• Interviews

Making His Mark

March 1, 2021

By: Linda Armstrong

Robert O’Hara, the Tony nominated director of “Slave Play”–a play that made Broadway history by being nominated for 12 Tony nominations–is a perfect example of someone who is doing what he loves, doing what he believes in and acknowledges that he is part of a legacy that includes his mentor George C. Wolfe, Lorraine Hansberry and Douglas Turner Ward. O’Hara knew he wanted to be in theatre from a young age, as he used to perform plays in his grandmother backyard, then he performed plays in elementary and high school. When he first enrolled in Tufts University he thought about studying law and had theatre as a minor. But he recalled, “In college you find out who you are. I came out of the closet in college. I discovered ‘The Colored Museum’ by George Wolfe. I and another student formed the Tufts Black Theatre Company. Being in college, where I could concentrate on theatre as not just being something you do after class, being able to concentrate on it as a real major, was important to me. College allowed me the space and the time to discover who I was. My last couple in years in college is when I decided this was going to be my major.”  

Acting, playwright and directing in college through Tufts Black Theatre Company was something that just seemed natural to O’Hara. “It wasn’t difficult for me because I enjoyed it so much and looked at it as a hobby. I didn’t think of it as difficult, I thought of it as something I liked to do. I didn’t know that writing and directing were supposed to be difficult. In college I decided to go directly to graduate school and become a director. I knew I loved theatre and I knew I needed to get professional training as soon as possible. I wanted to be able to compete on the same level as other people in the profession. There was an arts community in college that made me feel comfortable, everybody is a bit of an odd ball searching for something,” O’Hara shared.

Robert O’Hara

Attending Columbia University where he received his masters in theatre was life changing. He was fortunate enough to intern at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre and not only meet his idol, George C. Wolfe, but be mentored by him. Here was O’Hara, a gay, Black man, who was now in the presence of another gay, Black man who was a genius and successful in the field that he loved. “The Public Theatre was seminal in my development as an artist mentored by George C. Wolfe. Being mentored by another Black, queer director who was running the institution was very empowering. The mentorship was not easy, it was tough love and it taught me and gave me a very thick skin. It was very visceral and volatile at times and challenging and rewarding. It also gave me a respect for how to work with other artists. It wasn’t just following someone as a writer/director, but the leader of an institution. He dealt with staff, maintenance, and the day-to-day operations. He was also directing one of the most important plays in history, ‘Angels in America.’ I went on to assistant him in ‘Bring in Da Noise/Bring In Da Funk’. He assisted in my first play being mounted (Insurrection: Holding History) and allowed me to direct it. So, I would not have started if it wasn’t for George Wolfe and the Public Theatre.”

Wolfe influenced O’Hara a great deal. “George always lived authentically as himself and showed all the flaws and blemishes of being a human being. He didn’t try to be a superhero. When you are around a genius you find the human being ain’t cute–he allowed me to see all his humanity. George was never pretending, when he was upset, he was upset, when he was outraged, he was outraged, when he was happy, he was happy. He knew he was in a position where people looked at him differently. We didn’t talk about being Black and gay, we just did the work. It was the example that he led by his talent and artistry that allowed me to be proud of who I am. My relationship with a Black gay mentor is that I am enough and who I am matters.”

Through his career O’Hara has written and directed several plays and received accolades for his work. Works that often dealt with unconventional subjects. His play “Insurrection: Holding History” was about a young gay, Black man at Columbia getting his masters and at the time O’Hara was doing just that. The play received the 1996 Newsday Oppenheimer Award for Best New American Play. This same play Wolfe opened at The Public Theatre on Oct. 11. 1996. “Brave Blood” talked about a psychiatrist trying to help female prostitutes with their lives. “14: An American Maul,” talked about reinstating slavery to harvest cotton by hand. “Antebellum”, focused on social injustice and won the 2010 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play. “The Etiquette of Vigilance”, continued where Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin In The Sun” left off, following Travis, the boy in the play, daughter Lorraine’s life and hopes to go to college.

Production still from “Bootycandy”.

“Bootycandy” that used vignettes to share comedic and satirical themes on what it means to be a gay Black man in America won the Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Drama. “Barbecue”, looked at a family coming together to do an intervention for a drug abusing female member.

Production Still from “Barbecue”.

Considering what he wants audiences to come away with when they experience his work, O’Hara said, “What I ask an audience to take away is the diversity of voices and experiences. My work is unique because of the way I walk through the world. I’m not allowed to work in a superior manner. No one makes me comfortable as a gay Black man. Why am I here to make you comfortable when I live an uncomfortable life? I think my job is to take you on an adventure. I don’t’ think of myself as trying to provoke or make people upset, I just tell interesting stories that are interesting to me. Others who don’t look at the world through my eyes might think it risky. All my life I’ve been different, different is a good thing. My sexuality and race as a gay Black man doesn’t lead me out the door, the world tells me that every day. I don’t think about it in my work, it just shows up. For my survival I have to be aware of who I am as Black and gay and more importantly who other people are.”

Danai Gurira and Robert O’Hara.

In Los Angeles, O’Hara received the NAACP Award for Best Director for “Eclipsed.” Discussing his vision for that poignant drama he shared, “It is a very powerful play. I had already worked with Danai {Gurira} and I was lucky enough to have her there to guide me and the cast. I wanted to give it the weight that it needed and that these were real people and that this behavior existed, though it’s set in a foreign land. I’m aware of the imagery we present about Africa. My job in directing it was to allow the women to lead and to make space for them. I did the research that was necessary to participate in directing them. I think Danai is such an amazing talent that I was just there for the ride. I had to make sure that the play didn’t come so harsh that one can’t watch it or so light that one didn’t know the weight.”

Jeremy O. Harris, playwright and Robert O’Hara, director.

Considering all the productions he participated in either as playwright or director and him getting to direct “Slave Play” at the New York Theatre Workshop, O’Hara humbly said, “I think that everything in life sort of prepares you for the next thing and Jeremy {O’Harris-playwright of ‘Slave Play’} was a fan of my work and a student of mine after he wrote ‘Slave Play’. He has admired my work and I see a lot of myself in him. To me this was just an extension of the work that I had already been doing. My career prepared me to deal with a play that dealt with sexuality, race, humor and society. Jeremy and I can acknowledge to each other that there’s a legacy that links us to George Wolfe, Lorraine Hansberry, Douglas Turner Ward, no one operates in a vacuum.”

Production Still from “Slave Play”.

Talking about what stands out for him with “Slave Play”, O’Hara explained, “The race and sexuality are secondary, what’s most important is the human condition of each character and that was colored by whether it was gay men or a white woman. We start with–what is the play saying at this moment? The 2nd act of the play is an hour of people sitting and talking. How do you make that active? You do that by giving each of them humanity. You have to know what everybody’s journey is so that you don’t step on it. Everybody has to be telling their story. To the audience it feels natural and seamless, but everything is orchestrated.”

“I didn’t believe it,” O’Hara shared as he talked about when “Slave Play” was being moved to Broadway. “I told the producer I don’t believe a word coming out of your mouth. I was too skeptical, I have seen Broadway, I know what’s been on Broadway, I didn’t believe it. The general managers called my agent and he said ‘believe it’. I had never seen anything like ‘Slave Play’ on Broadway and that was both glorious and terrifying,” O’Hara admitted.

On the morning of the Tony nominations O’Hara recalled doing a zoom call with the full cast, toasting each other and giving each other love. Feeling that they weren’t going to be nominated at all. O’Hara’s feeling of disbelief continued, though a couple of hours later everything changed. “It was the most nomination of a play in Broadway history, we thought they made a mistake. That’s how I protect my heart,” he shared.

O’Hara is proving himself a force to be reckoned with.

Linda Armstrong is a theatre critic with the New York Amsterdam News, Theatre Editor for Neworldreview.net, A&E Editor for Harlem News Group and has written for Playbill Online, had a Theatre column “On The Aisle” for Our Time Press, Network Journal Magazine, Show Business Weekly Newspaper, Headliner Magazine, Theatre Week Magazine, Black Masks Magazine, and The New York Daily News.