Jon Hudson Odom’s performance in Jordan Tannahill’s new play Botticelli in the Fire just blew me away. And it wasn’t the first time that had happened. I’ve been following his work for several years, most recently in Nat Turner in Jerusalem at Forum Theatre, and I thought now would be a good time to ask him if I could get inside his head as an actor. Little did I know when the interview began that he would have some surprising career news.
You went from playing Nat Turner, a devout Christian preacher, to playing Sandro Botticelli, a notorious voluptuary. What was that shift like for you?
They actually match quite well. You go from the religious fanaticism of Nat Turner in Jerusalem into Botticelli in the Fire, where you have this very androgynous homosexual whose religion is his art. Nat talks about the divine as his calling from God. And Botticelli feels as though his art is his calling, that the connection that he has to the divine is through his work.
Tell me more about the character you’re playing in Botticelli in the Fire. Or Botticelli on fire, as I like to think of it.
Yes, there’s a point when I’m quite literally on fire. It’s been a blast, actually. It feels like one of those roles that I was kind of born to play. It’s actually my 30th show in D.C., and my last show before I move to Chicago, so it also hits home: this idea, in the scene with Savonarola, of him renouncing painting and burning his work. There’s this sense for me right now that it feels as though I’m starting over, starting fresh—not literally burning all of my work, but going to a city where no one knows my work and starting over.
Have you talked publicly about that move?
Not yet in an interview, but this was decided this past winter. I’m originally from outside Chicago. That’s where my whole family is. It’s always been on the radar to move back to Chicago. I’m just trying to figure out the right time. But I will be back. Hopefully, often. In my dream world, I’ll spend half my time there and half my time here. Mostly in the winter, probably.
Did you use any historical or queer icons as inspiration when you were creating your Botticelli?
Absolutely. Rufus Wainwright, Prince, David Bowie, and then with this being a queer reimagining, RuPaul, who has taken androgyny and drag and the queer culture and put it to the frontlines again of popular culture.
Is this the queerest role you’ve played on stage?
I would say so. Belize [in Angels in America] is a very close second. But the moment you commit sodomy on stage, that automatically makes it the queerest role I’ve played.
The character, as written, is egotism incarnate. He’s an artist above morals. He uses people. Yet for the play to work, we have to really like him, and we really do, a lot.
How did you make that happen? What choices were you making to make us just like you?
There’s something about people with confidence that I think most people are drawn to. There’s this sense of abandonment with Botticelli, which I find very freeing as an artist, and I think people find very captivating to watch on stage.
It’s something that I think a lot of people wish of themselves, that unbridled freedom he has in his queerness and in his art, along with just the pure sensuality and sexuality of who this person was and who specifically he is in this play, with the bisexuality and the fluid gender identity. There’s something very attractive about personalities that are larger than life. We’re more easily forgiving of them and their actions.
Your Botticelli is fearlessly large scale, as if going over the top would be all the more fun. He’s also, though, deeply intimate and tender in moments. How did you find that range during the rehearsal process and what direction did Marti Lyons gave you? Was there a “too far to go”?
I’m sure there is a too far. Sometimes for me as an actor, it’s about going to that extreme. To find the fullness of a moment, sometimes it’s about going to the absolute extreme to find the middle ground.
Marti so brilliantly reigned us all in, and had this beautiful way of working with us and our instincts, and allowing us to really find these characters and this story in ourselves. One of the challenges of bringing a new piece to life is “Does this work?” and “How does this work?” And there was a sense of creation. In the same sense that Leonardo and Botticelli share in the creation of The Birth of Venus, I think we, as a cast, shared in creating this show, of putting this piece together for the very first time, and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.
It’s inherent in Jordan’s writing, which is both farce and melodrama. You have these very comedic moments that are very quick and fast, a lot about who has the sharpest wit. You can see that in people like RuPaul and on RuPaul’s Drag Race, where you have these queens that are just extremely witty. And then toward the second half of the play you have these moments of just absolute, extreme sorrow where the stakes could not be higher. When it’s beginning, I don’t know if I’m going to end up in a hospital or have a breakdown by the time that the show closes.
The play really invites a reading as having political parallels to America now. And Woolly has certainly encouraged audiences to see and think about the play through that frame.
Yeah. As Mark Twain is said to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” You get that in this piece with the Medici and Savonarola, and religious fanaticism against passion and liberal ideals, brushing up against each other.
For you personally and for the rest of the cast, how much of that political resonance came up in the rehearsal process? Was it talked about explicitly? And how did you navigate the contemporaneous in this historically queered play?
We did talk about it. There was a great sense of joy in the room about being able to laugh at it, but also to be able to take the breadth and depth of the moment of what this means. We’re watching things like the National Endowment for the Arts be taken away. And the recent news of the Supreme Court decision about the cake. When you have these extremes pop up again with liberalism and conservatism, the queer and minority and women are the first to be affected by that. I think that we, as a country, haven’t even begun to see the effects of what we did in the election of 2016. So this story serves as both a celebration and love story to the queer artist, but also as a warning—about being “on the precipice,” as the play says.
There was a lot of emphasis on telling this story. There’s not much known about Botticelli or Da Vinci, so there was a lot of digging into history and understanding the time period, and the Medici, and what it was to be a patron for the arts and for an individual artist, which we no longer have. But then, also, this idea of telling our story; of what it means to have a queer reimagining of this story.
For somebody who has never thought about queering history or queering anything, what’s your elevator speech about what that means?
It means a lot of glitter and boas and make-up. [Laughter.]
I think, very similar to a lot of the African American stories told now, when you have a voice in history that was restrained for so long and put on the back burners, there’s a lot of things to say, and a lot of ideas, and a lot of themes that now mean something different. After centuries of being in the closet, so to speak, when you have a queer reimagining or a black reimagining, it’s that idea of giving a voice to the voiceless from the past and letting them speak to the present.
You do a lot of talking directly to the audience in Botticelli, and you also did a lot of talking directly to the audience in An Octoroon. Looking at those roles side-by-side, you’re basically the audience’s entry point. You’re the front porch to the house that is the play. And you come into this one pistols blazing. When you enter and start talking to the audience in Botticelli, it’s just breathtaking. What’s going on then, between you and the audience, when you’re introducing a play’s edgy approach to race or sexuality, as in the case of An Octoroon and Botticelli?
It’s very interesting that you use that metaphor about the front porch. That was actually one of Marti’s big notions and big ideas for the opening of the play; this is your indication to invite the audience into the story, to invite them into this world.
Now with the run of the show, it happens very different every night. When you walk in, almost immediately, when I say that first line, you can feel the energy from the audience. Sometimes it takes them a little bit longer and sometimes they’re there with you immediately.
But I think that what it does, by removing the fourth wall, is that it makes this a shared experience for all of us: that the energy being passed actor to actor, actor to stage manager, actor to director in the rehearsal room is now being passed to the audience; that you are now players in this story as well. I think that’s the wonderful thing about theater. Sometimes when you walk into a room, you kind of forget that you’re sitting next to a bunch of strangers experiencing this thing together.
There’s a wonderful article about the idea that audiences’ hearts beat together when they’re watching a show. I think that that is just so incredibly beautiful and so incredibly profound, this idea that we come together, much like church or fellowship, to share in this story.
Both Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Jordan Tannahill have this way of, themselves, talking to an audience and inviting them to the story in such a brilliant way that we are able to take characters like Botticelli to the extreme and have them commit these horrible, heinous acts, and still, by the end of the story, we are rooting for him and loving him, because of that built relationship that you have right from the get-go of the play.
It really is your performance that’s the engine of that relationship through the whole play. Your performance as Nat Turner was brilliantly charismatic, and I would say the same of your Botticelli.
Thank you. Thank you so much.
In the play another character says to Botticelli, “The only thing sacred for you is your cock and your genius, maybe,” and he answers, “You cannot be genius. Beauty can only work through you.” That is something that as an artist I’ve tried to open myself up to, to be a vessel to something that is beyond me; to God or to the divine, to a higher power, however people want to name it.
You do the work and you rehearse the show and you build this trust with the director and the ensemble, and then the beauty of the performance is letting all of that go and truly letting something bigger than yourself work through you in order to affect people. It’s not acting; it truly is being. With this extraordinary ensemble of actors, it was made very easy for me.
They give so much of themselves. This is truly one of the best and most loving artistic families that I’ve ever had, with the incredible, beautiful direction of Marti Lyons helming the ship.
I joked to her at one point that she was my Venus, that she was pushing me and inspiring me as an artist in ways that I didn’t know was possible. I think she did that for all of us.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with a fifteen-minute intermission.