Jeffrey Wright

Actor, director, producer
Headshots of a man.
Photo courtesy of HBO

Music composed and performed by Jorge F. Hernández.

Excerpt from We Are Not Done Yet: “I was in the marine corps for ten years, went to Afghanistan, supported Iraq and was medically retired. And now I'm a visual artist. It's hard to cope and do normal human being stuff if you're wearing your trauma on your sleeve. When I first got back home from Afghanistan, my dad was like ‘hey if you ever want to talk, we're here for you.’ But it never made sense to be like ‘Hey dad, I watched people burn to death, also can you pass the mashed potatoes.’ Or like, how do I start the conversation.”

Jo Reed: That is artist and Marine Veteran Joe Merritt in an excerpt from the upcoming HBO documentary We Are Not Done Yet and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Starting a conversation is at the heart of the HBO documentary We Are Not Done Yet which was produced by actor Jeffrey Wright. The film profiles a group of veterans and service members as they come together in a United Service Organizations or USO writing workshop at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to combat past and current traumas through writing.

While PTSD affects some 8 million Americans—it appears to fall disproportionately on veterans and service members. Approximately 10 to 20 percent of veterans and service members who engaged in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The We Are Not Done Yet project evolved from writing workshops led by poet Seema Reza. She’s chair of a charitable organization that develops arts programs for veterans and their communities. Through poetry, these past and current service members share their fears, vulnerabilities and victories which becomes a process for validation, bonding, and healing. In fact, the trust they built among themselves was so great, that they themselves decided they wanted to write a series of collaborative poems and then give a staged public reading of them. Actor Jeffrey Wright who you may know from Angels in America, Boardwalk Empire and most recently West World, had wanted to become more involved with the struggles of current and former service members—so he came on board to direct the stage production of their collaborative poems. Here’s Jeffrey Wright:

Jeffrey Wright: I had the great privilege really of being asked to come down and work with them because one of them decided that he wanted to do a staged reading of collective poems that they were writing as a means of processing the trauma borne out of their military experience and to use that further as a means of healing themselves and healing one another. And so as timing had it, I came down and worked with them to direct them on the staged reading which culminated in an event at the Landsburgh Theater in D.C. Michael Kahn, who's the Director of the Shakespeare Theater Company there gave me my first job in the legitimate theater when the Shakespeare Theater was housed at the Folger in

Jo Reed: Oh, my God.

Jeffrey Wright: -- D.C. And I reached out to him and he said, "Sure, you can have the theater." And so we had this night, it was a multimedia event, really. It was there was a film that showcased refugees from Syria who were experiencing their trauma. There was three musicians. There was a dance number. Some others read poetry. But the showcase, the central piece, was this series of collected poems that the veterans had written and it was one of the most powerful nights that I have ever experience in the theater and I have had many of those. But it was just an incredibly moving, powerful celebration of their journey toward healing.

Jo Reed: And they're part of a writing workshop, as you said, and it's run by Seema Reza. Who we know as a wonderful poet. She was an NEA Creative Writing Fellow.

Jeffrey Wright: Yes.

Jo Reed: So the veterans in the workshop decided to collaborate on a single poem.

Jeffrey Wright: Right.

Jo Reed: How did they come to that decision, and what was the process of writing this collaboratively?

Jeffrey Wright: Well, there are a couple of aspects that come together in this process for them. One is the act of confronting their experiences, their fears, their vulnerabilities, their challenges and their successes through the written word, writing those down, confronting those. The other aspect is doing that as a collective, coming together as a community of people with like experiences who can rely on one another to listen without judgment. And so, this collective poem was the combination of those two things whereby they were writing together and one of the participants, Vainuupo Avegalio, A.V. as he's named, who-- as he's nicknamed,-- from American Samoa, who's retired Sergeant from the U.S. Army had this idea. And A.V. is an incredible man, and clearly a powerful leader. And so everyone else agreed that this would be a productive exercise and so that's what they did. Seema led the process of writing by giving them a series of prompts that they were to use. For example, "these hands have" and they each would write something that would be the extension of that prompt and then she worked with them to create together these series of poems and we captured that process. I came in to direct them, to direct what they've written. I even collaborated in some of the writing on this. And I came in to direct them toward this staged event and that's what, fortunately, the film captures. And so we captured the process of leading up to and including the performance and then we gather five portraits of some of the participants, so we understand in a deeper way who they are and why they have been a part of this process and we learn a little bit about what they hope for their futures as well.

Jo Reed: That was very, very moving, I thought, getting to know them deeper and understand what their anxiety, what their hopes are and what the whole reentry process is back into civilian life after war.

Jeffrey Wright: Right. Which in and of itself is a kind of trauma for them.

Jo Reed: Now this isn't the first work that you've done with veterans, because you've worked with Theater of War.

Jeffrey Wright: Yes.

Jo Reed: Just can you briefly describe that organization and what they do and what grabbed you about that.

Jeffrey Wright: Theater of War was founded by a guy named Bryan Doerries, and what Bryan did was he used the Greek tragedies as a platform for discussion around contemporary PTSD in the military, mainly, but also in urban communities. So I did a few readings for military communities. I also did a reading in Brooklyn at the Public Library near my house around violence in the street and survivors of that. And what Bryan's idea, as it relates to war, is that the Greeks were a warrior society and these stories, for example, of Ajax, a great warrior who goes off on a kind of psychotic episode. Bryan's argument is that yes, they were a warrior society, yes they wrote and took in plays about the experience of war, they celebrated victories, but they also as collective examined the consequences of war. And so he used these readings. He asked actors to come in and read for groups who were related via common experience and he allowed the plays to be a springboard for conversation around PTSD. So I was moved by that and I began to explore how I might be able to get even more intimately involved. And we did a reading in D.C. There were some representatives from the Department of Defense there and I reached out and I asked, "Hey, how can I be more helpful here?" And somehow I managed to pass the vetting process and then a few months later I got the call asking if I wanted to come down and help Seema and help the vets. And had a conversation with her and understood, you know, what she needed and I thought that I could bring something to bear. And that's, and we went on from there.

Jo Reed: You went there to direct a stage reading. How did a documentary film come out of this?

Jeffrey Wright: In some ways the documentary was almost an accidental one. I went down simply to work on this staged event. Seema during the process of this, Seema is an incredible artist. She's a poet, but she also has a wonderful eye for the moment and for talent. She had the foresight as we were beginning this to say, "Hey. I know a filmmaker named Sareen Hairabedian and we've worked before. I'm going to invite her in to witness what's happening here. So the idea being that Sareen would come in and capture some of the process so that Seema could use it to promote the work that she was doing, to showcase that work. Also perhaps to fundraise for that work. And so one of the reasons that the film has a kind of, has the kind of intimate feel that it does is because we weren't really there making a film, we were there just trying to put on a piece of theater, if you will. And Sareen and a couple other camera operators were kind of quietly, you know, over in the-- on the side, just kind of bearing witness to it. And so, then at the end of the day when, when we finished the performance, we were all so moved by it and recognized how powerful it was. And there was a conversation happening around whether or not we wanted to take this on tour to do the reading in military communities or colleges, civilian communities to advance the conversation and allow the vets to further their journey toward healing others and healing themselves.

But it was a very difficult process for them and we realized that it probably wouldn't be the most productive thing to ask them to do that again. They're not a touring company, you know, this is not a conventional piece of theater. And so, I asked Sareen, I called her up that the next morning and I said, "Hey, can you show me what you guys have been filming over there?" And she did and it was just so beautifully captured. The photography was so poetic and lyrical and she really kind of embraced the tone of what was happening and really kind of synchronized with what we were doing. And I said, "I think this is really powerful. I think it's really beautifully done. I think it captures in a comprehensive way what was happening." And I added that, "I think if we can get portraits of who these folks are that we can have something that's really much more substantial than had been originally planned." And so HBO agreed and November 8th you can see the end result of that. But I have to credit Seema Reza for again, for bringing together an extraordinarily talented group of people. Wytold, who composed the music for the play and for the film, beautiful compositions that as well express the tone and emotion and ideas of the vets. The vets themselves Seema recognized that they were fully committed to this process. I brought in a friend of mine who's a violinist at the Metropolitan Opera who came down and played violin on that night and he plays on the score as well. So it all really in some ways revolves around Seema's ability to kind of draw people into a space and create beautiful ideally healing art. And so that's what the film represents.

Jo Reed: Yes. And captures that beautifully. And she really is just so creative --

Jeffrey Wright: Yes,

Jo Reed: and also a force to be reckoned with. <laughs>

Jeffrey Wright: Yes, yes.

Jo Reed: Now I do want to ask you, Jeffrey, about working, all of you working together because these are people who wrote a poem that is so searingly honest and close to the bone about their own deeply personal experiences. You know, they're struggling with PTSD and then making what had to be a difficult decision, as much as they wanted to do it, to then be public about this. You know, because it's one thing in the safety of a workshop but then standing on a stage. And I would imagine there was, of course one always has to be thoughtful with people who are going to perform, but I would think even more so in this case.

Jeffrey Wright: One hundred percent. These are powerful people. These are incredibly capable people, clear in their thinking and in their expression of their thoughts and of their experiences. But they're also injured and there's a fragility there that had to be respected. At the same time, this was not anything that we forced upon them or even encouraged them to do. This was something that they wanted to do. And once they made that decision, I came down to try to be, you know, a positive force for helping them realize, yeah, you know, the vision that they had. Because, and they expressed this in the film, what they desire as well as their own healing, and it's a part of the process of their healing, is they desire to be heard. They desire to be seen. They desire to be acknowledged. And we as a collective in America unlike the ancient Greeks, we don't do that. We don't acknowledge the consequences. We don't acknowledge the damage. We don't acknowledge the intense trauma that is war and that's only one percent of the population that's a part of that work. The 99 percent of us kind of sit back and watch television and go about our day and we don't give much thought to the downside of war. And what we need to do, though, for the good of these veterans but also for the good of a healthy society, we need to take on this trauma as a collective. We need to hear them, listen to them, understand our responsibility relative to their trauma. We need to feel it and not ignore it. So one of the priorities for these folks is that we do that and we hear them, we see them, we feel them.

Jo Reed: I was really thinking back, I mean, thinking about Theater of War and the ancient Greeks and when the reluctance to discuss war, when that came into being. And I have to think it's with modern war, but I'm not sure. I honestly don't know. But when you think about World War II, veterans returning from World War II, there really was always this we're not talking about this. They'll talk about it with their buddies-- I mean, hence "war stories." It came from veterans getting together. But nonetheless, the country as a whole understood there was a war going on and so that return actually meant something to the country as a whole. Whereas now, I think it's that combination of a reticence to talk about what happens in war coupled with the fact that we mostly don't think about it.

Jeffrey Wright: Yes. I mean, I think it has a function to do with the active service members not being a part of a draft, so, the reach and the impact of their experiences doesn't hit all of the corners of our society in the ways it did during World War II. There were greater numbers during World War II, but at the same time it was a much shorter war. It was a much more clearly defined war where there was a standing army that represented the enemy as opposed to modern wars which become much more entangled in civilian populations. There's more of a moral confusion that is born out of that. So there are a number of reasons that I think the consequences are a little bit more difficult to manage, as well, for-- There was a sense of collective understanding, as you say, about the reasons for World War II, for example. And so there was a receiving of those who participated in that war in a way that there certainly was not during the Vietnam War in which the politics of the war were conflated with the men who were drafted into that war. And that's a mistake that we cannot make now.

Jo Reed: I completely concur. And I want to talk about how art can become a way for both veterans to be able to express their experiences, both positive and negative, and at the same time for us to be able to receive it.

Jeffrey Wright: Well, one of the things that I particularly love about what these veterans have done is that they are celebrants of art. They are celebrants of the written word. They're celebrants of the act of acting and performing. And it's not for any kind of nebulous reasons, it's for very specific reasons because they feel the healing powers of it, not only for themselves, but potentially for the audience that takes it in. And that's one thing about them that I've been so profoundly moved by is that each of them is as much concerned with the healing of the other as they are with themselves. I think that speaks to the culture of the military. But certainly, art for them is not a luxury and it's not something dispensable. It is something necessary to their journey going forward. It's necessary to a healthy day to day life and a healthy future. And they use it to reach out and grab the collar of the American conscience and shake it up, too, toward a kind of collective healing. They're warriors, they're bad-asses and they're artists and they're collaborators that I am as proud to have been associated with as any artist that I've worked with in my career.

Jo Reed: This is the seventh project, if I'm counting correctly, that you've done with HBO.

Jeffrey Wright: I've lost count.


Jo Reed: Clearly, you work well together. But can you tell me why? What is it about that organization that you keep coming back for more?

Jeffrey Wright: They've got a good eye for writing, a good eye for the, you know, for the script, and that's really what, you know, what draws me in first. I think the tone is set by Richard Plepler at the top, the CEO of HBO. He says, you know, his mantra is "the artist comes first." And there's a culture of respect for the active creation and for creators. And what I'm really so gratified about, you know, having developed this relationship with them, is that they allowed me to bring in this group of unorthodox artists, this group of veterans and active service members into that home. And they've been so supportive of this project. They recognized early on that it was something that could be special and everyone over there has really thrown themselves at trying to make this the most impactful film and release of the film as they can. They've been a great creative nurturing home for me and I think they will be for these veterans and for this film as well.

Jo Reed: Did you see an evolution in the veterans as you worked with them? Could you see them sort of coming to a better peace with themselves and with others through this work?

Jeffrey Wright: They've got an ongoing journey, but the evolution that I saw from the time we started working together until the time we were onstage that night was measurable and real. Beyond that, we've obviously stayed in touch since then as we've worked on the film and as we now begin to roll the film out. And so, I guess almost two years has passed since I first started working with them and to see the ways in which they have changed for the better has been just beautiful to behold. And the level of trust that we've been able to build together, not without its, its valleys, but mostly, you know, with the upside of the hill has been as well incredibly gratifying.

Jo Reed: What surprised you working with them? What happened that you didn't expect?

Jeffrey Wright: You know, when I was in college, you know, there were things that I took for granted, but you get older and you have experiences. I ended up going to a war zone about 17 years ago, 2001 in Sierra Leone and I ended up spending time over the 10 years following that working there and it shook me out of my complacency. It shook me out of, you know, the luxury of being able to take security for granted. It shook me out of the luxury of not recognizing the value and not respecting what soldiering is. It wakened me up to the consequences of war on human beings. I worked with folks over there who were involved in the war, both as combatants and as civilians and I worked very closely with a man who was a Major General in the U.S. Army who was an infantryman from Vietnam, a man named Frederick Ley, who passed away a few weeks ago.

Jo Reed: Oh, I'm sorry.

Jeffrey Wright: He was Executive Director of a foundation that I started. He'd lived in Liberia post-retirement for two years, so he was passionate about the region and I met him through another retired General, a Brigadier General and so, and we worked together closely since 2003. And so I say all that to say that I got to know some folks in an intimate way. And the people that we worked with through this arts therapy project that you'll see in the film are representative of the people that I had gotten to know over these last few years. Incredibly compassionate, incredibly responsible, seriously smart, seriously communicative. And, and one of them, Joe Merritt, who is featured in the film, says, he said, "Actually, the military didn't know it but they were training us to be artists.

Jo Reed: How interesting.

Jeffrey Wright: "Watch everything in detail. Communicate everything you see and take action." And he is a wonderful writer and also visual artist, painter,and I think that probably, that probably was one of the most surprising things, the ways in which they were able to translate their military experience, those tools into something so expressive and something so on the outside of that military experience. Because in some ways I showed this to, the film to a friend of mine and he said, "Wow, this is almost like kind of a process of allowing them to rethink who they are as they transition out of the military to reimagine themselves, you know, through their own word." And so, I guess, you know, I say all that to say that, you know, we talk a lot about or you hear the rhetoric a lot about, you know, these people who serve in the military are the best of us. What I've discovered in working with them is that that's absolutely true.

Jo Reed: Yeah, -- everyone who has worked with veterans and service members, and because the National Endowment for the Arts is deeply involved with arts therapy for people with PTSD and for Traumatic Brain Injury, I get to speak to therapists and artists and veterans themselves and they all talk about how that work is just the most meaningful they've ever done. <laughs>

Jeffrey Wright: Yeah, I mean, I think it's such a powerful message, ideally, that will be received by our film on top of just creating a greater awareness of PTSD in the military whether it be combat-related or sexual trauma-related. But I think the message of the real tangible importance of the creative and of art, that particularly now in our increasingly cynical atmosphere here in America, that we take on board. This is not subjective, it's not arbitrary. It's real for them and they express it and they show it. Art is as necessary as oxygen, as far as they're concerned, and I think that's an objective truth.

Jo Reed: Yeah. And the film certainly shows that, I think, pretty clearly. And in fact, Joe said, "Art saved my life."

Jeffrey Wright: Yeah.

Jo Reed: Point blank.

Jeffrey Wright: Yeah. You know, without giving too much away, he talks very specifically, very clearly about what it's meant to him. And he also talks about pairing his creative work with the clinical work that was made available to him through the DOD and the VA. He viewed the art as a necessary means of not only processing his trauma but also processing the clinical work. So they, I think, will be helpful to a lot of veterans in our society who are like them. And not only veterans. You know, all of us have experienced trauma in some form, some, you know, gradation in our lives. And they shine a light on a way forward through confronting vulnerability, confronting fears, expressing those fears publicly, but also expressing the victories, too. But, but at the core of being open, vulnerable and not hiding behind a false sense of indestructability. Yeah, I just look forward to getting this thing out and people hearing and seeing them.

Jo Reed: You know, it's not unrelated to the play that, well, sort of launched your career. It was certainly a gateway, which is Angels in America, both on stage and later the HBO production. Because with that, Tony Kushner took the AIDS crisis, which was, you know, everybody knew was there but really wasn't part of a really deep public discussion yet at that point and homophobia and used art to just pull the veil back.

Jeffrey Wright: Absolutely. And part of that pulling the veil back was creating an experience of validation for those who had been living lives like the lives that he drew within the play. I recall men in the audience watching the play who were clearly sick with the disease and men who had experienced, of course, incredible-- and women as well-- incredible amounts of loss and trauma from friends who had succumbed to the disease. But the act of taking in that play and having it announced in a public space was to some extent comforting for them and validating for them, that they weren't alone and that this wasn't something that could be hidden anymore, but that this was real and it was known and it was empowering for them. And I think if there's some overlap, that might be one of them with this piece, that it provides that type of validation for a lot of people who sit in silence around their own trauma and their own experiences, whether it be in the military or be outside the military. Another way that there's an overlap which is kind of personal to me and more technical is I actually went to watch Angels in America, the first part, with my kids while we were in the process of finalizing the edit for We Are Not Done Yet.

Jo Reed: The recent production on Broadway.

Jeffrey Wright: Yes, the-- Yes, yeah, the recent Broadway production. The afternoon before I had been in the editing room and I came to the play and I watched the play. And I said to myself, "Wow. The structure of this play, the timing of the play, the architecture of the play has informed my thinking in so many ways in terms of how to shape a narrative." And I could feel that it was a resource that, you know, I had been pulling upon as, you know, I worked on the edit with Sareen. You know, I'm the producer, so, you know, I kind of-- You know, she and our editor would go off and work and then I'd pop back in, you know, <laughs> like, I'd do that a couple times a week and, you know, kind of, you know, help adjust things. But all of the tools that are required for that, you know, I could source some tendrils of the roots back to this extraordinarily masterful play that Tony had written and George Wolfe had directed many, many years ago. It's just, it's on so many levels, it's an exquisite piece of art and that's certainly one of them, too.

Jo Reed: Definitely. It's a monumental work.

Jo Reed: Well, Jeffrey, I want to thank you for giving me your time. And thank you for making this work.

Jeffrey Wright: Well, I'm thankful to Seema and thankful to the vets that they allowed me to come in there. And I'm thankful that we'll get an opportunity to share their stories with a larger audience and thank you for your interest and for your time today.

Jo Reed: That is actor Jeffrey Wright—he’s the producer of the HBO documentary We Are Not Done Yet — which airs on Thursday November 8 at 8 pm eastern time. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works where ever you get your podcasts. So please do and leave us a rating on Apple—it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.


Actor Jeffrey Wright discusses the documentary he produced for HBO, We Are Not Done Yet, which profiles a group of veterans and service members as they come together to collaborate on a series of poems. The former and current service members are part of a United Services Organizations’ writing workshop at Walter Reed National Military Center; and, all of them struggle to cope with PTSD. The workshop creates a safe place for them to grapple with their experiences through poetry. In fact, they decide not just to write a poem collectively but to present a publicly staged reading of it. That’s where actor Jeffrey Wright came in—he had worked with veterans in the past and was looking for an opportunity to involve himself again. He came to Walter Reed to direct the staged reading of the poem. And that experience became the HBO documentary We Are Not Done Yet. Listen to this conversation with Jeffrey Wright about his work with these veterans, his continuing relationships with them, and his commitment to making sure their stories are heard.