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Michael Benjamin Washington on Playing Boys in the Band's Only Black Character

Michael Benjamin Washington on Playing Boys in the Band's Only Black Character

Michael Benjamin Washington

The actor discusses his roles in 30 Rock and Boys, and his plan to honor Maya Angelou. 

As it was a lot of LGBT folks, watching queer teens galvanize the nation for the March for Our Lives earlier this year was inspiring for Michael Benjamin Washington, the well-known stage actor who is probably best known for playing Donald, the same-aged "son" of Tracy Morgan on 30 Rock. Washington, who penned and starred in Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin, about Rustin's role in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, had already been working on another show about April 1968 when he heard about the 50th anniversary revival of the groundbreaking play (and later movie) The Boys in the Band.

Washington plays Bernard, the bookstore worker and sole black man in the show, a point that's noted and played with more nuance than was allowed back in 1968 when the show premiered. But he has the fortune of history on his side, something that came up as he watched those kids march across Washington, D.C. -- and across screens worldwide.

"What's interesting is when I was watching [the march], I was thinking how many of them don't know that an openly gay black man started that model of marching on Washington in 1963," the actor recalls, though clearly too young to have been at Martin Luther King Jr.'s legendary March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. An out gay black man, Bayard Rustin -- one of MLK's closest advisers -- was the main organizer for the March, which is also famous for MLK's seminal "I Have a Dream" speech.

Washington continues, "Two weeks before the march, Strom Thurman outing Bayard Rustin on the floor of Congress saying there's a homosexual behind this and [threatening them] if they don't shut it down. And all of the communities -- black, Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, who are standing behind that march said, "Yes, we know who that man is, and this march will continue."

He says, if only today's kids "knew that that was the origin of the Women's March and the March for Our Lives and all of these other things. How great that would be? And it's one of the reasons why I feel compelled to tell as many stories of all the elders from all of the communities that I'm from."

Who knew the kid who grew up in affluent Plano, Texas, would become such a firecracker on the stage -- and in advocating for keeping the legacy of black and LGBT folks alive for generations.

Growing up, he says, "I never hid who I was. Everybody assumed a lot of things. There were 1,392 very wealthy white kids; 30 of us were African-American, and I was senior class president and junior class president. And I can always remember saying that if I get to be alive now, how important it is to honor Bernard and [playwright] Mart Crowley, people who were [lived through these experiences] for the sake of the next generation, which is me."

Washington asked Crowley, who wrote this play over 50 years ago, "'Why did you write a black man in this tribe in 1967?' And the story he told us blew my mind. I can't share it, but it gave me such a new profound respect for him as a playwright to take what he knew and put it in so that this story wasn't just for white gays. There is a black man. Now, how you choose to play him, is the actor's and director's job."

Washington, who also played Tituss Burgess's boyfriend on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and has appeared on numerous TV series (Glee, Law & Order, The Jury), starred in Broadway's Mamma Mia! and the 2005 Tony Award-winning revival of La Cage aux Folles. But Blueprints to Freedom has garnered him a handful of awards and positioned him as both an actor and playwright to watch.

In between rehearsals and publicity shoots, Washington tells us about making the revival of The Boys in the Band, which has its Broadway debut May 31.

The Advocate: You were working on your own project about Maya Angelou when you got the call about Boys in the Band. Tell me about that.
Michael Benjamin Washington: Maya Angelou's estate had spoken to me about writing [the play], and I was knee-deep in this play about April 1968. I got the Boys script, kind of Googled it, and realized it opened in April of 1968. I got goose bumps up my spine. I read it and I thought, this is very, very interesting. I don't fully get it, but I definitely think whoever wrote this is a very, very brave playwright -- [I know from] having been swimming in playwriting territory.

I got invited to do a reading of it, and [director] Joe Mantello, with all of his brilliance, gave me three notes. I suddenly saw how this black man in this all-white tribe suddenly was a human being the way [Mantello] and I were kind of going through and putting it together. It [scared] the crap out of me, but those are the parts you're supposed to take. Viola Davis was doing some interview that was circulating on Facebook and she's like, "You know the responsibility of the actor is to find the human being and to flesh out the character and to not worry about it being noble, and find flaws." And I'm like, "All right, all right, Viola. I got it. I got it!" So I kind of jumped in and it's been quite a roller coaster ride, but one that I'm very happy to be on.

So 1968 was a bit like 2018 in terms of political strife and chaos. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated; a war was raging; people were protesting for the civil rights of black people, women, and LGBTs. Is there something in The Boys in the Band that's still particularly relevant in our post-Trump world?
Absolutely. I mean, whether it's an Obama world or a Trump world, there's still the world of the other and the outsider and that story doesn't seem to have changed, in terms of the human dynamics of the tribe within it. I find that all of the men in this play are struggling to figure out who they are in the context of a political scene that's very, very hostile -- then and now. But it's the family that you create, and trying to figure out how you fit and function within that tribe.

I'd done so much research on 1968 and was really drawn to the idea that Bernard is this black man in this white world. I think the play opened April 14, 1968, and MLK was murdered on April 4. Bobby Kennedy in June. This great integration experiment is imploding right in front of his face. So, how did he survive inside of this tribe where it too is imploding? That seems to be the biggest parallel. Joe and I talked about that the first day of rehearsal. It doesn't really help me play the play, but it's really important to know that is what's right outside the windows of the apartment.

A lot of people in the past might have dismissed Bernard as a character by saying, "Oh, well, he's just the token black guy." Do you see Bernard that way?
I see Bernard as a three-dimensional character who has all the nobility in the world. You can't ever play a villain or play a nonnoble character. You can play someone who's coming in and fighting for whatever they want and the humanity that they hope to receive from others and, in turn, give the reciprocity of humanity, I guess... The beautiful thing to me is -- what Joe and I have discussed was -- is the price he pays to be a member of this tribe, and what it costs him to remain there.

That's an interesting question.
To know that 50 years ago, unlike today, there were certain stipulations one had to adhere to. The Black Power movement was just giving birth in 1968. So this man is going to have to make a lot of big decisions soon about the tribe he wants to ally himself with. And I think because of the timing of when [playwright] Mart Crowley wrote it -- right before Stonewall, right before everybody had to make decisions about their own liberation, gay, black, straight, women, and otherwise -- Bernard really represents to me that person who was once on one side of the fence, now is on the fence during the play. We kind of wonder when he exits at the very end, which side will he be on tomorrow?

I've had a lot of opportunities to show a fuller dimension of Bernard than I think has been allowed to be shown before. Ruben Greene, who originated this role, a gorgeous man, who I understand was a model, probably didn't have the skill set or was given permission to fully investigate it in the way that I have by Mr. Mantello and Mr. [Ryan] Murphy and all of the producers who have been such great encouragers of me... There are black men who stand on their truths in different ways. There is no one type. And I think that goes for women. I think that goes for everything.

Boys is essentially about the relationships between gay and bisexual men and how they treat each other. Do you think that there's been a change in how we treat each other in the years since Boys came out originally?
I don't know. The human dynamic has been the human dynamic from the beginning, you know?The political environment sometimes dictates how ferocious people can be across the board about everything. Because it was such a hot year in '68 and because it is such a hot year in 2018 politically, people are needing to release steam and stress a lot more. And that tends to be, you hurt the ones you love the most. So you just happen to see this microcosm. But as I keep saying, we're in a Real Housewives world and people are so used to seeing friends, quote-unquote friends, treat each other in very, very radical ways and then make up very quickly. So it's not just the gay microcosm. It's an American pastime now of being very witty to the point of maliciousness sometimes.

And this play was pre-reality TV.
Absolutely. Even the language of the play -- sometimes I forget that it was written 50 years ago because of the pronoun switching and the boys calling each other "she" all the time. I don't find it to be as malicious, but you do find out that when people's addictions get added to a party...when you start adding in the liquor, that's when people's tongues start getting sharper and sharper. And is that the real them, or is the person they present at the beginning of the party really them?

When the play is set in 1968, there wasn't a lot of talk of alcoholism or substance abuse in the way that there is now.
Absolutely. I mean, I was watching a documentary on the making of Mad Men season 1 and there were those actors talking about how people came to work with a low-grade hangover all of the time. Drinking started at lunch. So it's just a different culture in terms of political correctness and etiquette.

The men in Boys telegraph a sense of shame and secrecy among LGBT folks, at least pre-liberation.
Jay-Z recently said in an interview with David Letterman, he was speaking about his mother coming out. He said, "There's a new time now where, sure, there will always be people who speak negatively about those who are gay. But we now recognize those people as archaic. They live in a different time." Times have changed now. So I think the cultural consciousness has shifted towards, not just equality for all, which should have been from the beginning. And a lot of people have had that, especially if you didn't come out. If you were quiet about it, people were very respectful of you then. But now that people have the option of being out and proud, it is more of a commentary on those who scorn those who are out.

I feel like there's been a shift of shame now. The shame now lies on those who judge, not those who are living in the center of their light and walking in their truth. I teach around the country at the National Young Arts Foundation. I was just in Miami teaching high school seniors. These kids were coming in with, you know, gay material, with their rainbow flag stud earrings, pictures on Instagram with their girlfriends or boyfriends at the prom. It's just a different kind of liberation. They're in high school doing, you know, Six Degrees of Separation and Angels in America speech tournaments. So it's been a very, very interesting shift in terms of this new generation not asking permission to live their lives -- in the way everybody else had to before them.

Amazing, right? What was it like working with an all-gay cast? You guys are the first generation of out gay actors who are having A-list careers without hiding.
The funny part about it is we know how important it is for younger people to know who is who and to see people walking in their truth. But you don't really bring that into the rehearsal room. If anything, it's more, OK, you two went to Carnegie-Mellon and I went to NYU, so what is your working process and what is our process? Not so much, who do you sleep with after rehearsal? Now, we do tee-hee about that too, sometimes. But it's not a profound influence in the rehearsal room, as one would think. Because you are trying to figure out who these men are, underneath all of that.

Tell me a little bit more about the play about Maya Angelou that you're writing.
Well, I met with Caged Bird Foundation. My agent had called to say, "Hey, you like Maya Angelou?" So I pitched out a couple of ideas with her and her grandson Colin Johnson. But my play is about Maya Angelou's 40th birthday on Dr. King's assassination day -- when she was planning her 40th birthday party to tell her sophisticated New York friends why she was shifting from Black Power and the Malcolm X way of thought, from 1965 when he was killed, to rejoin Dr. King and the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference], which was a big shift from Black Power back to black Christianity.

As she was preparing for this party, she told Dr. King, "Let me have this party first and then I will join you." He went to Memphis. While he waited for her to join him, he was assassinated, which triggered a second bout of mutism in Maya. So my play explores how Jimmy Baldwin, one of her best friends, got her to drag her pen across her scars to tell what happened to her the first time she was a mute, and how I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was created.

That seems super timely as well.
In this #MeToo generation, it's very important for young girls who have been sexually assaulted to know until you put voice to it, it will always haunt you in a way that you won't be able to find the offensive force inside of you. That book has been a blanket of hope for millions of people across the world, and it was a female voice who had been told not to ever speak because her voice sounded strange and she was a woman from the poorer side.

Do you enjoy going between the stage and screen, just going where the roles take you?
I used to try to strangle it to be like, "I want this to happen." And I would have meetings with my agents and try to arrange these things and what I realized is, you know, just race alone keeps me away from a lot of roles, even though I come from an affluent part of Texas. I'm still not allowed to read for a lot of roles I am right for because of color. Even if the character doesn't have a mother or isn't married, sans sexuality or anything, race has been a big prohibitor. I learned this early because I started when I was 10, professionally.

Did that change during your career?
When I was at NYU, I got a minor in journalism so I could always write and know how to research, which has been a passion for me. And so, I stopped trying to strangle it and I just started to go with the flow of things. I was in Texas writing this Maya Angelou play when casting called about something I put myself on tape for a year ago -- a Steve Martin play. They were like, "That take really blew us away." I know Joe Mantello. I sent it to him. He's like, "Yeah, Michael's great. I saw him in La Cage. See if he's available." It starts to come to you when you stop trying to chase it down.

You always have to do it for the work, not for what the work is going to produce and get you next. I've been very, very lucky to have big, big supporters like Tina Fey, who called me up and said, "Yeah, there's something afterTituss, are you available?" Yeah, I'm available, I'd love to work with you guys. Or Ryan Murphy having me on Glee season 1 and remembering me for this when he could have had any black actor he wanted play Bernard. Those kinds of things really make me happy.

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