The following is an exclusive interview and conversation recorded during the run of Queen of the Night at Victory Gardens. Director Ken-Matt Martin (artistic director, VG) is interviewed by Terry Guest, a multidisciplinary artist who acts in this production of Queen of the Night alongside co-star André Teamer. Martin and Guest reflect on their artistic collaboration on this unique black queer family narrative, written by travis tate. Other behind the scenes insights include Martin’s directing process, his experience with and vision for Victory Gardens, and of course – Beyoncé.
Queen of the Night runs at Victory Gardens through Sunday, March 13th.
Terry Guest: Where do you call home?
Ken-Matt Martin: I think I call home wherever I’m with people I love these days… Because I’ve kind of lived in a way where work took me all over the place. Little Rock, Arkansas is where I’m from, born and raised, very proud to be from there. But I think I call home wherever I am with people I love. That’s my answer.
TG: So how does Little rock affect the art that you’re making today?
KMM: Little Rock affects every single thing that I do. Little Rock is an interesting city in that it is – per the last census – almost 65% Black, and so my childhood and my experience growing up there was in a predominantly black environment. I never knew what it meant to be a “minority” because I never was. I never knew what it meant to be in predominantly white spaces because I never had been until I went off to college. It was a really wonderful, beautiful place to grow up, and the way that it affects my work is that my work is bold. It’s fierce, it’s not usually concerned with trying to be palatable to any particular audience, except the audience it was made for. And I think that’s because I grew up in an environment where I never had to adjust to thinking about what it meant to be non-palatable to black southern audiences.
I make work now with the community I know it was meant to serve in mind, because I’m unafraid to do so. What I’ve learned over time is that that level of specificity is actually what leads to universality. Because everybody can talk about August Wilson and love August’s work but the reality is that August wrote about the same ten blocks in Pittsburgh. Over the course of decades, but he wrote about the same ten blocks of people! But people see that and even non-black people are like “ooh I can relate to this, I can relate to that,” but that’s because he was being specific! So that’s my philosophy: when you’re specific, you get closer to the universal and people can see themselves within [the play]. You’re actually writing about real people and all of us can relate… cause life is hard no matter who you are.
TG: Yeah and I really strongly believe that even though human beings are drastically different throughout time and all over the world – we aint that fucking different. We all have loves, we all have losses, we all contend with life and death, and those basic tenets. If you’re telling a specific true story, then people will relate.
KMM: I think that’s true, that’s my philosophy. So I think that’s what I learned growing up in Little Rock: make the work for the people that are in front of you.
TG: Speaking of the work for the people that are in front of you – you have a fancy new job hunny! Artistic Director of Victory Gardens, a tony award winning theatre!Black man, gay queer man, all right! Man from the South, okay? Okay, dust your shoulders off right, quick. We don’t know how long we’ll have you in Chicago or Victory Gardens. It could be a decade, it could be 30 years, we don’t know.
KMM: I can tell you it won’t be 30 years. That I can tell you, that I can make very clear!
TG: But for the time that we do have you here, what impact do you hope to have on Victory Gardens, the institution, and on Chicago the community?
KMM: Well, I’ll answer that in three different pieces, since you kind of gave me three different places to tackle it. I hope the impact that I have on Victory Gardens is that I get to be here to oversee a lot of the growth that I think is possible for Victory Gardens. I think it’s obviously an excellent institution with a historic reputation. We won that Tony a few years ago, but what’s next, right? How do we move ourselves to the next level, and that’s next level in terms of higher quality productions, more productions, being able to pay people better, which is all about fundraising more money to be able to do that, to be clear, right? So, I hope that my impact on Victory Gardens is that people will look back and see it as a period of intense growth for their organization. And that means there’s growing pains.
Right now I’m very exhausted frankly, trying to fight and push for that growth. But [that’s] the legacy that I’d like to leave behind. When I think about Chicago, and the impact that I want to have in the city of Chicago for Victory Gardens is that we continue [to be] the home for new work that is bold, that is exciting, that is rigorous in its exploration of various social topics and issues. And that even more importantly, that under me, as Artistic Director, it will be a unique and great opportunity for us also to better strengthen how our community relationships work in deeper conversation with the art that we make on stage. [Community and art] feel like separate things in so many theatres. The work we do in the community should be in deeper conversation with the art that lives on our stages. I’m working really hard to figure out how we bring those two things closer together with the great Roxanna Conner [Acting Managing Director] who is my partner in that.
Within the theater community in particular, I hope that we can just be good neighbors and good partners to our colleagues. We are not in competition with one another. We’re in competition with Netflix, right? All of us theaters here are trying our hardest to make the case for why you should come see what we’re doing in person, as opposed to sitting on your couch and hitting ‘next episode’ on that great TV show that you’re watching on that streaming service. And I say that as someone who’s a TV head, who’s a theatre person, and so the sooner we start working together and sharing resources, the better the entire ecosystem of theater making is in the entire city of Chicago and the community as a whole.
TG: Yes, something that you said that really sparked my curiosity was talking about theater as community organizing. And I’m always trying to imagine: okay, what are the different ways that we can do theater that’s not just ‘you pay your money, come and watch us talk to you,’ but that’s also like we’re going to literally invest in the community and make our community stronger. I’m excited to see where you take that. Okay, we only have a few more minutes and I have to get to Queen of the Night…The season premiere [at] Victory Gardens, your first season as Artistic Director. Why [did you program] Queen of the Night?
KMM: Well, first things first, I like to demystify the season planning process a little bit whenever I get an opportunity. So first things first, I want to be crass and say that it was a play that was the right size, in terms of it being a unique opportunity for us to put serious resources, time, and energy [into Queen of the Night]. It let us tell a really specific story in the best way that we felt we could support it as an institution as our first show coming back. So I want to speak to that first and foremost, because I think often people forget, there are many factors [when it comes to producing a] play, right?
The play itself is a play that fell in my lap almost two years ago now. And my relationship with travis tate, the playwright, started then too. I really was excited to see a nuanced complicated story about what it meant to explore the Black father and son dynamic, just as two characters period. I can’t think of any plays off the top of my head that explored that specific dynamic in particular, then you add to that the very modern current social issues that it deals with ie. this father trying to better understand his son. It’s different, right, than the normal fare that you see as it relates to queer narratives in particular. That’s what makes it more exciting is that it’s more nuanced – it’s not a coming out story or anything like that. It’s saying ‘No, this is who I am, you know, and this is who I am for a long time, how do we actually live and work together?’
That’s really unique, particularly [telling the story] through the lens of Black men trying to navigate that and an older intergenerational conversation being inherent as a result, because you have a father and a son, who are also from two very different generations. That’s the why for me. Then you obviously add to that getting to work with great actors like yourself, and André [Teamer], and then the wonderful things we get to explore technically, with our designers are really exciting as well.
TG: Yeah, the design of the show is something that’s really impressive, and I loved having the chance to watch you communicate with the design team, this vision that you’ve had, that I heard you talk about before there was a whole design team. Selfishly, as someone who’s trying to step into the little directing game a little bit [laughter], what does it look like for you to communicate [your vision to designers]? How do you get it from your head to the stage?
KMM: I’m really glad you asked me that question, because I look at it as my biggest job as a director in the pre-production period, right? A director’s job is kind of split into three sections as I think about it. There’s pre-production and that vision that you come to, which for me, I told Sydney [Lynne, set designer] from day one, like, ‘I want to turn this whole theater into a forest, and I actually mean that, and Sydney was like, “Great. Often directors tell me they want to break the thing and really go for something, and then they actually mean something a little bit less…” And I was like, No, think as far as you could possibly go. And then I’m probably going to push [the design] further. Right?
After pre-production and being able to articulate the vision of like, what it is that you’re trying to do as far as the world that you want to build, I really wanted to build a world that felt like the two characters had been of in a place where they were alone, secluded, and nowhere else, but there. And I wanted the entire audience to feel like they were immersed in that world.
My third section is what actually happens in the [rehearsal] room with you and with André [Teamer] and that’s normally when the playwright is an integral part. Unfortunately, as you know, we didn’t get to have our playwright around this much because of COVID. There is a lot more [to the rehearsal process] that’s even more exciting when the playwright’s also a part of that conversation. It still is about articulating, articulating, articulating that vision because then it has to be a world that makes sense for you all to play within. Then once you’re in tech and in previews, knowing how to let it go and give notes knowing this is what you can change what you can’t change, right. So that’s how I approach the whole process. I’m very proud of where we got. I’m also an artist, who’s never satisfied. Every time I watch it, I’m like, Ooh, I wish I had more time to do this little thing or tweak this or tweak that. But I’m still really excited about it, just to say, so.
TG: Me too. Yeah, André and I are having a blast up there.
KMM: I know! It’s so fun to sneak in, y’all don’t even know I’m there. I sneak in a lot and just listen. I don’t actually watch, I just listen. It’s weird.
TG: (laughs) Okay, so we have a few more minutes. I want to get some fast, rapid fire questions, actually. I know you’re a musical theater, baby. So what’s your favorite musical?
TG: What is the best written musical?
KMM: Caroline, or Change.
TG: Hmm. What’s your favorite movie?
KMM: Ah, oh, oh. Oh, what a hard question. My favorite movie that I’ve seen this year was [David Lowery’s] The Green Knight.
TG: What is your favorite Beyonce song?
KMM: OMG. Uh, uh, uh… oh, You can’t do this to me. I’m thinking of lyrics. Check Up On It. Are you serious? Check Up On It.
TG: Yes! Ok, what color do you wear the most?
KMM: My favorite color is red.
TG: Of course it is.
KMM: Obvious reasons. My color that I actually probably wear the most is black.
TG: What color do you wear the least?
KMM: Oh, I don’t know. I like color… Maybe– I don’t wear white that often. Like I have a pair of white linen pants. And then I have a white seersucker suit, ‘cause Country and Southern, that I pull out on occasion. But yeah, I don’t wear a lot of whites. Maybe that’s actually the answer. I don’t wear a lot of white because I am clumsy, I trip, I fall, I spill things on myself. I’m that human.
TG: You have to be a bold ho to wear white (laughs) Okay, last question: What is the first piece of theater that you saw that made you go whoaaaa?
KMM: I saw The Piano Lesson, the great August Wilson play, when I was 11 years old at the Arkansas Repertory Theater and it changed my life. I’ve never seen people who look like me and talk like me on stage like that before. And it literally was a moment of like, Whoa, I don’t know what that is. But I want to do it. And then a year later, I was auditioning for TV shows.
TG: [laughter with KMM]
KMM: So, apparently that worked out for me.
TG: Well, Ken-Matt, thank you for this lovely conversation. I have learned so much in just this short 15 minutes. Come see Queen of the Night, y’all, people reading this.
KMM: Yes! Come!! We would love to see you. We’re only here for a little while longer, so they tell me. So: come, come come!
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Featured Photo: (L) Ken-Matt Martin photographed by Nolis Anderson for the New York Times, (R) Terry Guest, photo courtesy of Victory Gardens