The Real Empathy Blind Spot: A Conversation with Angelica Chéri
“You see who I am. You see what I can do. Now let's keep going."-- Angelica Chéri, March 6, 2020
I sat down with Angelica Chéri on her lunch break to get the dish (ha ha... ha) on her inspirations and revelations following a successful, albeit unexpected, foray into musical theater. Chéri, a playwright, screenwriter, lyricist, and poet, most recently found success with a critically acclaimed production of “Gun & Powder” at the Signature Theatre in D.C.
Stephanie: Thank you so much for giving me a slice of your lunch break. We’ll jump right in. The Sappho Project's goal is to act as a bridge for early career theatre makers in musical theater to make the right connections, to have access to resources, workshops, actors, you know… all the nitty gritty logistics that can hinder success. As part of our launch, we wanted to interview some badass humans already finding success on that journey.
Angelica: Well thank you for that!
Of course! To begin: Sappho is our “muse.” Would you say you have a muse?
Yes! It definitely alternates based on what I'm working on. But I think the two staples are August Wilson and Miles Davis.
That's rad. Do you feel that there is a certain empathy blind spot in our industry, in musical theater?
Oh yeah, wow... I think the empathy blind spot really is the totality of the identity of people of color. It was really interesting working on Gun & Powder because it is a show that is primarily comprised of male and female African American performers. Their stories are worthy of main characters. In a way, it is purposefully designed around telling their story and everything serving their story, not just using people of color as ancillary devices to help tell the story of someone who is white. And focusing on the actual journey of a person of color, I think, has not been seen enough, in enough ways.
Absolutely. Speaking of, I saw in an interview about Gun & Powder that, in writing, you felt there was some sort of musical energy in the story. Had you ever imagined yourself writing a musical?
Right, like I have to imagine there was some sort of fear involved in navigating that...
It was absolutely shocking because I came into musical theater in the midst of doing a playwriting MFA at Columbia. There was a crash course that all the MFA playwrights had to take in musical theater lyric writing. The instructor for that course, Deborah Brevoort, was also a faculty member in the NYU graduate musical theater writing program. And so, that journey - she basically scouted me from that class saying I had a natural talent for this, and that there was fellowship for women of color if I was interested in getting a second Masters in musical theater writing.
After the masters program you were already completing?
Yes, yeah, exactly. So that was just THE moment of, “Oh, I could do this. I could actually add this to my literary toolbox.” Because, as we were saying earlier, musical theater stories were not about me. They didn't feel like they were for me. There is no August Wilson of musical theater.
Especially for the black woman experience. I mean, you have The Color Purple. You have Ragtime, you have Once On This Island, but those are not written by people of color. There’s Caroline or Change, which I cite as the story that changed my life in terms of changing my opinion of musical theater. To see someone like Caroline Tibideaux as a central character; a 39 year old African American woman in the basement of a Jewish family's house in Louisiana being the maid... that was groundbreaking to me! And just seeing the fact that a washing machine can sing and a radio can sing, and the bus in the mud - that just changed my scope. But still, none of those musicals are written by people of color.
For sure. Gun & Powder is based on a family story. While writing this musical version of the story, how much did you worry about commercial success while filling in the plot where things were missing?
Well commercial success was absolutely out the window. That just was not at all a part of the conversation. And in terms of story - because it is based on a family myth, and not a family narrative - there's not one cohesive narrative. There's one uncle who'll tell it a different way, this auntie tells it another way, this auntie says “no, this is what actually happened.” So [my collaborator, Ross Baum, and I] just got to take the best of the best of the fictionalized part and fuse it together in a way that we found most exciting and satisfying. We weren't beholden to a plot.
Just a couple more questions so we can let you get back to rehearsal. A stat that inspired the start of Sappho is, "if life worked like the theater, four out of five things you ever heard would have been said by men" and “of the 248 Best Musical nominees, only six have been written entirely by women.”
With all the intersections of the different identities you hold and what you bring to the room day in and day out, I’m wondering if you have ever outrightly felt the gender gap in the musical theatre industry while trying to produce your work?
That's an Interesting question. The gender gap... I think it's interesting because when you separate the gaps, I feel I always lead with black first because, to myself, when I wake up in the morning, and when I see myself - when I interact with my body - I am a woman. But the world outside sees black first. And so before feeling the disparities with women, I think I didn't have the privilege of understanding the gender gap before I had to deal with a gap of people of color. So I think I was more aware of my role as an African American person first. And then from there, my identity as a woman was more so attached to that identity as a black person. So, as a black woman, I tried to bring forth a story that was both about those two sides of myself; being African American and woman. I just kind of led with that. So, pushing that narrative forward, I haven't had the experience of pushback in the sense of like, there's not room for this story.
And with these workshops that you've been able to take part in outside of Gun & Powder, and in developing your other shows, did you find that you were largely having to advocate for yourself to get into those spaces? Did you feel like they were actively creating space for you?
So I have applied to so many things and I didn't ever feel like I was the only African American woman applying to things in theater, because I have lots of peers who are likewise playwrights, And likewise, making theater, so I didn't feel like "Oh, I'm alone in this. Oh, there's no space for me." I think I felt very compelled to tell my stories authentically and originally and truthfully because I'm coming up in the industry in a time where diversity is a hot button topic and people are sort of in the novelty of diversity. But I think that I've been fortunate to work at institutions who, to me, it felt like they were valuing the specificity of my story. I have purposefully surrounded myself with people who are invested in the story that I'm telling. And I've just, I've applied like everybody else. And I haven't felt like "Oh, I didn't get this because it's a black story.” I always thought, like, I can get better and, you know, it just all has pushed me to just put my best work out there.
You stay true to the integrity of the story instead of shaping it to what you think the industry wants.
Yeah and that's what I've led with. And I have an agent and things like that but I really focus on the work and trust I'm making the work as best as possible. And I feel like I have been met with the people who could make those things happen along the way of doing the work, and applying to the Richard Rodgers Award, applying to these different workshops. You can be the best networker and have all these connections, but if the work isn't strong you're not really going to have any longevity.
Absolutely. In this moment what hurdles are you jumping as a creative, as an artist? And what motivates you to keep jumping?
Oh, it's still just the beginning. For me, I feel like I have always had a huge vision for my career, and that vision being theater, film, and television. I have been, for the past four years, writing in all of those corners. I have scripts in all of those disciplines, and have been circulating and sending them around. I'm still the same artist, but it's just now that my work has grown to a place of maturity in a way that it stands up to the recognition that it's receiving. I think people are catching up to what I've already thought of myself to be. Now I feel like I can say "okay, you see who I am. You see what I can do. Let's keep going."
So in a sense it's now on others to be jumping hurdles to get you in their corner.
That's very kind of you... I think it's now about the right venue, the right story, the right time. But it's less about me proving myself to the industry now. Someone has said “yes.” And it only took that one yes for all the floodgates open. I'm thankful for it, I'm grateful for it. Now we keep going.
Yes! Okay, last question. Is there a song that encapsulates your artistic identity?
Oh, wow. I think it's fabulous that you asked me this question because I do have a walking playlist of my soundtrack of my life. Yeah, and it changes. I think right now the song is probably Malaguena by Sam Kenton. It's all instrumental and it's like this massive huge band playing this flamenco song. It's huge, grandiose, sweeping brass instruments and a rhythm section and strings and it's super exciting and fun, but it can get really intimate and quiet. And I think that that sort of describes my artistic personality. I go in very broad, different directions, but it comes from that same source.