Marvel StudiosBlack Panther is a film that's not only hot but historic. It's based on the Marvel comic of the same name and is directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed). According to Fandango, pre-sale tickets for the film have already surpassed that of any previous superhero movie ever.
Black Panther is the alter ego of King T'Challa, who reigns over the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda, the sole source of a substance called vibranium. It's given the kingdom great wealth and technical advancement, which King T'Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) is sworn to protect. He, in turn, is protected by a group of female warriors led by Okoye, played with scene-stealing verve by actress and playwright Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead, Mother Of George).
"When we were announced as the additional cast at Comic-Con, that was really amazing," Gurira says. "But then the real moment hit — it was when that trailer came out. That's when the response was something we could never have imagined, quite honestly."
I've always felt blessed to be a part of this because I could understand the response, in the sense that this is imagery and narrative that many of us have yearned for. I know, being a black woman who's from Zimbabwe and from the United States, I've yearned for this type of imagery. I mean, it's one of those things I'm just excited it was getting made. The idea of actually touching into Africans being treated with this sort of respect and on this type of a platform, and the narrative coming from, you know, the black perspective entirely. And the sort of pride. There's something about the pride that this shows, that Wakanda shows — African pride, black pride, pride of your people, of your culture, of you know, who you are outside of any hegemonical influence, and how you can create your own hegemony right there amongst your own people. That, I think, is something people have really attached to. And I get it, being that I'm African, but you know I think it's beyond that. Many, many people of every different race I've come across are really attaching to that, and it's just been really thrilling. I really couldn't have anticipated it.
On being approached for the film
I was like, "What?" I couldn't even believe it. I was like, "Marvel and Ryan Coogler are doing what?" Like, I was trying to piece [it] together in my brain. My manager had to repeat it like four times. But like when I sat down with Mr. Coogler, you know, what's so very important to me as an African woman and as a playwright who writes from the African perspective — because of the lack thereof, or the misrepresentation thereof, or the distortion thereof — it was very important that this was, you know, that an African narrative is treated with the respect and authenticity. And sitting down with him and hearing his vision, I was just like, "OK, this is special."
On the experience of making a blockbuster
It's great. I mean, I think what's really exciting to me is the idea that it's a blockbuster where I'm speaking Xhosa, you know? I just think that's the coolest thing in the world. Xhosa — it's the same language that is native to Nelson Mandela. It's from the Cape region of South Africa. And Mr. John Kani, who plays T'Challa's father, T'Chaka, he's Xhosa. And so they started and agreed to that language being the language of Wakanda in Captain America: Civil War, where of course, T'Chaka is unfortunately killed.
On her character Okoye
Okoye is the general of [T'Challa's] armed forces — she's the head of the Dora Milaje. The Dora Milaje, as we know from the comic books, are like his special guard. They're also pretty much the guardians of the throne and the royal family, which makes them pretty much the guardians of the stability of the nation. And she works pretty much as his right hand woman — not man — and is involved in everything he does.
On Okoye being both fierce and feminine
I thought that was just such a combination that you don't often get to see. One gets sacrificed for the other in some sense, but it's — I know so many fierce and feminine women, you know? And I was like, "When do we get to see that on screen?" And so the thing that really connected me in a really powerful way was her love and her loyalty to this thing called Wakanda, this nation that was never colonized and consequently became the most advanced nation on the globe, in terms of technology, and used its resources for its own people, which Africa never got to do. The idea of being a guardian of that place, of being a protector alongside the king and protecting him, alongside Black Panther. To me, that just resonated so deeply as something that, you know, you are loyal to — to the death and beyond. You are upholding the traditions and the brilliant ideals of your foremothers and your forefathers and you do that at all costs. And she's a traditionalist. I'm not a traditionalist, but in a sense I am because I always wonder — Africans always wonder — "Who would we have been if we weren't colonized?" And she protects what we would have been, and to me, it made her very palpable.
Dustin DeSoto, Adhiti Bandlamudi and Gemma Watters produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson