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William Jackson Harper frets about Chidi going shirtless on ‘The Good Place’

He’s also got a new play, ‘Travisville,’ that examines the civil rights era in a small Texas town

You probably know William Jackson Harper as Chidi Anagonye, the delightfully obsessive and neurotic philosophy professor from The Good Place, currently in its third season on NBC. But Harper’s been around for a while, turning in performances in Paterson and The Electric Company. He’s the straight man to a laughably arrogant Charles Brice in the 2016 indie rom-com How To Tell You’re A Douchebag. (Hint: If Harper tells you you’re being a douchebag, you probably are.)

But he’s also an accomplished theater actor, and for the past eight years he’s been writing a play of his own, called Travisville. Set in a small Texas town immediately after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Travisville looks at the power struggle between the town’s disenfranchised black community, Fannin Gardens, and the all-white city council and mayor, who want to redevelop the community into a shopping complex. The government plans to ship Fannin Gardens residents off to a less desirable part of town, either by lowballing residents for their land or simply yanking it via eminent domain.

Black residents in Travisville have always done what they could to avoid the ire of their white counterparts. But a young Congress of Racial Equality worker and recent graduate of Morehouse College, Zeke Phillips, has them rethinking their situation.

The show debuted off-Broadway at the Ensemble Studio Theatre on Oct. 12 and runs through Oct. 28. I spoke to Harper recently about writing Travisville and what he’s learned from The Good Place.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Your show arrives alongside Fireflies and Separate and Equal. Why do you think there’s such an interest right now in re-examining the 1960s?

I guess I’m feeling like we are not as far away from those ideas as we thought, as evidenced by the climate in our country right now and the fact that we have to give credence to ideas that negate our humanity as people of color or as women. I think people are just looking to … unpack these things in a time where this was 100 percent acceptable for people to have these ideas. … Did these ideas ever really go away, or did we just fool ourselves into thinking that they no longer existed in any meaningful way?

I feel like whenever I see a play about this period, there’s a hope at the end that I just don’t buy. I don’t think that it’s like the Civil Rights bill was passed and nothing was ever wrong again, everybody saw the error of their ways and shortly, within another five or six years, everybody just started to act right. I just don’t buy it.

I think that the suspicions that I’ve had as a black man about what people were actually thinking and feeling were confirmed, have been confirmed, over the last couple of years.

Bjorn DuPaty (left) and Sheldon Best (right) in Travisville.

Jeremy Daniel

What prompted you to start writing?

I wrote the first draft of this play seven or eight years ago. … I’d been watching Eyes on the Prize with my mom as a kid, I remember. I saw these sit-ins and I put it together that she was alive at this time when all this stuff was happening. I asked her about, ‘Did you see this when you were a little kid? What was it like?’ She was like, ‘Well, I don’t really remember. It really wasn’t that intense for me as a little kid because I was little.’

That always stuck with me. Then I was at this retreat workshop thing for Ensemble Studio Theatre. This idea had been kicking around in my head for a long time, what is it to be in a society where social change is happening, except where you are, it’s not really as intense as it is elsewhere. I sat in on a couple of these workshops and started messing around with the ideas there. Everything else that I’ve written since then is trash. This is the only thing that I actually could finish.

I do not believe that.

You don’t have to. You can look at my desktop and just see a whole bunch of incomplete trash.

So social change takes a little longer to arrive in Travisville than the rest of the country, which is reminiscent, to me, of black enslaved Texans being the last to be freed. What is it about Texas that sets it apart?

I never quite understood it. I know that, in particular, Dallas, after the bus boycotts in Montgomery, it was one of the several Southern cities that saw what was happening somewhere else and decided to go ahead and change their policies as well.

I don’t really know why Texas is not considered the real South. I’ve had people say that to me so many times, and I don’t buy it. … I guess our racist past is so much more humane than, I guess, the rest of the deep South. I don’t think that that’s actually true either. Somehow, it’s just avoided being painted with the same brush.

So you played Stokely Carmichael in the 2014 Broadway production of All the Way about Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights bill. Did playing him influence your thinking as you were writing Travisville and the character of Zeke Phillips?

Certainly not consciously. I wasn’t thinking I’m going to have Zeke Phillips be a proxy for Stokely Carmichael in the story. But I think that there’s no way that you can play a character like Stokely Carmichael and not have it infect you a little bit, especially if you’ve got anger surrounding certain things that are happening in the country. There’s a clearheadedness that Stokely Carmichael had, and was really apparent in the play All The Way that I really admired, and I wish that I had personally. I would like to say that I would be Zeke. I would like to say that I would be Stokely Carmichael, but I don’t think that’s true. I would probably be equivocating and trying to figure out what’s the right way and asking a bunch of questions, but not being able to just make a quick decision and move forward no matter what the cost.

“I would like to say that I would be Stokely Carmichael, but I don’t think that’s true.”

You seem to have a particular acuity for playing thoughtful characters that want people to do right. How has acting, especially on The Good Place, affected how you think about ethics?

I try not to overthink it too much, because that’s just my default anyway. I’m probably just a little more conscious of what brings the most joy or good and what shields people from hurt or bad. I think I just really ask that question more consciously than I used to. … I like to think I’m relatively nice, even if I am kind of a flake or something like that. I think I’m just more conscious about it now than I was a couple years ago.

Chidi appears shirtless in the latest episode, much to the excitement of several of my fellow female critics. How do you feel about becoming a sex symbol?

Oh, I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think I’ll take off my shirt and I’ll look average, and that will be fine. I did work out and I did diet, but that was only so I could keep my body as neutral as possible. You know? Try to remove some unwanted lumps? But I was trying to make my body so there will be no comments whatsoever. Honestly, that frightens me a little bit. I hope it’s not like, ‘Oh, snap, what’s happening underneath that shirt is not right.’ That’s what I’m a little afraid of.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.