Words by Janell M. Hickman
The most eye-opening aspect about “adulting” in New York City is seeing the transformation of not only the city itself—but, the people around you. The most interesting (and personal) occurrence is seeing your self-chosen “tribe” run as fast as they can towards their goals without abandon. Once the dust settles in your 30’s, you naturally look around and ask “what’s next?” For storyteller and playwright Cyrus Aaron, it was creating an impactful body of work to inspire change. To him, “someday” was not soon enough to share his message—someday must come today.
Admittedly, the hardest part about friendships is maintaining them. And while his acclaimed play, SOMEDAY premiered months ago, I didn’t have the chance to see it until the final showing of 2016. In conversations, a brief mention was made as to what the play was about, and yet I was not prepared to experience an internal shift so deeply profound in one evening. It’s hard to express in words what true art can inspire. So instead, we sat down for an intimate conversation about everything from our humble beginnings to our changing neighborhood, but most importantly the complex experience of being black in America.
Bevel Code: We met in 2012 and both of us were doing entirely different things, what led you to the path you are on now?
Cyrus Aaron: Storytelling has always been the path; working a 9-5 was a step along the way. I moved to New York [from Chicago] to build a life as a creative writer, but a brother had to pay rent, had to have enough for a Metro card every month. You’re not much of a voice if you can’t afford to go and be heard. I believe the beginning isn’t a place that we start from necessarily, but a place we arrive to. It took me five years to arrive to the beginning of my artistry, but what’s five years in the bucket for something I expect to do for a lifetime? I knew as long as making a little coin didn’t distract me I’d be alright. The same day we met I probably went to the Lower East Side or SoHo after work to sign up at an open mic. You have to constantly remind this city and yourself why you’re here.
BC: I remember the beginnings of SOMEDAY when you were inspired to create something impactful, what was your creative process like?
CA: The creative process for SOMEDAY was exciting and liberating, but very agonizing. Every shooting, every protest, every round of silence and indifference meant I wasn’t finished. From a creative perspective this was my first time writing for theater; I’m a visual learner so I went to countless plays to get a feel for various ways you can tell a story on stage. I actually got the style of SOMEDAY from a short film I watched on Netflix that was made of vignettes. I didn’t know what a vignette was prior to that, but there are so many layers and nuances to racism that I felt a linear storyline wouldn’t do the work justice.
The fact that life kept giving me new material is why I acted so quickly. It felt like I had four minutes to save the world and I was running late. My sense of urgency was off the charts. I knew the work was ready after I had a couple of small readings with friends. Their reactions said it all; head nods and tears. Writing SOMEDAY was a healing process for me and I knew there were close to 40 million others who needed a breath of fresh air and about 300 million who needed a wake up call.
BC: Where in the world did you find time to write an accompanying book?
CA: I was looking for time wherever I could find it. You know how it feels when your eyes water because you’re so tired? That’s how I looked every night, crying for no reason [laughs]. But I could not have done it without my designer and editors who committed just as much to see it through. The book was in the plan from the beginning. I’m not the biggest fan of the traditional playbill and I wanted to breathe new life into it. I didn’t think I had enough time to make it happen, but friends kept saying “you should write a book.”
I owed it to my audience and myself. I wanted to do as much as I could to continue the conversation off the stage. The play is an emotional roller coaster and all you have time to do is react. By the time the show ends your thoughts are all over the place. The book allows you to take the experience home and process. It gives you the space to deal with the anger and grief that has taken residence in your life.
BC: What is your vision for SOMEDAY and beyond?
CA: I will do everything I can to make SOMEDAY the next Hamilton of independent art and social justice. Lin-Manuel Miranda revolutionized theater and the cultural impact of a musical. I’ve created something that can revolutionize our society and the impact of activism in the form of art. This work pushes conversation and the strategy behind the conversation will bring about positive change.
The next step is to take the conversation around the country from city centers to college campuses. This is our moment. It’s our time to do our part and help bring about change in a creative way. The plight of racism cannot be just a “black thing” and all Americans need to see the truth about what we’ve systematically done to communities out of bias and prejudice. Imagine the possibilities if we get people to step outside of their “race” and step into their humanity?
BC: Correct me if I’m wrong, but this was your first time putting on a theatrical production, where did you start?
CA: Yeah, this was my first swing at the stage, but I wasn’t worried about the logistics at all. I planned events for a living and the steps are pretty much the same. I also knew whatever technical aspects and jargon I didn’t know I would learn in the process. Finding a venue was fairly easy, that took footwork and being ahead of all the other small budget producers looking for a theatre. But my biggest concern was finding the right talent. I knew as a first time writer and director with no budget my draw was pretty weak. I expected small casting turnouts and I knew most of the talent I probably saw would be duds. I prayed for the best and though I definitely saw a fair share of interesting characters I was fortunate to get some really talented young actors.
BC: Personally, I think the turning point for people gravitating toward the piece was when you performed at the Pyer Moss show…do you agree?
CA: I would say that was the turning point for people gravitating toward me [laughs]. The show not only put me in front of a bigger audience, but in front of one that wasn’t my own. I tapped into a different market that day. I probably knew six people in the crowd—and those were the six I invited.
Fashion week swung the doors open. I thank God for the timing of everything. The way it all worked out was a beautiful sequence of events. Kerby [Raymond] really looked out! He believed I had something worth sharing, and he invited me to share his stage. I don’t think that’s common. He was just as excited for me, as he was about his own show. I really respect him for that. I’ve learned that when you take a chance on yourself, people are more willing to take a chance on you too.
BC: For those who haven’t seen SOMEDAY, it’s extremely emotional but has bits of humor. Why did you include this despite such a serious topic?
CA: The same reason we call our funerals “homegoings.” Life is already hard enough. We manage to find light in everything we go through—and I carried that mentality into my writing. The core of the show may be heavy and painful, but there’s still a spirit of resilience and exuberance. We’ve been laughing and singing through storm after storm, and I felt it was crucial to carry on the tradition.
BC: Did you have moments of doubt throughout the entire playwriting process?
CA: I think you always wonder if people will connect with your vision. If a certain line will move them the way you hope, if they’ll catch the subtleties. But there’s no doubt, you’re just curious of how it will be received, and if it can be better. If you have doubts in the writing process then you’re telling the wrong story. I knew the way it made me feel, and I wanted to share this feeling with others. I remember the very first show I didn’t hear the crowd react at the parts I anticipated they would. It felt like it could go either way, that I might’ve missed the mark, but then the lights fade for the final time and everyone is on their feet. It’s a humbling feeling, but nothing makes you feel more alive.
BC: You created a cool social media initiative about race, class, etc. does this tie into any future work?
CA: #SOMEDAYMUSTCOME! It’s a really special initiative and I hope it reaches the masses and has the influence of Humans of NY. It’s a collective conversation about race, discrimination and bias—all happening on Instagram. I didn’t want the dialogue to begin and end with every performance. I figured there had to be a way to creatively engage people. It’s been great so far. I’m working with a core group of photographers in New York and we’ve already done over 100 street interviews. It’s a way to keep the conversation going, and put people who would never cross paths in the same conversation.
We have to be creative in how we approach our work and social media has transformed how we communicate and engage with each other. We’re still learning how to maximize social technology, but the one thing everyone is aware of is how powerful of a tool it is. I believe the more people who sit at our digital table of change, the bigger our impact will be.
BC: Perception is everything, especially when it comes to being a black man in America. How does that impact the way you dress, groom, speak, etc.
CA: We have to meet standards that were set without our culture in mind and practices that never considered our natural aesthetic. I’ve spent the last few years deprogramming myself. I’ve stopped policing myself, and I’ve given my identity a chance to flourish and be true. It’s a feat for black people to be comfortable in their own skin. I love a blazer and a nice pair of wingtips, but nowadays I like a hoodie and some kicks just the same. It’s really ridiculous when you think about it. We worry about what a casual and comfortable piece of clothing will do for our safety. I embrace my culture and if I’m critical of myself it is a critique free of external factors. It’s about the best representation of my black. Much love to the natural hair movement. It’s refreshing to see us enjoying our natural traits and learning about the different ways that can be stylized and presented.
BC: You have a little bit of swag, can you share your grooming and/or style routine?
CA: Just a little bit huh? A year ago I would’ve said a haircut every week. Now my creative process dictates my barber appointments. If I’m knee-deep in writing I let my hair grow, but when it comes time to perform I get a cut. I don’t have to worry about my beard game because it’s not there yet, but I always keep a shadow.
BC: We both live in Bed-Stuy which has been “under renovation” if you will for the past few years. What can we do to maintain a stronger sense of community?
CA: Shots fired, but I hear you. There are levels to this “renovation.” As a transplant in Bed Stuy who happens to be black, it’s important that I intentionally build bonds with my local neighbors who look like me. We have to stop it with this “passing through” mentality. Too often aspects of black culture are viewed as temporary, as fads— like this neighborhood is cool until I upgrade and move elsewhere.
The problem with that is you’re not committed to the area while you’re there, and then when you move, you take your upward mobility with you. That’s when white folks start moving in and then all of a sudden the community isn’t the same anymore and we complain about the changes. We have to use our personal knowledge, resources and gains to invest in the culture, socially if not economically. If you’re not there for long haul to build storefronts then join up with other young and talented brothers and sisters and build a cause or tradition. We have to sow some seeds before gentrification takes up all the soil.
BC: The election was interesting to put it lightly, will you be creating any work to put a spotlight on the current administration?
CA: I think the current administration being what it is, has more than enough spotlight. My energy and focus will be on the people that have to endure this administration. Obama gave us the keys in his farewell speech. He talked about our power as citizens and the power to change things when we participate. Every chance I get I’m going to spread power to the people.
BC: You have another show, an ode to Michelle Obama, obviously she’s inspiring to many but why is she impactful to you?
CA: Michelle Obama is the most influential FLOTUS of all time. I’m willing to bet the house on that. She reminded the world that no other group of women shines bright like black women. She is what the culture expected and she is more than the world was ready for. The day we stand up for black women in this country is the day this country is at its best!
BC: This question is always slightly corny, but what’s next for you?
CA: I’m a creative visionary on a mission. Here’s the deal; I’m building a museum of work for the world to experience. Every project is it’s own exhibit. SOMEDAY is the opening exhibit and it’s still being expanded upon. We’re just on the ground floor, but wait ’til I show what’s on the second level! What’s next is insane! I’m organizing a march and production tour for this summer. A year from now I want to come back to this interview and say this is when I told my people I was going to shake up the world.