Montego Glover discusses The Royale‘s timeless story, being the leading lady in a cast of men

Montego Glover

Montego Glover as Nina in The Royale.

by Celeste Montaño

Broadway vet and Tony nominated actress Montego Glover is unstoppable. In the past year alone, she dove into three wildly different roles with so much verve and dedication that it’s a wonder she’s managed to catch her breath. Shortly after taking her final bow as Annie in last year’s fan-favorite musical It Shoulda Been You, Glover stepped onstage as Fantine in Les Miserables. She ended her run this past February with only a week before she assumed her current role as Nina in Lincoln Center Theater’s production of The Royale. Based loosely on a true story, The Royale follows African-American heavyweight boxing champion Jay Jackson as he fights both inside the ring and out, struggling with personal demons and those of a segregated society in the early 1900’s. Glover took the time to talk with Stage Door Dish right before The Royale’s opening night about being a leading lady of color, how she connects with her characters, how Broadway is changing.  

 

How have performances been going for you?

Very, very well. I love the creative process, I think The Royale is a spectacular play. My cast is outstanding– just gifted, generous, wonderful actors. Our director and other creatives are truly talented. It’s been wonderful. To top it all off, we have the Mitzi Newhouse at Lincoln Center, which is a great theater. It’s been really terrific. It’s great to develop the play, even more to dig in a little deeper and to fit it into the space in the best way we know how. Tremendous.

Have there been any mishaps or memorable moments?

You know, I’m working with four men, so mishaps can be that someone literally broke a set piece. Sometimes they don’t know their own strength. There’ve been numerous memorable moments: the first time you put the piece on its feet, the first time you run it from the first scene to the last scene with just a few people in the rehearsal hall, or when you really discover the development of a character or scene. There have been many of those, absolutely.

Could you talk a little bit about your character, Nina?

Sure. Nina is a woman, a mother, and a wife. She has two children. She is living at the turn of the last century, so early 1900s. And she is a woman in the life of the main character. When she and he are together, it is sometimes very volatile, sometimes very tender. They have a lot of history together, and being in one another’s presence calls up a lot of wounds and memories, but also they’re both reaching for the same thing. So it makes for a very exciting, tenuous, dramatic relationship.

What attracted you to this role, and to the show in general?

I think the play is written with an incredible amount of musicality and rhythm, which I find engaging. I think the story is a story worth telling, about the life of a boxer, based on the real life personality of Jack Johnson, who was the first Negro heavyweight boxer in the world. That’s incredibly interesting source material. What attracted me to Nina is that she’s the only feminine presence in this world of this extreme brutishness, this maleness which boxing tends to call up, for one. And two, I’m always looking for women who have stories to tell, who are fighting for something. I feel like Nina is definitely one of those women. She is strong, she is loving, she is fierce. And she has to hold her own in a world that doesn’t really want her there, whether it’s men, or because of her color, or because of her station in life.

In such an intense story, how do you find the connection with a character that’s living in such a different time period?

The things that connect us are that we’re both women, we’re both African-American, we are adults coming of age in a very exciting time in the country– or a very volatile time in the country. Nina is living under the very heavy arm of Jim Crow. I did not grow up in that world and don’t have any concept of it, except through history. Those are the kind of things that separate us. I have grown up in a very modern age, and for their time, she was too, but relative to mine, it’s definitely a hundred years ago. Our similarities are really about our humanness, our femininity, our ability to love and go to bat for something that we really believe in, and to care for people and communities. What separates us is when, in chronological time, we’re doing that. It also happens that, for example, Nina is the mother of two children. I don’t have children, I’m not married. In order to connect us in that way, I have to draw on children in my life that I care for very much or people in my life that I’ve loved the way I might love a husband, so I can properly fit those emotions into a place that helps tell her story.

Why do you think that the story The Royale tells is important in 2016?

The telling of The Royale is actually quite timeless, that’s why it’s worth telling. The same issues, the same demons, the same fights, the same joys, the same needs, the same humor– they fit in the time the play is set, and they also fit now. We found with our audiences that no one feels that the storytelling, or the play itself, is antiquated or unreachable or feels like a museum piece that’s old and dusty. It’s quite relevant and quite real in terms of where we are now in our society and what we’re still fighting for. That has been a tremendous gift because it makes the story more accessible. It makes it even easier and even more exciting for an audience to really enter the world of our play and understand the minds at work, the actions at work, and the society at work, and really embrace them.

Since the show is based on historical figures, what was your research process like? How much of a responsibility to you feel to portray these things truthfully?

We have a really terrific dramaturgical team who put together wonderful images and readings and viewings of online video for the historical reference for The Royale to create the world that this action takes place in. A Negro heavyweight champion in boxing was a huge deal. We had a great team, and we took full advantage of everything they brought to us, whether it was audio, video, or written word. It proved very helpful in piecing together just what we needed to outline the world of the play. We do not endeavor in The Royale to do a strict historical reference. We do endeavor to use devices that were from that time period or around that time period to help us in our storytelling. For example, at around the time that the play is set, the radio did not exist. But we use a radio in our play because it’s very integral to the storytelling, and it’s something that translates from that time to this time. Everyone understands, even in this modern age, that the radio transmitted events and information from one location to another for masses of people. People gathered around radios to be tuned in, the way they gather around televisions or live-streaming now. It’s the very same thing, and that concept is very relatable, so the playwright chose to use it in the telling of The Royale as one of many devices, just to give us a reference– also, to not have audiences narrow their vision of the play by making it a strict historical reference. It’s one of the ways we stay away from a museum piece. It’s about the storytelling, it’s about the humanity, it’s about the actions that take place in the world of the play, and we don’t want anyone to get hung up on anything that ultimately is just going to take them out of the experience. It’s why the piece is loosely based on Jack Johnson, not a strict historical replication of his life.

You joined this production of The Royale a couple years ago in San Diego. Has the production changed since then, since it’s an entirely different space?

Yes and no. The creative team is just as clear and communicative and brilliant, with Rachel at the head as the director, about the story we want to tell and how to tell it. But there are elements, however small, that change everything. For example, at the Old Globe in San Diego, we had a theater that was completely in the round. At Lincoln Center, we have a thrust stage, so we’re round only on three sides, with a wall behind us. That changes how you present the play, it broadens or narrows how you can present the play. That’s just a change in the kind of theater we’re working in. In San Diego, we had a slightly different company of actors, and if you change one actor, then the colors and the shades on everything change a little bit, because that’s a different actor, a different energy, a different process creatively. And it’s exciting– it doesn’t mean it’s bad at all, in fact it’s great. You can take what everyone brings to the table and use that to infuse the piece even more. We used the similarities to our advantage, and anything that was different, we used to our advantage.

Has your approach changed in the new production?

It’s different every time. I’m the kind of actor where if one thing changes, everything changes. If I’m working with a different actor, as my leading man for example, then we’re telling the same words and motions, but we’re telling a slightly different story because my scene partner is different. He has a whole different approach to how he lives in this character, so I have to accept all of that and re-calibrate, or in some cases, just completely dismember anything I’ve been working on to make it fit into the world of his play– and he does that for me. That’s the beauty of the theatre, that’s collaborating. It’s a truly collaborative spirit. In this case we have three new actors in the Lincoln Center production, so we had a whole different array of shadings and lives brought to the stage, and it’s absolutely thrilling. So it’s not the same thing, it’s completely fitted. It’s custom built.

montego

Of all the characters you’ve played, which one has been the most similar to you? And which one has been the least like you?

I would say all my characters are most like me. We share a lot of similarities, and that’s one of the things that’s great. Even though we share all these similarities, they have very different lives. The stories we’ve been telling have been very different. A Nubian princess is different from a girl trying to break into radio in the 1950s is different from a French woman who loses her child and dies of tuberculosis. These are very different stories we’re telling, but they all love fiercely, they all are vulnerable, they all are willing to die or take abuse for what they truly believe or love. I would say that is a common thread through any role. So the ones I identify with the most are all of them. The ones I identify with the least? I don’t think of myself as a one-dimensional person, so all the roles I play call on all the different colors that are present and make up Montego, you know? I never step into something and think ‘I have no idea who or what this woman or creature is’. That just never happens. There’s always a connection.

One of your most recent roles was in It Shoulda Been You, which generated a major following online. What has your experience been with the online Broadway fandom?

It’s been terrific! It’s been great. What’s wonderful about social media is that you can reach people who maybe can’t reach you. Not everyone is able to make it to New York to see a piece of theatre, but they can have a sneak peek into our lives in a way that is different than just reading an interview in a paper or magazine, or just seeing a snapshot. If we’re vlogging, then you never know what you’re going to get, and that’s kind of exciting. I also appreciate hearing from fans of work that I’ve been a part of and knowing with that they identify with it, that they appreciate it, that they find the humor or sadness or love in it, and that they support the effort. They’re willing to come see it or spread the word about it, and we find that so encouraging and helpful. It’s a hard life, being an actor, and knowing that our fans online and in social media are very present and willing to shout out and support is great.

Can you talk a little bit about your experiences of being a leading lady of color on Broadway?

First of all, from my point of view, it’s a privilege and a joy and a dream to be a leading lady of color on Broadway. I am so grateful and embrace it fully, and I’m so happy to be a part of a legacy that goes back generations before I even was thought of. I stand on many many shoulders, and I am very aware of that and very grateful for that. Two, there’s something about telling stories of women who are in the leading lady category because it’s a certain amount of heavy lifting. At some point in your career you are drawn to those stories, you’re drawn to that amount of responsibility and work on all fronts. Particularly, being a woman of color makes me feel like there’s a presence for women who look like me, who are me, who are living my life. It feels true– it feels like a reflection of the world that we see around us. It’s art really imitating life, and I’m very privileged to be a part of that.

There have been a lot of discussions about social progress on Broadway and whether featuring more people of color is a permanent change or just a trend. What are your thoughts on that?

If people who are diverse are going to come to the theatre, they’d like to see the world in which they live reflected on the stage. Anyone who is producing theatre or participating in the theatre has to be aware of that. What I find is that it’s not really a trend at all, it’s what is going to become – or is, frankly– our norm. It can take so many wonderful, delicious twists. You can go see A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Puck can be played by a woman. You can go see Wicked, and Elphaba is green; you don’t necessarily see people that are green reflected in your everyday life, but what she represents is very effective and very accessible. It’s just like seeing a person who is African-American or Asian or Indian. It’s a direct reflection of what you see around you, and the more that happens, the more normal it becomes. I can’t think of a better word than normal, because I don’t mean to dilute how powerful the images are, but there’s something sort of wonderfully everyday about that. For example, in the company of Les Mis, we had a wonderful diverse group of actors on stage telling that story, and it was wonderful to have people understand, embrace, and see that story just as effectively and be nonplussed that Fantine was black, Enjolras was black, a member of our ensemble was Asian, and Eponine was black. No one was worried, upset, or taken out of the play, or loved the characters less because of it. It’s simply and very easily just reflecting the world around you. If you looked to your left and to your right in your seat at the Imperial, that’s what you saw: just people. It was great. There was no ticker-tape parade or announcement, just meeting the world of Les Mis. These are the people that are living their lives. Never once did I get an odd look or feeling or comment, not online or at the stage door or on the street or interrupted in the middle of my dinner by someone who had seen the show. In fact, quite the opposite.

You mentioned earlier that you’re the only woman in the cast of The Royale, which seems to be a trend for you. s was mostly male dominated, as was Les Mis. Are there any challenges in being in a heavily male show?

No, no challenges. Actors are actors, and boys will be boys– I hate to use the cliche, but it’s so true. I happen to be a girly girl, and you have to save yourself by just recognizing that the boys are going to say and do boy things sometimes. They can’t really help it. Finding the humor in that is something that’s going to save you. In the case of your question, what I’m most interested in are men who are generous, collaborative, trained actors. People who want to be there and have a lot to bring to the table. That’s all I need.

The Royale is a straight play, and you’ve been doing a lot of musicals lately. Do you prefer one medium over the other, and is there a difference in your approach?

I don’t prefer one over the other. I’m very grateful, and I’ve always embraced the ability to sing and be a musician. I started being an actor and reading plays only. I didn’t really come into a musical presence in my acting until much later in my training. They are the same to me. What I’m most interested in is the storytelling. I get to do that whether it’s a musical or a play. Vocal presence in either medium is the same. I’m not singing in The Royale, but I’m also not miked, and we have to fill that theater with our voices. We have to tell the story clearly with our voices, and if no one can hear you or understand you, that’s a problem. In Les Mis, I was wearing a microphone, but I still have to be heard and understood. You still put out the same amount of sound. It doesn’t matter whether it’s sung or spoken, it still has to be produced with your body and your sound. So the machinations are the same, at least they are to me.

What’s something that people would be surprised to know about you?

I love sweets. Is that surprising? I have a sweet every day. Not a day goes by where I don’t have a piece of candy, or cake, or pie, or ice cream.

Any particular type of cake or candy you love?

My favorite is a Hummingbird cake. For candy, I love chocolate and I love gummy bears. Classic gummy bears are pretty great.

What was the last show you watched that totally blew you away?

Sylvia. I went to see opening night of Sylvia, and it was thrilling that this play existed and was being revived on Broadway. Watching a wonderful actress play a delightful dog, recognizing how living beings can save and affect each other, and watching it theatricalized was really amazing. Truthfully, I’ve been so very busy in the theatre myself, I’ve not had a chance to see as much as I would normally see. I love to go to the theatre as well as work in the theatre, but in the last two years I’ve been on the exact same schedule as everyone in the theatre because I’ve been there myself. Sylvia stands out because it was a rare night off when I could actually go to the theatre, and it was very enjoyable. It reminds me it can be simple and heartwarming and enjoyable.

Finish the sentence: ‘If I wasn’t an actress, I would be…’

A therapist. To me, acting is like therapy. My job is to read the play or hear the music or see the score and dissect or pick apart a person, their life, and why they do what they do, and help them figure out why they’re living that life, and help me figure out as an actress why they’re living that life so I can fully express it. I feel like there’s some part of therapy– the relationship between a therapist and their patient– that shares a few of those points. I think i would enjoy helping people figure some things out, because that is really what I do when I pick up a script or piece of music.

Is there anything else you want to say about The Royale?

I just wanted to say that I think The Royale is an outstanding, terrific play. It’s at Lincoln Center Theater through May 1st. Marco Ramirez is an incredible playwright, and Rachel Chavkin has beautifully directed the piece. It’s muscular and beautiful and elegant, and I encourage anyone who’s available to please come see it, because you’ll be blown away.

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