BWW Interview: T.K. Habtemariam of SORDID LIVES at Out Front Theatre Company

BWW Interview: T.K. Habtemariam of SORDID LIVES at Out Front Theatre Company
Photo By Tyler Ogburn Photography
L to R: T.K. Habtemariam and Jessica McGuire

Sordid Lives, a dark comedy by Del Shores, is playing at Out Front Theatre Company this month. BroadwayWorld caught up with T.K. Habtemariam, an Atlanta-based actor who plays Earl "Brother Boy" Ingram in Out Front's upcoming production, to talk about the show.

I haven't seen this show before, but I've done a little bit of reading. So, it's about a woman named Peggy who trips over her lover's wooden legs in a hotel room and dies.

Yeah. Exactly. And it's funny that her name is Peggy, too.

It is?

Yeah. I mean, because the fact that she dies because of the wooden legs. Peg-gy.

That's really funny.

Yeah. I just thought about that.

I'm interested to know how your character figures into this story.

Brother Boy...Earl Ingram... probably is a little bit ahead of his time. At the age of 18, he was kicked out of his household for being one big old queer boy. And he was actually put into a mental institution for wanting to either impersonate women or for liking someone of the same sex. And, essentially, back when I was 18, I had a friend named Wardell, and he found out that I had a crush on him, and he beat me up to a bloody pulp, and my mother, Peggy, who ends up tripping over her lover's wooden legs, put me in a mental institution because she believes the world is not ready for me and my place in this world. But Wardell, 20 years later, ends up busting me out of the mental institution.

This is kind of interesting because when I read about the show online, it sounded like a straight silly comedy, but now it sort of sounds like it tackles some real issues.

Oh, it's definitely a black comedy, and it definitely tackles a lot of issues. It's traditionally an all-white cast, and we color-flipped the main family, and we've kind of found ourselves in a new definition of the kind of topics that it tackles. It was written in the 90s, and it kind of reflects the Southern mentality from the 90s, but now that we're putting it in the context of a black family, there are so many other social issues that are underlying that wouldn't have been beforehand.

That was one of the questions that I was going to ask was how the story has changed because of this casting. This is the first all-African-American cast ever, right?

Yes. It is. And it's such an honor for me to say I'm the first African-American Brother Boy because Leslie Jordan originated the role, and I remember seeing this movie in high-school and revisiting, I was like "Oh, my goodness. I actually did see this movie." And it is definitely a fantasy in the sense of what anyone of color could get away with. If there was anyone who was queer and of color in a mental institution for being gay, I don't know if that person would still be alive. And Wardell, who busts into the mental institution, comes in with a gun and busts me out, and we both tell this white lady to get the hell out of this place. If that were to happen in the 90s in South Texas, I promise you they wouldn't be alive. And, you know, it does bring in the idea of the interracial relationship, but that's kind of at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to all of the other issues that we cover. Even though I would like to say that Brother Boy has access to mental healthcare and someone who's queer and of color...that's kind of like the last group of people who get healthcare. And also there are moments where black women talk back to white men. There are moments when a black woman tells off a white man. There are moments...when it comes to social diversity back then... You know, we think of period pieces like To Kill a Mockingbird where we are so used to saying, "Okay. Well, at this time, black people were called niggers, so we're just going to have to expect it, you know?" But when it comes to things like I'm a black male in a mental institution fantasizing about country queens like Tammy Wynette, and I do believe that my character would probably identify as a trans person but back then "trans" wasn't in our vocabulary, so there's the interesting discussion there to happen. So, it just kind of flares up a lot of things that couldn't have happened back then, but today we're using theatre as a way to tell a story that probably wouldn't have ever happened to bring up discussions today. We've had lots of conversations as a team about what these things mean to us today, and a lot of things have to be dug up. For instance, there's a line where a character calls somebody a mulatto. When we think of a white-trash family, we kind of accept the fact that they're going to poke fun at somebody being mixed, but how does it look when a white person says that to a black person? There have been some modifications, of course, with the generosity of Del Shores, where we've kind of said, "Can you rework this or find a way to make this..."

And he was into that? He was willing to make those changes?

Oh, yeah! He had to think about the script and rework it and rewrite some lines. There are some lines where - I am a black person, and we have to take into consideration that I wouldn't just idolize Tammy Wynette, you know? There are so many other queens at that time. We found moments where I can bring up Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner because that would be reflective of the culture and of the time.

When you first auditioned for the role, what was it about the role that really resonated with you?

I think that number one is my character type. You always have to think about what kind of roles you are peaked for, in all honesty. I'm usually someone who's taking someone down or who is being taken down. My character-type is the "betrayer" or the "betrayed." And Brother Boy is that kind of character. And then, I do drag as a little side passion project here in Atlanta, and I work with a predominantly queer POC group called Southern Fried Queer Pride, and I've had opportunities to perform in drag, write drag shows, and the play is kind of an amalgamation of both theatre and drag. And it's a cult classic role! Why wouldn't I want to be a part of it? And once I started meeting my castmates and we had rehearsals and what not, the bigger picture started panning out and I started to see, "Oh, okay. This is what this is really all about."

Do you have any projects coming up this summer that we need to know about?

There's a passion project that I'm working on. It's kind of like the second installation of it. It's called Weavestock, and it's going to be through Country Fried Queer Pride. It's going to be hopefully happening sometime in August, and it's a project that I'm writing, directing, and being a part of. It's kind of like a play on Woodstock and Wigstock, a phenomenon that happened in New York in the late 80s and early 90s. Lots of drag icons used to perform at Wigstock. Weavestock is basically a celebration of all-black drag. It moves like a jukebox musical where there are written scenes with drag performances. A lot of times, you know, you have to create your own opportunities. Right now, I'm working on cultivating my writing skills and my directing skills and just hoping to create more opportunities for myself herein Atlanta.

Sounds like you're on the right track! Looking forward to seeing the show.

Sordid Lives plays through May 20 at Out Front Theatre Company.

For tickets and info, go to:

http://www.outfronttheatre.com/event/96a4ccf07d969ce1ad8b4cae1ea6133b

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