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Looking 'A Gift Horse' in the Eye :: Obehi Janice and Jim Petosa on Lydia Diamond's Early Play

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Apr 21, 2017

It's taken a few years, but an early play by Lydia Diamond -- acclaimed author of theater works like "Stick Fly" and "Smart Peple" -- is about to see its Boston area premiere in a New Repertory Theatre production at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown.

The production is directed by New Rep Artistic Director Jim Petosa. Obehi Janice, who impressed audiences -- and earned a nomination for this year's upcoming Elliot Norton Awards -- with her solo performance in the CompanyOne production of Young Jean Lee's "We're Gonna Die," joins a stellar cast that includes Cloteal L. Horne, Lewis Wheeler, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Alejandro Simoes, and Zachary Rice.

EDGE caught up with Petosa and Janice to ask them a few questions about the new production. Their gracious responses follow.


EDGE: I'm amazed that this play, which was first produced in 2001, hasn't been produced in Boston before. Jim, as artistic director for the New Rep, can you speak to the choice of bringing 'The Gift Horse' to Boston audiences at this time?

Jim Petosa: I had the pleasure of working with Lydia during her six years as an assistant professor in the BU School of Theatre. We became friends and often talked about collaborating. She shared 'The Gift Horse' with me back then, and I've always felt a connection for the play and a desire to direct it.

Last year, as New Rep's PROLOGUE season evolved, I recalled the play and remembered how it played with time on a very personal level. Each character is both cursed and gifted with a past that they must deal with to define themselves in the future. It felt like a perfect way to wrap up the Prologue season.

EDGE: What's been your experience with the work of Lydia R. Diamond before now?

Jim Petosa: Having worked with Lydia I got to read and then see several productions of 'Stick Fly.' I remember reading an early draft of 'Smart People,' and, of course, her adapted version of 'The Bluest Eye' and her 'Venus' play.

But 'The Gift Horse' was one that I was definitely attracted to as a director. Lydia has a wonderful voice. A deep human understanding and a love for the foibles of our human natures.

EDGE: Obehi, first of all, congratulations on your Elliot Norton nomination for outstanding Solo Performance for 'We're Gonna Die' with Company One (presented in collaboration with A.R.T.). That was done so well that when I saw the show, by time it was over I had forgotten you weren't the author.

Obehi Janice: Thank you! I get that to this day. People still think that I wrote it. I think it says a lot about the ability of a storyteller to speak the truth, wherever that truth comes from. I actually ended up running into Young Jean Lee in New York -- I was seeing a play at Joe's Pub -- and I thanked her. I was like, 'You're amazing!' and she was like, 'I've heard great things about your production!' Which made me even more proud of our work. I was so grateful that I had the privilege of being the second person to ever do this play.

EDGE: Your website describes you as 'A leader in the millennial renaissance of socio-political arts and culture' -- could you say a little about what that means?

Obehi Janice: I do think the personal is political, and I decided about four years ago, now, to really commit to adding a comedic voice to my original work. For example, I created this music video called 'Black Girl Yoga,' because I was interested in the fitness culture in Boston and how race and blackness and whiteness and privilege and class kind of says a lot about how people have access to health and fitness, and other people don't. So the video embodied the coolness and trendiness of a yoga class, while addressing how I found myself being the only black girl in a lot of my yoga classes. It's interesting, because since I debuted that video, there are a lot more black and brown yoga teachers, and there is a whole community of POC (people of color) yoga inside and outside of Boston. It's really lovely.

So that statement on my bio, it's not so much a mission statement, as it's just something I've been drawn to as an original creator. I'm drawn to my art saying something, and it doesn't always have to be the end goal, but it's the point of inspiration. As a solo performer for theater I take a lot of inspiration from Robbie McCauley, Dael Orlandersmith, Danitra Vance, Karen Finley and Eisa Davis...and then, as a comedian I'm really inspired by Mike Birbiglia and others who are using personal storytelling to say something through specificity.

And then there's this list of people who are creating stuff for the web, who are working in television and film [who] I really admire -- Ava DuVernay and Issa Rae and Michaela Coel and, recently, Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight. I'm not shy about saying I'm part of this generation that -- not that this isn't true of other generations, but this is an interesting time, and I do want to move the dial forward in terms of talking about race and color, identity, faith, feeling, and trying to operate in this world and trying make it - and 'make it' meaning not being successful [in a monetary sense], but how we want to live each day. And when I'm able to do work like 'The Gift Horse,' I rejoice because I am drawn to work like this, that is naturally political in its core.

EDGE: Did you feel like this working philosophy drew you to participate in this production of 'The Gift Horse?'

Obehi Janice: What drew me in was wanting to work at New Rep, and wanting to work with Jim Petosa, and really loving Lydia's work. I was in Harriet Jacobs at Underground Railway Theater in 2010 and was able to develop a character with Lydia in the room. Then seeing Stick Fly at the Huntington and on Broadway just cemented this love I have for her work. When she was still in Boston -- I will never forget this -- right before she left for Chicago she took me and Cloteal (who plays Jordan in The Gift Horse) out for lunch. There was no kind of, like, 'I'm your mentor.' No, we were just having a meal, and I remember thinking, 'This is exactly what black female mentorship looks like.' It was like she was just saying, 'I see you; I care about you; let me buy you lunch.' That's a tiny example of how I think Lydia really is a visionary in the theater. She is generous and luminous and just really straight-forward. To have this opportunity to do one of her earlier plays -- to have any part of her canon in my life is a blessing. And, to be really honest, I like the challenge of playing Ruth, because I'm nothing like her.

[Laughter]

I'm really not, and that's been fun in rehearsal. And also, of course, getting cast is amazing, but then when I saw the cast list, all of these actors, this ensemble -- these are people that I've been wanting to work with for years. It's all kind of like, this is exactly the kind of project that I need right now in my life.


EDGE: Jim, how did you come to be directing this production? Did you just kind of say, 'Yeah, this one is mine!' Is there a resonance to this play that speaks to you, so you just had to do it?

Jim Petosa: There is an intersection between the play's notions of friendship, family, crisis and opportunity, and choice for degradation or resilience. I believe in the play's ideas on the subject and there is a compelling juxtaposition between the play's narrative and the lives we have lived.

EDGE: This is an exciting cast: Obehi Janice, Cloteal Horne, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Lewis Wheeler, Alejandro Simoes, Zachary Rice -- Jim, did you set out to direct this play with some of these actors in mind for the production?

Jim Petosa: I love this company. The room is joyful and capable. Cloteal is the only actor in the company that I have directed before, but I have certainly been around the work of Lewis, Maurice, and Zack. I feel like they are old friends now and I hunger to work with each of them again in the future!

EDGE: Obehi, it's always been tough to be a woman in the theater world, and tougher still to be a woman of color. When you take roles in work by playwrights like Lydia R. Diamond, do you find resonances and insights that other playwrights just might not be keyed into?

Obehi Janice: Sure! But then I'd go further and say that Lydia Diamond is to Shakespeare is to Young Jean Lee. Any role I take on has a specific resonance that the other doesn't and they all kind of equal each other out. I really mean that. I think that doing work by black female writers has been one beautiful and very necessary part of my journey as an artist. And then, doing 'Love's Labour's Lost' on the Common last summer was a huge revelation for me, because I love Shakespeare. I just do.

As a Christian, my first faith experience was Sunday Mass so I grew up around Catholic Churches and mosaics and this desire to memorize Psalms. So, there's this love of verse and that is constantly in my bones. I couldn't shake it if I tried. So, doing Shakespeare is a part of my identity. It speaks to my faith identity. Doing a Lydia Diamond play is a part of my black feminist identity. And doing a [play like] 'We're Gonna Die' is definitely a part of my basic human identity! There's this kind of everyman quality to 'We're Gonna Die,' and I notice that even when I've done my other work, that personal storytelling with a mic on stage, what I love is when I can say something and a black woman comes up to me and says, 'Oh my god, you talked about depression; nobody's ever said that before, about being black and being depressed. That's amazing.' And then somebody else will come up to me and say, 'I know that I'm not Nigerian-American, but your Auntie is my Auntie.' So I think that it's all part of a spectrum that I'm really appreciating.

But I will say in general, ultimately, yes. My existence as a black female is -- I think it's dangerous. I think that's why I feel immediately radical, because black women have been oppressed for so long. There is this strength I do get from getting a really [strong] script from a black female writer and being acknowledged as 'I see you, you exist, and I care about you.' I'd say that's a foundation that I see as part of something bigger. I dropped Danitra Vance's name [earlier]; she's not really well known, but she is so important --- she worked with George C. Wolfe back in the day and was also on 'Saturday Night Live.' I started really getting into her work because she had a solo show called 'Live and In Color!' She has this great quote that I hold onto:

'If white is the highest on the totem pole, I'm not that. If male is the highest, I'm not that. I am black woman, which is supposedly the bottom. To me, the bottom is the most powerful position to be in because you can see the sun.'

I still keep that close to me. Not that it makes me sad, but I realize that, wow, she was feeling that back in the '80s and '90s? And that's still happening? That shows that the work is important, because the need to thrive as a black woman is ever still present, always. But I am blessed -- I get to do many, many types of work and feel inspired by all types of work. I'm really grateful.

EDGE: Jim, with the theme of WHAT'S PAST IS PROLOGUE, this season at the New Repertory Theatre has been quite clued in to the political climate of the day, from a production of the Nazi drama 'Good' to the perennially relevant (and Elliot Norton-nominated production of) 'Fiddler on the Roof.' With education now under attack as never before, does this play -- which features a teacher as its main character -- fit into the season's general arc?

Jim Petosa: Oh, yes. The PROLOGUE idea is often cast on a vast political canvas. In this play, the defining moment of each character's crisis resides in a Prologue moment that occurs prior to the beginning of the action of the play. Their grappling with their past in order to break through to a future they can embrace is the dramatic arc of the play. In that way, 'Gift Horse' is the perfect end to a season that explores the notion that 'what's past is prologue.'

EDGE: Next season's theme at New Rep is RESILIENCE; it feels as though the 2017-18 season is going to be somewhat of an extension of the current season.

Jim Petosa: I believe the last year has presented our society with enormous challenge. It is hard to face the realities of each new day. But I do feel charged and empowered by these challenges. Our theater (and all theatre) is finding a voice as it explores the needs of audiences to examine who we are, when we are, and where are we going. Doing this with a spirit of resilience rather than cynicism or an ill-fated notion of resignation is exhilarating and necessary.

Some say Resistance... and that's fine. I say Resilience.... because it summons us to our most creative and resourceful selves.


EDGE: Obehi, with the arts under attack in this country -- and with a sense that it's now going to be even harder than before to be a person of color, a woman, or any other minority -- do you have a sense for how best to move forward and thrive artistically?

Obehi Janice: In terms of political vocabulary, I've been really
mindful of not calling myself minority, because I feel like that limits my power. I'm wrapping up my [TCG] Fox Foundation fellowship with Company One Theatre, and part of that allowed me to travel abroad to Zimbabwe and Uganda, so I did this thing of going to nations that are led by dictators and talking to black artists that are only around other black artists. To be honest, the thing I took away the most was talking to people and them saying, 'You know, you're gonna be okay.' That helped me to take my outrage, and take my fear and anxiety, and essentially go into a mode of resistance. For example, even though I know there are people in the flyover states who don't understand what it's like to be me, I would hope that if they have any sense of faith, and have any sense that God loves all people, then there should be some room to have a bigger discussion about why health care is important, and about why we shouldn't be bombing people.

It's all, kind of, my heart is a little more open to seeing everything for what it is, which is that there is this huge lack of trust across the country. Like, everybody is on their toes. There's this huge lack of love. [There is] misunderstanding. You just see it. And I know we're on the East Coast and we're in our little echo chambers, but people are hurting across the country. So I see resistance as, 'I'm gonna make art, but where else can the art go?' For example, the plays I'm writing, of course there are some plays that are going to be produced here and they're going to go; but even with my comedy, I would want to find a way, as an act of resistance, to get myself in front of people that are not like me.

And then, I just outwardly reject the white supremacist and white nationalist agendas of people. And I mean that across the board. If you call yourself a Christian but you are a white nationalist, I reject that. I'm getting to a point now where I feel pretty protected, and I feel pretty supported, I have strong family and strong friends, and strong faith, and I'm not afraid. I think that's the act of resistance, is saying that as a person of color -- and there are many people like me in the world -- I have power. I want collectives of art-making people to just put up work and to not be afraid of putting up work. And then, in terms of money -- I don't think the NEA is going to be [shut down]. I just have this feeling it's not going to happen -- but that's just me.

[Laughter]

I would say that I think resistance has got to happen. I feel like we're being pushed to be proactive. I would say that I'm aware of everything that's going on; I'm frustrated and I'm very angry. I'm very frustrated with the Islamophobia and the outright hatred that's happening. But I'll say this -- this is something I picked up while growing up -- at least it's being revealed. This stuff is hitting the light. We thought that stuff was hidden, but it's really not -- but that's America. So I'm like, if that's America, and I'm an American, then I have the right to respond to it.

EDGE: Or the responsibility, even.

Obehi Janice: Yeah. It's my responsibility to reflect the times. Nina Simone said that and it's still relevant. That's my job.

EDGE: Jim, next season at New Rep you're planning productions of 'Man form La Mancha,' 'Oleanna,' Seth Rozin's 'Two Jews Walk Into A War,' and more. Do you already know what you'll be directing for 2017-2018?

Jim Petosa: Yes! I'm so excited for our season of RESILIENCE! In fact, 'The Gift Horse' feels like the perfect bridge from this season to the next. I'll be directing 'Ideation,' 'State, went After an Arrest,' 'Lonely Planet,' and 'Bakelite Masterpiece.' I'm excited about each of these plays!

EDGE: Obehi, I did want to touch on the fact that you are a writer yourself, as you mentioned a moment ago. What have you got coming up in terms of our writing and also in terms of other performances?

Obehi Janice: I am currently in a development process with SpeakEasy Stage Company called The Boston Project for my play 'Ole White Sugah Daddy,' which I started writing seven years ago -- I'm a slow writer -- and I don't think I would ever have predicted that we'd be having the specific capitalist discussions that we're having right now, but that play deals with the startup industry in Boston and Cambridge, and deals with race and class. And I am doing a lot of comedy -- I do standup sometimes. I had done 'FUFU & OREOS' for Bridge Repertory Theater in 2015, and I've been doing more standup, so I decided to revise the play again, and make it less of a play and more palatable to a comedy-going audience since, right now, there's a plethora of Netflix specials for comedians that's happening, and that's really exciting! But what I really love is some comedians are choosing not to just do a typical standup routine, but there is room for storytelling. So there must be room for me.

My goal is to keep refining my material until I have it at a level that it can transition to Netflix and transition to television. I just have a lot of Web-space sketch ideas in my 'works in progress' folder and my Google drive. That's mostly what's on the docket.

EDGE: From your lips to Netflix's ears.

[Laughter]


"The Gift Horse" plays April 22 - May 14 at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.newrep.org/productions/the-gift-horse


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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