By Kevin Greene
Marking progress through a life in the arts is often measured in inches across years. Day-to-day, month-by-month, year after year after year. A show here, a break, another show. Life intervenes: relationships with artists are notoriously complicated for all involved, though not without distinct rewards. Issues of finances and longevity, ethics and the elusive nature of “quality,” that most subjective of measures, which moonlights under the auspices of its opposite, are daily considerations. Making art as a person of color, a woman, or an artist who is unquietly queer, femme, trans, non-binary or otherwise socially or culturally marginalized redoubles these complications and adds a few more: institutionalized racism and sexism, the demand for excellence in the face of white cis male mediocrity, a constant barrage of microaggressions, well-meaning liberalism. The list goes on and on.
And yet, against the odds, the artist rises. One of the most gratifying ascents to behold in the last few years has been that of Wardell Julius Clark. After a decade as a professional actor, Julius Clark switched his focus to directing in 2018—while maintaining a foothold in the world of acting—and has achieved a degree of critical and popular success the likes of which are rare for artists at any point in their career, with each new play building on the artistry of the ones before it. I spoke with Wardell via email as well as in person during this year’s Players photoshoot, where he was generous, thoughtful and game for anything, qualities that gracefully transpose onto his art and activism.
We talked a little over a year ago but it seems like a lifetime at the clip you’ve been working at. Catch us up on what you’ve been up to and what’s coming next.
I went back on the other side of the table to act in “Flyin’ West” at American Blues Theater, then directed two staged readings at TimeLine Theatre. I worked with Make Believe Productions, recording an audio drama written by Nate Marshall, “Bruh Rabbit,” in front of a live studio audience. I opened the critically acclaimed “Dutch Masters” at Jackalope Theatre, “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963” at Chicago Children’s Theatre, “His Shadow” at 16th Street Theater, and “Hoodoo Love” at Raven Theatre. I workshopped and did a stage reading of a brand new Calamity West play, “Christmas at Home,” with Sideshow Theatre this summer, as well as finally joining the ensemble of The Fly Honey Show for their tenth anniversary. Coming up, the Chicago premiere of “Sheepdog” opens at Shattered Globe, followed by the Chicago premiere of James Ijames’ “Kill Move Paradise” at TimeLine Theatre Company. After that, I head to Steppenwolf as associate director on the world premiere of the new Rajiv Joseph play “King James” with Anna D. Shapiro, which will move to the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles later in the summer.
What are the most significant things you’ve learned along the way about yourself as an artist and particularly as a director?
What I know for sure is that I am walking in my calling, living in my purpose and growing as a human being through my art. My ideologies have morphed and changed greatly over the past years, especially the last five. I have found a specific mission, one that is about illuminating, celebrating and relishing black life onstage, as a means to seek liberation for my people through the art we create. I have also learned that it is okay to not have all the answers. The best thing a director can do is surround themselves with a fierce, diverse team of individuals who share a common goal for the work, with a myriad of ideas about how to achieve our collective goal. I’ve learned that my connection to any play is directly tied to how effective and powerful I think a story can be for the audience.
Because I spent ten years as a professional actor before adding director to my resume, it is less about learning new things and more about sharpening instincts that are already there. I’ve learned that if I cannot figure out the big moment in the play before I accept the job, then I can’t do the play. I have to have an instinctual, mental and visual understanding of how that works in the storytelling. I’ve learned that taking something as small as three lines of stage direction can spark an entire theatrical moment in my mind, unrealized to the playwright and fully in service of the story.
Every storefront show you directed last year sold out. What is it about the work that you and your collaborators are doing that draws such enthusiastic crowds?
To me, theater is church. A sacred place to tell truths, to be a conduit and a reflection. Life’s mirror. I often talk about the distinction between concept and intention. What I mean by that is, every director has a concept for how they choose to interpret the text of a play. However, there are many productions that do not fully connect the concept to what the intention of the audience’s emotion should be. From initial design meetings throughout preproduction and first rehearsal and the entire rehearsal process, I am continually reminding myself and all collaborators what the intention of our concept is. That idea fuels the theatrical relationship between production and audience. Audiences have to know that a Wardell Julius Clark production will be a full-bodied, visceral, emotional journey. That is because in every area of the production my collaborators and I intentionally seek to be as effective as possible in creating a world that not only the actors can live inside of but the audience as well. Chicago audiences have always known and continually crave this unabashed in-your-face experience from their storefront theater. Theater is both entertainment and education, even in the darkest moments onstage I want the audiences to be fully enthralled. The collective experience of the audience by nature makes people want to share it with each other. I like to build early word of mouth, buzz and excitement around the shows that I do. That, coupled with social media marketing and a lot of self-promotion [laughs] makes the whole thing work.
Critics like to note, or perhaps project patterns onto an artist’s output. What connections do you see between the plays you’ve directed?
All of the plays that I have directed so far deal with some aspect of the black experience juxtaposed against a past, present and future society seeking to invalidate our existence. I am drawn to work that illuminates black folks in our current condition while always striving for a more equitable existence in the world. A lot of my work has social justice themes. Growing up in Fairfield, Alabama and being steeped in the history of Birmingham, I have always thought of myself as an activist. A lot of the work that I have done—from my first play “Insurrection: Holding History” at Stage Left to the upcoming “Kill Move Paradise” at Timeline Theatre—is steeped in various forms of liberation of black people. I am drawn to plays that have large theatrical moments or plays absent of blocking on the page. I said in our previous interview, and I still believe, what we do with our art is our revolution. I seek to do work that leads audiences on a revelatory journey, that can also act as a conduit for a better society.
Take us inside your directorial process. Where do you begin? What’s it like in the room? Are you nervous when a new show opens or are you already thinking about the next?
I begin with the images in my mind’s eye on my first read of the text. There are usually moments that I see from the page that are in the final form of the production. My conversations with designers during preproduction are less instructive and more free-form exploration of ideas. I always have a very clear understanding of how the world of the play should function and seek to collaborate with designers to bring their instincts to my vision. On the first day of rehearsal I always begin with a James Baldwin quote. Baldwin for me articulates the vast dexterity of black life. It sets the tone for how we will work over the next several weeks in rehearsal. My rehearsal room is very fun, I like to think. When the play is hard, the work shouldn’t be.
I am always nervous when a new show opens, in that I hope the work resonates with audiences. I am also always thinking about the next show, usually based on necessity. Because of the freelance lifestyle, and scheduling, it has become a regular occurrence for me to be in preproduction while in rehearsals for another show. For example, my first week of rehearsals for “Kill Move Paradise” overlaps with tech and previews for “Sheepdog.”
You don’t show much sign of slowing down but let’s talk about self-care. What does a day off look like for you? Do you have a go-to getaway spot?
A day off? What’s that? Ha. Yes. My best friend Sydney Charles often jokes that I need a hobby. If I am gifted with a day off, I prefer to stay in bed. Self-care for me comes in very simple forms. Catching up on television shows, books that I’ve been meaning to read, and checking in on pop culture. If I am treating myself, there are specific foods and beverages that I will indulge in. A Popeye’s chicken sandwich and a Kentucky mule can do wonders. Dance for me is the loftiest of art forms and through daily practice and the occasional patronage I use dance as a form of rejuvenation and healing.
Who or what is currently inspiring you?
I am inspired by the artists in my inner circle. As a person who is constantly on the hunt for inspiration, surrounding myself with a small group of humans who share similar values and passion for life is my inspiration. My partner, Regina Victor, a person who embodies what I personally feel are the best qualities of the human spirit, is a daily inspiration in the way they pursue life. That daily interaction alone facilitates an energy in me that allows me to continue on my hardest days. I am inspired by the everyman in America who, in spite of everything, not only survives but thrives in their own world. My mother’s joy inspires me. My brother Phillip James Brannon, who I’ve long considered one of the greatest young actors in the American theater and now a rising TV and film star, has maintained his unique sense of self while continually growing and pursuing the very heights of our industry. There are also visual artists who greatly inspire me: Kara Walker, Hebru Brantley, Kerry James Marshall and Erin Mitchell.
Anything else you want our readers to know?
Yes. We are at a vital point in the American society and the human condition. As we have been before and more than likely will be again. It is more imperative than ever that we as people acknowledge the humanity in one another, and seek to find a more united understanding of how we can all exist together. That is what I search for in my work and that is the social media gospel I preach. The fundamental understanding that there are more things that connect us than separate us is the key to whatever comes next.