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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Nehassaiu deGannes

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Nehassaiu deGannes
Nehassaiu deGannes

Given the current political climate in this country you have to ask if there is any such thing as a truly honest politician. Today's subject, Nehassaiu deGannes, is currently living her theatre life onstage at Studio Theatre portraying just that type, Rep. Sydney Millsap, in local playwright Sarah Burgess' Kings. The production runs through January 13th in Studio's fourth floor space.

Based in New York, Nehassaiu's Off-Broadway credits include Is God Is at Soho Rep; Seagullmachine at La Mama; T.B. Sheets at ART/NY Gural Theatre; Target Margin Lab performances at JACK, Abrons, and Bushwick Starr; as well as readings at Manhattan Theatre Club, New Dramatists, and Playwrights Realm. Select regional credits include Sweat at Cleveland Play House, Intimate Apparel (2017 Wall Street Journal "Best Performance" Citation) and Or, (Berkshire Theatre Award: Outstanding Supporting Actress) at Shakespeare & Co., The Convert at Underground Railway Theatre, and King Lear at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Her international credits include a principal season at the Stratford Festival of Canada. You will be able to see her soon on the big screen in Evening Standard.

Here is a case where a single performance can make or break a production. In my opinion, Nehassaiu deGannes gives one of the best performances of the year as someone who stands by her principals rather than going along with the BS that is DC politics.

Now that you've gotten your 72-inch television and 110% off something at Target, why not consider seeing Kings at Studio Theatre as part of your late holiday viewing? Nehassaiu deGannes' performance is one you all need to see. Maybe it will leave you with a wish for the New Year that Rep. Sydney Millsap and all that she stands for could be a reality rather than just a dream from playwright Sarah Burgess.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Nehassaiu deGannes
An early career pic of Nehassaiu deGannes and Brian Patrick Monahan in the 2001 Trinity Rep production of The Cider House Rules. Photo courtesy of the artist.

At what age did you know that performing was going to be your chosen career?

I'm certainly not one of those actors who always knew. I didn't act in high school or even in undergrad. It wasn't until I was studying Poetry at Brown University and the MFA Playwrights kept asking me to be in their plays: "Hey! Will you do my new play?" "My Thesis Play?" One thing literally kept leading to another and I was catapulted into it. The late playwright Aishah Rahman saw me in a Brown mainstage production and wrote me a beautiful note saying she believed I could make a life on the stage. In her words, "I had never seemed more at home." I listened!

Where did you receive your training and who were some of your most influential teachers?

I am incredibly lucky to have trained at Trinity Rep. Oskar Eustis was Artistic Director at the time, and in my first year, he cast me in the world premiere of Robert Alexander's Preface To The Alien Garden, opposite Trinity Rep alum John Douglas Thompson. Tina Packer, founding Artistic Director of Shakespeare & Co., where [John] had gone on to train and work, came to see [him] in Preface..., saw me as well and immediately invited me to train with her that next summer. My most influential teachers are drawn from both of these institutions: Brian McEleney, Annie Scurria, Thom Jones, Tina Packer, Dennis Krausnick and Kelli Wicke Davis. To train with and act opposite veterans of America's Regional Theatre movement, members of one of the country's last standing resident acting companies, to be exposed to Oskar Eustis's championing of new plays in combination with Shakespeare & Co's vital approach to classical text, provided me with an amazing foundation. Both places cast me traditionally and non-traditionally in challenging and rewarding roles, providing the compass by which I have charted my whole career.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Nehassaiu deGannes
Nehassaiu deGannes in Studio Theatre's production of Kings.
Photo by C. Stanley Photagraphy.

Please tell us a little something about Kings and the character you play in the show.

Kings is a play about lobbyists and what our democracy really looks like, especially to a freshman lawmaker, an outsider, a person not interested in playing by the rules. That's my character: the rule-breaker. "Rep. Sydney Millsap" is a first term Congresswoman from North Dallas, who simply wants to do the job set out for her in Article 1.

What were your impressions of Kings after your first read of the script?

When I first read the script, I had just started rehearsals for Sweat at Cleveland Play House, so there I was multi-tasking and immediately struck by Millsap's quirky, stubborn commitment to the truth. At one point, she says, "Social exclusion has never bothered me." In our world obsessed with social media likes, let alone an actor's constant need to navigate acceptance and rejection, Millsap's unwavering directness felt exciting and refreshing, and the comedy born of her Socratic gadfly interactions with the lobbyists and senior Senator from Texas, a ton of fun to read, even on the page. I was also deeply intrigued by Kate's lobbyist journey, and the opportunity to explore how these two "underdogs" form an unusual alliance.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Nehassaiu deGannes
Elliott Bales and Nehassaiu deGannes in Studio Theatre's production of Kings. Photo: C. Stanley Photography.

It seems to me that your character in Kings is an ideal rather than the norm. Do you think there actually are politicians like Rep Sydney Millsap, or is it nearly impossible in this political climate to always do what you believe is the right thing to represent your people?

I agree, Millsap is an ideal, but without the ability to openly question the "norm" - money ruling politics without accountability, representatives more beholden to fundraising numbers than to their constituents' needs - will there ever be change? Still, some of the play's bitter-sweetness seems to lie, perhaps, in Millsap's unyielding, unbending nature. Had she been willing to compromise, might she have been able to play the long game? Or would she have succumbed to the status quo? I am grateful the playwright, Sarah Burgess, dares to leave us with these questions.

If given the chance, would you consider running for political office? If yes, would your platform be similar to Rep Sydney Millsap's?

Had you asked me in high school, I might have said yes. After winning a speech competition, I was once named most likely to run for major political office. Wow, that seems like many lifetimes ago, but no, I have no current intentions nor aspirations to enter politics. I am grateful to the courageous women and men who do, and if Millsap inspires more idealists to challenge the status quo, that would feel like a job well done.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Nehassaiu deGannes
Nehassaiu deGannes and Medina Senghore in the 2017 Shakespeare and Company production of Intimate Apparel. Photo: Stratton McCrady.

You've worked in a bunch of regional theatres across the country on a wide range of productions. Can you please pick a few that stand out as favorites?

Thank you, because "name one favorite," always stumps me. Let' see... "Catherine" in Proof at Trinity Rep is definitely one. I had graduated from the Conservatory and been invited by Oskar to join the Resident Company. I was the only person of color in the cast, in what I believe I'm correct in saying was the only non-traditional regional production of the play; there have been some all-Black productions. Trinity Rep veteran, the ever-generous Tim Crowe, played my dad. Here was this opportunity to explore this brilliant father-daughter legacy, what we inherit, what we sacrifice - and having lost my father as a teenager, excavating that territory was a gift. Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel and Sweat are high on my list, Lynn is one of my heroes, as are Liz Duffy Adams' Or, - nothing like playing three wildly different characters in a smart contemporary take on the restoration comedy! Being directed by Tim Carroll in Romeo & Juliet at Stratford Festival of Canada, and playing "Angie" in Aleshea Harris's vivid, genre-bending Is God Is at Soho Rep.

After Kings closes, what does 2019 hold in store for you?

Oh, I have a wonderful opportunity right on the heels of Kings that I am not yet at liberty to share. It will keep me busy through late April. After that? I'll keep you posted. Cheers!

Special thanks to Mike Fila of Bucklesweet Media for his assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.

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