April Matthis. Photo: Christine Jean Chambers

Our podcast this week revisits a previous guest, actor April Matthis. She’s starring in “Help,” a play at The Shed written by poet and Yale professor Claudia Rankine, which runs through April 10. We last talked to Matthis in June about making ends meet as an artist in the pandemic, thanks to a grant from the Knight Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund via URL Media. What a difference these 10 months have made. Here’s a sneak peek of the conversation between her and Epicenter’s publisher S. Mitra Kalita. Tune in to listen to the whole conversation tomorrow morning. Edited excerpts:

What the show is about: 

“Help” is about a Black woman who moves in spaces where she frequently encounters white people, particularly white men, and the play is her odyssey through actually engaging these white people. She encounters them particularly in these liminal spaces like airports and flights to ask them point blank about their understanding of whiteness and how they think about white supremacy and white dominance. It’s kind of turning the lens on race toward white people instead of pathologizing Blackness.

Being the “only” in the room: 

This is not the first time I’ve worked in an all-white cast. It’s been a big part of my career. If there’s anything meta or cathartic about it, it’s the fact that that’s what the show is about for a change instead of me playing some color blind casting or race-neutral character.

This play was really exciting to me and felt like this is what I want to be addressing. There was a lot of attention paid to making it a safe and brave space. What we came to realize in the room is that that did not mean that the white folks in the room needed to be silent.

This is a Black woman’s words and thoughts and mind and gaze. There was a sense in the beginning of the process of ‘Let us not take up too much space as white folks. And let’s make sure that April has room.’ I had all the room. I had a football field. 

What it’s like performing in a pandemic: 

We are not out of this pandemic and I am very concerned about lax Covid restrictions when we don’t have any evidence that Covid is gone or is going away.

I have to be very careful about who I see and how I see people after the show. We have understudies in case we lose actors but we only have two understudies. I’m glad for the change that I’ve seen: People value and appreciate the Herculean labor of the understudy job.

I will say that I am not ready for an unmasked audience. I don’t think it’s safe. There’s still the possibility of transmitting it to someone who’s immunocompromised, the elderly. That’s more people than you realize. 

I don’t think it’s safe to let go of vaccine requirements in crowded theaters. Covid is still around and I’m not going to act like it’s not. 

S. Mitra Kalita is a veteran journalist, media executive, prolific commentator and author of two books. In 2020 she launched Epicenter-NYC, a newsletter to help New Yorkers get through the pandemic. Mitra...

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