At Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center, in a production of the Theater for a New Audience, New York City is receiving an extremely rare revival of Alice Childress’ 50-year-old play Alliance: a love/hate story in black and white. Set in the midst of the 1918 flu pandemic, the drama tackles racial prejudice and ignorance by following the romance of an interracial couple in South Carolina.
Leading the cast of the Awoye Timpo revival are Brittany Bradford and Thomas Sadoski, who take on the central roles of Julia and Herman. Here they tell us about the setting of the piece and its importance.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Brittany, tell me about the Classix association of Awoye Timpo, the company in residence at TFANA, of which you are a part.
Brittany Bradford: Classix is basically about blasting what we consider to be a classic and which can be included in it and which are not. Most of the time, it’s at the expense of black plays and playwrights. We have a lot of initiatives: one highlights black plays and playwrights, people like Alice Childress or Kathleen Collins or Bill Gunn or Ed Bullins, and there’s also a huge educational component. We’re partnering with schools to talk about the curriculum and what plays are being taught and why, and how they can add more of these black playwrights. We have a series of podcasts that explores different times in the history of black theater, and we also try to make sure that we release or find out where the rights are for a lot of these plays, because sometimes the big issue is who’s in control the scripts. It’s about branching out and trying to be expansive about how we think about these creators.
Alice Childress is a playwright who is not part of the theatrical creative consciousness, and neither is this play. How does it feel to put it front and center?
Thomas Sadosky: Listen, I have to be honest. The fact that Alice Childress isn’t taught more often, the fact that I went to drama school, the fact that most people I know who went, not only to undergrad but to college superior, with very, very rare exceptions – there are very few things that come to mind that are more disgraceful, in terms of our artistic community, than the fact that such an exquisitely talented playwright who has writing such important plays went largely unrecognized for as long as she has.
And I think it’s even more shameful that across the street from where we’re performing this play, which is an important piece of the American experience in the American theatrical canon, you can’t even get a fucking ticket to see Cyrano with a British cast. It is shameful. The vast majority of people would be happier to retweet a quote from Ta-Nehesi Coates, but wouldn’t bother walking across the street to see a black playwright speak about the black experience. I’m a bit — I don’t know if I’m necessarily scared to say that stuff out loud to a reporter as much as I’m pissed that it has to be said. This really pisses me off, and I’m sorry, Brittany, for making fun of it.
Brittany: No no no. I think what it is for both of us is that I feel very protective of not only this piece, but Alice Childress, in particular. The more we learn about her, the more I can see her influences on so many other playwrights. You can see the genesis of slave play in this one you can see the work of Jackie Sibblies Drury. You can see the work of August Wilson. When you think of the time she wrote, of course she influenced a lot of those people. We talked about Sidney Poitier in rehearsal, and what a great influence she had on him, and yet his name is not what is said. And that’s the part that’s shameful.
I’ve never promoted a show so much in my life as this one, because I want people to come see it. Not because of our performances – although I think Tommy is extraordinary at it and Veanne Cox and our whole cast are ridiculous – but you can’t leave without wanting to go read every Alice Childress play and get every one of they produced.
Thomas: I’ve been on a lot of shows throughout my career where people were like “Hey, I’m going to come see this show” and I was like “Cool, cool”, but this is one of the ones where I actively texting people daily to come see it. I am immensely proud of this production.
There was a young man at the show last night, an acting student who said he discovered, on a recommendation, the last scene of our show as something to study in one of his directing classes . And he was like, like, “I don’t know if I would necessarily need to study anything else to learn how to be an actor.” During the last scene of this play, it demands of you as an actor a level of egolessness and honesty, and a willingness to put it all out there without trying to look good. She wrote egoless, she demands egoless performances, and that demands so much of her audience in a beautiful way, but it’s also sweet and loving and kind in a way that you just don’t see at this level , and we missed that as a community. It’s crazy for me.
Brittany: It’s the same with the first scene. I’m a little shocked at how many people obsess over the first scene between Herman and Julia. I mean, it’s a beautiful scene, but so many people have said they’ve never seen a writer write so well about what a 10-year relationship would be like. There’s a lived quality to these people’s writing, and you don’t realize until the end of the play how much you need it. It’s easy for writing now to feel like extra stuff is being added, but everything here is so helpful. The humor is where you need it, it’s wonderfully structured, and it has incredible heart and emotivity.
How does it feel to do a play about a race relationship, racism, and, of course, the 1918 flu pandemic, as actors in 2022, on that scale?
Brittany: It’s double. Tom and I talked about coming out of the pandemic and having different priorities. There’s a different type of art I want to do, and it’s not even different – it’s the exact an art I’ve always wanted to be a part of, but I think I’m more willing to put a stake in the ground, not go against my own code. The actuality of the play with the pandemic and everything is there too, but what I think about the most is Alice Childress and all the factors that have always been against her, and her plays being produced. There’s always something that makes the job so hard to do, whether it’s mind problem Where wedding bandand more than anything, it should always be done, and I just want to be part of that process.
Thomas: I couldn’t agree more. How does it feel to be an artist who has the opportunity to do this, given its relevance? It’s a challenge. Not a challenge in the sense that it demands extraordinary work from us, although that is the case, but because it throws down the gauntlet and says, “It’s the art of its time. TO DO ?” This rarely happens, and I feel humbled to participate and introduce Alice to a population that knows her relatively little.
It’s like the gauntlet being thrown down by the artistic gods to the community at large and saying, “Do you really like this thing called theater? Because if you do, here it is.” We need donkeys in the seats. We need people to put their time and support where they say. This is the stuff people have to show up for. Where are you?