In 2016, Monty Cole made his directorial debut in Chicago with Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape at now-defunct Oracle Productions—and what a debut it was. His staging of the story of Yank, a swaggering stoker on a steamship who is ultimately destroyed by a society that sees him only as a brute, brought together a stellar ensemble of six Black actors. Cole incorporated percussive live sound and hypnotic movement interludes in O’Neill’s expressionistic text, while interpolating subtle call-outs to contemporary abuses of Black men by police and others.
Cole, a native of Oak Park, has been busy since then: he went off and got an MFA in directing at the California Institute of Arts, and he’s also been developing his voice as a playwright; American Teenager was written as a commission from the Goodman, where Cole was part of the 2019-20 cohort for the theater’s Playwrights Unit, and the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is currently developing his stage adaptation of John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, in which the white Griffin recounted his travels in the Jim Crow south disguised as a Black man.
7/1-8/6: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2:30 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2:30 PM; no performances Sat 7/9 2:30 PM and Sat 8/6 7:30 PM; Theater Wit, 1225 W. Belmont, 773-975-8150, americanbluestheater.com, $25-$45
For his first live production onstage in Chicago since the pandemic, Cole is digging into a contemporary Black classic: August Wilson’s Fences, the 1950s chapter in the late playwright’s monumental Century Cycle examining Black American life in each decade of the 20th century, opening in previews this weekend with American Blues Theater at Theater Wit. The play has of course been done frequently in Chicago and elsewhere. And the 2016 film starring Denzel Washington (who also directed) as Troy Maxson, the embittered Pittsburgh sanitation worker and onetime Negro League star, and Viola Davis as his long-suffering wife, Rose, won Oscar nominations for Washington and Davis, with the latter winning best supporting actress for her role. (A bit puzzling, since Rose is far from a supporting role, but that’s how it goes in Tinsel Town.)
Cole has never directed a Wilson play before. “This is kind of crazy and exciting, because I think I see Wilson differently than maybe folks that have traditionally directed Wilson before,” he says. “And that’s the reason why maybe I’ve been a little scared to direct Wilson—because of how his work has been produced and created before. It fits within a certain lineage, a certain tradition, almost like in the spirit of the griot passing an aesthetic down from generation to generation. And this production is sort of breaking that.”
Specifically, Cole says, “I don’t see Wilson as realism at all. I would say the guts of his plays are spirituality. Almost every play that he writes, the thing that’s turning the gears of the play is some sense of spirituality. Whether it’s the City of Bones in Gem of the Ocean, which we just saw at the Goodman, or some sort of ancestral plane. In Fences, it’s in the sense of talking to Death and talking to the devil and the fence [which Troy is building around his house throughout the play] sort of symbolizing the American dream. I’m kind of leading with that. I’m really allowing the play to have these strange moments where talking to Death or Troy being strangled by Death is really prevalent.”
Cole notes that Kamal Angelo Bolden, who plays Troy in the ABT production, is younger than Troy’s 53 years. But he says, “Troy doesn’t die of old age. Troy dies because of a type of spiritual rot that happens over the course of the play. He dies from a type of individualism that the American dream sort of forces you to partake in. And it’s the community that he’s kind of shut down in order to seek his own individualism. And right now, that’s crazy relevant as we’re about to head into a new recession and people in my generation are trying to have their own American dream. What are you willing to sacrifice in order to have that American dream?”
Fences and Black Like Me are far from the only projects on Cole’s docket. He’s also working with playwright Isaac Gómez, whom he met when they were both working at Victory Gardens Theater several years ago, on a digital project for Teatro Vista called La Vuelta.
“Isaac is working with the ensemble individually to kind of talk about, ‘What have you been allowed to play before? What have you been allowed to work on? What have you been allowed to do and what do you want to do? What have you not done?’ And we’ve been trying to find some themes between these things, and we’ve been talking about it as if it’s an anthology web series. And so we are going to film these beautiful moments between the ensemble.”
Cole has also created his own film projects; his short film Sons of Toledo, written with Matt Foss, about a mourning barber giving his slain brother one last haircut, has appeared in film festivals around the world and won Best African American Short at the 2022 Phoenix Film Festival. But even with all the directions in which he’s been moving, there’s something about tackling Wilson that he finds daunting and yet exhilarating—which is why he knew it was time to do it.
“My wife and I are starting to think about having kids ourselves. And so I’m in this middle place of how I’m considering fatherhood and how I’m considering what I need to do in order to make a child’s life successful here in America as a Black man. And with all those things coming together, I’m reading Fences and it’s hitting me harder than it’s ever hit me before. And so I’m like, oh God, I think I have to do this.”
Broken Nose leaders to step down
Earlier this month, Broken Nose Theatre—one of the most lauded storefront ensembles to emerge in the last decade—announced that they were going to embark on a search for a new leadership team. Artistic director E.M. Davis and managing director Rose Hamill will step down from their leadership roles effective September 1.
The two took over their roles from founding artistic director Benjamin Brownson in 2018 and steered the company through the upheavals of the global pandemic (during which they continued to produce digital programming, including the annual Bechdel Fest of work by women playwrights).
According to the press announcement, the company isn’t in a big hurry to name new leadership. Instead, they plan to establish a transition committee comprised of board members, staff, and ensemble members to “reimagine the current structure of the organization in the context of our recent growth” and with the aim of incorporating the company’s “recent assessment and work around racial equity, access, diversity and inclusion.” The future plans also call for expanding the ensemble; BNT plans to be back in 2023 with two full productions. Meantime, they will hold a fundraising gala in August and continue with plans for the ninth edition of Bechdel Fest.