Art Talk with Nikkole Salter

By Paulette Beete
a young black woman with straightened hair and pink lipstick
Nikkole Salter. Photo by Christine Jean Chambers

“I feel like I'm always looking for my Celie stories: the stories that I'm uniquely built—through my experience as a person alive and my experience in the craft—to tell.” —Nikkole Salter

When I asked Nikkole Salter about her early journey to becoming an artist, she replied, "It was tragic." Salter, who started taking acting lessons as a child, was given an opportunity to write a monologue responding to Nina Simone's "Four Women." Inspired by a Langston Hughes poem, she used his words to start her own poetic monologue, her efforts earning her an award. It also earned her crushing disappointment when she was accused of plagiarism, no one having explained to the young writer that she needed to credit Hughes words in her work. Still, despite that setback, from that early experience Salter discovered something important about her self as an artist: that she was gifted to not only interpret other people's words, but also to write words of her own for herself and others to perform. She also learned the importance of a creativity based in an authentic connection to the source material, the necessity of engaging in work that fully engaged all of her as an artist, and the paramount need to create a safe environment in which creativity can flourish. Those early lessons have since been the engine of her work, onstage and on the page. A co-writer with Danai Gurira of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated In the Continuum, the award-winning actress has also appeared at Arena Stage, Huntington Theatre Company, and other notable stages across the U.S. as well as onscreen in films such as Harold Jackson III's Last Night. She also boasts an extensive array of credits as a writer, including several plays and a screen adapatation of the classic Manchild in the Promised Land. We spoke with Salter when she was in Washington, DC wrapping up her star turn in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Liesl Tommy-helmed production of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Read on to hear directly from Salter how she describes her mission as a theater artist, how she prepared to tackle the iconic role of Lady Macbeth, and how her involvement in In The Continuum inspired her to create The Continuum Project, an arts-based empowerment and enrichment project for youth. NEA: What's your job description as an actor, your mission statement for what you're trying to do? NIKKOLE SALTER: I think of myself more broadly as a dramatist. As a dramatic storyteller, I want to tell stories that help to evolve humanity by bringing awareness and consciousness to the way in which we're choosing to live. As a writer, more specifically, I'd like to look back at my work one day and have a body of work that reflects an African-American perspective on the major issues of our time…. I'm a spiritual person and believe that my art is very much connected to that life. Like a rose that has embedded within it the intelligent response to being nurtured to become more and more of a rose until it perishes, each of us has within us the seeds to blossom the very thing that we are. My goal is to do that with the most grandeur and celebration possible. There’s this thing that I call Celie stories. The film The Color Purple was pivotal in my understanding of storytelling as a black woman, and I feel that the part of Celie was meant for Whoopi Goldberg. I believe there are many actresses who would have done just fine, and the story would have been told, but very few for whom that story was meant to be told. She was built to tell that story. I feel like I'm always looking for my Celie stories: the stories that I'm uniquely built—through my experience as a person alive and my experience in the craft—to tell. I think some of those stories I will write, but not exclusively. NEA: You’re playing Lady Macbeth at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. How did you get involved with the project, and how do you prepare to tackle such an iconic role? SALTER: I'm an actress without an agent right now because I've been commissioned to write so much. I got rid of my agent because we differed on what my goals as an actress were. They wanted me to go away, and I was like, "I only want to go away for things that are my Celie story." And they didn't know what the hell I was talking about. I have direct relationships with casting directors that I respect and honor so when they call me, I always audition regardless of whether or not I want the part. When they called me for [Lady Macbeth], quite frankly, I thought it was a long shot. Doing the classics has never been an artistic goal of mine. I generally get more excited by new works like, "Oh, God, I can originate something….” When I realized it was a possibility that I could get the part, I began to delve a little bit more. I always ask myself the questions: why this part for me and why now? What am I supposed to give and what am I supposed to get? After getting the part, Liesl [Tommy, the director] really put me at ease because she was asking similar questions like why are we telling this story now. Her take on the story really made me feel like I could tell that story because I understood why we were telling it now. It's important to understand or to take a deeper dive into how tyrants are made, why they're made, how they come to be. That’s the primary goal of our retelling Macbeth—not to do it because it's Shakespeare or because it hasn't been done in this long, but to do it because of what we're going through in our world right now. When I began to think of Lady Macbeth, I didn't think of her as this iconic role that women built reputations on. I thought [about] how does she participate in the making of a tyrant and what could I reveal about that in a way that makes people think about that, not about how evil and ruthless and sexy [she is]. One of the reasons I don't like Shakespeare's women is because I feel like they're often reduced to that. They're often crazy, just mad or fragile or ridiculously romantic in ways that I don't connect to. I had no interest in examining the evil puppeteer angle that people seem to like about the character. I think it's more interesting to look at her as a woman because there are people who encourage murder. Why do they do that? Even in the stories of Batman, the Joker has a backstory. It's not just evil for evil's sake, and I think that makes people uncomfortable to think about how that's possible, and that it's closer to them than they think. NEA: Is there something that you discovered about yourself as an actress doing this part? SALTER: That I can act. That I'm good at what I do especially after having taken a two-year hiatus and then coming back to play this particular part at this particular theater. I was pooping in my pants a little bit and wondering if I would be exposed for some kind of fraud or something, and then I realized that I'm good at what I do. I wasn't sure that I was sure of that before I began. Then story-wise, just as a woman dealing with whether or not to have children or not and having that be a major theme in the work, I was like, "Oh, that's what I'm exploring personally." That's what I personally have to give to this part. As an actor—I always tell my students and tell myself—part of our job is to get connected. You find that personal connection to yourself and to your own journey because that's what human beings are actually responding to. The words are not enough. The movement is not enough. The expression of emotion is not enough. We're responding to the authenticity of something real happening before our eyes, a real connection, and that's when you're going to have the deepest access to the hearts of the people who are spending two hours with you. So I try to connect myself [to the work], and through that connection, connect to others. NEA: One of the things that was striking about Liesl Tommy’s vision for Macbeth is that—with the exception of the witches—all of the characters were played by actors of color. As someone who works in theater, what do you think needs to happen so that that type of casting is no longer extraordinary? SALTER: I don't know what the hell to do. We're so segregated. In order for us to transcend that, we have to get to a point where a person's skin doesn't have inherent meaning. So when a black man walks into Barney's, that has no meaning. When a white girl sits at the table with the black girls, that has no meaning. I don't know how to make it stop having meaning. I wrote a play called Lines in the Dust that explores school residency fraud as the issue at hand, but it's really a play about segregation. The extent to which communities go to to plan segregation, to keep people away from each other is real. “I don't want to live next to poor people ever.” “I don't want to live next to black people.” “I think I should be in a Jewish community for my personal comfort and safety.” I don't know how to stop that. I'd like to think that stories have the power to introduce people, but I feel like it has powers for good and evil. Because we're so segregated, those stories become pivotal, and that's why, as a person of color, it's so confining as an artist because you are representing your race to a bunch of people who don't have access to you, who don't want access to you. So what you say about who you are as a culture, as a community, will be seared in their minds and they won't have anything to check it. So if all they watch is The Boondocks, then they look at your children like they're Riley. If you all watch is The Cosby Show, then you forget that there's some crackheads who will rob you. Do you know what I mean? I don't know how to stop that, and I’m not deluded into thinking that I can. That’s why I want to have a body of work that, hopefully, has diversity within it so that if you're curious you could at least find out. I don't know how to ignite that curiosity. And when you walk into our theatrical spaces, I mean, as much as [people of color] felt at home or gratified by seeing all of our black and brown faces [onstage in Macbeth], there are many white people who saw those faces and felt horrified. I've seen the reviews and I'm always taken by the people who point out that the white people are the bad guys, and that's problematic, as though there are no bad white people, which is ridiculous. As though we can't talk about Western intervention in the developing world… and what white faces specifically did in the name of the entire nation. I think as long as people are uncomfortable with the truth, then we'll always have this problem. NEA: In addition to playwriting and acting, you’re also involved with something called the Continuum Project. Can you talk about what that is? SALTER: When I was doing In the Continuum, which is a play I co-wrote and co-performed with Danai Gurira, I found what I call my synthesized self. It's that place in your life where all of your talents and skills meet community and purpose and effortlessly magnetize opportunity. We were heavily engaged in each of the cities that we went to with that play in community service around the issue of HIV and AIDS awareness. When I graduated from grad school someone asked me how I felt, and I was like, "I feel like I'm standing on the edge of a shoreline at the beach, and I look to my right and my left, and my classmates are there as well. We look back out to the ocean, and the water is receding by thousands of feet at a time. It's revealing the bottom of the ocean. That wave is coming up. You can see it cresting. It's going to be massive. I look back to my right and my left. Some of my classmates have boats and kayaks and yachts and motorboats and cruise ships, and people are prepared. And I look down and I'm holding a boogie board, and here comes the wave.” When I was done with In the Continuum, I was feeling that same way again. I was back at that shore. I thought to myself, "I can wait for the alignment to maybe happen again in my lifetime or I can create an environment where I can be my synthesized self. I want to engage my community. I want to feel like what I'm doing is useful to people. I'm a storyteller and I'm a dramatist. I care a lot about descendants of the transatlantic slave trade finding true freedom by defining themselves. I watched the first Henry Louis Gates African American Lives special where he was testing Oprah and Chris Rock, and I thought, "God, you got to be Oprah to find out how you're connected to your Africanness in a specific way? That's ridiculous.” so I waited for the credits to roll, and I saw that they had partnered with a [DNA ancestry] company called African Ancestry, so I called them. I went down to visit Gina Paige [co-founder of African Ancestry]—who is still a friend of mine—and I told her I wanted to start a program that used the arts to help young people at the pivotal moment of awakening their social selves to have the tools to overcome racial stereotyping by giving them the space to consider their authentic selves as Africans and introducing them through African Ancestry to the specificity of their Africanness. We did [the program] at the William Alexander Middle School for four or five years. We did it at Harlem School for the Arts. We've done it here in Washington, DC at the Duke Ellington School for the Arts… Some of [the young people we worked with] are in college or have graduated from college now, and they talk about the impact that it had on them to [learn about their African ancestry] in a peer setting and not in a family setting and to become empowered with the truth. Our goal is to use drama and process art to get them to explore how they know that they're black, to dramatize those moments in their lives, to dramatize how they feel about their place in the world. Just like in creating ritual, when you make something palpable, it gives them the form to then go back and write and talk more specifically about their own journeys. They write monologues and perform monologues as it relates specifically to their genealogy. And they spend a lot of time with their families talking about those stories. It's a lot of drama therapy work actually, and at the end where they do a showcase we don't call it a show because we don't want people to come thinking they're going to be entertained. They're coming to witness a transformation and to be a community partner, a witness in that evolution where these young people are sharing, usually with their families for the first time, how they feel about their blackness. It's quite moving. NEA: I have one final question. Finish the sentence: “The arts matter because….” SALTER: The arts matter because it's a piece of technology for the growth of humanity. It's what makes us human. We’re going to evolve regardless, but it is what allows us to consciously evolve, to choose the direction of our evolution, and I think that that's important.