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Inside the Process: Esai's Table

Playwrights’ Corner

Lately in my work here at The Lark, a lot of my projects have been straddling the “pre-COVID” and “present-COVID” situations. Everything I do seems to be prefaced with “Well, before all this happened I had planned to do ‘X’ but now--” So here it is again: Well, before all this happened, I had planned to shoot an interview between Nathan Yungerberg, whose play Esai’s Table was to make its New York debut at the Cherry Lane Theatre, and Jarvis Green, whose company JAG Productions was co-producing. The play was developed through The Lark's Roundtable program, and we couldn't have been more eager to see it.

Then, in the week leading up to the interview, I sent a series of emails, each revealing how quickly everything was changing: on Monday we were confirming time, location, and logistics; Tuesday, I was checking in to see if everyone was comfortable coming into the office given the travel advisories; and by Wednesday, I was emailing everyone to say that we were closing the office, and we wouldn’t be able to shoot this interview as planned.

However, thanks to this flexible and imaginative pair, we were able to record a Zoom interview that reflects on the development of this play, the plans for its production, and the reality of this moment. When planning out what a zoom interview might look like, Nathan and Jarvis agreed that it should be honest and reflect what it means to be a theater artist during COVID-19. I hope this interview makes you as excited for the theater that will come in the “after all this is over” time as it has made me. I hope you settle in with a hot beverage (sipped out of, perhaps, an elephant mug like mine) and enjoy this conversation about the development of Esai’s Table, what it means to be going through this uncertain time together, and hope for the future. As Nathan and Jarvis posit, we will be radically changed because of COVID, and with that change, there is immense possibility. 

Inside the Process: Esai's Table

JENNIFER HALEY: Hello. I’m Jennifer. I’m the Communications & People Coordinator at The Lark. I’m really excited to facilitate this interview between Nathan Yungerberg and Jarvis Green.

JARVIS GREEN: Thank you Jennifer. Thank you to the Lark, and thank you Nathan for asking me to interview you. My name is Jarvis. I am the Producing Artistic Director of JAG productions, which is a theater company based in White River Junction in Vermont, whose mission is to bring more compassion, empathy, and love into the world by telling stories that challenge hierarchies of race, gender, class, and sexuality. 

NATHAN YUNGERBERG: And I’m Nathan Yungerberg, and I am a storyteller. I primarily write plays. I am based here in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Disclaimer: if I am looking off to the side a lot, I am here with my eight-and-a-half month old daughter’s nursery, which is why I have this amazing scene behind me. She is by me, so you may hear some banging and crying, but it’s all good. It’s a beautiful day, and I’m happy to be here.

JG: So, Nathan and I met maybe two or three years ago. He brought his beautiful, wonderful, magical piece, Esai’s Table, to JAG Fest, which is a new works festival that my theater company hosts every February, where we invite 30-40 artists to Vermont to develop these new plays. Nathan brought Esai’s Table, which took us on this two year journey to develop this piece with the Cherry Lane Theatre, which is an Off-Broadway theater company in New York City, and we just did the world premiere of the show in Vermont. And we were slated to open next Tuesday [March 19] in New York City, so before we get to why we aren’t doing the show right now in New York City, I’m really curious, Nathan, on how you came about writing this piece, and what inspired you to write it.

NY: It’s cool too because just a couple of days ago I was talking to a fellow playwright who wanted to know how I got the play produced. I literally went back to the very beginning and I recounted every single development opportunity over the last five and a half years leading up to now, so it’s really amazing to revisit that stuff. So in the fall of 2014, I was commissioned by The New Black Fest to write a ten minute play about a personal testament of being a black man in America and racial profiling in response to the killing of Mike Brown. I felt that I contributed an interesting perspective with my story, but there was so much more that I wanted to explore. I was also invited to participate in this amazing theater festival called the Brooklyn Generator, where they select six playwrights, each playwright has a month, and you write a full-length play culminating in a public reading. And because of The New Black Fest commission, it took me a long time to get it done, so it really ate into my time, so I ended up with just five days to write the first draft of Esai’s Table before the public reading. But it ended up being a really beautiful process because I was really able to let everything download into me and channel all of the frustration and anger and questions that were surrounding the killings of these young black men. My goal in writing the play was that I wanted to create a space where young black men could be validated and respected, and that their layers of humanity could be expressed in a way that we don’t normally see, adding a big dose of what I now have come to learn is Afro-surrealism, and mixing it up. And then that all took me on this course of readings and workshops around the country from Minneapolis to San Francisco and North Carolina, and then The Lark, and Vermont. So it’s been an amazing journey, and that’s how it began.

JG: So I’m really curious to know before COVID-19 happened, what were your feelings around making your Off-Broadway debut.

NY: I was thrilled. I just moved into my tenth year of writing plays, and it’s--as any playwright knows, and actors and other theater professionals know--it’s a long road. I spent a lot of years just stumbling around in the dark trying to figure out, “how do I make enough noise to get the establishment to hear me?” So having this happen at this juncture as I’m moving into the tenth year was really special for me. I felt like it was a really beautiful cherry on the top of that sometimes agonizing, sometimes beautiful, sometimes painful, sometimes lovely journey I was on. I think that the thing that made it the most special for me was the company. I really love everybody. Everyone is so generous, and everyone has such an expansive spirit and has dedicated so much of their time and energy and imagination to creating this play that has a lot of bells and whistles in it. I won’t go into to much of it, but for those of you who aren’t familiar with the play, during the five days that I wrote it, I literally let everything imaginable come into my mind. There’s flying baby superheroes, and night sea journeys, the nebulae. This crew, this design team, they killed it. That made it so special because I loved going every day, and I loved being with everyone. Stevie Walker-Webb is a genius director, our midwife as he calls himself. I was excited.

JG: Do you remember your feelings when you saw the first performance in Vermont?

NY: Yes. I had an immense feeling of relief because we had a really short turnaround time to get through tech, and we had one preview performance, and again, with all these bells and whistles there was a lot of anxiety in the room about where we were going to make this happen. I think theater does, sometimes in that magical way, there’s this other element, this theater god or other spirit that says “I got this!” And it all came together. I think the first response I made after it ended was, “Wow! We did it!” So it was beautiful.

I was going back and forth because the baby had just come—I’m fostering her and I’m a single dad—so I wasn’t able to stay up there with everyone, I was just going back and forth so I missed out on a lot. So to be able to come up once it was all together, after my last reference being the rehearsal, and just seeing the set and the costumes and everything—it was really special.

JG: Beautiful. So here we are. Again, we were slated to open the show next week, and COVID-19 has forced us to stop and to slow down and to make some difficult decisions, and I think there have been so many emotions around that decision, and it’s beyond what we can control, and we’ve had a lot of conversations back and forth about this whole experience, and I’m really curious to know how you’re sitting with indefinitely postponing your baby and this thing that we’ve worked so hard on. And I’ll definitely speak, as far as a producer of a theater company, on where we are in this moment.

NY: I’ll be completely honest and say I wasn’t disappointed. I wasn’t sad. I think the thing that affected me the most, to loop back to what I was saying before, was that I miss everyone. I miss the rehearsal room. I miss watching the actors work through their process, and I miss watching Stevie conjure up this beautiful stuff. That was the hardest part. The rest of it, I think... (daughter making noise) Sorry--

JH: Don’t apologize!

NY: I’m actually feeding her while I’m doing this.

I think the reason why too is that I’ve reached this stage of my life on a spiritual/emotional level where, and it’s because of the baby, I’m really in the moment and in the present. And this started about a year before she came, and I think that ability to root myself into what’s happening right in front of me really removes a lot of the excessive emotional reaction. And that’s not bad, like a person who had this happen to them, or an actor who’s lost a job. It’s amazing and fine to grieve and to feel frustrated and angry. But I have this whole other production at home with this child, so I think the other things I do in my life are now accessories to my life. It’s still my career, but it’s my baby that is my first priority. It’s been interesting. And the other side of this is that I knew immediately that everyone was in the same boat. If I just found out our production got canceled or postponed for some other reason, and everything else were still going on, that would have been a different story. I think because it is postponed, it still has open doors in it. Some of my friends have had shows that were canceled. That would have been hard, having gotten this far up the mountain to go back again. I know it’s going to happen. My faith in the play is that it’s going to happen when it needs to happen. Right now I’m more concerned about my people. My theater friends don’t have work now and are having trouble buying food. What about you? How are you processing?

JG: I think similar to what you were saying in the sense of it somewhat gives me peace knowing that other people are going through the exact same thing and that, that is beyond our control. But still allowing myself to be frustrated, and having to do a reset because there are many things that we had three weeks ago that we don’t have anymore, and allowing ourselves to grieve those things and having to reroute and regroup while still being like, “Okay this is beyond our control.” And not trying to hold onto and attach to things. I think for my company, we’re a small organization. This is year four. So I think taking on a production Off-Broadway was a big thing for us, and we had a lot of fundraising events around the show, meeting with a lot of donors and philanthropists in New York City to support the show as well as support our organization. Some of those projected financial things around the show that we had during this time, we don’t have anymore. So I have to figure out how to raise this money to get us through the year right now, and also create space and create resources so we can go into our next fiscal year on solid ground. It’s threatening the well-being of our organization right now. I’m also a little scared of what the theater community and theater in general will look like because a lot of, especially nonprofits, we depend on philanthropists, we depend on major donors, and stocks and the economy being in flux, that will take take a direct hit on nonprofits who depend on philanthropists to support our work. So there’s a lot there. There’s fear, there’s anxiety, and there’s peace knowing that we’re all in this together. I’m really inspired by what’s happening with all these people doing video content, and I’m trying to find space for myself with the organization to find ways which we can continuously engage with our audience even though we can’t really see each other and be with each other in the same space together. Yeah and just what you said, just really thinking about my friends, and at the end of the day, I can work from home right now. I still have a job as of now, so I’m kind of privileged in that sense, but I also don’t know what the future holds, but none of us do. 

NY: I had to stop and think that I believe this is the first time in many of our lives in which we are in a situation in which everyone in the world is in the same boat. It’s like 9/11 and all the horrible things that happened are things that just happened in this country or in this town. It’s fascinating just connecting with my artists friends all over the world, and everyone is all in the same place. While it’s saddening, there is comfort in that. We’ll talk about stuff and compare notes to a certain extent, but you almost don’t need to go there—you just know. It’s like, “I feel you”

JG: I’ve been finding myself really connecting to people in a way that, yes, I’ll send a happy birthday to someone, and if I’m visiting someone ‘Oh I’m in town, let’s get a drink’ randomly, but I’ve really been identifying, as you say, your ride-or-dies, calling people, really deep conversations, really having a clear sense of who’s your tribe, and who’s there to really support you and hold you up. That’s been really really really beautiful to witness and to see. And there’s been a lot of self work happening in this moment of just pausing.

NY: I agree. We all have so much time, so I have this Marco-Polo. I just got this, and I will literally go through all of the suggested friends, and I will hit up people who are in my phone, but maybe I’ve never hung out with them in person, but I know them and I see them around. I just tell them what’s happening with me, and we talk like, “What are you working on? Are you doing anything creative?” That’s been really beautiful, getting to know more about people in my industry, and also friends or acquaintances who I didn’t have that connection with before. Everyone has been really great about just checking in like, “What’s going on with your play? What are you working on now?”

I have to say though, the artists are the ones who are going to save everyone through this thing. On instagram, it’s been my creative friends who have been doing the most. Like Garlia Cornelia Jones at
Blackboard having Community Night and letting people send pages and doing cold readings online with people all over the country, and all these other organizations doing amazing things. And people sending back and forth these resource lists for grant opportunities, and I just got this amazing thing yesterday that was grant opportunities for writers whose plays are postponed. I love that sense of community. It’s really beautiful.

JG: Is there anything that’s inspiring you right now?

NY: My daughter. She was in daycare all day long before all this happened, and now we’re together 24/7, and I thought it was going to be a disaster. The first week was really rough, but now we have a really beautiful schedule and system. We’ve really synced, and I’m able to write several hours a day while she’s napping or laying on me or next to me. She’s really opened my heart further in this way that I just feel really safe because I am making her safe, and that’s been beautiful. It’s been filtering into my creative expressions, and I’m about to start work on a brand new play today. I’m really excited about that. She just gives me life. How about you?

JG: What’s inspiring me is really me. I’m inspiring myself to really get into some discomfort during this time. I didn’t realize how much I was going and really depending on external things to keep me sane. I’m being inspired by how uncomfortable I’ve been with being with myself the past couple of days, and in that I've been really falling deeply in love with myself. That’s been really inspiring to see. I’m inspired by God, and the universe, and this moment, and how crazy it may seem. But what a gift it is and has been to me right now even though there is chaos in it, as cryptic as it may sound, I was telling a friend I’m kind of dying every day, and it’s like rebirth that’s on its way. I’m shedding, and that’s been feeling really important for me right now. I think that I’m trying to pick up a play, and I’m journaling and things like that, but I’m not like “oh I’ve got this idea for adapting some kind of thing and I’m ready to make that happen” that hasn’t happened yet. I know the muse will come when it comes. 

NY: I totally feel that. I call that chrysalis. The butterfly thing.

JG: Exactly. We talked about collaboration. Obviously there’s this collaboration with JAG, with Cherry Lane Theatre. I’m curious to know about the collaboration with The Lark and what was that about and what you all did together.

NY: That was an early reading of a version I did in 2015 maybe, and I was working with a director by the name of Christopher Burris, and we had an amazing cast. It was great because I had done some really significant rewrites before that. It was the Roundtables program, so it was a really great opportunity to hear the changes I had made in a safe environment and then have a discussion after. Those things are so important because it’s hard when you’re writing these kinds of things. You hear these things in your head, but being able to hear it like that in a low-stakes environment. It gives me the information I need to get to the next level. I’m always down for a good table read when I need to hear some significant changes. I think we had that table read, I made some major changes before the world premiere here in New York. I think we had a table read three weeks ago, and I hadn’t heard any of that stuff out loud. It’s exciting. Especially at that early stage when the play is just in that toddler stage and it’s really starting to walk around and and move around and talk and engage—I always remember those moments.

JG: It’s such a surprising story. There’s so much magic, so much surrealism. There’s things coming at you all the time that you didn’t even imagine would happen within the play. For me, especially in this moment right now, I was really surprised at how, when we were in Vermont, how the show affected people and what came up for people and the healing work that happened around the play. When I was reflecting on it the other day, there were just so many things around the production of the play that I was just pleased with. I think for me the biggest take away was just how it brought people together, and how it brought things up for people, and how people weren’t afraid to be emotional and be honest about what came up for them, and be honest about their blind spots, and be honest about their relationship to Black people. I’m curious to know, when you were writing this, did you think that that could ever happen or did you have that in mind? Was that your intention?

NY: I think the only intention I had was that I wanted people to leave having a deeper understanding of who these young men were. I don’t know that I danced around too much about how that would be expressed. I can tell you the first reading we did for the Brooklyn Generator in 2014 was really uncomfortable because I had birthed this play so quickly that I didn’t have time to really bond with it. It was almost as if I had a baby and gave it away to someone, and I had to come back and familiarize myself with this child. So even the table read was really awkward with the actors before the reading because everyone was so quiet. So I was like, “Oh my god, they hate it!” Because sometimes when plays come out you don’t know what you have. You’ve never heard it all together other than in your own mind, so you don’t know what this thing is. So we got to the reading and again everyone was so quiet. 

[**Whoops! We had some technical difficulties!** Aaaand, we're back!]

NY: I think I was talking about the audience reaction and the cast reaction at The Brooklyn Generator when we did it for the first time. There was an event and 20-30 people came, and similarly to the table read, everyone was really quiet. And I thought, “Oh my god, I’m done. I should just quit. This play sucks. Why did I even agree to do this?” But one by one people were coming up to me, and I got it. It wasn’t even anything they said, it was something in their eyes, just their energy. And I just thought, wow this play touched them, or changed them, or hit them in the gut in a way that you could feel in the air. It really clarified things for me because I knew there was something in this play that was beyond anything I did. It really gave me the courage to move forward with it. Like I said, it’s been a long path of carrying the torch for this play that nobody wanted because it was too crazy or too this or too that. I think that immediate audience reaction sealed the deal for me, and that continues even with more expansive ways when we had the production. It’s overwhelming though sometimes, because I feel like, and I got this feeling when I did the Mentor Project at Cherry Lane that when people are extremely emotionally touched or moved or changed by a play, they want to find the source of where it came from. I’d get people who would come up to me and they would grab my shoulders. And I feel like they were peering so deeply inside me trying to find the place where this thing came from. It’s just me. I just wrote this stuff down, and that gets to be uncomfortable at times. I don’t know how to even describe it. It’s beautiful, but it’s uncomfortable at the same time.

JG: I definitely feel you on that. Obviously being the only black queer theater company in Vermont and New Hampshire, I think all of New England, although for the area we have a diverse audience, we do have a  lot of white patrons. After the show, and I’m in the lobby or actors are coming out—our theater, we don’t have a stage door, actors have to leave through the house—a lot of times people would be sobbing, and again, wanting to latch on. I had a lot of emotions around that. I’m here for you, but I had sleepless nights. We put it all on the stage. I can’t do anything else for you right now. It’s uncomfortable because someone’s crying, and I’m not an asshole. I don’t want to be like “don’t touch me” but there are those moments of “I don’t know what to say. You’re latching on and crying.” I don’t know. I think we got to this moment during the run where we had to think about how are we going to hold space for particularly black and brown folk who are experiencing this piece because people couldn’t just leave the theater. People either sat in the theater for 5-10 minutes and just sat with it, or came out into the lobby and did not want to leave. They wanted to figure out… They were just disoriented essentially. So we connected with Dr. Chanel Bell who teaches at Dartmouth and really worked on this healing circle so that people, one, had resources to say, "Who can you talk to? Who can you go to? How can you make a difference?" But also let people share and feel all the feels and be able to process that before they left the theater.

NY: It’s a fine line because, yeah I don’t even know what it is. If someone comes up to you weeping, you can’t just be like “See ya, I gotta go. I can’t deal with this.” But you can’t take on too much of that. I believe they are searching for something that doesn’t necessarily exist in you because it’s something that exists in themselves that they have to dig deeper in to see it, whether they are Black, White, Latino, Asian, whatever. And it’s hard to be a spokesperson for all of that emotion. I feel like when it gets to the point of a play being on stage in a space, I am no longer sitting at the head of the table. The audience is a part of the process at that point too, so they they also have to be held accountable for what is being conjured up during the course of the world coming alive on stage because it’s theater and it’s live, and it’s not just me anymore, it’s not just you, it’s not just Stevie, it’s not just the actors. It’s a community venture. So it’s like ‘where’s the dad or the mom?’ You know? ‘Who plays that role?’ I think we all have to for ourselves. 

JG: I think that’s a really beautiful conclusion of the experience of the play and this moment. What I love about the play is that, if you’re a theater-goer, it gives you all the things that I love—suspense, not knowing what’s going to happen, really exciting staging, like Stevie Walker-Webb, he’s a master stage craftsman. The blocking is always moving, and everything is interchangeable and you don’t know what’s going to happen. And you wrote a play that has animation and lots of projections, so that’s all really exciting, which is why I started my company. But to add to this component that is political, and you don’t know that it’s going there until you know, and bridging those two worlds of really exciting theater on top of strong, brilliant messaging that is current and that is now, I’m thrilled we were able to do the world premiere at my company in Vermont, and I just can’t wait for New York audiences to see the show. I’ve seen a lot of theater in New York, and I’m excited to, this happened for me with What to Send Up, I’m excited to experience a piece with a New York City audience where it’s a collective healing, and I think we all need that right now in this moment. Even though it’s indefinitely postponed, we are still moving forward with producing this play, and it’s just about when and timing, and how long the universe wants to keep this on pause. But for now, we are still really excited to make this thing happen. I think if it was a different team, a different play, we would have pulled the plug, and I don’t know if we would have come back to it honestly. I think that this company is just—we know that it’s beyond us and the world needs to see it, and I’m really looking forward for when it happens in New York. 

Do you have parting thoughts Nathan or Jennifer? 

NY: One thing that popped in my mind when you were talking about when it goes up, is that I just had this realization that everyone, people are going to be completely changed when this thing is done or whatever comes next. And I think, as you said, a lot of us are spending time at home stressing about everything, which again if that’s what you’re doing, that’s what you’re doing. But I think the people who are really taking the time to go in and be creative and connect with loved ones and do things to expand themselves, I think those people coming to this play after whatever happens next, it’s going to be a whole different frequency, and people will be much more receptive to the world that we have created. I’m really excited to witness that because I keep saying, I don’t believe in the end of times, but I do believe in the end of the world as we know it, and that can be interpreted in many different ways, but for me and in my creative imagination, no one is going to be the same after this. So the world that we had before and what we thought about things, and how we reacted to things, and the structures that we built, nothing is going to be the same again. That glass half full or glass half empty, but my glass half full is that there’s a lot of hope in that. I’m excited to meet those audiences.

JG: If I had to imagine my version of “burn it all down” this is just this moment of, things are dying, things are getting burnt because it can’t go on this way anymore. I’m excited to see this new energy and frequency and energy will look like post COVID-19. 

Thank you Jennifer. Thank you Nathan. Thank you to The Lark for having us and holding space for us to have this conversation. Really, really grateful. Thank You.

NY: Thank you.

JH: Thank you guys so much. This was so wonderful, and everyone at The Lark is so excited and hopeful that we get to see this world, and see the magic. And you definitely have to keep in touch with us and let us know when it’s happening! Thank you so much for being a part of this and having this beautiful conversation. I’m really excited to continue the conversation, and everything is in process. Thank you so much!