By Brittney M. Walker
During a special launch event for the August Wilson American Century Cycle Celebration, hosted by Lincoln Motor Company at New York’s Jerome L. Greene Space, actress and director Michele Shay publicly explored her intimate and spiritual relationship with August Wilson’s work. During the panel discussion and exclusive interview afterward, she described how powerful the playwright’s work has been in her life and for the Black community.
Find out more information about the project here.
When you got the call about this project, what was it about this project that you thought was so important? Why did you want to be a part of it?
Well, first of all, I got to do “Seven Guitars” for two years of my life. That was my anointing. And I was the first person ever to speak the lines for character “Louise” at the O’Neal Center and I was working with the “Piano Lesson” company. And they had been together for three years at that time. And when I heard them speak this language, I was totally intimidated by it. It took me a while to find my way in. And when I found my way in, it was a baptism. Then my next baptism was playing “Aunt Ester” five times.
So after you play “Aunt Ester,” that changes your life completely. … Doing [it at] the Kennedy
Center, where we did all of the plays, the gift of having all of the plays together and being able to hear them, like we’re going to be able to do here, from the beginning in 1904 all the way through “Radio Golf” is a life transforming experience, because then you start to get how gargantuan, how huge, how deep, how profound, how mystical, how August was anointed to bring this material forth and that it is so much bigger than the time we live in. And whatever they used to make Ghandi, or Martin Luther King, or all those people, that’s what made an August Wilson. It’s like, in the company of greatness. And so, therefore, to be honored, to be asked, to be a member for this whole project, there’s nothing more important or profound, or holy or sacred.
For young people, I just want to add, many of them are terrified of this work. And then once they’ve been anointed into it and they find they’re way through the rhythm, through the music of it, then they locate a place, a cellular memory in them that erases whatever’s been missing for them, that they own a part of themselves as human beings, as artists that they don’t have before and dignity shows up on a different level.
Which are your two favorite plays?
I would say “Gem of the Ocean” is my favorite because I feel like there are rules for living a good life in “Gem of the Ocean.” And I found that many of my friends that came to see it, it didn’t matter what color they were, were quoting things from that play all the time. I think all the plays have wonderful things about how to live a good life, and how to have a very interesting love life, as well, I might say. Both of those things are very important. And also you’ve got to be able to tell a good joke, that’s for sure. If you’re going to play August Wilson, you’ve got to be able to set up a joke and tell a good joke. The second one used to be “Joe Turner” and now it might be “Seven Guitars.”
What is your spiritual connection to August Wilson’s Work?
I think it happens in a simple and profound way. In the simple way, if you take, as a context, racism as the background out of which every self has to evolve in each one of the plays, you don’t do that just through your ego. There is something that rises up that is beyond you. And I call that spirit. So self-actualization is a very important aspect for human nature. Self-actualizations in his strongest characters, the ones that I call rebels, that push forth that somehow got to wiggle, they can’t just go by the rules. They survive by their spirit. I consider that spiritual.
Then there are the prophetic characters like “Aunt Ester” who carry a knowledge of something that goes beyond any book learning or anything. And that’s what I call cellular memory. And it’s also what I call our Rolls Royce feature. We all have it. We recognize that in people. It’s a knowing beyond any logic. And from that knowing, that knowing partially comes from seeing it in the text, experiencing it when I play roles, especially “Aunt Ester,” and from being around him, there is a place where he trusted something that he could not name. He just went into it. Some people would call it creative flow; it’s bringing something out of nothing. But we all know that place when we get quiet and still enough and listen to it.
But in terms of our people, it is come from music, it is come from rhythm, the direct connection with that place in us, and that to me is Africa, represented in the work. And it is an automatic place of dignity that is self-endowed. It doesn’t come from anything outside of you and it doesn’t have to prove anything. And to me, August was that type of person. He found that place within himself through his life. He navigated the landscape of the self, which is what he says writing was for him. And it rolls up. That’s why I think he was simply anointed to bring forth these plays. It’s more than a notion for a writer like Shakespeare, to write something that exists beyond their own time. And that happens because there is something universal within it, universal in the human ‘spirit’ or essence of being. Like water is. It’s an is-ness that exists in whatever language, or experience, or culture.
What do you experience when you take on a role?
Something expands. It’s like the ego, my sense of my little personality, expands and I start to when you start playing the role, that expansion stays there and you’ve gotten bigger in some kind of way. behave in ways that come directly from the text. Because, like Phylicia was saying, the power’s literally within the words. Words are energy rhythm blanket. And if you simply say them, they will take you some place and this little door will open up and you will act differently. For example with “Aunt Ester,” “Aunt Ester” is a center of universe, that is the hardest role I have ever played in my life, and to be willing to be that much attention to people was really, really hard, and to be still enough to look into somebody’s eyes and really see them. So that’s how she edumacates you. And each role does that differently. “Molly” can do that. Any of them can do that. “Louise” certainly did that to me in “Seven Guitars.” “Louise” was very free and bodacious and very different than how I am in my own life. And part of that you get to as an actor through your physicality, where your voice is, like the placement or the center of your voice, and definitely that script is an energy blanket. But a little door opens up and you get beyond your ego sense of self. And the good news is when you start playing the role, that expansion stays there and you’ve gotten bigger in some kind of way.