Steven A. Butler’s Chocolate Covered Ants offers audiences unique insight into the minds of African American men in the age of Ferguson, Baltimore, and the subsequent news stories of police brutality. The play sold out two runs in Maryland last year, but you have another opportunity to see it at the Anacostia Playhouse starting tonight.
The story is told from the perspective of a psychologist undertaking comprehensive research on the mental, social, and physical toll that modern life in America takes on black men.
I spoke with Courtney Baker-Oliver, the co-founder of Restoration Stage and director of the show, on his vision for the production – and the state of African American theater in the District.
Tell me a little about the show. How did you first get involved?
Steven A. Butler, Jr., the playwright, and I were students at Howard. Even though we had many years collaborating together, the original iteration of the show is the first thing we worked on together. Even back then, he was calling it, Chocolate Covered Ants. It was originally set up in a format that was almost like a poetry reading. It consisted of surreal musings about experiences that black men have – what ails them.
I did a reading of those poems with a group of students from Howard back in 2001 and it was very well received. The man is a brilliant writer. I felt he could reach an even wider audience if it was plugged into a realistic context with a real sense of time and space. He began to do that work about three years ago, which is how it ended up in this version today, where it’s set in the office of a psychologist and social worker. That’s how he was able to work in the thoughts of the patients.
Almost as important to the story of the men is the story of this new character, Adrienne Taylor, played by Suli Myrie, and her motivations in taking up this study of black men. Beyond the story of these men and their various problems, it’s also very interesting to learn how she came to be involved.
So where did the title come from?
The title speaks to the way black men feel in society. Small, but strong. They can move things far heavier than their weight. One character compares himself to an ant.
In this era, if you’re Trayvon Martin, if you’re just trying to get home with your Skittles and your iced tea, someone can still shoot you down. If you’re a typical teenager in Florida where I’m from, if you happen to be listening to music with your friends – like I certainly did – somebody can shoot you dead. You can’t help but feel small. The title gives voice to how we as black men feel when we are so devalued and dehumanized in our society.
I’d like to think that we have come farther on race than we have. We have a black president now, but sometimes you have to take two steps back to make one step forward. There is certainly a renewed sense of vitriol against black folks, including ones who are trying to do the right thing. It’s like we are racist to think that we deserve a foothold into our society. It’s these old ways of thinking that keep us pigeon-holed. Most of us are working hard everyday trying to make our country better.
But we feel like ants, because we’re stepped on.
It’s certainly a timely play given the headlines. So how did you get into theater?
I was first introduced to the theater as a young person. I’ve been directing and performing since I was very small. When I was at Howard, I did a practicum in technical theater, as all theater majors were required. I accidentally drilled my finger to the floor and was forbidden from working in tech again. But I met Mike Malone, the late professor of musical theater at Howard, and worked as his assistant on more than 20 productions.
When I was 22, I went to work full-time as a teacher at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts where I taught for 11 years. I’m very proud to note that some of my students have gone on to perform on Broadway and TV.
Tell us about your work with the ensemble?
Mike Malone once told me that I could be a great director because I understood that 95% of directing is casting. I’ve been lucky to have strong, dynamic actors. I’m a perfectionist. I’m demanding as a director, but that’s how you get strong performances.
We have most of the cast playing against type. I did that on purpose to get them out of their comfort zone. For example, we have a guy, Marquis Fair, who is a very bright, book-ish guy. He plays a hardened criminal in this. You surprise yourself by what you’re able to do to get to the goal of becoming someone else. People really do like to be pushed to see what they can come up with when they are pushed to their further
How does this play fit into your vision for Restoration Stage?
Our vision is to restore the black family, one story at a time. I don’t apologize for that. It may sound narrow, but many people don’t have a frame of reference for what that experience has been like.
I’m proud to say that my family is all college-educated. In movies and television, it is very common to depict people as living on the fringes. The main character in this show is a doctor and is very comfortable financially. I want to tell real stories that show us as multi-dimensional and having the same types of aspirations and dreams as all other people, against what seems like a constant onslaught of information to the contrary. There’s a notion that being black is about being less educated than counterparts, when the reality is that there are under-educated people in all backgrounds.
I had a conversation about a year ago. I was backstage at a theater and saw a sign that said, “Burger Palace.” When I asked about it, a white tech guy said to me, “How can you not know that it’s from Grease?”
I replied, “I understand your POV, but what if I asked you to name some plays of James Baldwin or other black playwrights in the canon?” For black folk, we can’t do theater that isn’t informative, that doesn’t try to elevate our race.
People say that sometimes theater is just to be fun. I think you can have fun in the theater – there are laughs in this play certainly. You won’t come away saying, “Oh my god, two hours of pathos.” It has to be about telling the real story of black people. It has to be about telling the stories of people.
CHOCOLATE COVERED ANTS
January 14 – February 7, 2016
at Anacostia Playhouse
2020 Shannon Place SE
Washington, DC 20020
Thursdays thru Sundays
Check for discounts
My mother was a school administrator for many years. As a kid going out the door every day, I would hear my mother say, “Courtney – you will not embarrass me today.” I lived by this mantra. I lived that notion I’m always playing in my head that I can’t embarrass my people.
The stories that interest me are the ones that give humanity to people who have been left without any. That’s restorative. That’s how you change the hearts and minds of people. I have slave and Native American blood running through my veins – the indigenous people, the people on whose back this country was built. Yet my favorite movie is Sound of Music, which is about Austrians and World War II. It’s a story about overcoming adversity and love, even if there is no black person in it. Most stories are about that – wanting to be heard and appreciated. There’s just not enough people in the pipeline to tell their story.
The landscape in this city that still has a population that is half at least African American, but we are currently the only black theater company operating in DC. If there are 100 theaters in the city, how can it be that we are the only black one?
What are you working on next?
We’re going to be doing a show called Veils, as part of the Atlas Intersections Festival in March. We’ve heard stories about the Civil Rights movement – from Emmett Till up until Black Miles Lives Matter. It seems to always be about the men, but not the shattered lives of the women left behind – the women who wear the veil. It will be out in time for Women’s History Month.
Last year Steven was named to be a fellow of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. He’s written a new play recently called the Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus, which is a family history. We will mount that at Anacostia Playhouse this fall and are looking forward to continuing to Steven’s writing.
Anything else you would like audiences to know about Restoration Stage?
Ten years in, it’s time to get our permanent space. We are very grateful to Adele Robey of the Anacostia Playhouse for giving us a physical location to work from right now. My main goal in my life is to find a permanent space. This city deserves to have a permanent, black professional theater – like every other city in the country. It is a shame that this city has not figured out a way to support black theater. I don’t just mean big theaters doing Motown: The Musical, and then doing shows the rest of the year where you don’t see a black face.
I’m trying to figure out how we can get our own building so we can get our audience to see stories that reflect the diversity and range of African American life. That’s why we are fundraising. I know I sound passionate, but there are many other people here working hard on this. They are just as passionate about this goal.
Chocolate Covered Ants by Steven A. Butler, Jr is directed by Courtney Baker-Oliver and produced by Jivon Lee Jackson and Desire DuBose. The cast features Suli Myrie, David Lamont Wilson, Marquis Fair, Tillman Figgs, Charles Harris, Jr., Wilma Lynn Horton, Christopher “MC Chris Blaze” Ezell, Clermon Acklin, and Kandace Foreman.