Multidisciplinary artist Paige Hernandez is not a fan of boundaries. Whether performing, directing or teaching, the Baltimore native has made a career out of blending artistic forms and reaching across mediums.
With dozens of acting, directing, and choreography credits to her name, Hernandez can regularly be seen across the Mid-Atlantic, whether at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre, where she is a company member or on DC-area stages like Imagination Stage and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company where she has been recognized with two Helen Hayes nominations. In 2011, Hernandez started B-Fly Entertainment, an arts organization that seeks to elevate the role of hip hop in the arts community by creating original works that she tours internationally. As an award-winning teaching artist, Hernandez has reached over 10,000 students through workshops, classes, and performances.
Hernandez spoke with us about her latest directing project, playwright Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, a fictionalized retelling of events in the life of Jack Johnson, the boxer who became the first African American heavyweight champion in 1910 at the height of the racist Jim Crow era. The Royale recently played at Olney Theatre Center and is now moving to 1st Stage in a unique co-production between the two theaters.
Can you summarize the story of The Royale? What do you think the show will mean to people?
The Royale is based on the real-life events of heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson. The names are fictionalized and there is a lot done for dramatic effect but it looks at the month before the fight when Jack is going to make history as the first black heavyweight champion in boxing. It’s not his whole life or a biography, but the moment that leads up to the climax of his career.
Through the story, we get to hear what it’s like to be in a segregated sport, to be a first, to be ambitious even though there may be consequences for the black culture he represents. If Jack wins this fight, there could be deadly riots throughout the country – and that’s actually what happened. I think audiences should walk away thinking about what it takes to be great. What does it take to be a first? And is it your choice to decide what to sacrifice in order to achieve that greatness? It makes me think about so many other African American firsts. When you think about Jackie Robinson or Serena Williams even Tiger Woods and how they were met with resistance. There are people who just didn’t want them to succeed or win.
Why do you think Jack Johnson has such a grip on people’s imagination and why is his story invoked so frequently?
Jack Johnson has all the qualities of an iconic American figure. He defied a lot of odds with his ambition. He is larger than life and lived his life very boldly and unapologetically for the time. He didn’t allow anyone to pigeonhole him and he did a lot of things that challenged societal norms at the time, including dating white women. He was blackballed for living his truth.
A lot of musicians and writers have paid homage to Jack Johnson. Miles Davis dedicated an entire album to him and Mos Def has a group called Black Jack Johnson, so Jack Johnson continues to inspire generations.
What is the trick to successfully staging a boxing show? Are there tricky mechanics involved?
Yes, it’s definitely tricky. In the script, Marco (playwright Marco Ramirez) asks for no physical contact. He says that a fight that you see in your imagination is going to be more dramatic and bloodier than a fight you see in front of you. For that reason, the boxers don’t actually make physical contact in the show. They face the audience and once a punch lands there’s a reaction from the other boxer and that’s a cue for the rest of the ensemble to say a line in unison. It’s super intricate which makes for a great challenge for the performers but is super engaging to watch as an audience.
What made you want to direct The Royale?
I love the way that Marco has written it, which really speaks to my aesthetic as a director. There is a lot of rhythm and poetic dialogue in the script as well as this idea of a collective galvanizing that is told non-verbally. All of those things speak to my background as a director, choreographer and hip-hop artist.
Tell me about your background as a hip hop artist.
Parallel to my work as a performer and director, I’ve worked as a hip hop artist. Eventually, I found my niche in merging the two and becoming a hip hop theater artist. What’s really great about hip hop theater is that it’s a very multi-tonal art form. It’s essentially built me into a multidisciplinary artist. I’ve mounted ten original shows based in that hip hop aesthetic and I tour my own work year-round.
How has hip hop theater grown and evolved since you started in it?
I began in the 2000s when hip hop theater had really great momentum. I looked at a lot of artists like John Leguizamo, Anna Deavere Smith, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Sarah Jones as well as earlier works like Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls. I also had the great pleasure of seeing colleagues in action like Eisa Davis and Marc Bamuthi Joseph. What’s interesting now is that hip hop has made its way into theater in general. I see so many different theater pieces now that include a kind of devised, ensemble-based, spoken word rhythm or choreography that looks a lot more like hip hop choreography. You can see elements of hip hop in most contemporary theater now, which is great.
Can we talk a little bit about what it’s like to be a female director in the industry right now?
I am literally living the dream. As a performer, I hardly saw any women directors. It’s something I’ve always wanted and I thought a lot of productions could benefit from a woman’s perspective. To be the manifestation of that is pretty dope! We are in a time when the doors are open a bit wider for women directors and women of color. Speaking for myself as a woman of color, I’m still sort of walking in trepidation, not sure if this will last. But those are the doubts that I have to put aside to do the work I want to do.
I’ve been in my fair share of non-inclusive rehearsal rooms where a woman’s voice is constantly silenced, challenged or questioned. I definitely take pride in the inclusive and transparent process that I bring into the room.
How does your approach differ?
My approach is going back to a place of trust in performers’ natural abilities and instincts. I really don’t want to perpetuate an asshole culture so I encourage gratitude and recalibration in rehearsal. I had to deal with toxic processes for so long as a performer and some would rather have that because they are just conditioned to it. There is a lot of change going on now and we are all shifting to figure out a healthier and more normal collaborative process.
it’s great to have a woman at the helm for this show. I’m able to really capture intentional nuances behind the emotion and physicality of a typically aggressive and masculine sport.
Are there any misconceptions about female directors that you would like to dispel?
When I started out directing, there were stronger misconceptions. Specifically around politeness and collaboration as a weakness that translated to a long, indirect and indecisive process. I see those misconceptions beginning to break down more and more. For so long, theater has been associated with trauma and abuse. Let’s be real, it’s a hard profession because we are all human and it’s work that is steeped in human emotion. You leave a rehearsal room sometimes feeling battered and broken. I don’t want my rehearsal room to ever reflect that.
READ John Stoltenberg’s Magic Time! column, “‘The Royale’ at 1st Stage bares a Black brother’s big heart”