A Conversation with Tyrone Phillips
Byhalia, Mississippi closed at Steppenwolf’s on August 21st, but don’t expect that to be your last opportunity to see this American classic in the making. The play tells the story of a young, blue-collar couple expecting their first child. The baby, Bobby, is born and Jim realizes immediately he isn’t the father because of an extra-marital relationship Lauren had with an African-American man. It complicates Jim’s relationship with Karl, a black man, who is one of his closest friends, and it lights the fuse to a powder keg that had been lying in wake in their small house in the small town of Byhalia. The play is doing the same thing for the theater community both here in Chicago and around the country. Byhalia, Mississippi, written by Evan Linder, has enjoyed productions in two countries and all across the United States, and if you love art that asks you questions, that demands something of you as an audience member, and leaves your mind turning at the final blackout, make sure you get a ticket when you have the chance.
I sat down with the Artistic Director of Definition Theatre Company and the director of the show, Tyrone Phillips, whose hand guided his incredible cast and whose vision took Evan’s brilliant words and made them so real that they hurt you, they give you hope, and ultimately, they heal you if you let them.
Kelly Wallace: I was so excited when I heard about this play; I was so glad to see that it was coming to this new space and having this second life. Is that gratifying?
Tyrone Phillips: It’s been so strange for me because I didn’t realize how many people hadn’t seen it yet, and we’re basically sold out. So it’s been great.
KW: How did you get involved with the play?
TP: Julian Parker was reading Karl’s part and was in the reading and we throw plays at each other all the time. He’s a co-founder of Definition Theatre Company as well, so once he said that, I said alright, let me read this play. And Evan [Lindner] sent us the scripts and at the time we were talking about producing it, just being co-producers, which we did. But I wasn’t directing. I went into rehearsals and took a page of notes and I just remember getting so invested in this play from the first rehearsal. We had half the cast that I’d seen or heard do a reading of the play. The one thing we didn’t have was Momma, and we didn’t have Cecelia Wingate until tech. But after I listened to her read the scene and I thought, this is Momma. It was written with her [Cecelia Wingate] voice in mind, and Evan jazzed me up about her. I met Cecelia and I went down to Byhalia myself, and to Memphis, and I rehearsed with her. Evan played Liz and she was here finally and met her cast and luckily it all worked out! She is a force to be reckoned with, as you now know.
KW: She’s incredible.
TP: I still remember reading the first scene of the play, between the mom and her daughter, and thinking this is an American classic. This is going to be done over and over again. We need to get this play. Immediately as I continue to read and find out about the son, Bobby, that’s where it got my heart. That’s where it got me as an artist, that we can actually say something here. There’s a reason this is all coming together for this story. And as time went on, no one could predict the events of the world. The show has become even more meaningful now.
KW: Of course it’s been through a long development process, it’s being done all over…
TP: Six different cities are doing it at the same time.
KW: So already, this story has been all over the country.
TP: As far as Toronto to Memphis to L.A., from readings to full productions. It’s really exciting.
KW: And now you are putting this piece up in this specific political moment. You couldn’t have planned for it, but here you are.
TP: I just knew that story could help. We’re all learning. There’s still things we’re trying to fix. At the end of the play, that question, no matter what happens, will always be relevant. How do we start to see each other as human? How do we do that before these things escalate? When we watch these videos of black people being shot on the street, and even after they’re shot and killed, the way that they treat the body…is not human. There’s something missing there. That’s what got me going. Finding out about Butler Young Jr., in 1974, shot and killed, hands behind his back. It happened back then and it’s happening now. How?
KW: The conversation between Karl and Jim where he admits that he doesn’t know who Butler Young Jr. is…
TP: I can’t watch the play from that moment. I couldn’t even watch it at opening. After Karl can’t find the words to describe it, it breaks my heart. From that moment on, the whole rest of the play, I’m crying the whole time.
KW: The range of emotions and the arc Karl takes, I found to be incredibly compelling. At the end, the play talks a lot about forgiveness. Do you feel like you would be able to forgive in Karl’s situation?
TP: It’s so interesting, all these characters change in front of us, which of course is another sign of a great play. Every single person changes. Momma’s the only one we’re not sure of, she just leaves, but we’re hoping and praying and wishing that when she gets in that car, she will change. Something’s gonna happen. I do think one day maybe Karl can come to forgiveness. One lady, after the first production, came up to me in tears. She was an older, white lady and she said that she had a friend in college – she could barely get it out. I stood there because I wanted to know what was happening and she said, “She just passed away, she was African American, she’s been my best friend her whole life.” She said, “I just hope I never made her feel the way Jim made Karl feel. And I don’t know. She’s already passed on.” My hope is that everyone finds peace for themselves, and that everyone finds forgiveness here and in the world. We can all be friends. But sometimes, there is just too much baggage to hold onto. People need to be okay with that sometimes. It’s not always about you. You’re not absolved of all of it. I could talk about this play all day. I was going through some personal things during the first rehearsals and love and forgiveness and how much and how far you’re willing to go to make a relationship work, and all of that was fresh in my mind. It’s been a healing process for me too.
KW: One of the things people seem to really love about the show, and keep talking about, is the authenticity. People look at these characters and say, “I know these people. I’ve seen these people.” It could so easily have veered away from that. You have many stereotypes in your head going in about poor people, or about “white trash,” or about how people in a town like that would behave. As a director, how do you feel like you dismantled that?
TP: That’s something I’m always asking – in my own work as an actor – and when I’m directing. This is new for me. This is the second show I’ve professionally directed. Be truthful, be honest. Love each other, tell the truth. That’s the motto of the play and that’s the motto of the rehearsal room. I know you’re all amazing actors, that’s why you’re here, and I’m gonna try to make you better. Cecelia’s a well-known director in Memphis. They were almost all older than me. There’s that. So coming into the room, I thought, what do I have to offer? Why am I directing this play? It is something every director needs to know. But how can I help them tell the story? The end, this child, that’s where I see myself. I told them my vision for this show is about Bobby. I want to feel him in the room when you’re walking, the arguments you have; I need you to know that everything you say and do in this house is affecting that child immediately. He’s right there, overhearing everything.
KW: He’s not onstage, but he is distinctly a character in the show.
TP: And he’s the most important character, in my view. I was always worried about that child, and he’s not revealed to the audience, not once. I didn’t want a fake baby. Everybody knows. Everybody knows it’s a fake baby. You check out immediately, because it feels like a prop. But it’s not, this is a real life. My actors were all also really talented, they’re great. It was awesome. You can only hope for a collaboration to go as well as this one between actor and director. They know I’m crazy, and they’re used to it. I give them notes and I can be like, “Well, that didn’t work at all!” And they can be like, “Yeah, that was pretty terrible…” and we’re okay. The honesty, the trust, it’s there. It happened very fast. They were creating these characters, and I just wanted to help them be three-dimensional. As you said, you connected to them personally, and that’s huge.
KW: What do you think the show has to bring here in Chicago? What do you like about Chicago as a theater town?
TP: I grew up in Chicago, so I know the audience. I was the audience, growing up as a child. I didn’t see much theater, but I was always involved in school. My family’s here, and that’s also very important to me. All artists need a support system. You can’t make a living in this business by yourself, you need a support system. This is home. If I ever go anywhere, I’ll come back. If you’ve got a job for me, I’ll pack my bags, but I’m still coming back here. To me, this is where the best theater happens. There’s heart in Chicago theater. The actors are the most hard-working. The institutions are trying to do better. Authentic acting happens here. It’s not about backstabbing or competition, it’s the best man for the job. I’m Chicago born and bred, I love it, and I won’t leave. Definition Theatre is also my passion, and as the Artistic Director, I hope it shows people that I’m staking claim here and building a foundation here and having a visible flag. I mean, we don’t have a building yet, but when we do, we will have a flag and it will be here. I just love it here. Why are you here? Why not New York? I mean, I love New York, don’t get me wrong.
KW: It’s interesting, I always like to ask people about why they’re in Chicago because the prevailing wisdom is that New York is the epicenter of the theater world. It’s Broadway. You know, the whole idea of it…
TP: Totally, and sure it’d be fun to do shows in New York.
KW: New York is great! Chicago is interesting in that I feel that there’s a diversity of opportunity in Chicago that’s very different from the New York theater scene. It’s interesting, of late, to see some of the conversations we’re having here about race, about gender, about how to treat artists, are not happening in New York. And I can’t imagine them happening on this scale in New York…
TP: Not anytime soon, no. Because of what it is. Because of the machine.
KW: Right. Here, you can actually communicate and be in a conversation with the people at the top of the chain.
TP: And you do!
KW: It’s been my experience here that, now, when something is brought to the attention of a theater company and you say you have a problem with it and want to have a conversation, you actually get a real response.
TP: It’s incredible. The heart and compassion and the level of care people have for their art…we need this. We need it now. I’m over the gun violence. It can all just numb you. I remember asking…how are we helping? How are we in theater changing the world? Is this play helping anything? To go back into rehearsal immediately after the trip to Byhalia, told me that yes, it is. It was more than reassuring. I know theater can change hearts.
KW: Theater, unfortunately, isn’t as diverse as it should be either, but at least you can see the conversation starting to be had.
TP: That’s what we want to do. Our staff is multicultural, as it should be. Theater should look like the world. And if you look at institutions – unfortunately Chicago is not the best either – I know there’s work to be done.
KW: It almost has to start at the top, but representation is so important. If you don’t see people who are like you succeeding in your field…
TP: Right! Why would you do it? I agree, I hear you. That’s what we want to do at Definition Theatre Company. The day that we don’t exist…I mean, there could come a day where we don’t need to exist, but I highly, highly doubt it.
KW: I think a lot of people working on these kinds of issues wish that they didn’t need to, that we could put ourselves out of business, but…
TP: It’s not going to happen anytime soon.
KW: A play like this makes you confront a lot of your internalized prejudice in an interesting way too. Have people expressed that kind of reaction to you? What do you hope they take from this?
TP: I want to take care of my audience members the same way I take care of my actors. Enlightenment is the best word I can think of. I don’t want to get into preaching and telling everyone they’re wrong. I want people to reflect. We’re all grown-ups – look inside yourself, take a look. Sometimes you don’t know. It’s making people take a step back and ask questions. All good theater does that. I remember being told that as a kid, that good theater asks questions. I couldn’t comprehend that as a child, but now I totally do. This play isn’t going to solve everything; it won’t just end racism. But people do leave changed, in their own lives, and with their own stories. Who hasn’t been in love? Or wanted to be in love? These things affect everyone.
KW: The emotions are absolutely universal. It’s a very focused story. It’s about these very specific people at this moment in their life, but at the same time, it speaks to things that transcend all of our human experiences.
TP: It’s absolutely crazy how good it is.
KW: What was it like being down there in Byhalia?
TP: I’m a new director, so that was something I always wanted to do. I wanted to go to the actual place. We were doing research, taking pictures, when we were stopped. I was with Evan, the playwright, and a reporter as well, and apparently there’s a bank down the road. So they thought maybe we were taking pictures of the bank. So we were stopped and questioned. And I remember thinking, “Holy shit, I’m gonna die here. This is real.” The problems we’re facing in this play are real. Evan talked to the officer for the most part, we were there for about ten minutes talking to him because we were taking pictures as research for a play. And sometimes I get so stressed out and I just try to remember…it’s theater. We’re doing theater here. It’s not life or death right now. But it immediately became that.
KW: And most white people don’t experience that. I would never feel that fear to take some pictures for my play.
TP: It was insane. But to see the town, to see how small it was, that helped. When they say, everybody is going to know, they mean it. When we walk down the street with our half-black baby, they’ll know he’s not adopted. This isn’t New York. That’s real life, when you’re in a smaller community. It’s a microcosm of the bigger picture in America. We’ve been hiding things, sweeping them under the rug. There’s no way to heal that way.
KW: The adoption issue really hit for me, being adopted myself, but both my parents look like me. Nobody would ever look at my family walking down the street…
TP: And think like…they don’t match.
KW: Right, it just wouldn’t happen.
TP: That’s the thing, it’s very telling. I want the audience to realize that when Bobby grows up, as he’s growing up, they’re the ones. They have a big say in how his life will go. It’s that town. That’s Byhalia, Mississippi. Nothing ever changes unless people are forced to look at it. The audience is moved to tears sometimes because they never thought about these issues this way before. People are fascinating to me. Our meeting…it’s for a reason, I feel. There’s so many people in this world, and even the strangers you pass, you can just smile at someone, and it could change their day. We’re all here for a reason. That’s it, that’s all you can do. You don’t have to do everything for everybody, but I want my experiences when I’m dead and gone to be positive.
KW: Where do you see the play going next?
TP: I see it going everywhere. My thing is that I want as many people to see it as possible.
KW: And of course bringing it to New York would be great for the audience, but you’re right that this show should be done everywhere, especially in the South. Do it in Mississippi!
TP: Yeah! Exactly, it should be everywhere. We can start those conversations. They’re already started, so it’s really that we need to confront those conversations. The play was preserved at the Harold Washington Library already, our first production. I just want more people to see it. That’s literally it. Theater can change the world. I believe in that, and it sounds cliché, but that’s how you actually get in someone’s psyche. Everyone sits down and we pretend and here we are. Evan was passionate and he was smart, and I’m honored he asked me to direct this play. Who’s telling the story? What stories are you responsible for telling and what opportunities are you giving? Two different conversations. Sometimes bigger theaters get confused.
KW: It’s so complicated to untangle. I’m a solutions person.
TP: Thank you, yes.
KW: We’ve found a problem. Now what are the steps we take? What do we do to make sure that all of this is resolved in a way where people feel heard and represented?
TP: That’s what we strive for at Definition. I grew up in a very diverse school environment, and I’ve seen it work. It’s not a mystery to me. The other part of it for me is that I’m Jamaican American, and people have no idea, but I’m first generation, born here from Jamaica. So, my outlook and experience as a black male and seeing the difference in how we’re culturally treated, it’s unique and propelling me. My mindset is just different. I want to show people that this is for you, too. The first thing I said when I started Definition was…if you don’t see anyone who looks like you, you’ll never know it’s for you. If a ten-year-old kid goes and sees a play and everyone in it is white, or even the reverse, you wouldn’t think, “Oh, that could be me!”
KW: I always think of that photo of the young boy with President Obama who was so enthralled by the fact that the President had hair like his.
TP: Yes! That is it. That’s the key. I’m passionate. I could talk about this all day.
KW: What do you want see Chicago theater go from here? If you got to direct the next five years…
TP: I see a beautiful world, I really do. Another thing that’s become really important to me are younger people that love theater. I’m really hopeful. They see past all the bullshit that we’re fighting. They believe we can do it. They think differently. I hope that we, Definition, can say hey, come here. We can do it. We’ll help you. I hope that all of Chicago is like that. What are you leaving behind? Legacy is really important to me. It’s morbid but…when I’m dead and gone, what have you done? What can you speak for? What can you say you’ve changed? What opportunities have you given someone else? Being able to spend time with these people and their passion and their energy and finding their voice because the media isn’t doing it and the world isn’t doing it…that’s exciting to me. There’s no place like Chicago – I couldn’t have started this company anywhere else. I couldn’t have found the traction or gotten the people that we have behind us. That mystifies me a little, but it’s also why I’m so proud of this city. I believe in Chicago, you can do whatever you want to. We’ve fought and scratched but we’ve done it all by not being afraid of asking. People are going to say no. But you won’t hear the no if you don’t ask. In five years, I hope I’m singing a song about how happy I am to be in Chicago.
Tyrone Phillips is the founding artistic director of Chicago’s Definition Theatre Company where he recently appeared as Torvald in A Doll’s House. He holds a B.F.A. from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign where he graduated with departmental distinction. He is proudly represented by Grossman and Jack Talent. Recent onstage credits include Stick Fly (Windy City Playhouse), Genesis (Definition Theatre Company), and Saturday Night/Sunday Morning (Prologue Theatre at Steppenwolf Garage Rep). Tyrone has also studied abroad at Shakespeare’s Globe and was an artistic intern at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. At Milwaukee Rep he was seen in Assassins (Ensemble), A Christmas Carol (Ensemble, U/S Bob Cratchit), The Mountaintop (U/S MLK), Clybourne Park (U/S Kevin/Albert), and A Raisin in the Sun (Moving Man, U/S Walter Lee). Directing credits include Dutchman, Evening News, A Taurian Tale, Just Suppose (Definition Theatre Company), Amuse Bosh (Pavement Group), Luck of the Irish, Lord of the Flies, and The Tempest (Niles North Theatre). Film and television credits include Boss, Divergent, Gimmick, and Intersection. In fall 2015, the Chicago Tribune named Tyrone a “rising star” in Chicago theatre.