Completing the Unfinished Sentences of Our Ancestors with Jonathan McCrory

Leticia Ridley: Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine, a podcast from your friendly neighborhood Black feminists, exploring the legacies, present, and futures of Black theatre. We are your hosts, Leticia Ridley—

Jordan Ealey: And Jordan Ealey. On this podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide, we discuss Black theatre history; conduct interviews with local and National Black Theatre artists, scholars, and practitioners; and discuss plays by Black playwrights that have our minds buzzing.

Leticia: Jonathan McCrory is a Tony Award and Emmy-awarded nominated producer, two-time Obie Award-winning Harlem-based artist who has served as executive artistic director at the National Black Theatre since 2012 under the leadership of CEO Sade Lythcott. He has directed numerous professional productions and concerts, which include How the Light Gets in, Klook and Iron John, Dead and Breathing, HandsUp, Hope Speaks, Blacken the Bubble, Asking For More, Last Laugh, and Enter Your Sleep. He has worked at ETW, at Tisch NYU, with Emergence: A Communion, and Evoking Him: Baldwin. He directed Exit Strategy and A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes at SUNY Purchase.

Jordan: In 2013, he was awarded the Emerging Producer Award by the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and the Torch Bearer Award by theatrical legend Woodie King, Jr. He’s a founding member of the collaborative producing organizations Harlem 9, Black Theatre Commons, the Jubilee, Next Generation National Network, and the Movement Theatre Company. McCrory sits on the National Advisory Committee for com and was a member of the original cohort for artEquity. A Washington, DC native, McCrory attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and New York University. In this episode, we had a chance to talk with McCrory about his work with the National Black Theatre and his ongoing commitment to nourishing and cultivating Black creativity and Black life.

Leticia: Hello, everyone. Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine. I am Leticia here with Jordan Ealey and we have a wonderful, wonderful guest for you all. Jordan, who is our guest today?

Jordan: Our guest is Jonathan McCrory, executive director of National Black Theatre. Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine.

Jonathan McCrory: Hello, hello, hello. Happy to be here.

Leticia: Yes, I love this energy. Let’s go. Let’s go. You know when you see a really good show with some bomb performers and they just give you what needs to be done and you’re, “Oh, wait a minute, maybe I need to jump on stage.” That’s what I’m feeling right now, so I appreciate it. I appreciate it so much.

Jonathan: Oh, yes, yes, yes. No, we need to give you all the sunshine because I’ve been up for a while. A hot minute. I’m able give you, you know? Let’s bring on that love. Bring on that grace. Bring on that energy, that Beyonce energy.

Leticia: Yes, energy.

Jonathan: Hey, hey, hey.

Leticia: Before I get stopped, before they copyright, that’s when Beyonce is like, “Snatch that theatre podcast off of everything.” But I’m feeling the energy. I’m feeling the energy.

Jordan: Exactly, exactly. We would love to just start off with hearing a bit about your journey. How did you come to theatre? How did theatre become the medium that you wanted to tell stories in? What makes this particular art form resonant for you as an artist?

Jonathan: It’s so interesting when you asked me that question, I’m just like, “Did I choose theatre to tell stories?” and I would say, “Not necessarily.” I choose theatre to try to transform lives, to try to have a conversation on that emergence of what does that care mechanism look like that truly helps to embody, awaken, and actually enliven our humanity. And if that comes in a telling of a story, totally dope, happy to do that. I feel well versed in getting that done. But what I don’t feel well versed in, but I feel very excited by learning every single day from my colleagues, from my own experiences, from artists, from people in the sector, is how to be more human, how to actually show up more human. I think that that’s an ever-growing sentiment that keeps on evolving itself. And I think that theatre is the conduit that I feel like I can do it all.

I can do a little bit of dance. I can do visual art. I actually do the exploration of the excavation of like, “What are the human tools of creativity that we utilize to actually manifest life, to show a reflection of life?” And so for me, it’s not necessarily about the story. Even though the story is important and I want to tell diverse and interesting and inciting and intriguing stories, yes, I do; and also I think, at the heart of it, I’m trying to figure out how to be more human throughout it all, trying to figure out, “How do I get you, the spectator me, the viewer, me, the participant, to be in an intersecting relationship around, regardless of how specific the story is, we’re talking about a Black woman story, a trans woman story, a trans man story, a Black male story, a Black kid story, an elder story, all the binaries? When we start talking about all the binaries, how do I make it so that you feel humanity at the end and not necessarily the binary?”

So, you can start to understand that this is your kinfolk that we’re actually talking about. And through your kinfolk, we actually need to be more caring when we go outside in the world.

Jordan: I was just going to say, was there a particular early point in your journey?

Jonathan: Oh, you aren’t talking about where it came from, you’re talking about where my seedlings come from. You want to be like, “Where your kinfolk be and how you get up in here?”

Even though the story is important and I want to tell diverse and interesting and inciting and intriguing stories, yes, I do; and also I think, at the heart of it, I’m trying to figure out how to be more human throughout it all.

Jordan: Yeah. Where are your roots?

Jonathan: “When did it start?” I was like, “Stop playing on your life. Stop being all theoretical. Let’s get to the actual.”

So, I’m DC raised, DC born and raised. Was born and raised under the privilege and under the real, from a creative standpoint, of Duke Ellington School of the Arts, one of the oldest Black arts high schools in the country. I was in their drama department. and also I was in their subset, which was a new burgeoning program called the musical theatre program . And through that rigorous/dedicated/experimental/curious, I didn’t know what … I went to Duke Ellington not because I was like, “I’m going to be an artiste.” I went to Duke Ellington because I refuse to be a number in a big old school and a big public school. My parents refused that for me. I refused that for myself.

And so the arts actually became the salve so that I could learn how to be me, really honestly. So that’s when you asked me about “how did I get into theatre?”… theatre was not the destination, theatre was an accomplishment along the destination of trying to really love myself and love who I am. And it actually gets me in alignment with the theatre that I get to be a part of, right? When I say those words, “Love myself, love who I am,” I think of what Dr. Barbara Ann Teer says, “Learn to love yourself,” right? And art has been a mechanism for me and this journey of art has been a mechanism for me to learn to love myself.

So I went to Duke Ellington. I was in DC, I like to say, when it was Chocolate City. Still, it is still, but sometimes a little bit more white chocolate than it’s actually chocolate-chocolate, right? So I was in DC when it was Chocolate City, got to really get to have the privilege of witnessing what it meant for, I would like to say, the ratchet to the rich or the elegance, to the unstable, to the questioning, to the wandering, to the vagrant, to the fully secured kind of spectrum of our community to be in one space with each other, right? And really understanding that we all deserve love at the end of the day. We all deserve compassion. We all deserve healing.

And I really have to say a big shout-out to my grandmother who has transitioned, but in this moment, her spirit is so close to me in this way of saying that she taught me, as being a social worker, the heart of what it means to serve, the presence of what it means to serve. And through her stewardship and through her care of being one of the key staples to raise me got to witness what care looks like as an actual tangible source, and how love, if we lead with love, how we also can be a radical voice to change the world. So that is my fort, my grounding, my foundation.

A lot of different intersections I could talk about in this moment in that foundation, from the teachers that I were able to have to the experiences of being in Chocolate City, to the advocacy of my parents, to making sure that a child with dyslexia and ADD and whatever else I have did not see themselves as a prescription note of failure, but actually a prescription note of success or accomplishment or achievement. So all of those are what live inside the vortex of who I am and art became the curious grace note for me to actually get to know myself more, which then I kept the curiosity going, went to NYU, studied at CAP21, left CAP21, went to ETW.

And the curiosity was never to land on the stage as in the act all, but to land in the space of figuring out what does home look like? The curiosity of what does home for a Black body in this current context. That led me to starting a theatre company with a group of my friends called the Movement Theatre Company that’s still going on today; and then that led me to start a producing company called Harlem 9, which is still going on today; and then landing me ultimately in the position as what I’m now as, it wasn’t how I started, as the executive artistic director of the National Black Theatre.

So all of these intersections, all of these modes, all of these different levers that get to be unlocked are really stemming from this simple curiosity note that wasn’t about me being a theatre practitioner, this curiosity note of, “How do I get to be the best human? How do I get to be the most full human in this body that I get to occupy and steward?” And I still think I’m in the space of becoming whoever that is, still in the space of understanding that person is. And I’m grateful to be surrounded by so many beautiful people who keep me honest, keep me grounded, and allow me to live in the space of that honesty on a day-to-day basis.

Leticia: I love that and I’ll just say I have an older sister who’s also a social worker, and I know she’s going to listen to this episode since she’s going through all our podcast episodes. So hey, Tanyisha. Thanks for listening.

Jonathan: Yeah, sis. Shout out to family.

Leticia: I love that you brought up everything that you do, right? The Movement Theatre Company, which we are huge fans of, Harlem 9, National Black Theatre with Dr. Barbara Ann Teer. And we have found that these spaces are either dedicated to Black life and living, and/or has it as one of its centers—that it’s concerned with Black people. Can you talk a bit about what it’s like working the American theatre industry where there may not always be time or space given in big American theatre to celebrate the facets of Blackness? And how do you remain grounded in your vision of centering the Black experience?

Jonathan: Yeah, how I remain grounded is that I do not participate in the American system. I create my own oasis. This thing is a burning building on fire. I choose not to go into the burning building. And all of those scenarios that you have uplifted and all those scenarios of my career, I’ve been blessed in this way, I’ve never had to work for PWI white theatre as an administrator, only either founded my own thing or I worked in a Black-ran, Black-led, Black-founded organization, founded by a woman, still run by a woman, right? A woman of color at that, right? And so, in all of those ways that you’re uplifting and you’re navigating, I have been fortunate to actually always be able to root for my core because my core was a part of the ethos.

Now, it doesn’t mean that was perfect. It doesn’t mean there were other parts of me that weren’t uplifted or wasn’t silenced or wasn’t … There are parts of me that weren’t actually liberated in the consciousness like, “Was my quirkiness accepted? Was my queerness accepted in various different ways, right?” Erasure, it shows up everywhere. However, when I will say, even going to Duke School of the Arts, I had been fortunate to be raised under a Black ethos and being raised by a Black ethos.

The only time that I found myself out of a Black ethos was when I was at NYU. And what I ended up doing there is that I, my freshman year, people will say they were with or around me their freshman year, I went to every freshman who was melanated and I said, “We’re supposed to be friends, so let’s be friends. There isn’t a reality where we’re not able to do this arm in arm.” And part of that was the fact that I went to an all-Black high school where I was arm in arm all the way with other Black colleagues, who… I wasn’t othered in that way. So I found myself linking up to reassure the foundation that helped me succeed so far and doing that in a predominantly white institution, which is NYU.

What I will say to meet a part of the question, part of the question, is saying I’ve always worked outside of the system and said, “I’m going to create my own,” or, “I will go where my own are actually my kinfolk that I feel like vibrate from me are actually tilling or working.” I’ll also say that I’ve been able to do that because or also my mechanism in doing that is also rooted in a deep sensibility of I don’t see the acceptance of American theatre as my accomplishment, but the acceptance of my community or my people as the accomplishment, right? That is my destination, create space for them.

My destination isn’t American theatre because the American theatre hasn’t actually ever done anything for me besides remind me that there are elements of me that aren’t good enough. There are elements of me that are either appropriated. There are elements of me where you don’t understand who I am. And I think that is the problem when we try to just whitewash things with just America itself, right? When just say… When we don’t actually localize the need or the trauma or the hurt or the pain to being what is happening in my part of the garden is not necessarily what’s happening in every garden. It’s your garden. And so I try to utilize my flourishing in my garden. And if that means that you get to be a beneficiary of that flourishing, awesome, but I’m going to take care of my garden. I’m going to make sure that my garden is well-attended, well taken care of, is clear about what it’s here for, is passionate about wanting you to do more of it, is expanding into the horizon of its own becoming. And if I can do that on a day-to-day basis, then I’ve done something of a benefit on this planet, right?

That I might not solve the big question because maybe that’s not my task to do. And I think sometimes you get lost as to what is our task on this planet, what are we actually supposed to be doing, right? I say at my best days, I am just completing the unfinished sentences of my ancestors. And if that means that I’m just “period,” and I’m just putting a period on the end of a sentence, I’m putting the dot on an I, I’m crossing the T—I have done my work and that I can actually leave feeling complete.

My destination isn’t American theatre because the American theatre hasn’t actually ever done anything for me besides remind me that there are elements of me that aren’t good enough.

So it’s not about me doing all the things, right? Me eradicating. Because I didn’t start racism. It’s not about me ending poverty, because I didn’t start poverty, right? It’s not about me ending hunger, because I didn’t start starvation, right? It’s about, “What can I do with the time that I have, with the resources that I have to meet whatever else of solution to the equation?” And there’s something that one of my friends, one of my friends, Chelsea D. who was in DC, big shout out to Chelsea D. in DC if she is listening—Hey, girl!—is that she said something coming to me that I feel like lives inside of this answer just a little bit, which is this quote that I have, the sticky note, and it says, “I live in the spirit of answered prayers.” And this notion of spirit of answered prayers means that we get to actually have a conversation of, “It’s already done. My desire is already done. I am now walking now in the space of it becoming, not the space of me earning it or whatever. It’s already been paid for.”

Now the question is, “Have I created enough space to actually receive it? Have I created enough space to actually hold it?” We could talk about this building, right? This beautiful new building that we’re going to put in the National Black Theatre, right? And when I say this, it makes me think of this new building at National Black Theatre is going to occupy. I have to create enough space to hold it, not just something that’s going to be given to me. Yes, yes, the space is set. Yes, it is being designed. Yes, there’s money being raised. Yes, there’s money already received. Yes, all those things are true, right? Yes, if you go on 125th Street, you will see a tower that is our new home, right?

These are things that are real. These are things that are true. These are things that are actually happening, yet and I can’t sit on, “Well, the doors of the church will just open,” right? The doors of the church don’t ever just open. Someone has to open them. Also, someone has to make sure that the soul of the church is actually ready to receive a congregation when it’s hungry, when it’s in need, when it’s ready. And so the idea of living an answered prayer is saying that, “Okay, I prayed for this opportunity to run an organization that was run by Black people, that was in Harlem, that owns their own space, that’s dedicated doing Black work. I prayed for this. So I’ve been living in that answered prayer. However, I also had to stretch in a nuisance of becoming in order to actually receive the blessing.

So the rigor and the workload and the precipice of actually having to stretch into uncomfortable spaces to evolve is real. And that is not saying, “You don’t have to do that.” You do have to do that. And also it is to a North Star that you have already earned. You have already given the space and precipice to live inside with abundance. So the question is, will you allow yourself to go through the process of evolution, which is not going to be comfortable or are you going to allow yourself to be stagnant and stay still in a space where evolution’s not part of your equation?

Leticia: Oh, you better preach, you better preach.

Jordan: I’m taking so many notes. I’m taking so many notes. Wow, that was amazing. I love that, “Living in the spirit of answered prayer.” I love, “Finishing the sentences of our ancestors.” There’s just something beautiful about thinking of life as a continuum, not as this linear progressive thing, but as a constant conversation. And I love that. I also love the idea that you brought up around creating an oasis, creating something outside of the system and fostering particular spaces. And something that we’ve been having accidentally on this podcast this season is specifically around Black theatre institutions and the ways in which it’s so critical, right? We just talked about Black Theatre: The Making of a Movement, a documentary that featured Dr. Barbara Ann Teer rather prominently in it and other folks who’ve started other Black theatre companies such as Douglas Turner Ward, and Amiri Baraka, and Vinette Carroll.

And we’d love for you to talk a little bit more about, one, the kind of importance of the institutional space for Black theatre, but also the ways in which within the National Black Theatre, for example, how these environments cultivate and nourish Black creativity.

Jonathan: Yeah, yeah. I’m going to go back to go forward just a little bit because you said something that I just want to drop as a contextual frame sometimes when we talk about ancestors. Sometimes when we say, “I’m powered by my ancestors,” and Toshi Reagon, who I think got this evolution from Dr. Pauline Gumb, the artist, Alexis Pauline Gumb, they were talking to another… and I think Alexis actually dropped this wisdom onto Toshi and Toshi dropped this wisdom onto me, and I’m going to share it to you just, so that we could think about it.

When we say “ancestors,” sometimes you don’t acknowledge the veracity of ancestry that we’re actually talking about. And they actually were bringing in the nexus of both of those entities into this now moment of now, right? And that we can’t actually… When we say, “I’m powered by my ancestors. I’m bringing in my ancestors,” we are bringing in the good, the bad, the ugly, the hurtful, the joyful, the resilient, the thriving, the abundance, all in one moment, and we’re having a conversation. That is the most human moment if we actually center it that we possibly can imagine. Because we’re not editorializing what is possible. We’re not editorializing what has happened, and we’re not editorializing who made us, what made them. And we’re actually giving access to all of them to now either do right by their past or to complete what they didn’t get to do. And we get to be the author and curators of what that looks like. We get to be the editors of actually being able to cultivate that pathway forward. That’s what we get to do. And that is so beautifully luscious when I think about that, right? So I just want to name that.

Now to your question that you asked because I was going back to go forward. So thinking about that—

Jordan: Sankofa.

Jonathan: Yes, Sankofa, ashé.

So thinking about this idea of defined Black spaces and the need for the defined Black space, I always go back to this beautiful human behind this quote, “I’m not your Negro,” and he stands behind me always as a reminder of a lot of things, and we could talk about that later, but he’s a very significant: James Baldwin is a very significant figure spiritually, emotionally, and physically inside of my vortex of who I am as an active creative doula in the present world, is that in I’m Not Your Negro, the last thing that he says is that, “Until America deals with this infatuation, with creating a nigga, psyche of a nigga, the presence of a nigga, the precipice of a nigga, there will always need to be something else. There will always need to be.”

And I always took it as there will always need to be a National Black Theatre. There will always need to be that. Because until you, we as America, and that is Black folks as Americans, white folks as Americans, people who represent ever, until the global society actually wrestles with its desire and its need to consistently craft a narrative and a psyche for a nigga to show up that they’re afraid of, that they want to control, that they want to belittle, that they want to benign, that they want to emasculate, right? Until America deals with that and the global psyche deals with that and actually has a recompense with that need, there will always need to be defined space for an alternative solution to this thing called the creation of sacred care, loving, compassionate space.

And I don’t want to use the word “safe” because safe isn’t something that I’ve been challenged to really think about, is not a word that we all can actually promise. I can’t promise your safety, but I can promise a space of compassion, right? But that need will always show up. That need will always show up because America is afraid to even reconcile with its own spook and ghosts that actually have established this society to be what it is. It hasn’t made recompense on it, it hasn’t actually reconciled with it, and until it does, that need for a self-defined space, self-determined space defined by itself, like so many of our predecessors did during the Black Arts Movement, like so many of our predecessors are doing today, all of that is necessary because the psyche is still pervasive, and the psyche is still prominent, and the psyche is what is causing illness on ourselves, on our society and in our possibility of a progressive future.

Leticia: I grew up in California and there is… I don’t even remember a Black theatre in my community at all, right? And I grew up around other Black folks, and California is, probably how they like to describe it, a melting pot, right? And when I decided to study Black theatre specifically and Black performance, learning about all these Black theatre institutions that took Blackness as a serious entity that it was in its many facets, and again, I have my critiques for the Negro Ensemble Company and why they decided to produce a white playwright the first year they put shows up. But I think what you also are pointing to is, and this recalls what you said earlier about how having institutions that help folks who are Black understand themselves a bit more without the concern for the white gaze or whiteness or trying to make money, which I think, we could talk about the theatre industry, what does it mean that all these Black shows are showing up on Broadway, but when they get there, great shows, absolutely great shows, they can’t survive, right?

They have to do social media campaigns in order to thrive in having a space like the National Black Theatre or the Movement Theatre Company or Harlem 9 rooted within predominantly Black—

Jonathan: Or Penumbra, or having an Ensemble [Theatre] studio in Houston. The list is rich: True Colors in Atlanta, the Lorraine Hansberry project in Seattle, all of these cases, Carolina Black Rep down in North Carolina. There’s possibilities, but I just wanted just to name a few as we start to talk about it.

Leticia: No, no, absolutely, absolutely. And me and Jordan have also been discussing, and this is why we were, one, so excited to talk to you about how do we as having this platform, Daughters of Lorraine, uplift some of these other Black theatre institutions that folks may not even know are in their communities or may not know that it is a community center. I like to think about Black theatre institutions as serving more of a community center, right? It’s not only about putting the thing up on stage for you to see, but it’s about serving. And you spoke about this early, this localized community building that is important to the work that Black theatre institutions do.

So, I just want to sort of name that and put that out there, that it’s always been the longer legacy of the addressing the needs of the community in which it sits while also doing this thing that we call theatre, we call performance and using that as the conduit.

Jonathan: What I’ll say is that we need as many platforms as we can to be reminded of the history that we are all inheritance of. The reason why I was so dedicated to supporting the creation of a Black home is, because when I was at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, I got to witness the power of what it meant for my fellow artists to see an Ailey show up in the world. Like them having Ailey as a testimony for them to live up to or for them to think about, “Oh, I want to dance at Ailey,” or, “Oh no, I never want to dance at Ailey,” or, “Ailey is like my jam,” or, “Ailey is something that inspires me,” or, “I’m going to do another company because Ailey’s never accepted.” All those things, that creates possibility.

And having that north star is deeply, deeply important when you start talking about the larger vernacular of what is possible for our community and what’s possible for us. So for me, the commitment that I’ve been doing for thirteen years and the commitment for basically my entire career, about thirteen years at NBT, has really been about I want to create the Ailey for theatre so that a Black artist when they’re in Duke Ellington School of the Arts or they’re in the Minnesota or they’re in Chicago or they’re in some Midwest location, they want to be a theatre person, they have a space like an Ailey, like a National Black Theatre to say, “Hey, I want to go to New York and I want to see their work,” or, “They ain’t doing the work because the visibility of where we’re at. They’re not doing the work that I’m excited by, so I’m going to start doing this over here.”

All of that is necessary. All of that is necessary because all of that actually generates the opportunities that the universe has been waiting on for us to be more human. We need all of that.

Leticia: It refutes the idea of competition, right? It refutes the call of capitalism that we have to be in constant competition with one another in order to illustrate our importance when the reality is like, “No, we’re actually collaborators. Even if you may not want to do the thing here or you may not see yourself fitting, that you can create it over there or you can go to this other theatre,” right? And all that is necessary work.

Jonathan: Exactly. And it dismantles this idea of crabs in the barrel, the old adage of crab’s mentality. This old adage, as it basically says, because competition does breed champions. Barry Gordy said that when I was working on Motown. It’s like, “Competition breeds champions,” and I do believe that, right? Healthy competition is necessary. It’s that friction that’s necessary. When we get into capitalistic competition, we start talking about appropriation, acquisition, and actually dominance. And I think that’s a little bit different than healthy competition. Healthy competition without the lens of capitalism on it is actually what’s necessary, but where we actually are living in is competition geared with capitalism, which is about actually dominant, “Who is the biggest? Who absorbs the most? Who actually steals, that sucks up the air? Who actually…”

Because there only can’t … Because society, humanity reminds us that our psyche is, although crafted majestically, we neuter it to only accept one. There only can be one. There only can be one American treasure that is given all of this energy, right? There can’t be more than one. You can’t feed the loaves. There can’t be equanimity because capitalism makes us think that there is only a hierarchy to it, when reality is that nature also lives in a democratic society, a democratic way of life that is unilateral. There actually is no hierarchy when you actually think about nature. A bumblebee is just as important as a lion. An elephant is just as important for the ecology of a nature to show up as much as a giraffe, as much as a zebra, that one doesn’t have more dominance over the other.

And it also shows us that if you don’t not have a healthy amount of each in a system, you actually do not have a healthy body to actually run with, work with and navigate with. We’re learning this right now. We don’t have enough bees, right? If we don’t have enough bees, we don’t have enough flowers. If we don’t enough flowers in here, we don’t have enough vegetables. We don’t have enough healthy pollination. We don’t have enough healthy trees, healthy new growth that’s showing up if we don’t have enough bees. If we don’t have enough butterflies that show up in the world, we might not have enough… Climate change actually showing up, right? Wind is not formed, right? A butterfly generates and supports the wind production on this planet, which reminds us that the delicate acts of simplicity, the delicate acts that we all live in, the smallest acts that we actually produce actually have the largest ripple effect on the marathon of this global planet. Might not be the most immediate successful thing, but in the marathon of living on this planet, it does have a big impact and generational impact.

So, my question is always: how are you living, not for you, but living for the future? And what I love about this man right behind me, James Baldwin, if you read all sixty of his essays and you really were to study all sixty of his essays, you would come to a realization that this human, this majestic human was writing, not for himself, but writing to create a blueprint for us, people that he would never meet, a world that he would never see.

He was asking us to link to the curiosity of what does healing look like, knowing that he might not be the one to experience it.

Leticia: We give it up to Mr. Jimmy B. and all that he gave us in this world.

I want to ask you, I know you are someone who wears many hats, right? You are a director and also a producer, right? So what is your dream play of directing or producing? Would it be a James Baldwin play, or is there a new playwright or artist that has really caught your attention?

Being precious about my choice and deliberate about my yes actually creates a calm over what is possible.

Jonathan: Wow, that’s a really good question. What’s so interesting about my career is that it’s all been intersected with the curiosity of staying present to my now moment. And I actually have always just been afforded the aptitude to receive these blessings along the road, right? My brother James Ijames wants me to direct one of his pieces, right? It’s not that I sought it out, it’s not that I said, “Hey, I want to direct one of your work,” is that he’s giving me the privilege to pour in my creative brilliance in a different kind of way as I predict him but as a director into one of his brand new works. So for me, that’s deeply exciting and deeply heartwarming, but it’s not something that I sought out per se. But also, the work that he wants me to do is mine. It has my DNA all over it, right?

When I think about The Gathering: A Sonic Ring Shout and working on that and being the director of it and helping to conceive the concept of it, I sit back and I say, “I wasn’t seeking to do a eighty-person orchestra, fifty-person choir event.” It sought me out. I needed it as much as it needed me, and in the moment that I was ready to receive, it showed up in my life. So if I was to say anything, I want to be made more available to receive projects that are in need of me and the moment that I need it as well. I’m blessed to have a job where I don’t have to live in a gig economy where I have to do other work all the time in order to make a living like that. I get to be precious with my choice and be deliberate about my yes.

And by being precious about my choice and deliberate about my yes actually creates a calm over what is possible. I never thought I would create a film, but yet I got this commission to create a film, and I got to do it, and it premiered on PBS for five national showings, and then on top of that, it got me an Emmy nomination, right? Never thought of that would ever happen in the wildest dreams. And I’m not saying all these accolades to boast, but I am saying these accolades to frame that the presence of abundance is possible of whatever space you want it to be in. I think the question is, is that really for you or are you just taking it for other reasons?

Now, I’m not trying to knock anyone’s hustle. We all got to eat. We all got to make a living, right? And I just ask, “At what point does your living get affirmed by that little, not the big, the little intuition inside of you that comes from a higher being versus that outward expression of the mental saying, ‘I need to make this dividend in order to be able to put food on my table?’” You need to put the food on your table. You need to get that, the Maslow of need. You need to make sure you can eat, you have a roof over your head, and you have some clothes on your back. So you have to take care of that. You got to do that.

And then I ask, “How do you build a career, build a life where that no longer is any kind of concern, no longer a concern around that, now you can start having a conversation with this other part of your existence that is much more vast, much more wide and actually allows for you to be just stated in your choices and how you can make moves and make changes?”

Jordan: Yeah, I love that. And I appreciate the idea of being more choosy, right? Being more selective and I like the, I wrote this down of, “Deliberate about my yes.” Because like you said, there can be a constant need to produce, produce, produce and slowness is both possible and necessary for us to be true to ourselves.

Jonathan: Our mascot at NBT is a turtle. And it’s a turtle because the tortoise always wins, but it takes us time. Now, if you were to look at NBT, you’d be like, “Negro, you don’t… You all be doing all the things. What does rest mean in you all? You all’s definition of rest is not my definition of rest and what you all definition of slow,” but you’re seeing something that took Sade fifteen years to do and me thirteen years. And it’s almost like we’re having, I don’t want to equate that we’re at our Beyonce moment, but it’s almost like Beyonce, right? Beyonce had almost twenty or thirty years of training before she started to blow up and we met her at her blowup, many of us did, not when she was training, not when she was at… Not to blow up Beyonce like that, but not when she was at 106 and Park and Michelle fell and she just looked at her. You know what I mean?

We’re not in those moments, right? Some of us, you don’t even remember those moments, but those moments gave birth to the Beyonce we now get to appreciate and the Beyonce that even she gets to appreciate. What I love about her documentary that she has is not necessarily the opportunity to relive the concert, which is awesome, love to do it. However, it’s fit into the insight of why the concert was the way that it was. I want more… The way that she thinks is an elixir that many of us could actually yield so much grace and glory from. The way that she’s purposeful and intentional about how to invest radical change inside of the ecology and economy that doesn’t know it, right?

She gave some bus drivers an opportunity to have their name permanently cemented in glory when you look at those credits. I ain’t never seen that before when I saw a concert on film or TV. I don’t remember seeing the bus drivers’ names being seen and witnessed that way. And so—

Leticia: Just talking about the stagehands at the beginning, oh.

Jonathan: Even to talk about the ways in which a Beyonce, which you would think that she gets whatever she wants is met with, “No, you can’t get that, right?” or, “No, that’s not going to happen. And then she has to be like, “No, but I just researched it, so I actually can. So what are we going to do?” And helping to refine this understanding that it’s not … Because what I see in her is not aggression. What I see in her is not bullying. I don’t even see boss. I see clarity. As someone who is so clear about how much she loves herself, her people and this moment that she won’t let anything distract from the clarity that she knows. And that if you want to say is boss life, then totally fine, but I just want to say that it is something quite… For me, it’s something more elevated than boss life. It is clarity.

And that precision of clarity of being able to ground yourself in that truth is something we all can learn a lot more of because many of us are not clear about how we want to move. Many of us are not clear about what does it mean to engage. Many of us are not clear, not willing to be clear about why we were put on this planet, and we won’t take the time to because we want to be a part of a larger system. We want to be a part of the machine. But what she gives us as an example and in those glimpse of those moments in that documentary and then all the other documentaries actually, if you were to piece them together, is that she helps us to understand if you were to unplug from the matrix what shows up.

It does mean that you’re rigorously working. It does mean that you are creating a destination that is unfathomable to anyone but yourself. It does mean that you’re having to turn those noes into yeses with a clarity of grace and with a clarity of dedication and focus. It does mean all that and it also means that you get to produce the biggest platform for us all to come to together and fall in love with ourselves over and over and over again. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful the first time out. And it also means that you have to be willing to be a student of your own design, a student of your own teaching, a student of your own mastery, a student of your own vessel and also understanding, and I think this is where the way in which she thinks is where I find a lot of kinship and my kinship also helps me to understand the kind of…

Because I have that same kind of kinship or I appreciate that same kind of kinship, I’m also able to have a deeper appreciation for the ways in which she does stuff in silence. If you were to think about BeyGOOD, if you thinking about the way in which she gets back to community, she doesn’t really boast about it, right? She understands the machine that she’s a part of. She’s a part of the machine. She has built a whole universe of people who are counting on her in order to make sure that they have a living, right? And she knows that. But I’ve rambled on too much about Beyonce, but yes, that’s—

Jordan: No, we are a pro-Beyonce podcast, and something I want to say before I shift us into our next question, but, is that what you brought up around process, I’ll always remember that quote from Homecoming when Beyonce’s like, “People don’t like to rehearse because that’s when you don’t look your best.” I’m paraphrasing, but she’s like, “Rehearsal, you’re not perfect, and people want to skip that step. They want to get to that last product, but rehearsal is where you learn.” And so I’ve always kept that close to me, and it’s absolutely the master thinking around process and rehearsal and practice and dedication.

But yeah, one of our last thoughts before we wrap up is around… We know that the National Black Theatre is partnering with Conflux. You mentioned The Gathering, right? And we’d love to hear a bit more about this project.

Also, we are such huge fans of DC, anyone from DC. We both lived not in DC, but outside of DC, in Maryland for years and got to meet amazing alum of Duke Ellington and all the spaces. So we’re like, “Yes, we love DC. We love DC natives.” So we’d love to hear about this programming and what it might be like to return to that space, and yeah, just anything about that.

Jonathan: Yeah. So two or three years ago, Kamilah Forbes invited me to imagine an evening of orchestral works and turn it into an evening-length worth of an event. So a big shout-out to Kamilah Forbes from the Apollo Theatre, executive producer of the Apollo Theatre. She was like, “Brother, I have this thing that I need to turn into an evening, and I think you’re the one to do it. Can we do this?” And I was like, “Yeah, I think so. I don’t do orchestra, but okay. I guess I do orchestra now.” And through some real clarifying lenses and clarifying understanding, I knew National Black Theatre needed to be a part of the conversation because the pedagogy and the roots of what I was going to draw from were really leaning into the fundamental principles of NBT.

So with the Apollo, American Composer Orchestra and the National Black Theatre, we crafted this evening called The Gathering: A Collective Sonic Ring Shout that happened at the Apollo, first event that actually showed up in the wake of the shutdown in their big historic space. It was a full sold-out house and it was a fifty-person choir, eighty-person orchestra, animating seven sonic works. It started off with a acapella work by Abby Dobson where she uplifted this signature work that she has called “Say Her Name” and the “Black National Anthem” mashup. Then it led to a work by Joel Thompson called “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.” It was the New York premiere of that work. And “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” are taking seven last words of male identified bodies and amplifying it through this eighty-person orchestra and this fifty-person choir so that we can create memorial and create release and create a grace through it.

And then what we did is that we started doing a call and response. So, I had Jason Michael Webb respond in the spirit of the ring shout, respond to Joel Thompson’s work with a new contemporary work. Then we built on top of that by going to Courtney’s “Sanctum,” the piece called “Sanctum,” and her work was dealing with brutality just in general and police surveillance. And then that was partnered with work by Toshi Reagon. So Toshi Reagon was responding Courtney. And then we went to Carlos Simon’s “Amen,” and that was being responded to by Nona Hendryx.

And this goal of these seven works was basically to chart you through all seven of your chakras. So we utilize the color that each chakras are grounded in to create a spiritual landscape for them to go from their root chakra to their crown chakra and taking those colors that are associated with each of the chakras as the fundamental principle to taking to a higher space. So it’ll go from grief to actually joy, even from joy to exaltation to hallelujah to your amen, right? And so to guide us on this journey, I had some original work penned by Mahogany L. Browne that was then videotaped, and she’s been the virtual host that guided you through the evening and her big Gaia-like presence, big shout out to Katherine Freer, Kate Freer, who was the projectionist, was then broadcasted in this space almost like she was…

What I told Katherine was that I want her to feel like, I don’t know if anyone’s seen Lovecraft Country, but when she went to outer space and she found herself in outer space and she felt her God’s presence, I was like, “I want that human to show up in this space, so that regardless of what triggers are showing up inside the room—because we’re dealing with police brutality, we’re dealing with the unarmed, we’re dealing with all these and also the pandemic and also the shutdown—so that regardless of whatever anyone’s going through, there’s this North Star, this precipice here that is in the space and helping us to march our way through.” So she guides you through all seven of your chakras.

And so we did that. It was a sold-out house. It was pretty spectacular, I have to say. And after I did it, I was like, “I’m done. Be good. Moving on. Next project. Let’s go.” And so a funder actually came up to Sade and myself and said, “What are you doing with this? This has to move.” And we’re like, “Yeah. Yeah, right. It’s like a million-dollar thing. I don’t know where you all are thinking, but it moving like that, do you all know who you… We don’t do orchestra.” Again, it was like, “We don’t do orchestras, but okay,” and they were like, “No, no, no. If you can dream it, we can make it happen. We’re happy to be a funding partner with you to moving this because this piece is that significant and that important.”

So then we started really dreaming, and one of the dreams was to go to the Kennedy Center or go to Carnegie Hall. And so, we were able to partner, a big shout-out to Mark Bamuthi Joseph down at the Kennedy Center. He opened the doors for us to really create and scaffold a program where we are now Conflux partners of the Kennedy Center, and we are doing the show June 1 in the Washington, DC. And what does it mean to be Conflux partners, and then where is this expanded to, right? So it’s expanded from a one-day exploratory event to a week-long exploration that will take over the Kennedy Center campus and create something magical for us to engage with.

The idea is that it’s called The Gathering: A Space for Narrative Change where we will basically take the whole week to unearth some of the narrative changes inside of our community, inside of our culture, inside of society that have unseated the rigor, the beauty, the majesty of Black folk and put them back into the center. What does it mean to put us back into the center of our own story and of our own righteousness and our own right? So the evening will be cascaded by a land acknowledgement that will uplift the local community that was once there at the Kennedy Center called Slabtown. It was a predominantly Black migrant community that was displaced to build the Kennedy Center and to build what we now know as Watergate, the hotel.

And now we are going to do a land acknowledgement to uplift that history knowing that there is a land acknowledgement on the property right now to First Nation folks, Indigenous folks. So we’re going to do a land acknowledgement to Slabtown and to that community, paired with we’re going to have a quilter who’s going to be in-house for the entire week that’s going to do a response piece that’s utilizing quilt or textile technology to tell our narrative, tell our story of being that space for narrative change. We’re going to have a panel discussion with some of the key stakeholders, a part of it, so that we have a discourse of dialogue. This all happening that one week.

We’re also going to do a ring shout on the property of the Kennedy Center so that people can experience what a ring shout is. We’re going to then do The Gathering: A Collective Sonic Ring Shout that will happen in the Opera House at the Kennedy Center on June 1. Tickets will be going on sale at the end of January, top of February, so please be on the lookout for them, but that will happen. And then we’ll conclude with a dance party. The idea is to do a Learn to Love Yourself dance party, putting on our founder’s quote, “Learn to love yourself,” really creating a love salve at the end of this whole investigation.

So that is where we’ve grown from this one-day event to this week-long investigation of what does it mean to create narrative change that really roots and centers Black and Brown folks and allows us to be whole and holy.

Jordan: That is so amazing. I can’t wait to come to DC and experience that. We always need to excuse to go back to DC. Always. It’s like, “Yeah, of course.” Oh my God, this has been such an amazing conversation and hearing not just about your work as theatre artist, which is broad and expansive and amazing, but just like your ethos and your attention to all facets of being a human and bringing that into these artistic spaces is just incredible. And so we are really excited that you joined us today on Daughters of Lorraine.

Jonathan: I’m really appreciative. I’m really excited for the work that you’re doing, and I look forward to future conversations that deal with National Black Theatre’s work and also potentially some of our other artists actually being able to join the conversation.

Jordan: Oh my God, we would love that. We would love that. Yes.

Leticia: Thank you again for joining us and thank you all for listening. This has been another episode of Daughters of Lorraine. We’re your hosts, Leticia Ridley.

Jordan: And Jordan Ealey. On our next episode, we’re discussing the new movie musical, The Color Purple. We have so much in store for you all that you definitely will not want to miss. In the meantime, if you’re looking to connect with us, please follow us on Twitter @dolorrainepod, P-O-D. You can also email us at [email protected] for further contact.

Leticia: Our theme music is composed by Inza Bamba. The Daughters of Lorraine podcast is supported by HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. It’s available on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and If you’re looking for the podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify, you’ll want to search and subscribe to Daughters of Lorraine podcast.

Jordan: If you loved this podcast, post a rating or write review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find this transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event that theatre community needs to hear? Visit and submit your ideas to the Commons.

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