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To sit in a rehearsal for the Huntington Theatre Company's "Top Girls" is to sit among not only an entire cast of women, but an entire crew made up of women.
"What I decided to do with this production is cast a lot of women of color, primarily Latina and Asian women who, under normal circumstances, wouldn't have access to a show like this," director Liesl Tommy tells me. Her take on the modern classic from the '80s is half surrealist, half commentary.
"Top Girls," which revolves around a career-minded protagonist, explores what women gain and lose when they climb to a higher socioeconomic class. As a director, Tommy has tried to interpret playwright Caryl Churchill's broader message and how the universal questions in the play remain relevant now.
"Our protagonist Marlene feels really empowered, like she's about to take over the world because of this promotion," explains Tommy. "But I think what [Churchill's] sort of talking about is unless you're breaking the societal structures, we're still living in a sexist and racist society. And how are you, as you're moving up through that society, making it better or maintaining the status quo."
Tommy, an established director on stage and the only black woman nominated for a Tony Award for directing (for 2016 "Eclipsed," starring Lupita Nyong'o), is also a rising star on-screen. She was chosen to direct Trevor Noah's upcoming biopic and has directed an episode of "Queen Sugar," the Oprah Winfrey Network series helmed by Ava DuVerney.
In theater, Tommy is known for taking classic plays and transforming them through a new lens, with black and brown bodies on stage. "Some people love it. They feel transported, they feel like they're seeing and hearing the play in a whole new way. And then there are other people who, they feel rage and you can see it from the letters that they write," she says.
Tommy is also known for her innovative, often unconventional and rigorous methods when working with actors. In early rehearsals of "Top Girls," she asked actresses to read their lines in working class accents that were most familiar to them, before speaking the British accent the play calls for, in an effort, she says, to "tear away any layer of separation between the actor and the character."
Lead actress Carmen Zilles, who is Mexican-American, found herself tapping into a way of speaking that sounded like her childhood, going to school in mostly-Latino Jamaica Plain.
"I started talking like this when I went to third grade and I talked like this until I was in about seventh grade. But I also developed like a sort of feeling about what that meant, like who that person was," Zilles tells me as she purposely softens her Ts and hardens her Ls. This exercise forced Zilles to reckon with feelings of internalized racism stemming from her childhood.
Zilles attended a high-performing private school where she was the only Latina, until third grade when she moved to a mostly Latino, low-income public school in Jamaica Plain.
"As a kid I didn't understand, I was like, 'These kids aren't that smart — how weird.' And so I developed internalized racism that I really had to deconstruct as an older person," she says.
The exercise of speaking in her own working-class accent allowed Zilles to access Marlene's character in an intimate way — to understand what it's like to traverse class and hold on to biases.
"There is a section of the play where Marlene says, 'I hate the working class. I don't like the way they talk. I don't like beer guts and football vomit,' which are all British references. But in my mind I was like, 'Well, I can get that. I don't like arroz con gandules, and I don't like like [saying] mami and papi.' It was kind of crazy to come full circle on that and go, 'Wow, I did a lot of work to undo that. But Marlene has not done this work.' "
For the director, this kind of intense work with actors of color brings a new weight on stage. Her process is influenced by her own background. Born in South Africa during apartheid, Tommy came to the Boston area at age 15.
"It took me a long time to find my way in because I came from an extremely political background, you know, and from a place that was in the middle of enormous upheaval. And it was all we spoke about and then, you know, you come to the states and people don't even know what apartheid is and it's very painful."
At Newton North High School, Tommy discovered theater and it became the outlet for her interests in politics, history and feminism.
At the first open audience performance of "Top Girls," the production was a revelation: funny, tragic, surreal. It felt like a dream.
I remember something actress Carmen Zilles told me about how working with women — especially women of color — differs from other acting jobs. "I can just relax and focus on the work which, I find myself in other rooms feeling like I have to speak up a lot more to sort of make it known that I'm someone to be taken seriously or that I have intelligent thoughts."
Maybe this is what art can be, if women of color weren't burdened with having to undo the sexist or racist prejudice around them? If they could just be artists and not constant crusaders? If so, Liesl Tommy is leading the way.
The Huntington Theatre Company's production of "Top Girls" is at the Huntington Avenue Theatre through May 20.
This segment aired on April 25, 2018.
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