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May 8, 2018

Leslie Odom, Jr.’s Failing Up: An Excerpt


For actors of color, a large determining factor of our success in the business is closely linked to how good we are at translation.

Earlier in the year, I was cast in a benefit reading of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town for The Actors Fund in New York. The one-night-only event would feature the talents of B.D. Wong, S. Epatha Merkeson, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and others whom I long respected and admired. These types of nights can be a lot of fun, but preparation is key. They’re well-attended by industry insiders. The evenings are relatively low stakes but high pressure. You want to feel good about how you did because there are no do-overs.

A couple days before the first rehearsal, while preparing to play George, the young male lead of the piece, I found myself smack-dab in the middle of a mild identity crisis when asking myself the question: But who am I really?

You see, Thornton Wilder’s beautifully wrought Our Town was never intended to be My Town. By that I mean, even though Our Town tells the story of the fictional Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire—a stand-in for a kind of Everytown—when looking at context clues and past productions of the seminal work, there don’t appear to be any people of color drawn in Wilder’s quintessential American town.

Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN, courtesy of The Actors Fund. Credit: Richard Louissaint.

Our Town, which follows the lives of George Gibbs and Emily Webb and those of their families, as well as the village’s other residents, did have universal dimensions, to be sure. The play is set in 1901 and takes place over the period of twelve years.  Narrated by an all-knowing Stage Manager, the script takes us through different life stages that run the gamut from mundane daily life to the peaks of romance and marriage, to the lows of death and loss.  At the time of its debut, Our Town—staged with no scenery and no curtain—was considered to be a radical departure from traditional theatre. Most critics agree that the setting and story represent a microcosm of the life cycles affecting most human beings.

After a thorough read of the play, it was time to begin the process of finding honest empathetic pathways to a credible portrayal of George. It always begins with as strong a vision as I can conjure of myself inhabiting the world of the play. But this time, try as I might, I couldn’t get a clear vision. I couldn’t apply much of my American experience to Thornton Wilder’s fictitious New England town. And I had serious doubts that Mr. Wilder wrote his play with an eye toward color conscious casting someday or a need for diversity.

Wilder wrote the truth as he imagined it. He wrote the truth about a small town of white strivers at the turn of the century. It is through his detail and specificity that he is able to tap into powerful and universal truths about the human experience. Obviously, plays about the concerns of a town full of Black people at that same point in American history would have an entirely different tone and language.

As audience members, it is through Mr. Wilder’s specific and truthful renderings of these people, that we find our common connections and our capacity for empathy.

Still, the more I thought about the dualities, the more it felt like my casting and the text were at odds, and the harder translation became.

So am I a Black George in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town? Am I to investigate the way these scenes would play differently as Black George? Won’t my race impact the power dynamics in the play or dramatically alter the temperature in some of these scenes? Or…am I meant to ignore all this?

Am I a white person for the evening? Am I, instead of Black George,“George in Whiteface?”

My imagination had posed the question: Who am I really? My integrity demanded that I hunt down the answer.

As the answers eluded me, I worried about falling short of expectations and I was a little sorry to have said yes to being a part of it in the first place. I had no clue how I was going to translate Mr. Wilder’s text into anything that came close to a truthful rendering onstage.

In the midst of something of a downward spiral, I paused and after some deep breaths, the voice of my wiser self took over.

No one has the answers. You have been invited into the room to search for the answers alongside your collaborators.

You’re afraid. But guess what? So is everybody else. Make space and have compassion for everyone else’s fear in the room too.

This experiment will work or it won’t work, but you’ve been invited into the room to explore. The exploration is the mission.

You have the permission to fail.

Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN, courtesy of The Actors Fund. Credit: Richard Louissaint.

I had to remind myself of it then. I have to remind myself of it today. We all have patterns we repeat. Pro tip: learn to recognize your patterns early. Maturation is only learning to spot these patterns and, having the self-discipline to make different decisions once you do. Practice will make the process faster.

Life has shown me again and again that the answers to some of the most profound questions can only be revealed during the expedition. Those first risky, wobbly steps will require heart and humility.

We found our way to Our Town. The audience received us well and I’d had a transformative experience along the way.  I carry the lessons with me today. Representatives from Thornton’s Wilder’s estate came to see the one-night-only benefit. One commented that it was one of the most poignant and moving versions she’d ever seen.

Nicolette and I had just gotten married. This was the first piece I’d worked on since, and I was able to connect emotional dots of love and loss in a ways that I never knew were possible for me. There was a new emotional depth that I’d found in my life that I was able to bring to my work.

As for the translation of the text, we discovered that there were more than enough cognates in the Universal language of the heart and language of our shared humanity to bring our light of truth to Our Town. The new depths came as somewhat of a revelation to me and I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to test the limits once more.

From FAILING UP © 2018 by Leslie Odom, Jr. Reprinted by permission of Feiwel & Friends, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, a division of Holtzbrink Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership. All rights reserved. The link to purchase the book can be found here.