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Brandon J. Dirden on starring in Dominique Morisseau's potent drama
In Manhattan Theatre Club's powerful new production of Dominque Morisseau's Skeleton Crew, which is running at Broadway's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through February 20, Brandon J. Dirden plays Reggie, the foreman at a Detroit auto stamping plant on the brink of foreclosure during the Great Recession of 2008. Reggie must walk a fine line: He represents the management that wants to downsize the factory, but his allegiances lie with the close-knit group of workers he supervises. "It's threading a very, very small needle, but that can't stop him from trying to do his best," says the actor. "What I love about Reggie is this man's heart—he's always going to err on the side of humanity."
In chatting with Dirden, it becomes clear that locating the humanity in his characters is paramount in his process. While TV audiences usually recognize him as Agent Dennis Aderholt from four seasons of The Americans, theatre is where he honed his skills. Born in Texas to a theatre-loving family, Dirden made his stage debut at age 12 in a 1991 mounting of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone at Houston's Alley Theatre. He went on to study acting at Morehouse College and in graduate school at the University of Illinois, where he met his wife, fellow theatre vet Crystal A. Dickinson. On regional and Off-Broadway stages, he frequently collaborates with director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who's helming Skeleton Crew. Dirden's other Broadway credits include his rousing portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. opposite Bryan Cranston's Lyndon B. Johnson in All the Way and a proud son estranged from his father in Jitney. TDF Stages spoke with Dirden about reuniting with Santiago-Hudson on Skeleton Crew, acting with family and his hopes for a more inclusive Broadway.
Gerard Raymond: Can you talk a bit about working with Morisseau and how you became involved in this production of Skeleton Crew?
Brandon J. Dirden: I've been a huge fan of Dominque's writing for a decade now. I first encountered her work when I was developing a role in her first New York play Detroit '67. We went from reading the play in her living room to The Public Theater. And I've worked with Ruben some eight or nine times over the past 15 years. So, when he called me last summer and asked me to be a part of the team to bring Skeleton Crew to Broadway, there was no hesitation, I said yes. I had seen the original [Atlantic Theater Company Off-Broadway] production, [also directed by Santiago-Hudson] and it was amazing. My younger brother originated a different role in that production. I thought the original company really set up a blueprint for telling the story, so I knew it was going to be a challenge. But the wonderful thing about Dominique's writing is that it leaves space for the interpreters to bring their own truths to the truth that she has already put on paper. So this really was an exciting opportunity to see how we could tell the story.
Raymond: Why do you usually say yes when Santiago-Hudson calls?
Dirden: You know, August Wilson has a quote: "Have a belief in yourself that is bigger than anyone's disbelief." I try, to the best of my ability, to believe in myself, my talent and my craft. You need that type of self-assuredness as an artist. But it is such a gift when you have a director who also believes in you. And so, when Ruben calls me and asks me to be a part of something, I have zero doubt that he believes that I'm the best person for it. And that gives me such a confidence—it gives me space to fail. He affords me the opportunity to explore the character. He partners with me so that we can really drill down to something that is as truthful as we can get it. I would say working with Ruben, just from day one, it creates a profound trust for everyone in the room. It is a safe place to work from. I can show the growth every time I work with Ruben, and every time I work on one of Dominique's plays. This is a beautiful marriage between a director who has that heart of wanting to reveal as much complexity about humans as the playwright does.
Raymond: Skeleton Crew is part of Morisseau's Detroit Trilogy, which she said was inspired by August Wilson's Century Cycle: 10 Plays About the Black Experience in the 20th Century. You've performed plays in both series. What's it like delving so deeply into a playwright's oeuvre?
Dirden: What I find particularly exciting with their work is that they are writing about the souls of the people and the soul of the community. What really moves me is that a lot of the time there is no clear protagonist or antagonist in their plays. With their plays, I like to think that the protagonist is the community and the antagonist is all the forces trying to keep the community from thriving. Instead of focusing on a singular narrative about a particular individual, the plays take a look at the complexity of what it is like [for the characters] to try and be in relationships with one another, and how they collectively can try and navigate the issues that are pressing down and choking the life out of all of us. Also, how we can collectively celebrate our beautiful selves, our hopes and our dreams, our humor and our peculiarities. I like to take on these plays because it is instructive for me as a human being. Whether my character makes, quote, unquote, the best choices or not, what I'm learning at the end of the day is to be in better community with the people around me.
Raymond: In a 2015 interview, you mentioned that you wanted to see Alice Childress' Trouble in Mind get produced on Broadway. That finally happened this season, which has featured an unprecedented number of plays by Black dramatists. Do you believe it's indicative of lasting change?
Dirden: If you look at the relaunch of this Broadway season, it is incredible that there are these opportunities—not just for the playwrights but for audiences to see these stories. Because without diverse voices there is no way to tell the truth about who we are as a country. We need to be able to understand each other so we can find out how to live harmoniously. It is certainly pointing toward a shift in this moment, and I'm encouraged by the start. But it is a restart really, because this is not the first time there's been a spotlight on Black creators on Broadway. There were certain times in the 1960s and 1970s when this happened. Even back in the 1920s and 1930s as well. While we are celebrating this moment of diversity, we also have to recognize that it is possible for us to slip back and start producing again with the same old paradigms. This moment happened because we demanded it in the summer of 2020, right? Not just people of color but the whole theatre community and the whole society. People marched around the world for more equitable representation and treatment and fairness. So, I hope the takeaway this time is not just, "Oh, we had a season of diversity, good for us. Now back to your regular schedule!" I honestly don't believe that's the intention at the heart of any of these organizations or producers on Broadway, but we have to stay diligent.
Raymond: Your father was an actor at a very different time. What is something valuable you learned from him?
Dirden: My father never had the opportunity to be a professional actor—he worked in community theatre. It was more his passion. But our bookshelves were filled with plays of all kinds. Sometimes I would come into the room and he'd be reading a Shylock passage. He was really interested in all types of literature and that showed me that my culture—the African-American culture that I was raised in—was on par with any other culture because we were side by side on the bookshelves. Also, that [our culture] is a unique thing, we are not supposed to be like anything else other than the likeness of humanity. Having these different types of works in the house just told me we belong on the same plane. There is no hierarchy in telling these stories.
Raymond: Speaking of family: You've acted alongside your brother, Jason Dirden, and your wife, Crystal A. Dickinson. What's it like working with family on stage?
Dirden: You know, it's great because they are amazing artists and I respect their art. If I didn't believe in what they do, I think it would be hell! Because I am a big fan of their work, it generates a particular excitement in me. I have so much history with them to use to make the work that much richer. My wife and I met in grad school, so we have similar training and the lexicon we use, the way we talk about our art, has the same foundation. And, of course, growing up in the house with my dad, my brother got the same information that I got. So, when I do work with them, we can skip the first couple of steps, the getting-to-know-you phase that happens in the first two weeks of rehearsal and get right into the nitty-gritty. You can have an honest and deep investigation of the work when you have that kind of relationship.
Raymond: Martin Luther King Jr. Day just passed, and you played the legendary civil rights activist to great acclaimed on Broadway in All the Way. What did that experience mean to you?
Dirden: I think doing that role—and this gets back to what I mentioned earlier about learning about myself and more about humanity—having to prepare to embody Dr. King in that part of his life, it was almost like getting a master's degree in the movement. I learned that you need to have a certain fearlessness to do what you know is right. I'm not saying that Dr. King wasn't afraid or wasn't worried—he speaks about it in his writing—but he did it anyway. He lived every day of his life under death threats for many years but continued to pursue this thing that he knew was right. He was trying to free us all from this notion of racism and that someone is inherently more valuable than you are because of their birthright. It took a particular fearlessness to dedicate himself every day to doing that. I owe it to myself, to my family and to you to deal with the small challenges, by comparison, that I have to deal with in my life. To show up and be fearless in my pursuit of telling the truth as an artist, of really trying to illuminate humanity in whatever story I'm working on. I do think of my life as an artist as my life's work. Hopefully, it will continue to have this healing impact for anyone who encounters the work that I'm lucky enough to be a part of. That role really changed my trajectory in terms of my relationship to my work.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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Gerard Raymond is an arts journalist based in New York City.
Brandon J. Dirden and Phylicia Rashad in Manhattan Theatre Club's production of Skeleton Crew on Broadway. Photo by Matthew Murphy.