Entertainment

This Playwright Brings the Pain and Power of the Black Experience to the Stage

We caught up with first-time playwright Cyrus Aaron about his stellar debut, 'Someday,' which explores what it's like to live under the shadow of racism in America.

by Wilbert L. Cooper
Nov 15 2016, 5:30pm

All portraits by Meron Menghistab

I first caught wind of the actor and playwright Cyrus Aaron during New York Fashion Week, when he opened up Pyer Moss's stellar spring/summer 2017 show with an impassioned spoken word performance ruminating on race and capitalism in America. The way he distilled the black experience with a dizzying stream of poetic verses left a lasting impression. Fortunately, the New York-based artist has been busy creating even more exciting work around the city.

Someday, the 31-year-old's first play, is a collection of 12 stunning vignettes that investigates what it means to be a black man in America today—where there are people who look like you at the top of the corporate ladder and on the receiving end of police brutality. I had the pleasure of seeing the play in late October at the Wild Project Theater in the East Village. It opens with a video collage of the horrific images of black life snuffed out by extrajudicial killings. Then Aaron hits the audience with a slew of different scenes and scenarios that showcase what it means to live in the shadow of those slayings. We see black characters discuss race with their white workfriends for the first time and realize just how divergent their perspectives are. We see them hang with their buddies when all of a sudden ominous gunshots ring out in the distance. We see them grapple with whether or not they should use their platform of celebrity to speak out about race. And we see themtorn between the militant and post-racial voices inside their heads.

The diversity and scope of the stories in Someday reflects the struggle of life in America. Interestingly, it came together over the summer of 2015, while Aaron was vacationing abroad. During the trip, thanks to social media, he learned about the tragic death of Sandra Bland, who lost her life while in jail. Because Aaron was outside the US at that time, he was unable to mourn and relate with likeminded people. It wasn't until his long flight back to the States that he finally started to let those feelings pour out onto the page. Two months later, the first draft of the script for Someday was finished.

Aaron had never written or directed a play before, but he was able to attract support for the production thanks to the power of his writing. The finished project, which features performances from him and 11 other actors, has become an incredibly hot ticket: the performance I attended was sold out and boasted marquee names like Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson in the audience.

Someday is an important, moving workespecially with a bigot like Trump headed for the White House. It peels the layers back on the black psyche under the duress of white supremacy and highlights the powerful perseverance and love that has enabled black people to survive the horrors of American oppression. The official run has ended, but you can see an encore performance on November 21 at 7:30 PM at Wild Project in the East Village. If you're not in NYC, don't fret, because Aaron has plans to take the show on the road in 2017 to cities that have been plagued by police brutality. You can also get a taste of the play by picking up Aaron's book, which features some new short essays and poems.

I recently had a short chat with Aaron about his debut play. We talked about a lot things, but mainly I wanted to know how Someday came together and how he hopes to impact the world with his art.

VICE: So you didn't go to school for theater. How'dSomeday come together so fast?
Cyrus Aaron: It was a learning process. Take the casting call, where you have to write the right thing to get people to say, I think I'm going to go in and audition for that. It was a lot of research. Once we started the rehearsals, the actors were using all these technical terms and verbiage. I just learned so much from them. Naturally, I am a storyteller, so I can write a script and see the images and the movement. For me, the directing came kind of came easy.

We see many of your characters navigating the divide between the way the white world sees them and the way they see themselves. Why was it important for you to present that in this play?
We've all gone through phases where we've been frustrated, where we felt like we didn't have a voice. There's the scene in Someday where a black guy and a white guy are having a conversation and one word kind of sets the black guy off. He begins questioning everything. The white guy with him is a friend, so it's not like they're enemies or anything—they're just coming from two different places. They've never had that conversation before... A lot of times, we may not feel like it's the proper timing to be forthright. But Someday is the perfect opportunity for all people to consider what the other voice is in the room.

Is it hard for you to perform this play every night?
Oh yeah. It never gets easy because unfortunately it's always relevant. When I finished writing the first draft of the script, there was the story of Laquan McDonald in Chicago. This year, there have been so many names, so many lives that we've lost. So there's always a new aspect to the story that keeps the wound fresh. Some nights, I'm completely broken and the cast members are the same way. We can hear the audience feeling every word. They're on edge as we're going through the play. And we're literally going through that same process. It's just that heavy and everyone's affected.

Someday is super heavy and real, but there are moments that are funny and others that are pretty out there. Was it the intention to kind of throw people off?
If we kept it on the same note as the very beginning, we may have had to carry people out. It would be too heavy. So I wanted to offer moments to lighten the mood. It's an emotional rollercoaster, because you laugh just as hard as you may cry. It does represents the totality of human emotion.

Do you look at your artwork and the things that you're creating as defined by the issue of race in America?
I'm a writer for the people. I'm a black man in 2016, so I want to navigate and curate what the black narrative is. I want to continue to help push that forward and get into the right spaces and also make sure it hasn't been filtered or tampered with. At the same time, I'm a human being and my range of storytelling can go from love and comedy and laughter to drama and suspense. It just depends on where the inspirations are.

Your depictions of black people are a lot more complex than what we typically see get to see. It's awesome.
There's all these hurdles that we have to leap as we tell these human stories. It is frustrating when you find yourself boxed in by the stereotypes of the angry black men, or the lazy black person, or the athlete, or the rapper, you know? [It's so bad, we] can be understood by an item of clothing. Like a hoodie holds more weight over what a black male is in America than his own smile. And that's crazy. As writers, we have to figure how to strategically diminish the power of these stereotypes and bring out the truth of our humanity and show the diversity within our culture. There's a great reward when you do that and I think we're really making a stride now where people are beginning to get it and they're starting to understand.

What do you want the impact of Someday to be?
Someday isn't a show that you go see by yourself. You bring someone with you, because when you leave, you're definitely going to want to talk things through. You're going to want to have a conversation. And it's the conversation that's necessary to have right now. It's not to blame anybody, but change only comes through the conversation of all parties involved. Where America goes as a society is all based on what we're talking about among each other. Someday is that conversation, and it's a really good one.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Buy tickets to see Someday here. Buy Someday, the book, here. Follow Cyrus Aaron's work here.

Follow Wilbert L. Cooper on Twitter.

See more work by Meron Menghistab.