winner of the Lilly Award, which recognizes extraordinary women in theater. Whitney has directed productions of James Baldwin's The Amen Corner, Alicia Harris's What to Send Up When It Goes Down, about the victims of racialized violence, and Jocelyn Biot's Jaja's African Hair Braiding on Broadway.

[00:01:26] She's also directed productions of Richard III and Othello. And her five part musical exploration of Shakespeare's women and ambition entitled Reach for It was commissioned by American Repertory Theater in Boston. In our conversation, Whitney shares how powerful moments on stage originate in the body, not the mind.

[00:01:48] Also, how she preserves her inner self amidst the demands of large scale productions and what it means to embrace it. And live in her full self.

[00:02:04] Get in here, girl. Get in here.

[00:02:11] Get in here. How are you? Get in here. 

[00:02:13] Whitney White: Oh my gosh, you're iconic. You're literally iconic. 

[00:02:19] Helga: Okay. What does that mean, anyway? 

[00:02:22] Whitney White: This is an iconic! I'm sitting here, sorry I'm from Chicago, so the Midwest does come out. Um, and it's hard for me to hide my feelings. 

[00:02:33] Helga: First things first. Are you okay? I'm asking because I know you had a family emergency.

[00:02:39] [00:02:40] Whitney White: Yes, I have a child who's like a giant one and a half year old, and he had to get his shots, and then it was like chaos, but I am okay. I just have a little baby man that had a family emergency, so I'm sorry about that. 

[00:02:51] Helga: There's nothing to apologize for. I, I was just thinking about even the two words, family and emergency.

[00:03:00] And so the first one, emergency, Already, we are out of our minds, we are out of our minds, we are tense, and then it gets complicated when we put family in it. So that noun and that adjective are a fireball of emotions, of expectations, of hopes, of worry. And so I was thinking about you a lot. 

[00:03:37] Whitney White: Thank you.

[00:03:38] Thank you. We're good. New York, you know, being an artist, um, coming back into the new year. I always find the top of the new year a dangerous period because it tends to be in my family when we lose somebody. It tends to be when back in the day we were trying to get our money together, trying to keep the lights on.

[00:04:04] I was reading about the history of Christmas in our, the Black community in America and how slaves would celebrate with all they could around the time of the holidays because typically people would be sold off at the top of the year. And I was just thinking about how the top of the year puts me in a place of emergency and alert.

[00:04:25] Helga: There's also the watch night service.

[00:04:27] Whitney White: What's that? 

Helga: The watch night service. You didn't, you didn't grow up in the church with the watch night service? 

Whitney White: Oh, yes. 

[00:04:34] Helga: Yes, the church service, yes, where you keep the night, yes, ma'am, yes. And that slaves did the same thing, to make sure, well, they did that when they were freed, and to make sure that when that top of the year came, that it was true, and they could move out of slavery.

[00:04:55] of bondage into freedom, except then they moved into Reconstruction. Correct. But keep talking about the top of the New Year. 

[00:05:07] Whitney White: Yeah, I really think about it. Um, again, it tends to be a time in my family where It's the end of the very end before Christmas on top where you might lose somebody whose health is faltering where back when things were more challenging where we had to gather funds together to keep things going because we would celebrate over the holiday and it's like when reality hits and I come from a family of women who all had to work all of the time to survive, a family that didn't go on vacations, didn't get vacations.

[00:05:43] And so the Christmas and Thanksgiving was the most glorious time of the year, because we could all be together. But the cost of that, the way that the system makes you pay for that and whips you to step to it at the top of the year, I think I still feel that. And I wake up on the first like, it's time to go, it's time to go.

[00:06:03] I'm in this place, thanks be to God and my mother and all her sacrifice, where I had some time at the top of the year, actually. So I'm, I'm calibrating in this different way and starting to wrap my mind around the projects I'm about to step into for the year, and, and yet that's still like, gotta keep the lights on, gotta keep it going, gotta keep safe, gotta keep healthy.

[00:06:23] I, I wake up in the new year with that every year a little bit. I think a lot of people do, but there's all the hysteria around.

[00:06:28] Helga: Okay, I'm gonna start again, and this is a new beginning. New, yeah. I'm like, y'all, y'all. No, it isn't. It's Tuesday. It's Tuesday. 

[00:06:46] Whitney White: Yeah. The craving of the new. I find myself doing it, too.

[00:06:52] The craving of the new and perpetual youth and perpetual newness. It's funny driving here. We just passed the new Apple sign. Maybe this should be off the record. No, and it says euphoria. Euphoria is the phrase that they're using for the new Apple Everything campaign and it's, it's profound. 

[00:07:14] Yeah. 

[00:07:16] Whitney White: No, we can't talk about the history.

[00:07:17] We can't talk about the past. We can't recycle, we can't use the old, it has to be new. And that's wild. If you really open that up. So, happy new year. 

[00:07:31] Helga: You were with your family for the new year? 

[00:07:32] Whitney White: Yes. How many people? So we drove to Chicago to see my mother, Janice, who lives there, me, my husband, and my little baby man.

[00:07:44] Then we drove back. So over Christmas, I think, what, there were about six or seven of us. But then for New Year's Eve, I was ambitious. Invited over, like, 20 people and cooked for them. Never doing it again. You know what I realized? I might be talented, I'm really good at directing and writing and singing, but I'm not Betty Crocker.

[00:08:03] I'm not her. Not her. My husband was so helpful. He helped cook and do everything, but I was like, you know what? Get out. All of y'all, get out. 

[00:08:15] Helga: Now. And what about you? I am in the middle of things. So I have to move out of my apartment, and my apartment is, I would say, 85 percent packed. So every day, I feel a little bit like a hoarder because I have to make paths for me to get from one place to another.

[00:08:43] I packed up all my dishes and I'm eating everything out of a stainless steel bowl and some bamboo plates I found for who knows what in a cabinet. And so I felt that I could neither move forward nor back. Mm hmm. and that I am, I am living in the middle. I don't like, like the middle. It's unsettled. Yeah, it's unsettled.

[00:09:13] And so I went to the Indian restaurant in my neighborhood because there are two young humans there whom I adore and I ate Indian food in my big red chair. And then I went to bed. Oh God. But I set my alarm. for five minutes to midnight because I wanted to be awake. And when the clock struck 12, I said, thank you.

[00:09:43] And then I rolled over. And went to sleep. 

[00:09:46] Whitney White: That sounds fabulous. There's a kind of mindfulness to it. There's a kind of awakeness. I think of how I used to like to celebrate the New Year's. Just party until you're on the floor. Just smash it. Just party until you're in bits and pieces. Until you don't even know what it is, when it is, and who you are.

[00:10:04] As opposed to this, you know, which is mindfully stepping into the future, into the next moment. with gratitude and peace. I think that sounds fabulous. 

[00:10:16] Helga: Well, the, the peace is yet to come, but I trust. 

Whitney White: Amen. 

[00:10:22] Helga: I trust. 

[00:10:23] Helga: Okay. I trust that when I wake tomorrow, that everything Everything is gonna be better than tomorrow.

[00:10:41] Yes, I will not be the same. And it will move. Move. Move. Move. 

[00:10:50] Whitney White: Take me there. So over the holiday. Oh my God, don't do it to me. I grew up in the most magnificent Black church, the Apostolic Church of God on the South Side of Chicago. 

[00:11:01] Helga: Oh no, y'all are scary. 

[00:11:03] Whitney White: Why? 

[00:11:04] Helga: Go ahead. 

[00:11:04] Whitney White: We had a 50 person choir and a full band.

[00:11:06] It was amazing. People are always like, why aren't you entertained at Broadway shows? I'm like, I have to take you to my church. So, my husband, my mother, and my baby and I, we went to the church, and when we opened the doors, my husband was like, wow, because it's like this time capsule. It's a mega church in this way, and the band, there's nothing like it.

[00:11:27] There's nothing like it. 

[00:11:28] Helga: Except, I want to know, who started filming praise breaks and putting them on Instagram? Can we talk about that? 

[00:11:39] Whitney White: Yeah, someone who realized that. There's funk in there, there's soul in there, it's commodity, it's got value. 

[00:11:47] Helga: Right, it's a complete desecration of the spiritual access, and of God, if I may say.

[00:11:56] Yeah, it segments the event. Absolutely. Take this bit. And in Harlem, you know, the people come, and they want to know where to go to hear the Gospels. Oh yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And there are plenty of places. With open invitations for that, and then they go and eat fried chicken after. 

[00:12:20] Whitney White: Oh, yeah, that was my first performing gig in New York when I moved here.

[00:12:24] I was in a gospel review in Harlem that combined gospel music and then like hits by Gladys Knight, and it was like a review. And people would totally come. It was like tourism. It was a huge show. It ran for years. I mean, I did a show a week, and I got paid a couple hundred dollars for the show, and we did the whole thing.

[00:12:44] And people would come and lose their minds and then go to the Soul Food Buffet afterwards. It was like Church Without the God, you know, the Marketplace version of it. People loved it. It was wild, you know. 

[00:12:58] Helga: What people loved it. 

[00:13:00] Whitney White: I mean, all kinds of people. We loved it. Black people loved it. White people certainly loved it.

[00:13:08] Tourists loved it. It was an establishment. I think they still have that show. Like, I had to audition to get into it, and I got replaced when I left. Bless 

[00:13:18] Helga: him. Tyler Perry says, it's not for you. This is not for you. What I make is not for you. You criticize it all day and all night, but it's not for you. So, Two things.

[00:13:32] Who's that for? And what, what question does it answer? What problem does it solve? 

[00:13:43] Whitney White: And the kind of commodification of Black worship and culture in that way? Yeah. Wow. I mean, what a, what a question. You know, I directed a production of The Amen Corner. 

[00:13:58] Helga: Love The Amen Corner. 

[00:14:00] Whitney White: By James Baldwin. Love. My kind of take on it.

[00:14:03] was to put a choir on stage who was part of the storytelling the entire show. I love the gospel of Colonus. I love witnessing that way and As soon as you're tapping into worship, people may not like the E word, but I don't mind it for the sake of entertainment or for the sake of storytelling. No matter how holy or how cheap, you are grabbing and using and grabbing and showing and inviting people who it might not be for into it.

[00:14:31] And so, uh, I struggle with this thing of, I'm not making something for you, because as soon as you're making something that can be digested in a public way, it is for the public. So I, whenever I'm making my work, I feel I don't have the, ever have the right to say, hey, this isn't for you. If I'm doing that, then I should just do it at home, in private.

[00:14:56] But is it for Black people? Or is it for all people? The bulk of my work is for Black people, and yet I invite all to the table. I didn't know Tyler Perry said that, hey, this isn't for you. I think that's like a really complex thing that anyone working on art that is sold to a public, if you get real about that, what do you really mean by that?

[00:15:25] Helga: I feel that he's trying to protect. A specific kind of Black experience that gets marginalized, that gets criticized, that people make fun of. Yeah. And that he is trying to give something to a certain group of people in a protected way, yeah.

[00:15:50] Whitney White: What to Send Up When It Goes Down was a play I did by Alicia Harris, which was a ritual.

[00:15:57] It was a true ritual, honoring. black people who have lost their lives to racialized violence. And there was a section of the play where we said, this part isn't for you. We have something for you, and then we have something for the black audience. And the audience was sectioned. And there were two different experiences at the end, which I won't spoil.

[00:16:18] But it was very profound for me. You had, you had Black people in one side and We separated them out of the room. We kept Black people in the playing space. Oh wow. And non Black, you self identify, are invited into another space to receive one final experience and we receive another final experience. So, I am constantly thinking about what am I making and who is it for?

[00:16:44] And if people come to the table that weren't necessarily originally invited for the meal, what side dish do you have for them? I'm not a vegetarian, but when a vegetarian comes to my house, I have something for them. I can't deny the fact that they're coming to my house, because then I feel like I'd be in denial, you know?

[00:17:04] They're coming to your house, right? You put that show, you put it on TV, they're coming to your house. Mm hmm.

[00:17:14] Helga: Today, before I came here, I had a Pilates session. Girl, you are winning!

[00:17:20] Whitney White: It is a new year! Come on! Pilates? Okay, how did it go? 

[00:17:27] Helga: I'm working with a new instructor who, I like her because she's egghead y. So she explains everything about Pilates. your nerves and your muscles and how they're wrapped around and we talk about these things while we work.

[00:17:47] So I went there today and we were doing backbends. I hate backbends. I hate backbends. And this particular thing felt dangerous because your foot is hooked into the strap at the magic circle. I put one leg in the magic circle and then held on, two hands, at the top of the circle and I had to bring my torso up and split at the same time.

[00:18:27] And I just said, I can't do this because she was walking me through this, I can't do this. And she said, yeah, actually, you can. And I said, no, I can't. I can't do this. And the whole time I'm saying I can't do this, I'm moving back over It's already in motion. It is already in motion. Oh my gosh. 

[00:18:49] Whitney White: That's profound.

[00:18:50] Helga: And I got up from there, and I was weeping. Weeping, weeping, weeping, weeping. And I said, okay, what, what's going on here? Mm 

[00:19:01] hmm. 

[00:19:02] Helga: And The body will tell you the truth about who you are and what is going on with you. And I think between the moving and not being settled in a place, not being in a place I think of as home, that I'm not at home in my body.

[00:19:25] And so the impulse then is to control the movement. And part of my I can't do this has nothing to do with the movement and everything to do with getting connected to the feelings. And I said, if I go back here and if I feel this, everyone will know how sad I actually am. 

[00:19:52] Whitney White: It's funny, a lot of the acting work, the work I do with actors is kind of like this.

[00:19:58] Because we think we're so smart up here and really the rest of the organism, the body, up here being the head I pointed to my head, but the rest of the body it stores so much knowledge. I think one thing about your story that makes my hair stand up is like Our imagination has more limits than we think.

[00:20:25] And when your body does something that you never could have imagined, one can start to question, I mean, every decision you've ever made. Because you're working within a set of limitations you've given yourself, and your whole organism is actually maybe capable of more or less. And that's kind of a profound moment, because who knows what your life can be like without the limitations set in the mind.

[00:20:57] Mm hmm. And I find that with performers, if you make a loving enough and safe enough environment, whatever safety means, if you can let them make a physical discovery that generates an emotionally present moment, you can find that it's 20 times more powerful on stage than the other way around. And I say this as a performer.

[00:21:23] I always think you go into the mind, you go into the sense memory, you go into the blah, and then you get with the character, and this thing comes out. But if you can find something real that is cracked open in the body, and it comes out, it's just 20 times more impactful, and it's safer to me, as opposed to whipping yourself, as opposed to thinking of that dead relative every time the beat comes.

[00:21:43] It's like you just release into this physical thing, and the emotion comes, as opposed to this like kind of psychological way. Your Pilates teacher sounds amazing. She's amazing. 

[00:21:55] Helga: I will pass on her information if you want it. Yeah, I would love to learn. And everything I learn there, I walk out into the street and I can meet someone or interact with whatever situation.

[00:22:07] It's like, oh, okay, there that is. 

[00:22:10] Mm hmm. 

[00:22:11] Helga: The other thing I like to do is I have my chin up a lot. And she asked me what I thought that was. 

 Whitney White: Mm hmm. 

[00:22:20] Helga: And I said, right now I feel like I'm waiting for someone else to come and hit me, you know, just so I'm leaving my chin out there. Who's going to do it? So I can take the blow and then go back in.

[00:22:35] And she said to me, I think you're trying to make yourself bigger. And you may be doing that because you want to make yourself bigger, or because you are protecting yourself from the things. 

[00:22:56] Whitney White: I'm feeling small, yeah. 

[00:22:58] Helga: Small and out of control. 

[00:23:00] Whitney White: Yeah, controls everything. When I'm alone in my house, the performance of the self is a funny thing.

[00:23:08] So if it's about your chin being up, but for me, my shoulders are my problem. Like I'm always hiding that and these. My very large bust. Thank you, genetics. Uh, you know, and It's interesting, even if you think you're getting real about how you choose to perform yourself in the world, it sticks. It's like, I'll be home alone, no one's in the room, and I'm still in that place.

[00:23:34] And I'm like, what am I holding on to?

[00:23:41] It's not just for everybody else. I'm holding on to something in my physical person. for myself, or whatever kind of fragile understanding of who I am, that I have, you know, so the body, the body. 

[00:24:00] Helga: Well, I think about you also, because you do all the things, you sing, you're an actor, you're a writer, you're a director.

[00:24:09] And so those things, In some way, to me, are very forward facing. 

[00:24:15] Whitney White: Yeah. 

[00:24:17] Helga: So then what happens in your interior? How do you take care of your interior when every single thing you do is out? Is out. 

[00:24:27] Whitney White: Yeah. I think having a child has taught me a lot about that, about interior care. What does that mean? 

[00:24:35] Um, well, to have 

[00:24:36] Whitney White: a child, you have to go through this metamorphosis.

[00:24:42] And as grand as that word is, it's this incredible, impossible thing, and yet millions of people, billions of people can do it, have do it, will continue to do it. What I learned about the female body, a woman's body, in that process was shocking to me. And then I learned it this late. was shocking to me. What did you learn?

[00:25:03] Oh, my God. I learned about how we heal. I learned about where we scar, what scar tissue does on the inside, what it does on the outside. I learned about how much blood a person really can lose. I learned about all these things. And you have to take care of your interior in this way to get through it. And if I don't take care of myself, I can't be there for this other person.

[00:25:36] But then at the end of the day, like, I love art, as cheesy as that sounds. And the way I take care of myself is by digesting more. And unfortunately, it's like the more I digest, the more that comes out. And it's just this cycle. So I feel very fortunate because my art making cycle is kind of like what a tree does, how it contributes to the air.

[00:25:59] It is a kind of natural cycle. I listened to a new album. It goes in, something heals, oops, I have a new idea, it comes out. So there is a, like, regenerative process for me that somehow is very fulfilling and sustainable. 

[00:26:17] Helga: So you always are going to have your relationship with your child. Does it challenge other relationships?

[00:26:24] Whitney White: Well, oh my gosh.

[00:26:27] Helga: For me it does. So what happens is that I love the theater. I love singing. If there's a song to be written, I want to write that song. If there's a text to be written, I'm going to write that text. And there isn't anything I love more than that. 

[00:26:47] Whitney White: I understand that. Making the thing is where your pleasure comes from.

[00:26:53] Oh my gosh, if we're getting really real, I think that I've always been this generative person. And I'm an extrovert mostly, unfortunately. So I like people, I like friends, I like new friends, I like that word new, there it is again. I like people and being among the people. And so I've always had a group of friends.

[00:27:12] And it's never been new to them that I was this generative, I have to make thing. I will say, however, when I became a mom and a wife, and still dared to do all those things. Then some relationships shifted. It surprised me. I'm not trying to talk about a cliché. I'm not trying to say, oh, once you become a mom, it becomes so hard, because it doesn't.

[00:27:37] Like, in a lot of ways, I got better at a lot of things I didn't expect. Time management in creative processes in which a moment of duress or emergency comes up. It's just, it's not life or death. There is a way to solve it. And I always like to joke. During Jaja's African hair braiding on Broadway, I worked with Jocelyn Beo, I can't say her name without smiling, because she had also just had a baby.

[00:28:06] And my joke was, you want to be in the most effective, wonderful, well time managed tech process? Let it be run by two Black women with babies. When I tell you, when a problem would come up, the way we would look at each other and be like, okay, so here's what's about to happen, okay, so here's the solution.

[00:28:28] That's one thing that got better, staying creative through a moment of problem solving. But back to what you said about relationships, I think when you dare to live in your full self, relationships change. So whether that's about loving the art making more than anything else, which I do. or changing your identity and asking people to see you a different way.

[00:28:59] I think that's what I'm walking towards. I find not just for myself, but for Black women around me when we dare to be like, hey, here's a new thing about me now. Can you accept it? Would you mind if I walk into the room a little bit fuller? I was surprised at the friends that were like, or colleagues, or mentors, and other people were like, I don't know.

[00:29:29] And maybe that's a very self centered thing, to even be observing an interaction on that way, but I would be lying if I were sitting here saying that, yeah, I walk into a room saying, hey, I just directed this Broadway hit, and actually, I'm gonna go take care of my child in this hour, and I'm still gonna be on time for work tomorrow.

[00:29:46] I'm gonna do all these things. I'm not gonna hide the child. I'm not gonna hide my hunger, my gluttonous hunger to make art. I'm not gonna Accept it when you say I have too much on my plate. I don't. I'll tell you when I have too much on my plate. And I think it's not about having a baby. I see my mother dealing with it.

[00:30:03] I see my aunts dealing with it. I see other Black women dealing with it. It's when you dare to just stretch those elbows a little bit. 

[00:30:10] It's frightening. How dare you? 

[00:30:14] Helga: And I don't know. what this is and what it's going to be. And here I go. And here I go. 

[00:30:22] Whitney White: Are you okay with that? I'm okay with it. So the art making is interesting because I think that I was always ambitious and generating, generating.

[00:30:32] Is it new? Now I have the audacity to actually let you know I might know what I'm doing. And I don't know, I had this very interesting moment in the last trimester of my pregnancy. I was directing a play and respectfully, someone in my process, And I know he was coming at it out of genuine concern, but he said to me, you know, I'm worried and I don't think you're gonna make it.

[00:30:56] I don't think you're gonna finish the play before the preview. And I said, like I always do in these situations, you know, don't worry, I have enough faith in myself for the both of us. And I have enough experience, you know? And it's just, those are the little shifts sometimes. Where the old me might be like, okay, let me explain to you how we're gonna make it, and let me prove it to you, let me show you, let me make you comfortable.

[00:31:20] And now I'm like, yeah, no, don't worry. You can be worried. Can you take your worried over there so I can do my job? Now I'm capable of that. That's new. For better or for worse.

[00:31:35] Helga: You're listening to Helga. We'll rejoin the conversation in just a moment.

[00:31:44] Avery Willis-Hoffman: The Brown Arts Institute at Brown University is a university wide research enterprise and catalyst for the arts at Brown that creates new work and supports, amplifies, and adds new dimensions to the creative practices of Brown's arts departments, faculty, students, and surrounding communities. Visit arts.brown. edu to learn more about our upcoming programming and to sign up for our mailing list.

[00:32:17] Helga: And now, let's rejoin my conversation with theater director, actor, and singer, Whitney White. With your work on Broadway, what were you up against, and who were the people that came? 

[00:32:35] Whitney White: Opening the memory of what it was like to direct a world premiere, a world premiere. First time since 30 some years. 

[00:32:48] Helga: So for an African American cast.

[00:32:50] Whitney White: Yeah, and it's an interesting thing because Jocelyn wrote this beautiful story. about immigrant women working hard for the American dream. Boom. That's what it's about. It's about the cost of the American dream. And she had the audacity to make that thing a comedy. I thought that was the boldest thing. I thought it was so brave of her to show these women in their glory, in their fullness, in their space, as opposed to in their struggle, in their pain.

[00:33:23] It wasn't pain pornography. She had the audacity to show these women embodied and in charge and God forbid, enjoying their lives, even though it's hard at times. When I read the script, I just, I haven't had faith in something like that in a long time. It was like, just the amount of faith I had in the script, in the story.

[00:33:50] And my ability to put it up in a dignified new way, it was just undeniable. And in fact, that's the word Jocelyn and I used throughout the process. Undeniable. We wanted it to be undeniable. And it was a journey. Manhattan Theatre Club was so supportive of us. But again, this is new. They hadn't done it in a long time.

[00:34:12] They do world premieres. Not always this kind of a world premiere. And so marketing would come up, and the first couple images were wrong. And we said, we have to change this, and they worked with us. We had incredible producers, LaChanze, Madison Wells, Taraji. I felt so sober in that process, if that makes sense.

[00:34:34] I felt sober, and I knew I had to be sober, because I wanted every decision to be undeniable, to be in the culture, to be honest, and to be seen. I tend to think there's like something that happens once you're performing for over 600 people. 400, 600. Something happens. Because no matter how much you amplify it, mic it, put 50 million dollars worth of lights on it, the body is still the body, unless you're working with puppets or some kind of scaffolding, the body is just the body.

[00:35:09] If you need that one body to tell the story. What happens to humanity? And how are you going to deal with it? Because if you don't deal with it, I'm watching a TV show. And I don't want to watch a TV show in person. I want to watch this incredible discipline that gets our hearts beating at the same rate.

[00:35:28] So for Jajas, I think it was a constant process of keeping myself sober enough to see the process, to make the right decisions. And then it was communicating that faith. And anyone who didn't have faith, again, I have enough faith for the both of us. And Jocelyn was the same. And I learned a lot from her about how to commit to what you know.

[00:35:53] is right for the moment. Take in the notes, take in people's needs and opinions, but if you know something and you're coming at it with good intentions, don't be afraid to put that on stage. And I would sit in the last row in the balcony and I would just weep. One night, I sat next to a mechanic who was thinking of proposing to his wife, a Black man.

[00:36:15] One night, I was on the floor sitting next to the biggest producer I've ever met. You know, one night, there was a queer couple wanting to take pictures in front of the faces. Because I knew I wanted you to walk into that theater, and I wanted you to see Black women's faces. Because when I go to get my hair done, to get the braids, when I open up the book, so when you go to get your hair done, and back in the day, now everybody has phones.

[00:36:41] I don't want to betray how old I am, but you know, and they still have them. They have the book of faces in this way that shows all the styles, and you're flipping through and looking at these other black women's faces, and you're seeing possibility. And you're deciding, who do I want to be? Who do I want to become?

[00:36:56] And I wanted the audience to just be met with that, because if you're met with that, you're gonna know right away, this isn't gonna be like any other Broadway show you're going to see. It's going to entertain, and it's gonna have humanity. And so I think we were up against a lot in terms of, Defining what kind of show it was going to be.

[00:37:14] Someone goes, Let's go see a comedy on Broadway. Boom. What assumptions do you have? Beer. Heckling. Mm hmm. Beer. Mm hmm. Right. And so this is somehow going to be different. And I think we were up against a lot in terms of defining it the way we wanted to define it and sharing it the way we wanted to share it.

[00:37:39] And people came out. And I bring up earlier those examples of the people that came out is because for me, that is the only time I've been in the theater with that much. socioeconomic diversity on a regular basis. It wasn't just Black Theater Night. It was every night that someone from the Upper West Side might be there with a mechanic considering a proposal.

[00:38:04] And to me, I don't know if I'll see it again, but that is what I I still see it when I go to bed at night, what it felt like to be in the room with that much distance between the people in the room, and yet they could all converge. When Sister B almost had a heart attack on stage when she was asked to leave, right?

[00:38:24] Everybody understood that. And I'm like, okay, so the Black experience is universal. It is human. Oh, you do understand. That was my subversive goal. The immigrant experience, oh, it is something everyone can understand. Okay, so then how come we don't understand that when we're voting? 

[00:38:48] Helga: Because we don't have to.

[00:38:49] Whitney White: Right? So, Judges was fascinating and surreal. I can't believe it happened. And then the extensions started to happen, and I really just came to love the brilliance of Jocelyn and what our collaboration brought out in the both of us. The directing, writing, writer duo. It can be such a special thing if you're brave enough to listen to each other.

[00:39:17] It's hard to do. And seeing the look in the usher's eyes, the security guards in the building, the people that work there, people that have worked. And the Samuel Friedman for 10 years would come up to me and pull me aside, talk to me about the show. I'm never going to forget that. And also now, no one can tell me it's not possible.

[00:39:44] On a world premiere that didn't have an off Broadway run anywhere, like so many other Broadway world premieres, opening cold on Broadway, you can't tell me that building audience is impossible and that my hairdresser won't come to the same show that an Upper West Side lady will come to. They'll come to the same show.

[00:40:03] So, I do think it's made a monster out of me in a way, because so many of the things that I'm told about black women's stories, about our value in the marketplace, about what people will pay for it, about this, that, and the other, it's all shattered. It's like your body in that Pilates class. My mind, and I've been told that our stories can only go so far and do so much.

[00:40:26] It's not true. 

[00:40:29] Helga: And then, like your experience, I can't tell anyone why a 20 year old violist and a farmer in Wisconsin tune in. But they're tuning in. But they're tuning in. And it reminds me every single time that my work is to work, not to worry. Not to worry. Not to explain. To keep coming, and to keep talking, and to keep sharing.

[00:41:12] Whitney White: No one can predict who's going to tune in. And every time someone tells you, oh well that's not how it works, Nobody knows. Faith and quality. Broadway still does that thing for me, like It still gives me the, like, little, I see the glitter in my eyeballs, you know? And it's, as someone says, let's go see a Broadway show.

[00:41:35] And I think that we all just need to treat that a little more carefully. I think that was the other thing we did. My design team, when I was birthing a concept with them for Jaja's, we all were like, this is special. We're gonna give you our best. Because we don't know who's going to tune in, but they deserve the best.

[00:41:59] It was magical. I feel guilty talking about it because I would just watch people watch the show. My mother came. 

[00:42:07] Helga: Does she come to a lot of your things or how come? 

[00:42:14] Whitney White: Her health, because of health. And whenever I direct something in Chicago or perform, she'll come. But this was her first time seeing my work in New York.

[00:42:23] And I was raised by a fierce single mother and seeing her family name, our family name, on that building, I'm so grateful for that experience. It's a privilege. I just I wasn't playing any games with it. Do you know what I mean? I think a lot of people will be like, oh, I don't like musicals, and I don't like this, and Broadway that, and have a lot of bad things to say, but it is a privilege to be able to take that amount of time from people in the one life that they have to live, and share your story with them, to share a writer's story with them.

[00:43:02] I felt like I had to treat it so sacred. 

[00:43:08] Helga: I feel like that about this. 

[00:43:09] Whitney White: Thank you. Yeah, your show is amazing. I mean, God, what a beautiful image that you just shared of the two people tuning in. If only they could know that they're both tuning in to the same thing. And that's why theater. Because you're laughing at the same thing and you're like, Oh, you think that's funny too?

[00:43:32] We just had that moment?

[00:43:36] Helga: Uh huh. 

[00:43:38] Whitney White: Jaja's African hair braiding, yeah. I'll never forget it. Hopefully. It was a beautiful process. I think everybody showed up. You know, on the first day of tech, there's a day when you get in the tech, and it's the first time you meet the crew, and the producer's there, and the actor's there, and sometimes there's like 100 people in the room.

[00:43:58] And I just said, you guys, we're not here by accident. I don't know what it took for you to get here and Len Meadow to get here and Jocelyn and myself and this crew member who's gonna like save the production in a week because he worked so hard to fix a wheel that broke. And so all I can do in that moment as a director, I'm just like I don't believe I'm here by accident and you aren't either.

[00:44:18] I'm going to cherish what it took for you to get in this room by being the best leader I can be. And I remember that day because the air changed a little bit. I'm like, this is history. We're part of history right now. This isn't just another casual day, so let's make the most of it. And I think it helped.

[00:44:35] I hope it helped. I think it helped. 

[00:44:37] Helga: Well, it also helps when someone who is a leader on the project comes in and is respectful of all the people who are working hard. Just that, you know, there is potentially a person who has to fix something that isn't visible. that isn't forward facing, who will not get applause from the audience.

[00:45:07] Whitney White: Whose name isn't on the building. Those are the people that make Broadway run. They were wonderful to us. 

[00:45:19] Helga: Oh my God, Broadway.

[00:45:24] I know what else I wanted to ask you about the theater. Would you concede that the theater is a democratic space? 

[00:45:37] Whitney White: No. I want it to be, but it's not. We pay 300 to 1, 000 for tickets sometimes. Real? Broadway tickets can be What was Hamilton going for at its heights? Oh, yeah. Even at Jaja's, we had front seats that were in the 300s.

[00:45:55] Yeah, I don't think it is. I want it to be. But every story We're not picking from every story. There are stories that are in the foreground and the background. And right now, I'm able to champion a lot of Black female stories, which previously have been in the background. But there's a lot of stories. And we see in the economy of theater, especially New York theater and commercial theater, what stories come to the foreground each season.

[00:46:28] It's not democratic. Nobody can afford to make sets anymore. It's not democratic. 

[00:46:33] Hmm. 

[00:46:34] Whitney White: It's capitalism. This is something I struggle with, because I have to get real about it, you know? I have all these political beliefs and goals and hopes and dreams, and I've got to get those things out in the stories that are able to make it in the foreground.

[00:46:51] I think I experience guilt over that a little bit. 

[00:46:54] Mm hmm.

[00:46:59] Helga: Shakespeare. 

[00:47:00] Whitney White: Let's talk about 

[00:47:01] Helga: We love. 

[00:47:01] Whitney White: Get him, get him here. Where is he at? Get him here at the interview. Come on. 

[00:47:06] Helga: Get So when you tackle someone like Shakespeare, you're not just putting Black people on the stage, and you're not just making a Black version of something. And it's definitely not a Black version of something that originally was only meant for white people.

[00:47:33] So how are you distinguishing between that perception, and The work you're really trying to make. 

[00:47:45] Whitney White: There is an undercover goal in a forward facing presentation of my project of looking at Shakespeare, particularly his women, and asking questions. I fell in love with who the characters I consider to be some of Shakespeare's best women, who are Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, Amelia, Iago's wife and Othello, Juliet, Cleopatra.

[00:48:15] These ladies die, yeah? They're dead by Act V, it's not a spoiler alert. And I started asking why, and what has that narrative been up to in our collective consciousness for the past several hundred years? And why do I love them all the same? So I think I bring that up as to say this project started from a place of questioning.

[00:48:43] It didn't start from a place of, I have a answer. And often when I'm interviewed, people are like, what is Shakespeare trying to say? What's your answer? And I'm like, the project didn't come from a place of, I've got the answer and I'm going to tell you about it. It came from a place of, why do I like these ladies?

[00:48:58] I, myself, I, Whitney, a liberated, quote unquote, educated, quote unquote, black woman, why is doing the unsex me here monologue, why does it crack open the void for me and communicate something? Why do I understand these things? tracks. Why am I drawn to them? I'm not the only one drawn to them. In fact, hundreds of thousands of people have been over the past 400 some years, and so I just got curious.

[00:49:29] And I have a natural love of the poetry. I definitely come from a place as a performer where I was typecast. Oh, you're not a Juliet, but you could be the nurse. You're not a this, and you could be that. And I'm like, okay, so now this is getting real. I have this love of these women, and yet, you're telling me what kind of woman I am and where I fit in the canon, and it started to just open up this endless Rubik's Cube in my mind.

[00:49:57] And so, I think I'm trying to be clever and say, first of all, We should keep doing Shakespeare in the way we want to do it. There is a space for Black people, not in the way you might imagine it, and it's going to be wildly entertaining. And I definitely present that up front, that I'm making these raucous, rocking, bold, hell of a ride adaptations of Shakespeare's work.

[00:50:23] And then once you take that spoonful of sugar underneath his Why do we tell these stories with no negative feelings towards Shakespeare? And I think that's a thing that's often fascinating to me assumed, as people are like, okay, she's kicking Shakespeare in the ass. I'm not kicking him in the ass. It's not his fault he was able to tap into something that could last this long.

[00:50:46] Why is it that Othello is one of the most requested pieces in the whole canon? It is horrific, that story. I bring up Othello because it's the next one I'm working on. After Macbeth, I'm working on Emilia Iago's wife. Word for word. It is relevant. Conflict in the Middle East. Racism, misogyny, violence against women.

[00:51:13] It's an everlasting piece. It's shocking to me. It's disturbing, and yet it's undeniable. And I'm trying to understand why, and I want us all to ask why. And I'm not a snob. I think the story's for everybody. And I think music helps you experience that, especially me and my people experience it a different way.

[00:51:34] So, you're brilliant like you always are. It's like I'm giving you a dose of entertainment, but I'm trying to give you big questions. Every woman in pop culture is often classified as a Lady Macbeth or a Juliet. It's like the archetypes and the way that we're all pushed into them. Aren't we all curious about what that does?

[00:51:58] Those stories are up to things, and we should just look back and take stock of what they're up to and how they affect our lives. Narratives affect your life. Stories affect your life. Something someone thought up. And imagine 400 years ago, and adapted, because Shakespeare was an adapter, is up to things in your very life.

[00:52:26] And when people are like, we shouldn't be doing Shakespeare anymore, we should be looking at these people, we need to look at other writers, Black, Indigenous, queer, disabled writers, varied ability writers, I agree. And yet, if these narratives are up to things in my life, I need to get in that narrative.

[00:52:41] Because if I choose not to be, then I'm letting history go on without me. I'm letting you tell me I'm not a part of something when I'm a part of it. It's a part of my life. I'm an ambitious director, artist. Comparisons to a Lady Macbeth. I mean, it's up to things in my life, so I'm gonna get in there and poke around.

[00:53:02] If you're gonna tell me I'm not a Juliet, I'm gonna go poke around. So the project, it's been very scary. I suspect that The ways that women have been herded, we're all herded into labels and categories. It can be very helpful for some and very detrimental to others. And I think, you know, I sometimes like to say that I don't think I'm the best of my family.

[00:53:33] I've lost some very good women in my family. I've lost some good women in my family, beautiful women. And the more I poke at these narratives These memories come to me of fork in the road moments in these women's lives that I loved, relatives I lost. And I see how narratives were at work in their lives that they weren't able to punch back at.

[00:53:59] Helga: Will you give one example, one thing that comes to mind? Yeah. 

[00:54:05] Whitney White: Lady Macbeth, I think at her core is just a woman who wants something. She's just a woman who wants something. She's living in a time where she's got to get it a certain way. And I think my cousin, I loved her very much. She's not with us anymore, but I think she wanted things, and she couldn't find a way to get her brilliant mind out there to get it.

[00:54:25] And so she turned to things that weren't good for her. And I just think about what her life would have been like had she been able to get at what she needed to get at. So I look around at the women around me, non binary people around me, queer folk around me, people I meet at the coffee shop, people I knew back home from the Midwest.

[00:54:53] Everybody has needs, and yet these narratives can put a cap on what you're able to get. And Whoever he was, Shakespeare, he was writing stories that will be eternal for the Western world. Narratives and characters that we will all be herded into, for better or for worse. So the piece is scary because Shakespeare's such a beautiful well of possibility, and limitless meaning and sense memory just unlocks the more I look at these pieces.

[00:55:30] I mean, Emilia is a character who goes along with what her husband says. They're not the richest in that world. I mean, Othello's on my mind because it's the play, it's not about kings and queens. It's about us. And at the end of the play, she tells the truth once her friend is killed. And then she's killed by her husband.

[00:55:50] Her arc, if you take the Shakespearean language out of it, it's just ripped from every headline about someone in a domestic, abusive situation. And I'm like, I gotta look at this lady. She needs to sing her own songs. She needs to sing And also, in a metatheatrical way, I'm definitely poking holes at our industry.

[00:56:13] I'm taking shots at the guy who told me I wasn't a Juliet. At the age of 17, I had seen too much life to be a Juliet. I'm poking holes at our industry that makes assumptions about who we as women are to the world. You're not a lover, you're a bloodthirsty wife at the age of 17. What does that do to a Black woman?

[00:56:34] You're not the main, you're the nurse, you're the maid, and then you're the maid again, and then you're the maid again, and then you're the maid again. What does that do to a young artist who's trying to find out who they are in the world? So I think in performing it, I'm also trying to carve out a path where I hope a lot of other performers will do in the future, because it's not the Whitney White Show.

[00:56:55] I think a lot of other people should do these shows. I'm trying to carve out shows that give you the audacity to question. 

[00:57:04] Helga: I think of you as a kind of sculptor, because you're making something that doesn't exist for a lot of people. And to commemorate that, I brought you from my most precious collection.

[00:57:30] Helga: I'm stamped. Wait, wait, wait. I have to get them out of the little bags. Okay. So, the first one, I can't even read her name. Here, read her name. Okay. 

[00:57:43] Whitney White: Wow. 

[00:57:44] Helga: Edmonia Lewis. Edmonia Lewis was a sculptor like you. She worked with material and you work with material. with bodies and voices and words and all the things.

[00:58:01] You are sculpting a life that I think is an example for a lot of people who say, I'm a this or I'm a that, and then they close themselves off to other things and to other possibilities for themselves. Then the most obvious one is your August Wilson stamp. Oh my god, please. 

[00:58:25] Helga: Okay, and then these are the two that are hardest for me to let go of.

[00:58:30] So, oh, you got two also. So here's your James Baldwin stamp. 

[00:58:38] Whitney White: Are you sure? 

Oh my god, I'm crying. I'm crying. 

[00:58:44] Helga: And then this is my dude for all things. Emotional, and joy, and all the things. Here is your Marvin Gaye stamp. 

[00:58:56] Oh!

[00:59:01] Whitney White:What's going on? Come on. What's going on? Come on. 

Helga: My Marvin Gaye song is I Want You. 

Whitney White: Ooh, that's a good one. 

Helga: And I often sing it in the mirror. 

[00:59:13] Whitney White: Self wanting. These are all very sexy things, the desire to make, and I want you to the self. Thank you. 

[00:59:24] Helga: You're welcome. 

[00:59:26] Whitney White: I will carry that, being a sculptor, with me.

[00:59:28] Helga: Yeah. 

[00:59:29] Whitney White: I don't think sculptures have answers, they're just setting out, they just start moving things around. 

[00:59:35] Helga: And the rest is for you to figure out. 

[00:59:37] Whitney White: Thank you. 

[00:59:38] Helga: You're welcome. One last question. What's a thing you do every day that every person can do? 

[00:59:49] Whitney White: Oh my gosh. Your senses are real. Taste, touch, see, smell, sight.

[00:59:59] I think that I try to let, without sounding too lofty, like sensory things reset me. Water on the face. Reset. Smelling something that smells good or bad. I'm changing a lot of diapers right now. Weird changing diapers. Reset. Touch something furry and weird. Reset. I think the next time you put some cold or hot water on your face, just let that be its own moment.

[01:00:24] Every day I try and get present with just what my organism is just taking in. Gotta get out of the hamster wheel of my mind. I think start with the water on the face. The water on the face is a gift every day. 

[01:00:44] Helga: Thank you. Yeah. 

[01:00:44] Whitney White: My Stamps!

[01:00:52] Helga: That was my conversation with Whitney White. I'm Helga Davis. Join me next week for my conversation with designer Tremaine Emery. 

[01:01:02] Tremaine Emory: I wanted to give this, this culture that people call it street wear, fashion, whatever, That is so influenced by black culture. There's no brands that are really cool, that are poppin really, that are ran by a black person and come from a black perspective.

[01:01:20] It's always like, they'll do a Biggie t shirt, a Martin Luther King hoodie, they'll get this rapper to be in the ad, and whatever, and that's cool. It's not inclusion if you're making money off it. It's profiteering. 

[01:01:33] Helga: To connect with the show, drop us a line at helga. org. WNYC. org. We'll send you a link to our show page with every episode of this and past seasons, transcripts of my conversations, and resources for all the artists, authors, and musicians who have come up in conversation.

[01:01:52] And if you want to support the show, please leave us a comment and rating on any of your favorite podcast platforms. And as always, thanks for listening.

[01:02:09] And now, for the Coda.

[01:02:14] Whitney White: This is an original song titled Roll the Dice. It's from an upcoming musical adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello. The song is sung from the character perspective of Emilia, who is Iagra's wife, and she's opening up the whole show by wondering about who she is and how she ended up with the man she ended up with and what that could mean for her future.

[01:02:40] Listen, this time around, just roll the dice. 

[01:02:44] If it all ends the same, just try. Got a man who feels entitled. It's the story, it's all this time. Now I don't know why I like what I like. It's in my DNA, honest, I try. Got a man who feels entitled.

[01:03:09] Go ahead and kick them down and try Men want what they want, what they want Someone laugh at what they want, what they want Turn a blind eye because I'm in love But that I won't stay blind for long Men want what they want, what they want Someone laugh at what they want, what they want Turn a blind eye because you're in love, girl But that I won't stay blind for long

[01:03:58] Helga: Season six of Helga is a co production of WNYC Studios and the Brown Arts Institute at Brown University. The show is produced by Alex Ambrose and David Norville with help from Rachel Arewa. and recorded by Bill Sigmund at Digital Island Studios in New York. Our technical director is Sapir Rosenblatt, and our executive producer is Elizabeth Nonemaker.

[01:04:23] Original music by Meshell Ndegeocello and Jason Moran. Avery Willis Hoffman is our executive producer at the Brown Arts Institute, along with producing director Jessica Wasilewski. WQXR's Chief Content Officer is Ed Yim. 


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Produced by Alex Ambrose and David Norville