Tazewell Thompson

Director and Playwright
Tazewell Thompson headshot

Photo courtesy of Arena Stage

Music Credits: “Renewal” written and performed by Doug and Judy Smith.

Tazewell Thompson: I loved being on the stage, but I didn't like the torment of-- and the nerves, the stage fright. When I discovered directing, I loved the reading about the play and the period, auditioning the actors, of bringing designers together, of creating a world. I just love that. 

Jo Reed: That's director and playwright Tazewell Thompson and this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Tazewell Thompson’s theatrical credits put him in the top tier of directors. He’s worked with some of the most prestigious houses in the country, like New York's Manhattan Theatre Club, the Public Theater and the Lincoln Center Theater, Chicago's Goodman Theatre, and the Guthrie in Minneapolis. Not to mention his long and fruitful association with Washington DC's Arena Stage, where he’s directed a couple of dozen plays.

But that’s only half of Thompson's career because he is also well known nationally and internationally for his direction of operas: operas like CarmenSamson and Delilah, Porgy and Bess, and the acclaimed current production of Appomattox--which composer Philip Glass and librettist Christopher Hampton recently reworked to connect the 1865 surrender to 1965 Selma and the Civil Rights Movement.  This is not Tazewell Thompson’s first theatrical foray into the Civil War--he is also the author of the play Mary T and Lizzy K which premiered at Arena Stage under his direction in 2013.

Mary T and Lizzy K tells the story of the complicated, if close, relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley. 

A few days before the play's opening, I spoke with Tazewell Thompson about theater, opera, and how Mary T and Lizzy K came to be.

Tazewell Thompson: Well, I was commissioned-- and I’m glad you’re sitting-- in 2001 to <laughs> write this play. <laughs> And it’s not that I’m a slow writer or a slow thinker. I’m essentially and basically a director of opera and theater. And from 2001 until late 2009, I had an extremely busy schedule, and I’m grateful for that. But I had very little time to do any writing. I was thinking about the play and I was reading about Lincoln. It was going to be-- in the beginning-- a play about Abraham Lincoln. Molly Smith, who’s the artistic director here at Arena Stage, she commissioned the play, and her only caveat was that she wanted it to be set in Washington. It could be about anything, but it had to be set in Washington. And I accepted that. And I thought, you know, it could’ve been a domestic play, it could’ve been a play about anything in Washington.  But the first thing that came to mind was politics. It’s a political town. And I’m a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln. I had no idea how daunting the task would be to write something about Abraham Lincoln, but I started to read books about Abraham Lincoln. And you have to be very selective because there are thousands.

Jo Reed: Aren’t there more books written about him than any other person except for Jesus Christ?

Tazewell Thompson: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. And so I chose a couple of books, and I started reading. And then I did start to put some things, some notes down. But then it was eventually turning into not a play but a term paper. <laughs> But I started to notice something, that as I was reading, there were these footnotes. And at the bottom it would say, “See Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave, Four Years in the White House.”  So I got that book and I read her story. And her story is so interlaced with Mary Todd Lincoln that I realized that this was the play. The play had to be about these two women. The story was so compelling. I certainly would’ve been able to bring in Abraham Lincoln, which I wanted to in some way. But it was going to be about the two of them. And so a play that I had originally mapped out and charted out to have 13 characters, came down to 4 characters.

Jo Reed: Tell us a little bit for listeners who might not know, who Elizabeth Keckley was.

Tazewell Thompson: Well, she was born a slave.  She was the product of a mixed race, because her mother was raped by the owner of the plantation in Virginia. And her mother-- as Lizzy was a young girl-- her mother was responsible for taking care of the clothes and the maintenance of clothes and the making of clothes, for those who were in the main house of the plantation. And as a little girl, Lizzy’s mother taught Lizzy how to sew. So at a very, very early age, she was helping her mother sew things. And even as a little girl, she was given the responsibility to work inside the Big House. And she was taking care of a little child, a baby, and she was seven or eight years old herself. And as a little girl, she was introduced to the horrors of slavery. She was rocking the baby so hard in the cradle trying to prevent the baby from crying that the baby fell out of the cradle. The woman of the house saw this. The baby was okay, but she was horrified. She ordered that Lizzy, who was seven or eight years old at the time, be whipped. And she was. I mean, brutally whipped. And she remembered that incident. She had other incidents where she was very outspoken for a young girl who was a slave, and so this was repeated. Her mother was eventually separated from her, and Lizzy herself was sold to a couple of different plantations. But she’s always been able to survive through her sewing skills. Eventually, she was able to buy her freedom.  

Jo Reed: What did Elizabeth Keckley do? 

Tazewell Thompson: She came to Washington. She was already getting a reputation as being an extremely gifted dressmaker. And when she came to Washington she was able to open up her own shop right here in the district. And her clients were all the fashionable and high society ladies of DC, including Mrs. Jefferson Davis, Mrs. Robert E. Lee, and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant. She had an extraordinary reputation. When Mary and Abraham came to Washington, weeks before the inauguration, she heard about Elizabeth and she hired Elizabeth. And once Mary saw the clothes that she was making for her, she brought her in to be her exclusive dressmaker. She didn’t want her to work for anyone else. And Elizabeth became much more than a dressmaker.

Jo Reed: What do you think actually drew Elizabeth Keckley and Mary Todd together?

Tazewell Thompson: Well, that’s a very good question because they are complete polar opposites. The obvious one is one is black and one is white. One is a former slave, and one is the, the First Lady of the Land, the Caucasian person in the country. <laughs> And Elizabeth comes from extraordinarily tough and humble and nightmarish background, and Mary grew up in a household where everything was hers if she wanted it. They were both born in the same year, 1818. They both were outspoken. They both had a thirst and a quest for knowledge to see the world outside of their immediate circles. They both lost a son. Elizabeth lost her son during the Civil War, and her son was passing for white. So he joined the Union Army as a white man. And, of course, Mary had lost two of her children, one in the White House, one before she went into the White House. They both had a fascination and a love of clothing and fashion. And they both were activists. And they were both very politically motivated. They followed the war. They read about the war. They cared about what was going on in terms of the strategies. They both had a great sense of humor and they enjoyed each other’s company. So it was a very unique and very unlikely friendship.

Jo Reed: Yet it’s complexity upon complexity. It really is like unpacking an onion <laughs> in some ways. Because Mary Todd, for as close as she was or might’ve been to Elizabeth Keckley, she also didn’t pay her.

Tazewell Thompson: Well, yes. <laughs> They’re not coming to each other as equal partners. In the beginning, the business arrangements was fine, but then towards the end, about the last year or so, she wasn’t paying Elizabeth. However, Mary couldn’t pay.  She was <laughs> buying things for the White House. She was spending lavishly and she was shifting the funds around. She was helping to cook the books. So Elizabeth began to lose her sense of her standing in the business world and in society, because she had given herself exclusively to the White House, to Mary Todd, but yet she was not getting an income. Now, she was really being relegated to being a slave again. She was not getting paid for her work.

Jo Reed: After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckley wrote her memoir about her life and also about her time in the White House, and it didn't go very well for her. 

Tazewell Thompson: Everyone turned on Elizabeth Keckley and this book. You know, this was during a time where you just don't reveal as much as Elizabeth revealed, and also it was a black woman who was revealing this about a white family, the <laughs> white family of the country. Once the book came out, Mary and Elizabeth never saw each other. After the book came out, she wasn't able to have any clients, no one trusted her. She fell on very, very hard times. And she eventually died destitute in a home for destitute women that she helped found. She lived to be 88. Mary Todd went to live with her sister. She died at her sister's home, the same home where she was married, and she died at the age of 63. So she died many years before Elizabeth died. Elizabeth, originally her grave was an unmarked grave, and of course Mary was in a vault next to her family.

Jo Reed: On a broader question, what first drew you to theater?

Tazewell Thompson: Part of my childhood, five years of my childhood, I grew up in a convent. I was taken out of a home, an environment that was really terrible. My mother and father were great individually, but together, it was-- I don't know, if you know the play, Long Day's Journey Into Night. my family was-- made Long Day's Journey Into Night look like the musical, Annie <laughs>. So I was taken out of that environment by the state, and I was placed into a convent in Upstate New York, St Dominic's Convent. And at first I thought I was in a prison, because you know, A, I'm taken out of my home, and B, I'm in an environment that is very, very different from Harlem, which is where I was living at the time, and I was a child. You know, I was entering the fourth grade, and I was-- third grade, and I was there through the eighth grade. But when I look back at it, and I've looked back at it many times, it was the best thing that ever happened to me, because I was brought up by nuns. And those nuns, who became my surrogate mothers-- I had three different mothers. You have-- there are different cottages. As you get older, you go to a different cottage or dorm. And all three of them recognized in me, as they recognized in all of the boys and girls who were up there, what talents they had. If one was fascinated by the constellation, if one was an athlete, if one loved to read, if one loved to paint or make pictures. And they recognized in me that I, at an early age, that I liked the theater, that I was attracted to being on stage in the school plays that I got the good parts and I did very well, and I also loved to write. I won essay contests in the state. And I was in oratorical contests as a young kid, and I won those. So it was really at that very early age, but it was because each of these wonderful nuns took an interest in every child and helped bring out the best in that child, which is what every parent would do. And so it was then that I started my love of theater. I didn't think, you know, I was going to be an actor at that age, but when I left the convent, I knew that I was attracted, though I didn't know how far I would go, or what opportunities I would have, because I started high school and it was in the mid '60s. And certainly there was not a lot of opportunities that I could see from my high school eyes, that anything was ever going to happen, but I loved the theater and I wanted to be involved in some way. And I pursued it. Right out of high school, I was in an off-Broadway play, and I started kicking around from role to role. And I was also a teacher at a private school in Brooklyn Heights and then another one in New York City, and I found out what I really also loved, actually more than acting, was directing, because I was directing the kids in plays in both those schools. And so that's really where it-- the roots of that, that's where it started. But it really began in the convent when those wonderful nuns recognized in me that I had a special something, as a kid.

Jo Reed: What was it about directing that spoke to you more than acting?

Tazewell Thompson: Well, I loved being on the stage, but I didn't like the torment of-- and the nerves. It began for me, in the middle of the day, knowing that I would have to be on stage, that I just felt, "Well I can't do this, because I've got to prepare," and it just began so early for me, the stage fright, the nerves, the whole idea of how I was going to get through the day to get on stage. As much as I enjoyed it, it was a complex feeling about being out there on my own. When I discovered directing, by directing the kids, and what I loved about it then, and I still love about it now, is, I loved the reading about the play and the period, of auditioning the actors, of bringing designers together, of creating a world, of acting as a surrogate father, a psychologist for the actors, a mentor for them, someone who's in charge of bringing all the pieces together, I just love that. The part that I love the most, though, is actually preparing before we even get into the rehearsal. I love reading about the period, whatever the play is, reading more about the playwright, of getting images together, of bringing those images to designers, the whole planning stages. You're really an architect, or you're really an archaeologist, you know, on a dig for what's at the essence and what is at the spine and the heart of this world that you're creating, and I love that.

Jo Reed: I was surprised, and, you know, this is my ignorance. I knew you had directed opera, but I wasn't aware of the extent of your direction of opera. You've directed many. How did you move into that?

Tazewell Thompson: In 1985, I was approached by a committee in New York City that was going to be celebrating Aaron Copland's 85th anniversary and there were going to be about 30 different events. And they asked me, because someone on the committee knew my work from off-Broadway as a director, or from the regional theaters, what would I choose if I was going to do something to be a part of this Copland pie? And by providence, by sheer luck, a couple of weeks before that, I was in a... walking around a flea market and I saw this LP that had, "Scenes From The Second Hurricane" by Aaron Copland. I never heard of "[The] Second Hurricane," and it was an opera that was written for young voices. So I bought this album, I think it was maybe a dollar-fifty or something, and I was playing it for a while. And so I said, "Well, The Second Hurricane," which they hadn't heard of either. And so they said, "Well, you know, let's see what you can do with that," and I started raising funds on my own. It was only going to be maybe excerpts from this, but I decided I was going to put on the whole opera. And it hadn't been done since 1934, and it was 1985. And when it was originally done, it was supposed to be directed by Orson Welles, but he left, because he was going to direct some little movie called Citizen Kane. <laughs> Or he was preparing for it anyway. So it never was staged. It was presented as a concert on bleachers, because they were without a director. So my staging would be the first staging. Well I wrote to every single corporation and foundation and they were intrigued by the idea that it was an opera for young voices. This was a year in the making and I had the idea of putting artists' work on stage as the different scenes. I went after ten different well known artists and they wanted to be a part of it. A lot of them were friends of Aaron Copland or friends of friends of Aaron Copland, and they weren't getting paid, but they wanted to be, you know, they felt that it was for young voices, it was for children. That's how I started in opera and the reviews were astonishing. Most of them said that this was the highlight of the Copland celebration. And it began from there that, you know, other opera companies wanted to meet with me and offered me projects, and I was thrilled.

Jo Reed: I think of directing opera as monumental.

Tazewell Thompson: Well it is. It is. But you know, going back to my time in St. Dominic's, I was taught Latin. I was an altar boy, so I knew how to read and speak Latin. And as a result, when I started to work in opera, operas in French, operas in Spanish, operas in Italian, I had the roots of that from the Latin that I knew. But getting into a room, I mean, The Second Hurricane is one thing, with a lot of young people running around. But when you're taking on something like Carmen or Samson and Delilah or Porgy and Bess you are in a room of anywhere between 50 to 100 people on stage. And you know, there's a chorus you have to move around, and then there's the principals, and you can only rehearse with the principals so much in a day, because they can't just keep singing like actors keep working for five or eight hours a day. You have to know exactly what you're doing, and get them through it, and then maybe they'll sing it twice. And they'll sing it four or five times, but they will not sing it at their full voice, which then restricts how they're going to emote and all of that. Then you have, you know, the scenery and you have the costumes and then eventually you have to deal with an orchestra that's anywhere from 75 to 100 in the orchestra pit. It is monumental. There's a lot of responsibilities on your shoulder. But you're in this room, and you hear these glorious voices and this outrageously beautiful music, and it's something that goes back hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years that this glorious music still lives and sustains pleasure and I love it. I don't know whether I like theater more, or opera more, but I'm glad that I don't have to make that decision and choose one.

Jo Reed: And play writing, obviously.

Tazewell Thompson: And play writing, which is my new love, and I haven't mastered the art of play writing but I'm certainly getting the hang of it, and I enjoy it very much.

Jo ReedConstant Star was your first--

Tazewell Thompson: Was my first play.

Jo Reed: How did you get there?

Tazewell Thompson: Well I was directing a play at PlayMakers Rep in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. And the artistic director, Milly Barranger-- this might have been my sixth play that I had directed for her in her regional theater. And she said to me, you know, "When you write about the play, or you speak to us about the play, you're so articulate and you go into such depth and you bring us wonderful research and you talk about the period so well." She says, "I think there's a play in you somewhere." And she says, you know, "I've received this grant and I don't know how to use it, but if you're interested, I'd like to give it to you." And I thought, you know, I was floored. I said, "Well I've always loved to write, but I never saw myself writing a play." So she says, "Well come back to me in a couple of weeks, and see if you've found something you want to write about." Later that night-- it's so interesting how things work, I was flipping the dials on television and I came across a PBS special. It was Black History Month, and it wasn't even a full hour and it was about Ida B. Wells, who I'd never heard of. And there she was, and something just struck me that, A, I wanted to learn more about her, because it was a very short, and very factual-- not completely inspirational, biography about her, but it was certainly fascinating that this little tiny woman was running across the country trying to change the lynching practices in the country. And there was a book, there were a couple of books about her. And a couple of weeks later, I went back to Milly Barranger, the artistic director, and said, "I think I found who I want to write about." And that play came to me relatively easy. I knew from the very beginning, after reading about her, that it would be five women. It just all came to me. And they would all play Ida B. Wells. They would all play men and women, black and white, young and old. And I chose five women to play Ida B. Wells, because as this tiny woman, she was barely five feet. I felt that to just have one person onstage was not going to give all the variety and the complexity and that I thought, you know, on the stage, you can do whatever you want. You can make something as theatrical as you want, that this was the way to bring her life to the open, and hopefully it would be stage worthy. I've had 14 productions of it, one of them was here at Arena Stage. The play was not quite well formed when it was at Arena Stage. I kept-- at all the venues, I kept rewriting and working on it, and it was probably in the last five of those 14 that I felt it really had crystallized. I'm sorry it wasn't as together as it has been later on, when I was here at Arena, but that's the way things happen. 

Jo Reed: Is it different for you when you're directing your own work?

Tazewell Thompson: Yes, yes, yes. Now I have always had sleeping problems. This goes back from my childhood with my mother and father in the other room, carrying on and breaking things. So I've been an insomniac all my life. But when you're directing and you're writing a play, and you're directing that play that you've written, this is where your insomnia pays off, because you're going to be up all night anyway. You may as well be writing a play, you may as well be working on the play, and that's what I did. But it's a very schizophrenic role that you're playing, because you come in to rehearsal, you have to wear the hat of the director, of course, but you also are the playwright. So you have to allow-- which is what I always do with actors-- you have to allow them to have their process, to get to where you want them to in how they're creating their character and the journey of their character, and how it all comes together as an ensemble. But when you're the playwright and you know what the end result will be, it's very difficult, you just want to say, "No, say the line this way. This is what I intend." So that's hard. But I found a way to do that, because you've got to let the actor-- you've got to guide them, you've got to inspire them, you've got to direct them towards that finish line, but you've got to let them find their own process. There are actors who come in, and they know all the lines on the first day of rehearsal. There are actors who come in, and they don't know their lines until they-- like, maybe a week before an audience. And there are other actors who need, you know, a lot of guidance, literally, taken by the hand and moved around the stage. There are other actors who just come out there and they show you something, and then you shape it around them. But when it's your play, and you already have this picture and this image in your head-- and believe me, I did-- it can be difficult and it was difficult. But as torturous and as challenging as it's been, it's been also exciting and fun. And I consider myself very, very fortunate. 

Jo Reed: Let's leave Arena Stage out of the mix, because this is your home away from home. Other than Arena, is there a place that you particularly like to work?

Tazewell Thompson: Well, yes. NYU Grad, which I love to work at. I love it. Zelda Fichandler, who is the founder of Arena Stage, she first brought me to NYU when she was running that program there. This probably is my, maybe tenth or eleventh play that I've done with them through the years. I love going there because it reminds me of where I was when they were that age. And you come in, and the whole environment is about making art, and they're young and they're full of optimism about the future, and they love research and they love talking about the characters, and the play, and breaking it down, which I love. And it's good, it's a nice good shot in the arm. It's the perfect adrenaline for me to remember why I do these things in the first place. So it's stimulating and I love it. 

Jo Reed: Tazewell Thompson, thank you so much.

Tazewell Thompson: Oh it's my pleasure.

Jo Reed: Oh, and thank you for your work throughout the years.

Tazewell Thompson: Well thank you so much for saying that, I appreciate it.

Jo Reed: Oh well I appreciate it. So thank you.


That was director and playwright Tazewell Thompson.

You've been listening to Art Works. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. 

Transcript available shorlty.

Tazewell Thompson may be wowing critics and audiences with his direction of the opera Appomattox, but he’s an equally brilliant theater director and playwright.