Dear Reader, for this post I’m doing something a little different. Instead of offering my own reflections on the new musical Kalopsia, which opened last week, I’m going to offer you the thoughts of one of the artists who helped bring it to life. My CMU colleague Tomé Cousin, who directed the show, generously carved time out of his busy schedule to reflect on the work. What follows is an edited excerpt of our conversation.
Tatler: If somebody asked me: “what is this play about?” I think I would say: it’s about a young black man, Byrd, and his struggle to have his whole self accepted by family, by friends, and by community – and in particular I feel like it poses the question: what does it mean for him to “get his mind right” and what does that cost him? How would you answer that question?
Tomé Cousin: To me it’s all kind of converged together in a way, it’s the idea of a young black person, and then we’re going to put the gay element on on top of it – the idea that everything they do has to be better than it is. Everything is converging at the same time, the expectations of his mother, his family, his religion, his social life – he’s told that he’s wrong, so he has to get everything right; he knows this and he lives in his head, so even though that’s not what people are saying to him, that’s what he’s hearing. They’re just saying: you’re different, you have to change, you have to do something that’s not you, but for him it means: my mind is wrong so I have to get my mind right. It’s a weird psychology game thing, because everyone’s pointing fingers at him saying: “do something right,” but he’s hearing: “get your mind right.” I think Byrd is always trying to blend in in a certain way, but he can’t, so he escapes to this fantasy world where he’s going to be the star, he’s going to be the main thing who is always “right.” And then, in particular speaking to the black gay male experience, if there’s a young person – we’re talking like a kid now – and they have this fantasy world or this flamboyancy about them, it’s encouraged to downplay that and get rid of it, so that’s going to quash that happiness, and then when you’re in school, especially if you have a school where they have no arts program, it gets more compressed. So you’re encouraged not to be that way, and it is a form of trauma, it causes a trauma without you even knowing that it’s happening, and there’s no escaping it. So you find yourself hiding or secretly doing things like drawing or painting, because there’s no outlet for it.
But is that homophobia, or is there also a message of: “you’re not going to be able to succeed in the world if you’re this way” – or is it both?
It’s both. There’s the homophobia part of it, and also the black race part of it. Because the parents or the adults want to be protective of the child, the black male in particular, who is going to grow up in this dangerous environment. You can’t have any cracks or show any flamboyance, you can’t show who you really are, you have to stay in a little box.
One of the terms that comes up a lot in the play is “black excellence.” How does that theme of the play resonate with you?
I’m a result of the the civil rights movement: that fight was just for me to walk in the room. I’m the epitome of the representation of Martin Luther King’s dream. The idea that you should judge me from the content of my character not the color of my skin, I still think that way, that’s how I see the world. I think Monteze is a couple generations removed from that, so there’s a generational thing here. I went to this school in Baltimore, it was called the Dr. Ralph Young School for Boys, and Dr. Ralph Young, he was very unique – he was a physician and a spiritual guide if you will, a counsel to both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, so he had these two opposite points of view, and this man was right in the middle and he negotiated between the two of them. So I went to this school where you dealt with both philosophies and how to deal with problems and handle yourself in all these different ways, where we were called the “new talented tenth.” And I brought that to this production, trying to understand and negotiate between Larry [who keeps talking about black excellence] and Byrd [who keeps screwing up from Larry’s point of view]. I really understand what Larry is saying, and I kind of understand where Byrd’s coming from, but I think part of what Monteze is doing is pushing back against that idea of black excellence and showing that it is something that is oppressive for people who are marginalized within the community, like Byrd.
There is a huge range of musical styles in this play – can you talk a little bit about how that range contributes to the storytelling? Are there any specific moments where the musical style and the storytelling converge in a particularly effective way for you?
The music reflects a total black experience; there’s a full range of musical styles that moves the characters into some kind of action. There’s a key song in the middle that I found very interesting, and it was the most challenging one to deal with. The character Gerald has a moment where he’s giving Byrd the philosophy of “kalopsia,” it’s done in this kind of rap pseudo-mantra kind of thing that doesn’t have any kind of meter to it, and I found that to be really interesting – that is, Gerald, the pothead, is the one who can actually explain it, and he takes a moment and explains it to the audience and then takes a bow, he’s very proud of it! I found that to be completely opposite of, say, the gospel number later on that the mother sings; I think those are the two polar opposites of the whole musical, where the mother has this very honest moment and she’s actually teaching Hakeem, the boyfriend, how to pray, and she realizes in the song that she has this wish that she’s never said to her son. In fact, that’s where I started her emotional journey, we started there and went backwards, I felt that was a very vulnerable moment for her to have with the son and the boyfriend.
Another great moment is the father’s blues song, Sam Lothard did such a beautiful job with it.
Yeah, that one is – I would say like a Blues/ R&B, it’s very Luther Vandross-y.
Vandross is a great reference, because that song does feel very much like a kind of seduction/ love song, but it’s a father singing “forgive me” to his son – it’s a very clever musical choice for the moment. So, last question: what was the most gratifying thing for you, working on this production?
Working with Monteze and Tru and James. I’ve never had that experience, ever, working with with a whole black team, and then, in particular, those three. I’ve known them since they were young, so just to see them have grown up, and for them to consider me like a mentor to them – that is something that I’ve just started to take on in the last few years. That was the most rewarding part of it, and then to see it come alive on the stage, just to enjoy Monteze’s play! He wrote a musical – musicals are hard, you know, and he wrote this, he’s been working on it and he’s part of it, part of it is from his life and part of it is not, so to blend that all together, that was the best part of it for me.
Kalopsia The Musical (Book and Lyrics by Monteze Freeland, Music and Lyrics by Michael Meketa III, directed by Tome’ Cousin and choreographed by James W. Manning) is at the New Hazlett Theater through Oct. 17.
Tomé Cousin is also currently directing Little Children Dream of God for Point Park University, which will open on Nov. 3.