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With back-to-back roles in 1776 and Ain't No Mo', the character actor is showing off her versatility
How's this for a momentous Broadway debut: So far this season, Crystal Lucas-Perry has performed in two different productions playing seven different parts! In September and October, she starred as the feisty John Adams in Roundabout Theatre Company's radical revival of the musical 1776, featuring a diverse cast of women, trans and nonbinary performers portraying our nation's Founding Fathers. By November, she had jumped to Ain't No Mo', a raucous satire of American racism in which she tackles a half dozen disparate parts, including a hardened convict and an irrepressible personification of Blackness. While this may sound like an overnight success story, Lucas-Perry's journey to Broadway has been years in the making—and the pandemic shutdown made it even longer than it should have been.
After graduating with an MFA from NYU Tisch School of the Arts and landing a handful of parts Off and Off-Off Broadway, Lucas-Perry made a splash (and won a Lucille Lortel Award) for her blazing, multicharacter turn in the 2019 world premiere of Ain't No Mo' at The Public Theater. Soon after, she was cast in the provocative 1776 revival, which was scheduled to start out at Cambridge's American Repertory Theatre in spring 2020 before transferring to Broadway. Then you-know-what interfered. But her Broadway dream deferred became a double debut. "Who knew that these things were going to happen at the same time?" she marvels.
It's a testament to Lucas-Perry's talent and versatility that she's been able to pivot so quickly—and convincingly—from the lead role in a nearly three-hour musical to a whirlwind ensemble comedy in which she and her castmates tackle numerous parts. "I am literally jumping from character to character—I'm taking on six different people, and I'm trying to just make sure that they are uniquely dynamic and nuanced," she says. "Though they may share the same skin tone, not one of them has the same mind, the same given circumstances or the same life experience. I've never been able to be so free in a project. I got to throw things up on the wall, fail and fly and fumble and just go in."
That creative freedom was fostered by all her Ain't No Mo' collaborators: director Stevie Walker-Webb, playwright and costar Jordan E. Cooper, and her other castmates (all of whom, save one, appeared in the original production). So, even after learning she would need to leave 1776's Broadway run early in order to reprise her roles in Ain't No Mo', she was determined to make it happen.
"I always want to be back in the room with Stevie and Jordan," she says. "Wherever I lay my hat artistically is kind of similar to where I lay my hat personally. The people around me become my family."
Although Lucas-Perry can't go into the details of how she was able to exit 1776, she insists that she had the support of the producers. "One of the very first shows that I ever did professionally was at Roundabout: Little Children Dream of God. So, knowing that's where my roots were, and them putting me in the lead [of 1776 at ART] and still wanting me to continue on [to Broadway]… it kind of just spoke to their commitment and their understanding that, look, no one's trying to keep Crystal to themselves!" Lucas-Perry says with a laugh. "When Crystal wins, we all win!"
The loosely connected vignettes of Ain't No Mo' dissect several aspects of the contemporary Black experience in alternately hilarious and chilling fashion. The characters Lucas-Perry channels in the play, which also include an elderly church organist and a reality show star, have little in common beyond Blackness. "I was more myself in 1776 than I am in this show," she insists. "In Ain't No Mo', I am literally a vessel, trying to make sure that I am breathing the life of those characters, whereas 1776 was about bringing me into that space, a place where I would never have been."
Yet as different as the shows are, Lucas-Perry feels the two productions have similar artistic and political goals. "Both are disruptions to the norm of what it means to be on a Broadway stage," she says. "Everybody who has seen these shows has said to me, 'I had such great conversations about what happened on that stage.' And through dialogue comes connection, and through connection, I believe, comes understanding and through understanding comes change. To have seen these projects all the way through has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my career so far. I'm just so incredibly blessed and thrilled to have been a part of history in this way."
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: Crystal Lucas-Perry in Ain't No Mo' on Broadway. Photos by Joan Marcus.