"The Twists and Turns of 'When' " :: Crystin Gilmore on Leading SpeakEasy's Play Discussion Club

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday July 28, 2020

This past May, the SpeakEasy Stage Company of Boston presented a series of discussions on theater works around the theme of "Celebrating Contemporary Female Voices." SpeakEasy presented the discussion by way of a Play Discussion Club; the topic at hand was the second such series and boasted a selection of several plays curated especially for the series. 

Now SpeakEasy has returned with a new Play Discussion Club series — its third — this time centered around "Celebrating the Black Narrative." The curator and moderator for the new series is Crystin Gilmore, a New York-based actor who had been part of the cast when SpeakEasy produced Jocelyn Bioh's "SchoolGirls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play" in May 2019.  

The discussion series takes place online. SpeakEasy makes scripts available for purchase beforehand so that participants can come fully prepared, having read the work. Each of the weekly meetings is scheduled to last for one hour. This third series includes five plays. A discussion of Kirsten Greenidge's "The Luck of the Irish" started things off with a discussion on July 23. The play is a complex and compelling examination of how familial and social conditions change... and don't... over time; in the 1950s, an African American family hired an Irish American couple to "ghost buy" a home on their behalf in a white neighborhood. Decades later, in the 2000s, the owners have left the home to their descendants — but the Irish family that had been hired to do the buying all those years ago assert a claim to the property.  

Each Thursday until August 20 the discussion group will convene, with Gilmore leading the discussion. Forthcoming featured works for discussion will be Jocelyn Bioh's "Nollywood Dreams" on July 30; Lynn Nottage's "Mlima's Tale" on Aug. 6; Ruby O'Gray's "Dependently Yours" on Aug. 13; and Danai Gurira's "Familiar" on Aug. 20. 

EDGE caught up with Crystin Gilmore to hear more about the group and what went into Gilmore's process of selecting the five plays in the current discussion series.   

EDGE: The first meeting of this edition of the discussion club was last night, and the play under discussion was Kirsten Greenidge's "The Luck of the Irish." How did it go? 

Crystin Gilmore: It was amazing! People showed up in high numbers with great energy, excited about talking about the content of the book, and excited to bring their own point of view, which just made me so happy. 

EDGE: What's your role in the discussion series... are you a moderator? A discussion leader? 

Crystin Gilmore: Yes, I am the moderator — and you could say a discussion leader. Alex [Lonati, SpeakEasy Stage Company Community Programs and Events Manager] allowed me to form a lot of the questions that were posed, so that was great, to have a hand in that. I was able to pick a slew of plays and run them by Alex and Paul [Daigneault, Producing Artistic Director] and say, "Hey, what do you think?"

These are plays that are near and dear to my heart, so when we get into the moment on a Thursday night I get to bring comfort, security, keep us on task and on schedule with our time, and make sure everyone feels open and available to share exactly how they feel and where they are in this moment. 

EDGE: So you actually got to curate this edition of the Play Discussion Club. 

Crystin Gilmore: Yes, Alex, of course, was right there with me. And last night we had a guest artist there with us, his name was Dwayne [Mitchell], from BoCo [Boston Conservatory] — wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. He's a graduate fro their Master's program. He was so good. 

EDGE: How did you go about winnowing and selecting and getting your five final choices put together, out of all the plays that you must have considered? You really must have had to work to decide. 

Crystin Gilmore: I did! I decided first off, "You know what, I have my favorites when it comes to playwrights — let me look outside of just my favorite Black female playwrights; let me just do a search." I asked trusted friends that love and adore that are also in the business, and I said, "Give me your tops," and I just did a Google search. From there I started to say, "Okay, let me read this one, let me read this one, let me read this one..." So I read a lot of plays, and then I threw, I believe, like eight to ten towards Paul and Alex, and from there we collaboratively said, "These are the ones."

Of course, I would have loved all of them to be in there, but — next time! 


EDGE: How did you happen to get involved with the Play Discussion Club? 

Crystin Gilmore: I was asked by Alex if I could be a guest artist while they were discussing the play "DIASPORA!" [by Phaedra Michelle Scott], and I was like, "Absolutely!" So I read the play, I enjoyed it, I loved being able to be in that format, and I just loved the fellowship and sharing everyone else's viewpoints from different scenes and getting feedback about things that I didn't necessarily see, but someone else did. I always love whenever I'm introduced to a new way of thinking.  

EDGE: Moderating a discussion is a real skill. Do you find your training and experience as an actor are helpful? 

Crystin Gilmore: Absolutely. One, I think actor training helps make you more available and aware. It also makes you more sensitive, or I'll say it makes me more sensitive, to people: To their energy, to their positioning, to their body language. It makes me acknowledge others in a human way, because when you're an actor you have to become another character, and in becoming another character you may not agree with all their choices.

And it's the same when you're in a group, in an online discussion. You may not agree with other people's point of view, but you realize that they are human. And so, because they're human, we're all flawed. And so we're bringing our best selves, or whoever it is we are at that moment, so you find in the character, as well as people who show up, so I want to make sure that everyone who shows up realizes that their voice deserves to be heard and that we may not agree with their point of view but we can respect it. That's important to me. 

EDGE: Was it a challenge to conduct the discussion virtually? Did the fact everyone was there participating online make things harder? 

Crystin Gilmore: The challenge with virtual is what one of my friends calls "Internetta."  


Crystin Gilmore: Because, you know, the Internet will do whatever she feels.There's more activity right now; we're all watching from home or using the Internet more often than we were before. Everyone doesn't have access to go outside and play right now, or go to their pottery club, or things of that sort, so the gatherings that we got to do around one another, the large gatherings, are no more. But what I love about that challenge is that because we're so used to isolation, in a sense, right now, because we've had to, it brings us all together and while you're at home you get to decide, "Okay, where am I going to sit? What am I going to wear? Do I get to have coffee in this cup, or am I going to give it a little bitty twinkle of something else?" And you just do that in the comfort of your home while you're still connecting with others so you don't feel alone. That's the plus of it.

But the negative is we don't know what the Internet is going to do, because we're all using so much extra screen time right now. You have to decide what's most important to you and what you're most available for. And when you have a hard timeline like ours is  — like, you can't go back and re-watch the Play Discussion Club. Right? You have to be in the moment. So you may have missed something that you truly wanted to do because our time is hard-set. When there are others that you could go back and re-watch later, so I say go watch those others later — enjoy this now. 

EDGEThe Internet does have its challenges, and among them are the human elements. We keep hearing stories of Zoom meetings being crashed by trolls — did you have any such problems last night? 

Crystin Gilmore: No, no, no, The great things the SpeakEasy has worked out and devised well is whenever you join the Play Discussion Club, they send you an individual link. So everyone who's coming has sought this out purposely. They are joining because it's fun and it's what they truly wanted to do. And we are making sure that everyone who is there is there for the right reason. We haven't had any Internet unfortunate situations like that, but if we did we'd quickly address it and help them on their way. 

EDGE: The current edition of the Play Discussion Club focuses on "Celebrating the Black Narrative." Are there particular aspects of the Black experience in theater — or in life — that you'd like to see emerge and be addressed in the course of these discussions? 

Crystin Gilmore: Oh, there's so many, and most of them deal with Black people being human What I mean by saying "human" is, we're all the same; we all have the same struggles with family, we all have challenges when it comes to trying to advance our careers or move on, we all have challenges when it comes to life in general. I want the familiarity of our stories to ring true, and I want difference to be appreciated, because the thing is, everyone doesn't want to be the same in the sense of [being] cookie-cutter. But I want there to be, "Okay: I see that, yes, this is a Black playwright who wrote this play, and these are actors who are Black who are on the stage. Great! This is wonderful!" We want more of that because guess what that means: I get to work.

But at the same time, I want people in the audience to be able to sit there and receive the story and see themselves in these characters who just have a different skin tone than they do. Or, better yet, what if their story and their experience is completely different from yours? I want them to be able to sit there and have a take away of, "Wow! What a perspective! What a beautiful story! What beautiful pain! What a challenge!" Whatever that is. I just want more exposure, more acceptance, more availability for me as a Black actress, for more Black playwrights to get published and get put on the screen, because it's a story, it's a narrative that needs to be shared and received. And we're more familiar than we are different; we're more the same than we could ever be different. But the differences need to be appreciated and acknowledged.  

EDGE: Are your participants mostly Black, mostly white, or a pretty even mix? 

Crystin Gilmore: It differs. I must say, last night we were a majority white [group]; also, that has a lot to do with theater. Theater in itself can be a very expensive, yet exciting form of entertainment. And what I mean by that is you go to the theater and the tickets can be, at the cheapest, thirty dollars or forty dollars — and at the high end, sixty and seventy. It can be a luxury. One of my jobs used to be as a nanny for a family, and so as a nanny going to the theater was date night. Your date night requires childcare; it requires time off; it requires more finances that come into you actually going and sitting in that theater. Because of that, and because of the lack of exposure, and because there are some low-income neighborhoods, their theater experience is movie night on TV or a Red Box video.

What I'm grateful to see is people are showing up more when there is exposure, when there is more availability because it's online and it's free. Percentage-wise, I'd say we were, like, 70% white, 20% Black Americans, and, like 10% of a minority overall, like Latinx. I was grateful to see that representation. Those numbers still aren't hugely high, as far as minorities go, but they're climbing, and I think the more exposure, the more you realize, "Oh my gosh, I didn't realize I would enjoy something like this so much." Or, Let me do that again." Or, "Wow, I love having someone else's point of view who doesn't look like me." Or sharing the same point of view with a person who doesn't look like me.

I'm so excited about this, that people are going to pick up scripts that they wouldn't necessarily have picked up, look at playwrights that they didn't think of reading, more of their plays — it just totally excites me. 

EDGE: Right — the scripts are available to obtain before the weekly meetings. So, are participants showing up having read the works? Are they pretty well informed? 

Crystin Gilmore: Absolutely. Kirsten's play last night, "The Luck of the Irish," played at the HuntingtonTheater in prior years. So there were some participants last night who had gotten to see the play live. And Kirsten is a Boston native, so I love how Boston showed up for her. And not just Boston — we didn't ask where everyone was from, but I know personally we had some Tennesseans in there; I'm in New York; we had some people from different states who showed up.

You read the script beforehand because we only have an hour and we like to keep it tight. So during that time we'd rather people get an opportunity to have and read about their perspective. What stood out for them? What questions would they like answers to? Whose opinion do they want to hear about a certain scenario or situation? We want to see if their perspective shifts, or if they're validated in their thoughts. It absolutely helps to read the script prior [to the meeting] or you're going to feel left out of the conversation. 

EDGE: You've got such impressive playwrights, like Lynn Nottage and Kirsten Greenidge and Danai Gurira. You've also got Jocelyn Bioh, whose work I'm not familiar with; and Ruby O'Gray, also. You mentioned that at the start you didn't necessarily know all of these works, so have you found some new favorites? 

Crystin Gilmore: Absolutely I'm finding new favorites! I will say, when it comes to Jocelyn Bioh, I fell in love with Jocelyn Bioh last year because I got to be a part of SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of her play "SchoolGirls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play," and I got to meet her. She came to our opening night. So warm — so kind and generous with her time and her spirit and her energy. She's such an amazing storyteller. And her humor! She's so hilarious when it comes to her plays! I love that her plays are set in Nigeria— I mean, that's where she's from, even though she grew up in  Pennsylvania; she grew up here and went to a boarding school. She's so rich in the different levels of person that she is, and that brings to her work. 

And Ruby O'Gray, she is a national mythic treasure. I chose her specifically from my whole soul. Ruby O'Gray was one of the first people to welcome me into the art — to put me on the stage. And this is back when I was maybe 17 that I got to work with Ms. Ruby. She has written, like, 74 plays, and she is in her 70s and has a tremendously beautiful story, and so many different layered works.

"Dependently Yours" is the play I chose of hers, and I ran it by Paul and Alex because it discusses topics of the elderly and how they are forgotten. That hit close to home for me, because I feel like when we reach a certain age in this country, it's hard to get hired for a job. People stop coming to visit. Nursing homes just end up being full of people who are in that home sharing experiences with one another and your family comes when they can. I think it's important to tell those stories and remind ourselves that our wealth is in our generations of knowledge that are about to leave us. That is why I really, really wanted to tell her story as well. 

I did a play of Lynn's back when I was at the University of Memphis. I did "Crumbs from the Table of Joy," and that's when I fell in love with Lynn Nottage. And then, you know, here comes "Ruined," and here comes "Sweat." She's such an amazing, amazing writer. I was so excited to bring on this great work. And I have my next list ready! Whenever they're ready, if in the spring they say, "Crystin, are you ready for Part Two?" I'm like, "I already have this one, let's go for it!" That's how excited I am for this. 

EDGE: It's such an exciting cross-section of kinds of stories, too — family drama, fantasy — like Lynn Nottage's play, "Mlima's Tale," which is told from the point of view of an elephant; it's a captivating idea. 

Crystin Gilmore: Yes! And one of the things that I loved about it. I wanted to make sure that these were five different plays that hit different points. [Kirsten's play] was a little bit more about the racial divide, it spans from the 1950s  to the 2000s; and then we come up with Jocelyn Bioh, with "Nollywood Dreams," about Nollywood's fantasy of life. Nollywood is the Nigerian version of Hollywood, it's all about melodrama, and it's so amazing in its humor — and it also touches on love.

Then we move onto Lynn Nottage's play. Is it a fantasy? Or is it just talking about the soul, and what we want versus what we need, when it comes to taking away from animals, from that elephant [in order to satiate our own desires]? But at the same time, you can see that elephant as a person. What are you taking away from a person when you want something from them? We can even go deeper on a personal perspective.

And then Ms. Ruby O'Gray's play, when we talk about the elderly; and then Danai's play, when we are all about family and customs and culture, a family coming from Zimbabwe who is now in Minnesota. Where is the balance? Where are we finding a way to connect? And at the root of all of these are our own human characteristics. That's what I love about all of these plays and these playwrights. Phenomenal work! 

EDGE: No one knows when the stage will come back as the stage, live in person, with an audience and performers together in a room, but are you looking at other projects now that you might be able to get back to the stage with when the time comes? 

CrystinGilmore: Oh Kilian, ahh, man. COVID has shut down theater, and theatre is my gold. My mother says I came out of the womb acting, and I believe her. I've been acting ever since! 


CrystinGilmore: To have that form of connection kind of whipped out from under you... it's been challenging. It's been an adjustment, not only for myself, but for my friends who are used to live theater, being on the stage or behind the scenes, or writing the plays, directing them — we're all in that twist and turn of When. And we've all had to sit here saying, "In the in-between of the When, which is unknown, what other talents and gifts am I going to lean on to feed myself?" So, it has definitely been a shift of, "Okay, Crystin, are we going to learn more now on voiceover work, because you can do that from home?" Yes, we are. "Are we going to lean more towards jobs that you can do from home like telemarketing or data entry, or any kind of work?" Because we don't know how long this is going to be going on.  As an actor, I personally have to have multiple streams of income, and all of my streams of income were taken away.

It's been that moment of, "How can I readjust? After I finish screaming, kicking, and crying, how can I make sure my artistry doesn't get too rusty?" Because that's a part of who I am, it's a part of my whole being. So this Play Discussion Club has been able to be an outlet that is still giving me a lot of joy in being able to share it with others. Because there are a lot of people who aren't actors or performers, but they love the theater because that is their outlet. They're still longing for that place to be able to find refuge or comfort, and so that has been another part of the challenge. When? We don't know. How do we keep our artistry going? By acting human. Continue doing your self-care and your self-checkups. You write, you sing, you call, you create with your part of a Play Discussion Club like we have right now. And you find other ways to channel that positivity so that when the stage goes backup you have homed in on your skills through voice classes that you're doing on YouTube, because you can't afford them anymore... 


Crystin Gilmore: ...and learning and memorizing monologues so when the opportunity presents itself, you are ready for that audition. And I think because of COVD, and Black Lives Matter, I think — I pray — that when we do get an opportunity to get back on the stage that people who look like me — Black and brown people, minorities — get an opportunity to be more present. Because I must say, out of COVID, it's been a lot of darkness but it's also been a lot of reality. The Band-Aid has been ripped off of all of us. The Band-Aid's gone, the Band-Aid that was covering the scar that's been there for... since your birth. The skin that's on all of us is all our birth, because our past in America hasn't been addressed in the way that it is [being addressed] right now. We can say the Civil Rights Movement, absolutely, but right now the numbers, globally, where we all have to sit down and say, "How have I contributed to this? How have I blindly walked around in my comfort, and been okay with it? Now, how can I change it?"

And that's a discussion with my own self. I found my own comfort of, "This is just the way life is, I'm going to accept it and figure out how to navigate through." That's a coping mechanism, sure, but at the end of the day, I realize that there are certain things that I made okay, and they're not. Lack of self-love was one of them. I feel like I should have been more vocal in saying, "Hey, see me! Allow my work to be exposed. Allow the respect of who I am to shine and show through. See me as a Black woman, but not as the Black representative for every single person."

Every person is different — Black, white, Asian, Latino, of any and all descents. I don't want to be the only poster child for a whole race — it's not a fair thing to place on anyone's back. And at the same time, if we're going to do color-blind casting, let's truly do color-blind casting. If we're going to say, as a theater, "We love everybody!," then accept the strays. Even when it comes to Thanksgiving, we always have a gathering of the strays. There are many of us who don't have families that are easily accessible, so the theater community has become a family. Every time we do a show, we have a new family.  We're all so different and unique, of different backgrounds and different sexualities, and so accepting. Let's truly rip the veil off the racial issues that still lie here, and let's make it an awareness, and an acknowledgment, and a change.    

To learn more about the Play Discussion Club, please go to http://www.speakeasystage.com/play-discussion-club/. To learn more about Crystin Gilmore, please go to https://www.crystingilmore.com/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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