CATF: Why is this play called Antonio’s Song/I was dreaming of a son and not Antonio’s Story/I was dreaming of a son?
DAEL ORLANDERSMITH: There’s something rhythmic about how Antonio moves throughout the world. Songs do something that’s very universal – they manage to capture a moment. You can be on the other side of the world listening to Piaf, and you can get what she is saying even though you don’t understand the language, because it transcends language. Songs can zero in on the collective unconscious in certain ways.
“I was dreaming of a son” is a way to think of men being dreamy, liquid, and soft.
How did you two hook up?
ANTONIO EDWARDS SUAREZ: We were in the same space one day doing some work, and Dael came on stage. I had never seen her work before, and I thought, “I want to work with this woman somehow, some way.” So I followed her work over the years and came to appreciate how she can write across the board for men and women, regardless of race or socio-economic class, and really show empathy toward human beings.
Josh Sherman, a good friend of mine, got us in touch, and Dael and I met, talked, and she was very interested in my story. Because it’s my story and it’s personal, Dael has been very good at making sure I was being taken care of. She’s also been very good at pushing the envelope when necessary.
You’re both storytellers. What was it like to collaborate? How did the process actually work?
AES: I would write some material, and Dael would write some material. We would read it every few months to see what’s working, then go back to the drawing board and write some more. Dael was very good at pushing me in terms of, “No, this is not clear. This is not good enough.” It’s been a really good back and forth.
DO: And it’s been good on my end.
The format of the words in this play is fascinating: 3,600 lines, just 50-60 words per page. It reads like a poem, a song.
DO: That’s the way I write. What we tried to do on the page is create a sense of music, poetry, and dance.
The spacing reminds me a lot of the work of the experimental writer/novelist Carole Maso, who uses a lot of white space between lines.
DO: Because that’s what Maso does, makes up her own language, as does another wonderful writer Max Porter in his novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, which is now a play. I noticed that there is a lot of air between the lines because what Porter is doing is a fusion between theater and novel.
Antonio, you’re going to speak and dance…
AES: . . . and move. I’m an actor who moves well. What the piece does with the language is help me examine those sides of men that aren’t explored in our community. How do we move? How do we move in our space? How do we move with each other? When we want to start to break away from that, what does that mean? With Dael’s words, how can I explore that space? How do I explore this new space that I want to go into? It becomes a form of a song within my body.
So you moved after you got the words, or she watched you move and wrote the words? How did this work?
AES: I knew I wanted this to be something with movement, so Dael listened and watched me and watched me and watched me. The first thing she said was, “You have very small hands.” It didn’t offend me. This is who I am, and she knows that in a gentle way, whereas within the community, it’s not known in a gentle way. In the play, we’re examining what it means when somebody calls you out on your size, calls you out on having a light voice, being a man.
Dael, did your turbulent childhood influence your writing of this play?
DO: That’s within this play. That’s what I wanted to look at. For example, we don’t take children very seriously. The sins of the father, the sins of the mother also play into Antonio’s Song. Mostly, we wanted to look at what masculinity means: what does it mean in terms of coming from Brooklyn, what does it mean in terms of men of color, what does it mean if a man is small? Is a small man not really a guy because our perception is that men are big and strong?
In his article, “Blackness as a Lens,” [New York Times, 4/28/19], Wesley Morris writes, “The thrill of this generation of black playwrights is that they’ve harnessed the true power of theater. It’s their sense of danger, their belief in risk that may explain why none of them has yet made it to Broadway. They don’t give a damn about your comfort.”
DO: That’s a sweeping statement. The expectation in theater of color is to write about identity. I don’t wake up and think I’m a black woman. I know that I am. Antonio’s Song is about someone of mixed-race descent, but it also deals with universalism. Sometimes people don’t know what to do with that because they are going to make it into a “race” play. It goes beyond those things.
This generation of playwrights is doing some great work. I know many who say that they want to write about other things, but they’re not being allowed to. That’s part of the oppression as well. It’s not mutually exclusive. No one really talks about when Antonio’s character speaks about watching Baryshnikov and going to Russia. They just talk about the ghetto stuff.
Antonio, as a performer, you’ve said that your “alone time is precious.”
AES: To be an artist, you do at times need to be selfish about your own space, your own time, your own energy. For any show, for any art to be what you want it to be, your time becomes sacred. You have to protect yourself because the business comes at you from so many angles. “Alone time” is way of getting your energies together, arming yourself so you are not only preparing for your art, but also for what the business is going to be asking of you.
What’s it like to be making and/or performing in plays knowing that the theatergoing audience is primarily white?
AES: I just want to put the theater up and see what people think. If I put it up, I want to hear about it, good and bad. Maybe I’m being too broad, but I don’t really care about race, gender, or ethnicity. As long as you want to come see it, I will do my best.
DO: I love diverse audiences. Having said that, no matter where I am, I will perform.
The form of your play reminded me of Suzan Lori Parks observation in a Time magazine interview [4/3/19], “Now there are more voices who are breaking form, because they realize the form perhaps doesn’t serve the story of the lives we’re living. It’s like way back when, Shakespeare only wrote about kings. Then Arthur Miller comes along, and he writes about people. We have deeply satisfying stories and literature – but they need to be told in a different way.”
AES: This is what we are doing in Antonio’s Song. It’s the way we feel comfortable doing it.
DO: There is a movement. When you watch Antonio walk, he does move like a dancer to a certain degree because that’s what he is. How can we take that and use that in the piece?
AES: I naturally move. At a young age, I moved well. But when I moved, I had to put on a certain armor, another type of movement, just so I could survive. As time went on, college and grad school helped me understand that I don’t need to put on armor. As the play says, I need to “put down the BOP,” which is more figurative because I still have a little BOP. It’s more of a mindset, more of how I was supposed to move.
Working alongside Dael has helped me understand that being a man is so many more things than what I came to the table with a few years ago.
DO: Our perception of men is really very warped. We haven’t created a space where men can move through the world softly and feel that it’s okay to be soft.
In Chester Bailey, another play in CATF’s 2019 repertoire, the character Dr. Cotton makes this observation about his patient, Chester Bailey, to his father, “Your son, Mr. Bailey, is the author of his own mercy. He stitched it together out of what was around him. Just like the rest of us.”
How have you been the author of your own mercy?
AES: I hope I have been the author of my own mercy. I’ve been living with Antonio’s Song for a while, and because I’ve been living with it for a while, I can’t drop it. It’s making me continually ask, “Am I building the best bridges that I can with my friends? With my family? My son? With work?” It’s making me want to be my better self.
DO: In terms of mercy, for me it means jumping and leaping more. Taking more chances. It’s actually scary to do that, but I’m definitely doing it now more than ever. You have to have a certain amount of self-compassion to do that.