BWW Interview: Tinashe Kajese of ECLIPSED at Synchronicity Theatre
The regional premiere of Eclipsed, Danai Gurira's play that opened at The Public Theater in 2015 to significant critical praise before transferring to Broadway in 2016, is currently running at Synchronicity Theatre through June 25. The play, which garnered six Tony Award nominations, tells the story of five Liberian women and their struggles to survive during the Second Liberian Civil War. I caught up with Tinashe Kajese, a notable Atlanta actor and the director of Synchronicity's production of Eclipsed, to talk to her about her experience with the show.
What a great show to have for your professional directorial debut.
It has been really exciting. I've got to say, it's been a real blessing. It was daunting to take on, but I'm so excited that it happened.
There must be something special about this show that made you decide to make a move from acting to directing. What really drew you to this show?
Well, a funny story. Danai Gurira, who is the playwright, she and I are both from Zimbabwe, and we actually went to Brownies together as kids. So we knew each other way back when, and then we reconnected I would say maybe 15 years ago when we were both in New York. And we reconnected our friendship, and we were actually touring together when she was preparing this show and doing research and writing this play, so it was in my consciousness for a while, and I was so drawn to this idea of it being these five African women, and their story was being told, and it wasn't with the lens of having to have a Westerner validate it by having a Western character. There were no men in the play, again to validate it. And it was just a very brave piece to say, "Yes, it can stand alone about African women." It is a story that talks about us saving ourselves, and I thought that was so empowering, and then it kind of went dormant for several years because I think that many people shied away because they didn't think that it would be commercially successful. And so, I think that what happened last year with it going to Broadway and just this resurgence about this play and this excitement and this fervor to say, "Yes, these women's stories are valuable and actually quite relatable." And then when Synchronicity took it on, I was just excited that it was coming to Atlanta. Then I started thinking, "Who in Atlanta can tell this story correctly?" I thought I would rather it be in the hands of somebody who's passionate and has a very clear vision with a little less experience than somebody who might not have that sensitivity and cultural awareness that I brought to it. So when the opportunity arose, I was like, "I want to go and talk to them about this and see if they'll take a chance on me."
What have been the big challenges of directing this piece?
I would say that one of the biggest challenges was making sure that I was leading these women from the side and not in front of them because I wanted this to be an experience that was empowering. I am ultimately an actor and a storyteller, and I think that the vision that Danai has overall, not just specific to one play, but her vision as an artist is to empower women of color, specifically African women from the diaspora. So, for me, I wanted to continue to inspire these young actresses that whatever we did in the rehearsal space and the different things that we were working on, that it was tangible stuff that they could use to grow as artists and as human beings and that it wasn't just a vacuum and only unique to this experience. My goal was to make sure that I was always communicating to them in a way that gave them empowerment, you know? And so, it was a challenge that I gave to myself, and I guess that it was more just making sure that I was fulfilling that vision every day. I would say on a technical level though that one of the biggest challenges was the fact that we were dealing with a very specific dialect and a very specific time and ... this wasn't a make-believe country. This wasn't a make-believe war. Everything was so specific down to the day when these events were taking place. During our audition process, when ladies were coming in to audition, I made it very clear to them that this was a research-based production, that we needed to approach it like a documentary and that my expectation was that just as much as I need you to learn your lines and get all of our beats together, I need you to be an expert in this period in history so that no stone is left unturned, and I think a lot of the ladies in the show have never worked that way, you know? And I know when I approach work as an actor, it's like being an anthropologist, and I find that to be the most rewarding way to work, to just really dig deep.
What has been the big rewards? What did you love?
The big reward has been seeing the young ladies do things that they didn't think that they could do at the beginning. I went back to a show last night, for the first time since the opening. I couldn't stay away any longer, but I wanted to give them space. But last night, being in the audience, an incredibly diverse audience, diverse in race, diverse in age, and afterwards speaking to so many different audience members that were moved for varying reasons - men that were moved by the power of these women's stories and their survival, Caucasian older women crying because they identified with one of the young girls and saw themselves in her. And then, of course, young women of color that are artists here in Atlanta saying, "Finally I'm seeing myself and seeing stories about me that I relate to, and I'm inspired to keep doing the work." I think one reward has been adding our sixth character, which is the audience, to witness it. I think for anybody, you can have an incredible story, but if it's not being witnessed and shared in a community, which is the brilliance of theatre, we have to ask ourselves, are we doing the right thing? And last night, I felt like we were doing the right thing.
You mentioned the relatability of the piece. Do you think that's what's really resonating with the audiences, or do you think that there's something thematically that is drawing these responses out of them? What do you think, ultimately, Atlantans have to take from this show?
I think that they way that these characters are written... it is undeniable that they are relatable, and I think that Gurira uses humor to open people up, so then she can grab their heart and throw it across the room, which is great. And I think it's unexpected. I think she uses the surprise of humor in these women's daily lives to make us vulnerable to the pain that is actually going on. But specifically to an Atlantan audience, there is - and even to an American audience - I think that we're definitely living in interesting political times right now, and there are many people who are scared, confused, frustrated, angry. I think the events of the last couple of days can be a testament to that, that anything can go down at any moment, and we have to ask ourselves, "What would we do if civil war broke out, if there were riots everywhere, if people started behaving in these animalistic ways, and I think that the first couple of scenes, the audience gets over the accent, they get over the shabbiness of the home, and they start to cling to things that they can identify with, and I was very specific when I spoke with my design team about - I don't want this to be a play about those women over there in that dark continent, that war zone, you know? I was just tired of us being other-ized, you know? We have to also find how we make that connection with an American audience. And because I grew up in Zimbabwe soon after our civil war, the one thing that I remembered was that we've always wanted to have Western influence in our fashion, in the things that we ate, in the way we decorated our homes, even though we had just gotten our independence. And I think that having, in the show, American design- so you'll see a lot of American t-shirts, the references to the States- there becomes a visual landmark and these touchstones that an American audience can say, "Oh, yeah. I know that." You know, Air Jordan t-shirt... So they start to get disarmed, and it's actually in line with what happened in Africa, where the people take on a lot of Western culture, and I think it's a great tool to bring in a Western audience because they start to identify with things. I would tell my cast, "I remember growing up in Zimbabwe, and the big thing being if you had a can of Coke, because we always drank from bottles in Zimbabwe. If you had a can, that showed that you had clearly been to the States recently. You know, we would just refill the cans with soda and walk around with a can of Coke just so you had the status to say, "Yeah, I've got a can of Coke." But it's that kind of nuance and cultural identity that I think, even though I'm not from Liberia, I could connect with, and so when I'm directing actresses that have never been to Africa -well, Cherokee had - with the African-American actresses, the one thing I kept getting onto them about was to lose their Americanisms. And, specifically, their African Americanisms. And it would be really slight little things, like if they were shaking their head a little bit too much or if they would do the sucking of the teeth in a way that sounded more L.A. than it did Liberia. I could hear that and see that, and I might not have been able to articulate it exactly, but I knew when it wasn't right. That made an interesting rehearsal room, because they would look at me and say, "Was that too American?"
For tickets and information, visit https://www.synchrotheatre.com/