The Humblebrag of Broadway

To date, I have not performed on Broadway.  (Working on it.)  A fair number of my performer friends have, however, and I’ve usually been able to see them and cheer them on.  It shouldn’t matter so much that it’s “Broadway,” of course – art is art, and the craft is the craft, and the other terrific performances I’ve seen my friends give are in no way diminished for having been given in smaller venues.  But it’s hard to deny the cache of the “Broadway” designation, the physical allure of those gloriously gaudy houses – to say nothing of having a living wage for a paycheck. 

Usually, when I’ve seen a friend in a Broadway show, they’ve been a face to pick out in the ensemble.  (Which certainly isn’t a slight – to be considered for even the tiniest role or smallest chorus track on Broadway requires a jaw-dropping amount of talent.)  This weekend, however, I had the happy privilege of seeing a friend of mine performing a major role in a Broadway play.  Zainab Jah, with whom I’d done a number of developmental readings at Classical Theatre of Harlem back in the day, is playing (and indeed creating) the role of Maima in Eclipsed by Danai Gurira.

Zainab’s part and performance are crucial to the play.  I won’t spoil it here (though if you live in NYC and haven’t seen this play yet, you really should), but the play hinges on Lupita N’yongo’s character “Number 4” being lured into a particular life by the example of Maima.  Maima has to be alluring but dangerous, understandable but frightening, in equal measure, in order for the show to work.  That Zainab pulls this off isn’t surprising at all to anybody who’s worked with her; the remarkable thing is the effortlessness with which she does so.  You never see her straining for effect, never see her expending unnecessary effort in trying to sell the performance or fill the space, even as she does so with ease.  She makes the play’s most extreme character authentic, which is critical to the play working.

I’ll admit to a twinge of jealousy here, seeing a friend enjoy a moment of Broadway triumph as I still toil away in comparative obscurity (though I somehow doubt I would have been considered for the role of a female Liberian guerrilla fighter).  But in reality, the overwhelming emotion when witnessing a friend pull off what Zainab is doing here is neither jealousy nor pride, but hope.  Because the whole mystique of “Broadway” all too often serves as a barrier, a way of treating the performance as something rarified, remote, “other.”  Zainab is doing the exact opposite by bringing this character to rich, recognizable life, and this achievement is even clearer to those of us who’ve worked with her, however modest the capacity.  It proves that it can, indeed, be done.  That it’s not a wish or pipe dream, but a worthy and achievable goal, one which all artists can and should strive to achieve.

Like I said, I’m still working on it.

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