We are not crazy. We know all is not well. Despite what they say.
We know that the “greatest country in the world” has never been. That our skin bears the mark that easily presages death. That our kin are in danger.
We know that our bodies can be snatched at will, that our children can be gunned down at random, that we labor behind the eight ball.
Even if we can’t acknowledge it, we know this in the deepest recesses of our hearts.
When Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ somber Baldwin-esque letter to his son, dropped in 2015, we were immeasurably moved because he spoke our most desperate truths.
It’s one thing to read Coates’ transformative, revolutionary work. The passive nature of reading allows a space for distance from the realities of slavery, violence, rape, plunder, mass incarceration and the daily toll of tightrope walking. But to hear and bear witness to actors reading those words—well, that experience can cave your chest right in.
On April 2 and 3, Kamilah Forbes, executive producer at the Apollo Theater in New York City, spun the essence of an already emotionally wrought work of art into something more. She produced, directed and developed the stage adaptation of Between the World and Me and debuted it at the Apollo. Forbes had gone to Howard University with Coates and knew the day she finished reading Between the World and Me that she wanted to do something with it. Then she sobbed.
“When I read the book, immediately, I called him the next day and said, ‘This is amazing. I have an idea,’” says Forbes, whose credits include Broadway’s A Raisin in the Sun and Stick Fly.
“And then the book blew up [New York Times best-seller, National Book Award winner] and then a year went by, and I got an opportunity to work at the Apollo,” she continues. “Then I called Ta-Nehisi and said, ‘Remember that idea I was talking to you about? We’re going to do it at the Apollo.’”
The seamless performance features between eight and 10 actors reading excerpts of the book, sometimes alone, sometimes in tandem. The first night saw Angela Bassett, Common, Joe Morton, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Greg Reid, Black Thought, Pauletta Washington and Michelle Wilson take Harlem’s most heralded stage. The next night, April 3, saw Joseph, Morton, Reid, Washington, Wilson and Susan Kelechi Watson from NBC’s This Is Us.
Jason Moran, who is a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient like Coates, composed a dramatic, haunting original score, and his three-piece ensemble (featuring Moran on piano, Mimi Jones on bass and Nate Smith on drums) hovered above the actors as they read.
Forbes was very deliberate and knew outright that she didn’t want to make a play. She explains:
There’s something about a play where you can divorce yourself from a character—although it may look and seem everything like you. I had the actors’ names projected up on-screen for a reason. It’s Joe Morton bringing Ta-Nehisi’s work to life; it’s Angela Bassett bringing Ta-Nehisi’s work to life; I think it makes a bigger impact. If an audience can divorce and say, “Oh, Samori [Coates’ son], oh, poor guy”; “Oh, the poor father—wish I knew what that felt like.” But when you have a whole company of people onstage, all inhabiting words built from one man’s journey, there’s a different kind of experience. And they’re just as much witnessing the work as we are as an audience.
Forbes brought in two dramatists to help with the text adaptation, and the Sundance Institute, where she was a fellow, enabled her to workshop it. Eighteen months later, at the end of the Apollo’s 2018 theatrical season, the theatrical debut of Between the World and Me hit the stage.
The process began with pulling out the more poetic, story-driven moments. In choosing which passages to adapt, Forbes knew that she wanted to include Coates’ time at Howard, but also knew that she wanted to address a persistent critique of the work: that there was no representation of black women.
“The whole turning point in his story is because of his wife. All of the women taught him how to love, how to be more gentle; his girlfriends,” Forbes says. “And the mother [of his son] goes to Paris and he’s like, ‘Wow, there’s a whole ’nother world that we should all see.’ Because of her, he begins to see his own revelations.”
Forbes also knew that she wanted to dramatize an especially jarring story in the book: when Coates was in the West Village of New York City with his young son, and a white woman on an escalator pushed his child.
“The escalator story is a hard one. Because I remember hearing Ta-Nehisi tell that story in real time, but also, to read it on the page and to hear it was a really difficult thing, but something I think was important to acknowledge. It’s about the kind of vulnerability that exists. The disregard that exists. And the fear.”
For each iteration, Forbes tweaks aspects of each staging, like music cues and projections. Although this is a production worthy of a Broadway theater, Forbes is not pining to hit the Great White Way. If she had her druthers, she says, she’d stage Between the World and Me in community theaters across the country—“in Ferguson, in Oakland, in Chicago, in Sanford, Fla., in Houston,” she says.
“A lot of people talk about Broadway as the pinnacle of artistic success, when really all it is [is] art as commerce,” she says. “At nonprofit theaters, you’re subsidizing art in order to make it affordable for everyone. And I think this kind of work has to be affordable so that all economic levels of the community can take part.”
Wherever this work lands, it is a must-see. It is manna for black folks who bear the burden of double consciousness, the way we see the world, the way the world sees (or doesn’t see) us. It is a treatise for us, to America, of “the essential below,” couched in love, pain, community and, always, beautiful struggle.
“Yes, we know racism exists; yes, we know white supremacy exists, but let’s really uncover it,” says Forbes. “Let’s sit with that. We have to make peace with the chaos. Because the chaos runs so much deeper than any one of us can articulate. What does it mean to be enslaved longer than we’ve been free in this country? Even though we know this at our core, we don’t talk about that all the time.”