Tony nominee Ato Blankson-Wood on being ‘delighted and disturbed’ by ‘Slave Play’ [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

“I was really taken aback by how much I was delighted and disturbed by the play,” explains Ato Blankson-Wood of “Slave Play.” The actor scored his first ever Tony nomination for his work as Gary in Jeremy O. Harris’ searing look at racism in America. Watch the exclusive video interview above.

“I recognized that Jeremy is a very singular voice,” says Blankson-Wood as he thinks back on his first impressions of “Slave Play.” The actor saw a student production of the show at Yale before starring in the Off-Broadway and Broadway mountings. The story opens with three interracial couples partaking in “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” to work through their issues. As the script eventually reveals, these issues are often rooted in the systemic racism of American society.

SEE ‘Slave Play’ breaks Tony nominations record for a play with a staggering 12 bids

Since the script refuses to shy away from any topic, be it uncomfortable or sexual, intimacy director Claire Warden was brought in to help shape the wild moments of the first act. For Blankson-Wood, this involves a roleplay with his boyfriend Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer, also Tony nominated) where the power dynamics of the Antebellum south are reversed. “One of the first things she said to us,” the actor reveals, “was ‘NO is a full sentence.” He was thankful for the “full autonomy and full agency” that mantra provided the cast, allowing them to go to some extreme places emotionally.

Still, Blankson-Wood admits that the end of the sex therapy sequence was “daunting” for him. Gary is suddenly overcome with pleasure during the play with his boyfriend and climaxes unexpectedly. This act releases a complicated floodgate of emotions around sex, power, and racism that sees Gary completely break down. “The psychology of sex is challenging,” explains the actor. When playing in that realm for a character, “you’re touching on your own traumas.” Thankfully, Blankson-Wood and Cusati-Moyer attended graduate school together. The performer credits that history and built in “shorthand” as a major help in exploring the play’s traumatic themes together.

“Slave Play” evoked a wide range of responses from audiences thanks to the tough topics it confronts. Indeed, Blankson-Wood says his most common interaction with theatergoers was not about whether they liked the show or not, but rather a series of inquiries about how the play brought elements of our society to light. “The major victory of the play is that it leaves you with questions,” declares the Tony nominee.

It’s a play packed with conflict, but Blankson-Wood sees that love is at the center of every argument and struggle it depicts. He even cites that the underlying love between Gary and Dustin was the element that grew for him the most during the Broadway transfer. “I think what we’re trying to do in America, is get to a place where love is the motivator, not conflict or hate.”

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