During a morning run in downtown Baltimore to free himself of jitters earlier this week, Stevie Walker-Webb kept sending a persistent caller to voicemail. But as the calls kept coming, he finally gave in and answered. It was a teenager who participated in an arts program that Walker-Webb had established, and they had some urgent news: Walker-Webb’s name was just listed as one of the nominees for Best Director at the Tony Awards.
He broke down into tears of gratitude. For close to six years, Walker-Webb has worked alongside playwright and actor Jordan E. Cooper on “Ain’t No Mo’,” a comedic production that explores what would happen if Black Americans collectively engaged in a mass exodus from the United States to Africa.
Walker-Webb currently finds himself in Charm City because he’s directing Baltimore Center Stage’s “Life is a Dream,” the late Cuban American playwright María Irene Fornés’ 1981 version of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 17th-century play. Focused on the task at hand and considering that “Ain’t No Mo’” closed after less than three weeks on Broadway, he wasn’t expecting any nods. But now that the Tonys are honoring a play that challenges the conditions Black people in this country find themselves in after contributing to every facet of its foundation, Walker-Webb is encouraged to push forward.
During a recent phone call, the director talked about how the nomination felt, the initial ideas behind the play and what he hopes to accomplish during his stint in Baltimore.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you take the news when it came?
Stevie Walker-Webb: To be honest, a part of me wrote it off as a possibility because our show closed early. [”Ain’t No Mo’” playwright and star] Jordan [E. Cooper] and I and the entire cast have been working on this for five to six years at this point, and the play is really radical in its Blackness and its politic. It’s really a celebration of Black contributions to this country and an indictment about the progress that still needs to be made. Nothing like this has been on Broadway before, so there was a little worry about whether or not it would be received. So when I got the news, I lost it.
Do the nominations encourage you to continue following your instincts as a director, especially when making a radical piece of work?
It gives me a lot of hope in the theater as an industry, because a lot of people were like, “Is Broadway ready for this kind of art?” Six Tony nominations is our industry’s way of saying, “Heck yeah, we’re ready for things that both challenge us and push us forward.” So that’s a wonderful feeling of validation. But as an artist, I have to be honest: I’m not of those people where the prospect of rewards and red carpets is what gets me up in the morning. It didn’t hit me until I was running on the treadmill and my phone kept going off. It was from a 254 number, which is the area code for Waco, Texas, where I’m from. I finally answered and it was a teenager from an arts program that I started years ago. He told me he stepped out of homeroom to watch the nominations and heard I got nominated. That brought me to tears — I’m actually tearing up right now. That’s how the news hit me.
The premise of “Ain’t No Mo’” is a mass exodus in which Black Americans all leave the United States to return to Africa. How often have you thought or fantasized about that very scenario actually playing out in real life?
SWW: I’ve been very blessed to go to the continent a few times. I’ve been to South Africa and Madagascar around 2019. Every time I’m there, I feel at home and safe in a way that I don’t always feel in this country. So, yes, I’ve fantasized about going permanently a few times, but ultimately, the play is kind of saying we Black Americans can’t divorce ourselves from our African identity or our American identity. And the things we’ve made and contributed to this country are the things that’ve made this country. We’ve given too much to actually leave it. I think about that James Baldwin quote: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” It’s my job to make this place a safer place for people that look like me.
Can you talk about how you and Jordan E. Cooper conceptualized the play?
SWW: Jordan had written the monologues for Peaches, a character that he plays who is this fiery drag queen that takes no prisoners. They kind of read like a stand-up sketch. So he called me one night like, “I don’t know what this is. I don’t know if it’s a play or if it’s a book,” and he read it to me. I told him whatever it was, he needed to keep writing it. I didn’t know it was an invitation for him to catch the train and come to my place. He sat there and wrote the whole play in one night. I went to bed and when I came back to the living room, he read the whole thing to me. I’ve never experienced that before. And I knew then I would do everything I can to make it happen. I believed in it.
You’re currently directing Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s “Life Is A Dream” at Center Stage. This is the first time it’s been on the stage since 1981. Can you talk a bit about how you’re presenting it?
SWW: María Irene Fornés was a Cuban American playwright and is one of the foremothers of American absurdist theater. She’s the most Obie Award-winning playwright in America’s history, but she’s still extremely underproduced. If I say her name people don’t know who she is. Is it because she’s a woman? Is it because she’s Cuban? But it’s a shame because she’s contributed so much to this industry. It’s a big deal to direct this at Baltimore Center Stage and people should run to see it because it’s like Halley’s Comet — you might not see this again in your lifetime. To take this playwright that people don’t celebrate and bring her to Baltimore and put her on the stage is special.