Off Script: Andre Holland Talks Broadway's 'Jitney' and 'Moonlight's' Impact on Oscars Diversity (Q&A)

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Andre Holland

"He doesn’t accept the role that the world is trying to give him," says Holland of his character. "I should do the same thing. It’s my civic duty to be involved, engaged and to fight for what I think is right."

Moonlight’s Andre Holland is behind the wheel as the frustrated Youngblood in the first-ever Broadway staging of August Wilson’s Jitney. Running through March 12 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, the Ruben Santiago-Hudson-directed ensemble drama follows a group of men in 1970s Pittsburgh trying to survive by driving unlicensed cabs against opposition from city officials. The Hollywood Reporter praised Holland's performance as "played with real heart" in its review.

Holland spoke to THR about learning from a character penned decades ago, what he’s reading backstage and how Moonlight can really affect #OscarsSoWhite.

You made your Broadway debut in 2009’s revival of Joe Turner's Come and Gone — also by August Wilson. Why do you gravitate toward his work?

The language. His writing gives voice to so many things in the black community — what people try to say and need to say, he does eloquently and beautifully. And most of what he writes is set in Pittsburgh, but it could just as easily be Birmingham or Buffalo or Cleveland or St. Louis. It just feels like home to me. 

What do you admire about Youngblood?

His tenacity. Even though he’s up against some pretty difficult odds, he doesn’t stay down, and I think that’s what black people have done for a long, long time in this country. He’s resistant, he doesn’t accept the role that the world is trying to give him, he wants more for himself, and he’s willing to put everything on the line to get it. It’s reminded me that I should do the same thing. It’s my civic duty to be involved, engaged and to fight for what I think is right. These days, I think we all could probably use a reminder of that.

What have you given up to play this role?

Not to sound cheesy, but I’ve really gained more than I’ve given up by being part of this. I saw this play when I was in drama school ten years ago, and was blown away. Working on it, I feel like I’ve been able to fulfill a dream.

Any special pre-show rituals?

I’m breathing to get in the head space, to think like the character and stop thinking like myself. I have a playlist of music from the era, and we have a bunch of old Ebony and Essence magazines that I’ll flip through. And I always carry James Baldwin’s nonfiction collection The Price of the Ticket with me.

Every night, the whole cast gathers backstage in a circle and holds hands. Some of them pray or share words of encouragement or a moment that they’ve had throughout the day — something that brings us together. It reminds us that what we’re here to do is bigger than ourselves, that we’re standing on the shoulders of the men and women who worked for decades to bring these plays to life. It’s a privilege to share this work, and we have to represent it fully and accurately.

What are you doing when you’re not onstage?

I like to peek out of the curtain and watch. It feels like a pick-up game of basketball: somebody comes offstage, we high-five each other and cheer each other on.

What do you do to unwind?

I’m exhausted by the time it’s over, but the cast usually heads across the street to The Glass House for some food and a glass of wine. Thankfully, so many people have been seeing the show and wanting to talk about it backstage — it’s like the show after the show.

Favorite backstage guest so far?

Ava DuVernay. She’s shooting a $100 million movie, but she somehow found the time to fly out here over the Christmas break. She saw David Oyelowo in Othello and then came uptown to see us. I’ve worked with her a few times before, and the cast was so excited to see her. She enjoyed it, which means a lot because she’s an opinionated woman with impeccable taste.

Heading into the Oscars, how do you feel about Moonlight’s nominations?

It feels good. It was such a labor of love, that film. We had very little money and time, and we all signed on not thinking it would be what it is, a critical success. It’s affirming to know there’s still room for these types of projects. There doesn’t always have to be explosions and guns; it can be a simple story told in a beautiful way.

It’s great there’s more diversity [at the Oscars this year], but I don’t by any means think it’s an endpoint. The stories we see being acknowledged this year were started long before the #OscarsSoWhite controversy came along. Maybe it put a spotlight on it, but it’s important we continue to fight for diversity and recognition. I hope this moment can shed more light on the work people are already doing.