Stumbling upon art in the darkness

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Stumbling upon art in the darkness
Zawe Ashton in New York, Oct. 11, 2019. Ashton has launched her first book, an Off Broadway production of her play and has a starring role opposite Tom Hiddleston in "Betrayal." Eva Zar/The New York Times.

by Julie Bloom

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- For the last five weeks, British actress and playwright Zawe Ashton has been zipping back and forth between West 45th Street and Lower Manhattan. She has gone from speaking the words of her character Emma in an acclaimed Broadway revival of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” to watching her own words brought to life by a cast of others in her play “for all the women who thought they were Mad” at Soho Rep.

“It’s like doing a boxing match and then swimming the Channel,” she joked recently.

Everything seems to be falling into place for Ashton, who also released her first book this year and starred with Jake Gyllenhaal in the dark art-world satire “Velvet Buzzsaw.”

Her play, which began previews the same day it opened at the Hackney Showroom in London, has its New York premiere Oct. 27 and has already been extended. But the moment was a long time coming.

Ashton, who grew up in London and whose mother moved from Uganda to England as a teenager, wrote “for all the women” 11 years ago, when she was just 24. She delivered the draft by hand to the Royal Court Theater, the culmination of her participation in the theater’s young writers program. But the experimental play has had multiple starts and stops since then.

It features a constellation of women ranging in age from 8 to 65 and is based on months of research Ashton did on the myriad ways the British health system has failed black women, particularly when it comes to mental health and overmedication.

The career-focused protagonist, Joy, begins to fall apart after witnessing a woman falling past a window, presumably to her death.

Joy soon starts taking pills prescribed by a doctor. The other women surrounding her are a mixture of contemporary and ancestral voices. At times they serve as a kind of African-inspired chorus, interjecting and instructing Joy; their poetic text is influenced by Ugandan lullabies among other sources.

The script, although set in Britain, feels relevant in the United States in light of recent disturbing data about black women’s health, including their significantly high maternal mortality risk.

Ashton is both accepting and frustrated by the decade that it took for the play to find a home.

“When I’m thinking about it in the most positive way possible,” she said, “I believe it had to brew and had to find its time and find its zeitgeist and find its conversation, which is very much a conversation that’s happening now in the U.S. in regards to the black female body.”

“And then when I’m more my cynical 35-year-old self, I wish this could have just been produced earlier, at its most pure. Because it’s had a lot of face-lifts, it’s been handed around to many theatrical institutions and brilliant minds, and it has changed a lot on the way.”

She went on: “Everyone has wanted to make this play make much more sense. They wanted to turn it into a much more linear and literal document, and that was never what it was. My 24-year-old self wrote it in 24 hours. I don’t say that in a boastful way — I say it as an invitation to understand what it’s like when things you’ve deeply intuited for a long time, even as a young person, are suddenly unlocked. That’s what happens when you are 24. You get married in a night — you break up in a night — you change countries in a night.”

She declined to offer too direct a connection between the material and her own experiences but admitted she was influenced by women she has known and said the voices of the characters had been floating in her head for some time.

The nonlinear, destabilizing nature of the piece appealed to Sarah Benson, artistic director of Soho Rep, which regularly takes chances on formally experimental works, recently including “Fairview,” which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in drama.

“It can only happen in theatrical form, this melding of content,” Benson said. “She’s making vivid something that black women have experienced for decades.”

Whitney White, who is directing the Soho Rep production, said the play’s abstractions make sense for the current moment in New York theater.

“Refracted black conscience is hot right now,” she said. “New writers, emerging writers are chopping and screwing all our lives, and spewing it out in an interesting, visceral way.”

White said that often black women who are misdiagnosed or overprescribed drugs don’t report what they’re going through and can be demonized by the medical field. “There’s stigma. It’s unfortunate and it’s real and it happens,” she said.

Even as Ashton gets ready for her own play’s debut, she is still performing eight times a week in “Betrayal,” where Ben Brantley in The New York Times praised her “breakout” turn as a vulnerable, world-weary wife caught in a love triangle between her husband (Tom Hiddleston) and his best friend (Charlie Cox).

Despite the intense schedule, Ashton said she’s finding strength and inspiration in Pinter.

“He’s not concerned with the truth, necessarily, in art, and I love that,” she said. “You’re supposed to stumble across it in the dark every night. Good writing shouldn’t be wrapped in cellophane. It should be open to the elements and full of maggots and it should be left to grow and deepen and fester. I hang on to that.”

In New York, she has found rare moments of solace wandering Chelsea and the halls of the Guggenheim, spending time with the Basquiats. She sees herself aligned “with the poets or the writers during the jazz era, more improvisational, truly collaborative. I’m in a nostalgic place, and I’m in America trying to figure it out.”

Ashton said she finally knows herself well enough to trust her instincts. No longer does she believe, she said, that there can be real distance between the person and the creative artist.

“It’s closed up since I’ve gotten older,” she explained. “I can’t be in a situation where I feel distanced, othered, underrepresented, cross-questioned, put down, unseen as a person or as an artist and pretend that I will be OK. That’s suppression I have released myself from.”

Finally seeing her play onstage is part of that release. “Eleven years of this group of women in this play not having an audience to commune with has been a phantom limb,” she said. “I can’t wait to see it soar or fail. I just need to see it.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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