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Adrienne Warren and Katori Hall of Broadway’s ‘Tina’ don’t know when theater will return, but they’re working to make it better

The Tony nominees talk about how the pandemic has changed them

After a global pandemic made for the most calamitous year in the history of American theater, actor Adrienne Warren and playwright Katori Hall are among the many Tony nominees who will finally find out if they’ll win awards for their work in the 2019-20 Broadway season.

The Tonys usually take place in June. But last year, that timeline was completely upended. Broadway shut down on March 13, 2020, and some shows that would have been contenders hadn’t even opened yet. The American Theatre Wing finally announced nominations in October. Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, based on the life of Tina Turner, garnered 12 nominations, including one for best musical. Warren was nominated for best performance by an actress in a leading role in a musical, and Hall, together with Kees Prins, was nominated for best book of a musical. The voting period closes March 15, but a date for the ceremony hasn’t been announced.

I spoke with Warren and Hall about adjusting to daily life without the queen of rock ’n’ roll, the work that lies ahead in making theater more equitable, and the precariousness many stage workers and organizations face.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What can theater do in this moment of extreme abnormality, when Broadway’s closed? What can audiences do?

Hall: This beautiful art form that is based on gatherings have been so decimated by this pandemic. And I still just feel theater artists were always a very vulnerable group of artists, just because it’s so hard to make it in this business. I’m trying to remain hopeful, and I’m thinking of this darkness as an intermission. But I know that in the midst of all of this darkness, we have to find a new source of light. And what I mean by that is, we really need to turn this mirror on ourselves and to eradicate all of these roots of racism and sexism and classism that exist within our industry. From the audience all the way up to the producers, we’re working in an industry that tends to be predominantly white, and they’re the specific gaze that people cater to. It has to change, but it’s, quite frankly, a direct reflection of just the entire world — and very specifically America, and American culture. So it’s like we have this amazing opportunity in this pause to really f— s— up.

Adrienne Warren was nominated for a Tony for best performance by an actress in a leading role in a musical.

Manuel Harlan

Warren: Demand better representation when it comes to people of color on Broadway. Making sure those unions that are unfortunately — they tend to be almost up in the 90% all white — whether it’s IATSE [International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees], or even with agencies, where we are not represented. Where we don’t have the power, even though we all know that stories that center the Black experience and are told with Black creatives and creators are powerful and lucrative theater projects.

Do you feel like theater can take on all of those things?

Hall: Like can theater take on all these centuries of white supremacy? I think it’s kind of unfair to ask that theater do that. But I do feel as though, because it’s such a beautiful art form, that once again, it’s a sacred space. I actually think theater can be one of the most instrumental forms that hopefully dismantle racism within our society. Because it’s based off of people sitting side by side. People that you’ve never thought that you would be in the same room with. So it’s a long-winded way to say I’m not sure exactly what theater can do, but I know that in this pause, a lot of people have done amazing things. I’m so inspired by what Adrienne has been doing, specifically with the Broadway Advocacy Coalition.

Warren: One thing we’ve learned in this time, we talk about, ‘What does this community need?’ One thing we’ve learned is just how unprotected we are.

My friend just said today, ‘Where there is conflict, there is opportunity.’ So we now have an opportunity to figure out how do we protect ourselves as artists more? How do we find ways when things come to a halt to make sure our beauty doesn’t falter? To make sure that people don’t lose their health care? To make sure that families are being taken care of? And we realize also just how large this community actually is. And so an industry that prides themselves off of that word — community — we are now just scratching the surface of what that truly means. And all the pieces that are required, all the pieces that we need to make these shows, and make this incredible institution that is Broadway that we love so much.

Tina, the musical, tells the story of how a Tennessee hayseed named Anna Mae Bullock became Tina Turner with the help of an enterprising bandleader named Ike, and then reinvented herself again to become the queen of rock ’n’ roll.

Manuel Harlan

We need everybody. And everybody needs protection. And I think that is the beautiful thing. We have this opportunity to dismantle these structural hierarchical systems that have been placed there for God knows how long, and say, ‘Wait, this is show business, but when do we start investing in the people that make this business work?’ I’m invested in where I put my time — what community am I actually putting around me? What stories am I actually telling? I actually think it’s also an opportunity for the theater industry to connect to our community — find ways in which we can actually be of service to our young people in New York. Find ways in which we can make pipelines that support the exact problems that we’re talking about. Why can’t you find an intern? Like a BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] intern?

Tell us about the three-day Black Lives Matter event by Broadway Advocacy Coalition.

Warren: The first day was about healing for our Black community. The second day was about our allies coming in and listening, and only listening. And that was everyone from casting directors to producers to directors. Everyone was in this room. I want to say about 15,000 people watched the forum. And our third day was about accountability. It was pretty major, and that was just the beginning.

I’m actually a head of a committee that does coalition building. I’m really, really grateful for that space, and all the work being done by so many incredible people who just answer the call of duty and just say, ‘OK, well let’s not wait for anybody to open the door for us. Let’s start making these doors ourselves.’

Tina Turner is such an incredible role. When the show was up, you were doing the physical equivalent of multiple half-marathons a week. What’s it like not having to slip into her every night?

Warren: I miss it now. When everything shut down, I was in desperate need of a break, you know? My body was shot. My body was done. And we’ve been doing this, we’ve been trucking along for about 4½ years to get this show here. So my body needed a bit of a rest, and now more than anything, I miss the people. I miss telling her story, because it is one that is inspiring, and she’s just such an incredible woman, and her legacy — sharing that with the world, and sharing that with our country, we’ve missed her so much. And so of course I miss that every single day. But she’s still there. She ain’t going nowhere. She needs to write another book. She still needs to tell her stories, and I love her. Nothing can stop her.

Do you ever bust out the voice when you’re alone?

Warren: No, I don’t. Although it’s so funny, because I realized you can’t just stop singing this stuff and then start singing it again. You can’t just pop into that. It’s trained. It’s a muscle.

How are folks surviving if they’re not getting paychecks from stage work?

Hall: Barely, I feel like.

Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, based on the life of Tina Turner, garnered 12 Tony nominations, including one for best musical.

Manuel Harlan

For a lot of theater artists — to go from having a steady weekly paycheck to zero dollars, like literally zero dollars — was heartbreaking, anxiety-producing, like, ‘Oh, my God, how are we going to survive?’ And then you kind of go through denial at first. Like, ‘Oh, this is only going to be for a week or two. We’re just stopping for a week or two. We’ll be back up and running. It’ll be back in process real soon.’ And then every few months, you just get that unfortunate update. Like the reopening of Broadway has been pushed back. And I don’t want to say that there’s no end in sight, but it just feels like there’s no end in sight.

And the fact that there are whole industries, not only theater, but you think about the people who do music concerts, and the vendors that they use. You think about restaurants, right? The fact that all these amazing places that surrounded Broadway may shutter. I don’t think people are really making it. And the unfortunate thing about us as artists is that oftentimes we don’t have a lot of savings. So I know I have to rely on my savings, but it’s drying up, y’all. So I don’t know what I’ma do. And it is frightening. So many Americans are in that position. So many people around the world are in that position.

Warren: And the saddest part to me, is that the first people our society turns to when they are hurting or in need, or in pain, are our artists. To make them feel better. Whether that is streaming a TV show, whether that is a virtual concert. The amount of artists that have put themselves out without a paycheck because they have been asked to do concerts for this organization or that organization. It is unbelievably insulting that society does not treasure its artists as they should.

What is it like to have Tina Turner in your head for years and now to finally get to this point where there are multiple Tony nominations? Does it feel like the culmination of something, or is it overshadowed by the circumstances of the pandemic and the year?

Warren: At first I felt complicated about this. I still feel complicated about it. But then when I saw just how many nominations we got, that complicated feeling turned into just like tears of joy and pride for our entire team. This show was tricky. I feel like because I’m onstage for so long, not enough people understand that every single person on the stage and behind the scenes, they are a part of this show in such a major way that I can’t do anything that I do without them. To have an opportunity where every single person and department is recognized — it was everything I could have possibly ever dreamt of for this moment. I’m just so proud of everyone. And also I know it’s an opportunity for us to just celebrate each other, celebrate the show, because it’s taken a long time for it to get here. I’m not going to be ashamed to celebrate that, but I’m also going to be very, very aware of the moment that we’re in as well, and use our platform to talk about the things that we need to talk about.

What did you two learn about yourselves in 2020?

Hall: I had to be OK with silence. I love to be busy, I love for everything to be go, go, go, go, and when the world seemed to stop, I got way, way more sensitive. Now I kind of understand my power, and I think that’s a very unfortunate thing to be almost 40 and kind of recognizing your power as an artist. Like I sometimes felt that art wasn’t enough to change the world, and to shift things and shift consciousness, but I realized that sometimes it’s the only way. You know stories don’t create policy, they don’t change policy, but they can impact and affect the policymakers. And so I have just been sitting back and reveling in this kind of newfound power that I have become aware that I have, and with that great gift, there’s quite a lot of possibility. And so I used to joke and be like, ‘You know, I’ll never be an activist because I’m a writer,’ but I’m like, ‘No, you can do that even within that lane.’ Because then I’m also the mom of two Black boys, and to see what happened to George Floyd, the fact that this man with his dying breath called out for his mother — that made me even more adamant that I have to do everything that I can do to shift things.

I need to walk forward with that badassness that Tina has, that Adrienne just encapsulates when she’s out on that stage. It’s such a transforming time, and it’s just so unfortunate that all of this seemingly bad stuff had to happen in order for me to see my own light.

Warren: I was, like Katori, a very go, go, go person, and I’ve learned you need to take care of yourself. I don’t necessarily call myself an activist, but I’m an amplifier, and I’m constantly wanting to help as much as I possibly can, but sometimes helping is actually taking care of myself. I started therapy. Mental health has just been so important, and [Tina co-star] Daniel Watts has helped me learn so much about the act of just trying to get mental health awareness, and I’m really, really grateful for that lesson.

I think we’re all just trying to take care of everybody, and not often taking care of ourselves, or doing for ourselves, or creating our own family. I got a dog. Doing things that I wanted to do and not necessarily waiting for somebody to do with me — that’s just been unbelievably empowering. Taking care of yourself sometimes is an act of resistance, especially in this country.

How do you take care of yourself?

Warren: I mean, it’s day by day, right? That’s the thing that I’ve learned about this time as well. We have to stay present. Because if we start thinking about the future too much, we would drive ourselves nuts because we don’t know. We don’t know what the future holds for us, with our careers, with our personal lives. So it’s like waking up every day and finding an opportunity to be like, ‘I’m grateful for food on my table and the roof over my head.’ And if today all I can do is make sure I drink all the water I’m supposed to drink today to make sure I get through the day, then that’s OK. The stronger I can be as a human being in this world, the more I can be of service to this country and to this world that needs the type of work that we’re doing.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.