Never afraid to provoke and challenge audiences, Robert O’Hara is making his Broadway directing debut with Slave Play. He tells Howard Sherman about championing young playwrights and juggling writing with directing
Theatremaker Robert O’Hara wants audiences to choke on his work. “I don’t want it to be easily digestible,” the versatile playwright and director says, before quoting one of his own characters: “When you choke on something, you actually have to work on it.”
Warming to the theme, he continues: “Sometimes you feel where it was trying to go down. There’s a residue feeling and so it lasts a little bit longer. Even after you stop choking, you still feel it inside your throat. There’s something about theatre where I want to not be able to get up, walk out and go: ‘Oh, that was nice,’ but really have to engage with it as I go home and think about it and work over what I felt about it. That’s the type of theatre I like.”
He adds: “I don’t want you to die from choking, but I certainly would like you to wrestle with it a little bit.”
O’Hara makes his Broadway debut as a director on October 6 with the opening of the provocative Slave Play, written by Jeremy O Harris, which O’Hara previously staged in its acclaimed and much-debated debut last year at New York Theatre Workshop. It is one of a number of notable new plays he has directed in recent years in the US. Others include Aziza Barnes’ BLKS, Nikkole Salter and Danai Gurira’s In the Continuum, Kirsten Childs’ Bella: An American Tall Tale and Colman Domingo’s Wild With Happy.
But O’Hara could have just as easily made his debut on Broadway as a playwright, thanks to his own body of work which includes Mankind, Barbecue, Bootycandy and Insurrection: Holding History. This makes him one of the few US theatre artists successfully making a career as both playwright and director. He has experienced resistance when he seeks to direct his own plays, he reveals, though he often does so.
“In film, they expect you to write them and direct them, because that’s a director’s medium,” O’Hara says. “But I think they’re sceptical in theatre and I don’t know exactly why. It’s about this idea that the director is supposed to come in and correct the playwright.”
O’Hara is clear about how he envisions that relationship between playwright and director. “Somehow we think the playwright is supposed to be sitting in the back, quietly thankful that other people are doing their work. But they’re part of the conversation and collaboration – and actually the beginning of the conversation. So I try to empower playwrights, especially young playwrights, because I can only be as interesting as they are.”
‘Somehow we think the playwright is supposed to be quietly thankful that other people are doing their work. But they’re part of the collaboration’
He says that there are always different ways to expand on, or trim, a scene. But as a director, that’s not how he sees his role. “I’m not interested in writing their play because I’m a writer,” says O’Hara. “I’m interested in interpreting their play to the best ability that I can, and allowing them to help in that interpretation along with everyone else in the room.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working at Kings Island amusement park.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Associate artist at the Public Theater.
What’s your next job?
The workshop production of a new play by Rajiv Joseph at the Goodman Theater.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Protect your heart.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Don’t stretch. And be a human being first, then do the character.
If you hadn’t been a director and playwright, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Never watch a show with professional critics in the house.
O’Hara typically directs a workshop of his plays, to refine the work. Then he decides whether he feels he has something interesting to bring to it as a director. At that stage, sometimes he thinks: “Okay, I’m done with this play as a writer and I’m not interested in it as a director. I want to see what other people might bring to it. Sometimes I just want to be the playwright. I don’t want to have to show up every day. I don’t want to have to answer everybody’s questions. I don’t want to have to set a schedule or sit through a tech.”
How does he respond when asked whether he prefers directing or playwriting? “Well that’s like asking me what hand do I like to use – my left or my right? I like to use them both.” He also makes clear: “I am not a playwright who wants to direct and I’m not a director who wants to write. I am a trained director and a trained playwright.”
Though O’Hara participated in theatre from a very young age, he didn’t see a lot of theatre. After enrolling in college as a pre-law student, he came to realise that he wanted to pursue the field professionally, both as a director and a playwright, saying he was inspired by the work of Spike Lee in film and George C Wolfe in theatre.
Applying to graduate programmes in directing and playwriting at Columbia University, he was rejected by both. But he called Columbia in an attempt to change the minds of those running the courses and got on the phone with the dean. He relates the dean’s response, who said: “I think we made a mistake. We sent you the wrong letter. You have got into the directing program. We have not made a decision on the playwriting program just yet, so you’ll be getting a letter soon.” O’Hara says he has never heard from the playwriting programme. But his thesis play, Insurrection: Holding History, became his professional debut in 1995.
Expanding on the influence of Wolfe on his dual pursuits, O’Hara says: “He’s a force of nature. The way he spoke to other directors, and to other playwrights, both those that he was working with and those who were working for him, was very empowering.” Another key influence, O’Hara says, is teacher and SITI Company co-artistic director Anne Bogart, with whom he trained in graduate school.
O’Hara says that his work with new plays in New York, and his regional work on relatively recent plays, was natural because young directors aren’t being asked to do canonical work like Greek tragedy or even A Streetcar Named Desire. Instead artistic directors gravitated to him with offers to direct work based on what they saw as similarities to O’Hara’s own writing.
“I’m rarely, if ever, offered the opportunity to direct Shakespeare or direct a classic,” he continues. “I’m rarely offered plays that are not written by people of colour, mainly African-Americans. My white colleagues are able to direct across genres and races and styles, but somehow I’m locked in. Most people of colour are locked into doing work by people of colour. I find that to be not only wrong, but internalised racism. I should be able to do Shakespeare. I should be able to do Sarah Ruhl. I should be able to do Tennessee Williams.”
Following his work on Slave Play last autumn at NYTW and BLKS at MCC Theater in the spring, over the summer O’Hara had the opportunity to explore a classic work of African-American drama, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. His approach was markedly different from traditional productions: the New York Times’ Ben Brantley described one speech, typically a conversation among characters, as “being hurled like a fireball into the audience”.
Of his approach, O’Hara says that the play’s classic stature ensured there was nothing he could do to diminish its power and significance. He says: “Hansberry is solidified in her majesty as a writer, and the work is solidified. That’s when you can begin to play with it. That’s when you begin to explore it. I didn’t rewrite A Raisin in the Sun. We didn’t change a word. We just looked at it through a different lens. I looked at it as a new play.”
‘I didn’t rewrite A Raisin in the Sun. We didn’t change a word. We just looked at it through a different lens’
He goes on to describe his approach to the work: “There was some breaking of the fourth wall that we did. There was some leaning into some of the things that are pulled out and made funny, like the rampant misogyny, the rampant sexism, the alcoholism, and just the PTSD of living in this family, in this place for so long. We pulled that out and highlighted that, especially in this time of #MeToo, of Black Lives Matter, at this time of lesbian, gay, and trans rights. I wanted to lean into how progressively exciting this play actually is.”
Asked whether August Wilson’s work is ready to be seen through a new lens, O’Hara responds: “I don’t think that we actually have leaned into the magical realism of his work enough. I see all these August Wilson productions, with realistic places and realistic scenes, and these people are speaking poetry. And I’m like: ‘How is this person sitting in this coffee shop spouting poetry, really?’ I’m eager to see more elasticity in August Wilson.”
While a huge hit Off-Broadway, some have questioned whether Slave Play is ready for Broadway – or whether Broadway is ready for it. O’Hara brushes aside such concerns: “I’m a Broadway audience member. I go to almost 100 shows Off-Broadway and on Broadway every year.”
He continues: “I think our country is in the mode of grappling with a lot of things. Those people are coming into the theatre. So I think that sometimes we try to curate Broadway audiences into saying that this or that is not going to work for them. But people who want challenging work will find challenging work. It’s nice for them to have something to find.”
Born: 1970, Cincinnati
Training: Tufts University; MFA in directing, Columbia University
• Insurrection: Holding History, Public Theater, New York (1995)
• In The Continuum, Primary Stages, New York (2005)
• Brother/Sister Plays (Part 2), Public Theater (2009)
• Wild With Happy, Public Theater (2012)
• BootyCandy, Playwrights Horizons, New York (2014)
• Macbeth, Denver Theater Center (2017)
• Slave Play, New York Theatre Workshop (2018)
• A Raisin In The Sun, Williamstown Theatre Festival (2019)
Agent: Ron Gwiazda, Abrams Artists
Slave Play runs at Broadway’s John Golden Theatre until January 5. Details: slaveplaybroadway.com