Niegel Smith fuels his passion for theater with works that speak volumes
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Niegel Smith just might have the Midas touch when it comes to theater.
The award-winning director is basking in the glow of two critically acclaimed Chicago productions: last year’s epic “Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)” by Suzan-Lori Parks, and the currently-playing “How to Catch Creation” by Christina Anderson, both at the Goodman Theatre.
They are plays, Smith says, that speak to his soul, and more importantly to the community. They are stories filled with characters who reveal as much about themselves as they do about each of us. It’s work that often means taking risks, and Smith says he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Smith grew up Pentecostal in rural North Carolina, attending a church which he excitedly refers to as “theater” because “there was shouting and catching the spirit and a band with drums and a guitar, and it was great fun. And if someone wanted to sing a song everyone just joined in and started singing along.”
“I discovered proper theater in high school,”Smith says during a recent chat. “My parents separated and I ended up in Detroit where my mom had extended family. I went to a Catholic school and we had a theater [department].”
He started reading Edward Albee, whose “absurd plays just grabbed me. ‘The Zoo Story’ was one of the early [plays] I worked on. By the time I got to college at Dartmouth I had a deep love and appreciation for theater. So I majored in it.”
The work of playwrights George C. Wolfe and Suzan-Lori Parks also spoke to him. He would do his graduate thesis on Parks’ “In the Blood.” He came to also appreciate “Forum theatre” (the brainchild of Brazilian drama theorist/activist Augusto Boal, another of his early influences) and how it could directly impact community.
“I think of the role of the director as twofold: First, we’re inviting folks to the party so we’re the host. And [second], as community organizer: What do I want to focus the community on? Usually it’s around a great play, and a playwright who has something necessary and urgent that we need to be paying attention to. My job is to make that an event that you want to be at and hear.”
Smith, who also presides as artistic director of The Flea Theater in New York, talked about his craft and the responsibility he feels he has to inspire and nurture other artists of color.
Q. What spoke to you in “How to Catch Creation” so much so that you knew you had to stage it?
A. This play is seductive because it just looks at six folks who are trying to make something lasting in their lives, in their legacy. I felt that’s something we all have a relationship with. … And it’s funny! I felt that every person in this play I knew somehow — my brother or an aunt or best friend. I knew I wanted to spend time with these characters. … It’s like meeting a new best friend or new lover. The play happens over the course of 38 scenes and 12 different locations [across decades]. Figuring out how the action would play out, where those bodies would land on stage at any given moment, was really like setting up shots for a film.
Q. “Father Comes Home from the Wars” last year was a powerful statement on generations as well. What spoke to you about that work?
A. First, Suzan-Lori Parks is one of the best writers alive. She captures the human spirit on this epic, grand scale so the questions [she poses through her writing] are bigger than life. …Her play allows us joy through music and laughter and commentary and really great naturalism, especially in that second play. I just knew we could implicate the audience in this immersive staging.
Q. It’s Black History Month, and as an emerging director on Chicago’s theater scene, you clearly have a passion for the work you do and what you bring to the stage that enhances our understanding of others, of life, on so many levels. Do you feel a responsibility to other actors and directors of color, who maybe see themselves in you or the work you are doing?
A. Yes. But I refer to myself as black, however, not African-American. To be a black man in America is to be under a constant state of pressure or constant stage of siege. I remember as a young boy in rural North Carolina, I learned very quickly that my skin tone meant that people were afraid of me or thought that I was ignorant, or wanted to deny me opportunity. And so I’ve always carried that with me and I know I have a responsibility to honor those folks who survived oppression, who thrived despite it, brought news stories and informed our nation. I remember being in high school and I said to my drama teacher, ‘F—, I’m black and I’m gay.’ And this white Episcopalian says to me, “That means you’re double-blessed.” I was so lucky to have her to reframe these things I was feeling so pitiful about.
Q. What did those words from your high school teacher mean to you?
A. I was shocked. I wanted a pity party! [Laughs] It was part of a series of experiences. Being taught the work of George Wolfe, and Sharon Washington and Suzan-Lori Parks and Adrienne Kennedy in college woke me up to what gifts we have as people of color in America. We have that insight about what does it mean to create a full life despite being a secondary citizen. I also have the privilege to grow up working-class, so I get it when people say, “Class is the issue. I’m just trying to figure out how to put food on the table.” I have a responsibility to show through my work that people of color, people of modest means, have exceptional gifts to contribute. We have the right and privilege to create culture and make culture that looks and breathes and tastes and smells like us and the things we know, and that deserves to be funded and defended and put up in the best spaces, and put up in our living rooms and on the streets.
Q. What do you want black children to learn from this monthlong celebration, especially through theater?
A. One of the reasons I practice theater and why I think theater is important is that it preserves our stories and preserves our history and it’s a reminder of the pitfalls we’ve made and the joys we’ve made. It’s a place to get together as a community. It’s a record of who we are, who we want to be, who we imagine we can be. It doesn’t have to be realistic, like film it can be expressionistic, musicalized. It’s really a place for the poetry of lived experience to happen. In terms of who we celebrate this month? You can celebrate a person who’s just special to you. …
My great-grandmother Rosa Briggs taught me how to engage with politics on the television and how to bake biscuits and how to dream big dreams. … So you can honor those folks, as well as honoring the Dr. Martin Luther Kings and Malcolm Xs who are the big leaders who articulated vision. If you’re looking for a place to celebrate your specificity and your heritage and culture, theater is a place where that could happen.