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
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.