A deep dive on making theatre with playwright Marlow Wyatt and director Andi Chapman
by Elana Luo
Across a cozy wood-colored kitchen set, Karen Malina White as Bernice Rose Johnson reckons with her on-stage daughter, named SHE Sojourner Freeman. “I’m sorry, I cannot protect you from the rain,” Bernice says. But it’s not Camille Ariana Spirlin, the actor playing SHE, who cries in response. Instead, it’s playwright Marlow Wyatt, sitting in the audience and wishing she brought tissues to her own show.
“It hit me different that night,” Marlow says. “I don’t know why. I don’t know if I thought about my mother, or my mother’s mother, but it got me.”
Bernice and SHE are characters in Marlow’s play, SHE, now having its world premiere at Antaeus Theatre Company. In Marlow’s own words, the story is a coming-of-age American experience. We watch teenage SHE come into her own over a summer as she chases the opportunity to enroll at an expensive boarding school.
On a Zoom call with Marlow and director Andi Chapman, it’s clear that they are collaborators who are also friends, with deep respect for one another. I ask Andi what drew her to direct this play. “I loved the notion of a girl named SHE Sojourner Freeman,” she replies after a moment. “SHE is relevant for today, for yesterday, and for tomorrow. Her dreams weren’t to be denied, but she was always so respectful.”
Marlow and Andi both began their theatre careers as actors. This has impressed a deep appreciation for and emphasis on character on Marlow. The characters in SHE are made up of traits and personalities of people that Marlow has observed growing up, or just in daily life. “I am very much a voyeur,” she says. “I love people. I take the bus, I take the public transportation. Not because I have to, but because I want to. I’ve seen so many characters.”
“Los Angeles is a place where people get in their cars with their tinted windows and they turn on their music, but I’m the opposite. The world is outside of this little box on four wheels. Look at him. Look at this person. Look at them having this communication at lunch. I don’t think they really love each other, or is this a first date? You can see their body language and energy, and I like that. That fuels me.”
This attention to character has translated onto the page, and the stage, from how the characters speak to what they love to do. SHE, for example, speaks in verse when she gets nervous, or when traumatic things happen to her. The verse is unintentional in those moments, but very much intentional in pursuit of her dreams of being a poet.
Why did Marlow decide that SHE wanted to be a poet?
“She has something to say. One of the things I realized about girls in this society is that nobody wants to hear what we have to say,” she says. “Poetry, art, are ways for somebody to speak, and have people listen, without them saying ‘Oh, she’s a girl. I’m not gonna listen to what she has to say, I’m gonna dismiss her.'”
Later in the play, though, Marlow turns this idiosyncrasy against her. An illusive scene between SHE and a city slicker named Othalee unfolds entirely in verse, so naturally that the audience often doesn’t catch that it’s written that way. Othalee devastatingly draws her in. “It brings down the barrier, because she found somebody who likes words,” Marlow says. He talks the way that she talks. So that makes her stay a little longer than she needs to.”
Andi, on the other hand, moved from acting to directing because she found that she’s someone who sees a larger vision of the script. This vision goes beyond the art of acting to other disciplines—painting, music, and animation. To make sure everything and everyone is in the same world, she creates and shares a “palette” for the rest of the creative team, actors, and designers to work from. For SHE, the palette was a colorful mixed media painting of a young girl by the artist Leroy Campbell. Andi discovered him on Pinterest. “I love Pinterest,” she says.
The other elements of the design are all dynamic. SHE is set in the 70s, which Andi says opened the door for her and sound designer Jeff Gardner to get together and come up with a mixtape of period songs to soundtrack the play. She pushed projections designer Nicholas Santiago to animate his projections. “I don’t like flat pictures,” she says. “They have to be alive, so the audience can feel that experience. I asked him every time he showed a picture—move it.”
This energy attracts. At two separate performances, a white cabbage butterfly has flown in and stayed for a scene or two. Andi theorizes that its presence has to do with the set’s real garden outside town matriarch Miss Jane’s home. It’s a testament to her prowess as a director that someone asked her if the butterfly was part of the show. “No, how do you wrangle a butterfly?” she says.
Marlow jumps in. “‘Butterfly wrangler,’ that’s a great skill,” she quips. “’I can wrangle butterflies. Where do you want him to go, what scene?'”
A moment later, Marlow’s reflective again. “I feel like that’s good energy. I don’t know what it is, but I’m like, if the butterfly’s supposed to be there, then let him be a part of it,” she muses. “You know, he’s not Equity, so you don’t have to pay him anything.”
Andi starts laughing.
I ask Marlow if there were any challenging moments in writing SHE. No, she says, only that she wanted to make sure that the character of Lonnie, Bernice’s unreliable boyfriend and later husband, is perceived as human. “Men do what he does. People don’t treat people the way they should be treated,” she says. “He exists. He is a man who wants a family, children, a wife. How he goes about getting it is all wrong. But he’s not a bad guy. He clearly loves Bernice, but he doesn’t know how…some people don’t know how to love.”
There is at least one certainty about Lonnie. Marlow’s first drafts of the play included a scene where Lonnie pushes Bernice. Marlow didn’t like it, because Lonnie is not a man who hits women. Moreover, she didn’t want any violence in the play. But she couldn’t figure out how to rewrite it. “The actors figured out a way to do it.” The staged version sees him catching himself before he touches Bernice at all, in a moment of self-discovery of his lowest point. They were able to preserve the integrity of the scene, and add some more depth to Lonnie’s character to boot.
How was the rehearsal process overall? Collaborative. “It was wonderful,” Andi says. “We had a fun, family atmosphere. I love to listen to music and dance during breaks, but then come back to work. And you know—just making sure that the actor feels seen, that the doors are open in terms of communication.”
Did she face any challenges? “No. I just really try to be prepared. I have a lot of run-throughs so the actors feel that the play is in them.”
Something Marlow emphasizes throughout our conversation is that SHE is the story of an American Experience, capital A capital E. The protagonist just happens to be Black. “It’s not having to do with a young African American girl. It has to do with all of our dreams as humans in the world,” Andi says.
Marlow calls SHE an “American play,” one that gets people to think of American theatre differently. She has a piece of advice for other playwrights of color.
“When you’re marketing your play, or whatever it is, if it’s truly an American play, set in America, don’t let them say ‘this is a Korean American play. This is an LGBTQ play.’ The world is divided enough as it is.”
In fact, Marlow specifically requested that the press for the show not include the words “Black” and “poverty.” She knew if people called it a “Black play,” non-Black people might think they wouldn’t relate to the play’s contents. “I think it does it a disservice. This play is to bring people together.”
At the end of the day, Marlow writes to entertain and inspire the audience regardless of their background. SHE was developed in The Robey Theatre Company’s Playwrights’ Lab before it came to Antaeus’ Playwrights’ Lab, and the play has had several readings and countless rewrites. Andi calls Marlow “generous,” changing and adjusting the text as she collaborates with her and the actors.
In other words, Marlow’s not trapped by ego, despite her culture-shifting ambitions. “It’s for the audience,” she says. “When you prepare a meal and have a dinner party, you want everybody to like it. You don’t want to say, ‘I don’t care if you don’t like this lamb. I like it.’ I’m not that person. I want you to leave with an experience.”
And members of the audience are indeed leaving with experiences. The subgroup Marlow is most happy about affecting—that is, making cry—is straight cisgender men. She tells me that she playfully ribbed a friend’s husband who came to see the show, asking if he cried. “He was like, ‘Yeah, I did. Davey [the character of SHE’s best friend] was in my childhood.'” Her voice turns serious. “I wasn’t expecting him to say that.”
Another audience member—an older gentleman—shared with Marlow that in his life, he had put his own dream to the side. He watched SHE, and told her afterwards, “‘I’m gonna pick it back up again and keep going.'”
“Come on,” Marlow says. “You can’t ask for more than that.”
“SHE” runs through November 20 at Antaeus Theatre Company on Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm and Mondays at 8pm, with additional performances Saturdays November 11 and 18 at 2pm. For tickets and information, visit antaeus.org.