Actor Gregg Daniel (HBO’s Insecure) currently appears in The Duat by playwright Roger Q. Mason and director Taibi Magar as part of our series Not a Moment, But a Movement, in collaboration with Watts Village Theater Company and The Fire This Time Festival.
Filmed live at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and available on demand through August 12, 2021, The Duat follows Cornelius Johnson (Daniel), a former FBI COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) informant as he awakens in the Egyptian afterlife. While he awaits judgement, Cornelius struggles to come to terms with his family history and his own troubling role in the civil rights movement at UCLA in the late 60s.
Daniel is no stranger to the stage or Center Theatre Group, having been part of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Mark Taper Forum in 2013 and appeared in works with South Coast Repertory, Pasadena Playhouse, Actors Theatre of Louisville, among others. He spoke with us about his work on The Duat, working on a Digital Stage production, and the impact of Not a Moment, But a Movement.
Q: How would you describe this new play by Roger Q. Mason?
“The Duat is a story of reconciliation and redemption. The character I play, Cornelius Johnson, has effectively died and entered a realm (the Duat) where he is to be judged for actions taken while living. The caveat being, Cornelius must first confess his culpability in an act which left two Black men dead. The humanity in Roger’s story emanates from the fact that Cornelius must reconcile with himself, first and foremost. The deity who is to judge Cornelius is just a backdrop to a man who must face his own weaknesses and admit his shortcomings. It’s in offering his confession that Cornelius might discover his own self-worth and achieve redemption.”
Q: How did you first become involved with this production?
“I’ve known Center Theatre Group’s Associate Artistic Director Tyrone Davis for a number of years. And I’ve seen Roger’s work at L.A. theatres for some time. The two gentlemen approached me about working on The Duat. I was stunned by its honesty, intelligence, and use of rhythm in the language. However, I was very hesitant about doing a solo performance piece (with choreography no less.) Both Roger and Tyrone were extremely patient and supportive. They allayed my doubts regarding my ability to access this character. Calling it a solo piece is bit of a misnomer since I’m working onstage with a very versatile and talented percussionist, David Leach. The project turned out to be one of the most gratifying artistic experiences I’ve had all year. I continue to thank Roger and Tyrone for trusting me.”
Q: Are there elements of The Duat that personally resonate with you?
“I’m a child of the sixties. I recall the excitement of the Black Power Movement as well the danger inherent in raising our collective voices in protest. Like so many Black Youth, I wanted to be somebody while society at large wanted to deny me my humanity. Cornelius Johnson made decisions based on an overwhelming need to belong. I, too, wanted to belong when I was coming of age, however, in a racist society that sees Black men as a constant threat, how does one achieve a place of safety and self-worth? Ironically, I don’t believe my struggle in the 1960s was any different from the struggles faced by men and women of color today. The times have changed, but the struggle continues.
“I think my biggest takeaway was understanding that the act of forgiveness is not only fulfilled when we seek it from others, but the greatest hurdle to self-acceptance is also being able to forgive oneself.”
Q: What was your experience filming a project for our Digital Stage any different than working on film and television?
“The Duat is created to be a solo performance piece, which was something I’ve never done before on stage, film, or television. I admire performers who do solo work but didn’t think I’d be joining those ranks. I was pleasantly surprised at how elated I was to be on a stage again. The kinetic energy a performer creates on a stage or in front of a camera is revelatory. What made it a fulfilling experience was feeling the attention, support, and energy of everyone in the theatre. It might not be something an actor notices in a larger ensemble cast, however when you’re alone on stage you feel the quality of attention and detail from everyone and everything around you.
“While we may title it Digital Theatre, I see it as the best of what both stage and screen can offer. Like a stage play, we rehearsed the material for weeks, collaborated with a director, designers, etc. What was interesting and unique was bringing in a knowledgeable production team to capture the intimacy of the stage with multiple cameras.”
Q: Can you talk about Not a Moment, But a Movement and how it resonates for you as a performer?
“I’m grateful that being a participant allowed me to be exposed to a generation of BIPOC artists that are very different from the ones I came of age with. There are generational differences between me and many of the performers who have thus far graced the program. Learning about these artists, their stories, their struggles, and absorbing how they shape their art is hugely stimulating. I dare say I admire each one and learned much from them.”
Q: What was it like for you as an artist throughout this pandemic? How have you been holding up?
“I’m the Artistic Director of an L.A.-based theatre company, Lower Depth Theatre (LDT).Throughout the pandemic, LDT worked hard to find ways to curate new programming, engage a multitude of creative artists (playwrights, directors, actors), and reach an audience who might not have attended one of our productions physically but could attend our work virtually. In other words, I kept busy. Once we accepted what the obstacles were to live theatre because of shutting our doors, the only solution was to find alternative ways to create new platforms in which to share our art. Yes,I regret losing work as many creative artists did, however, the down time did afford me a chance to reflect on what I do, why I do it and the urgency to keep doing it.”