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Tony Awards: This Year's Nominees

Jun 9, 2019
Originally published on June 9, 2019 6:24 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's a celebration of theater in New York City tonight. Yes, it's the annual Tony Awards. So we thought this was the perfect time to revisit three conversations we've had over the past year with some of the nominees.

One of the most-nominated shows is "Ain't Too Proud: The Life And Times Of The Temptations." We spoke with the playwright, Dominique Morisseau, as well as co-founder and sole-surviving original member of The Temptations, Otis Williams. Morisseau told me why she felt she had to tell the story of The Temptations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DOMINIQUE MORISSEAU: I just was so moved by the story of these young African American men at a time, you know, figuring out their lives and their identity and their role as artists while the world and the country was in great civic unrest. And that feels so now to me that I just - it was my way in. I wanted to tell that story.

MARTIN: I have to ask, did you have any nervousness about taking on a story about...

MORISSEAU: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...This iconic group that is so important to so many people - probably your parents, all their neighbors?

MORISSEAU: That's right.

MARTIN: Everybody...

MORISSEAU: That's right.

MARTIN: ...Listened to The Temptations. I have to ask, was there a part of you that was nervous about thinking, OK, I'm going to tell this story now?

MARTIN: Oh, absolutely. I was shaking in my boots. I mean, (laughter) you know? Anytime I have anyone's story in my hands, it feels like, you know, a big call. To be able to tell someone's story while they're still living is a great burden, I think, and a great responsibility to that. And Otis Williams - he was so amazing. I got to meet with him and talk with him. Even though, you know, I was nervous to share the work with him - actually, I was most nervous to share it with him and maybe with, like, Detroiters because they will be your toughest critics, honey. They all feel like they knew The Temptations very well. And they're going to tell you every way that you should have done this, that and the other (laughter). So - but I feel like getting Otis' blessing kind of makes me feel, like, come on, give me your best shot. I've got Otis behind me.

MARTIN: And here's Otis Williams on how he felt after seeing "Ain't Too Proud."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

OTIS WILLIAMS: Well, it was emotional. I sat there, and I was moved to tears, you know, because I'm saying, wow, I lived through all that? Never had any idea that - when we started singing that we would be going through a lot of craziness, being baptized in fire by certain aspects of life. You know, so to see my play in a different perspective - it was touching. And I'm glad that I felt it that way because when they come to see the play, I don't want them to think just, oh, The Temps dancing and singing, and that's it. No, no, no. We were shot at down South.

I never will forget. We were in Columbia, S.C. The first time, we went there in 1964 doing a Motortown Revue tour. They had a rope right down the center of the auditorium, whites on one side, blacks on the other. We came back to that same place the following year - no rope, blacks and whites sitting side by side, high-fiving, enjoying the show. And if it wasn't for the sweat that we were perspiring from dancing and singing, they would have seen five guys on stage crying - the power of what music can do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WAY YOU DO THE THINGS YOU DO")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) You've got a smile so bright, you know you could have been a candle.

MARTIN: Earlier this year, we also spoke with Tarell Alvin McCraney about his play, "Choir Boy." It takes place at a fictional, all-black male prep school. It's a coming-of-age drama infused with African American culture, especially music. McCraney explained why it was important to tell the story the way he did.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TARELL ALVIN MCCRANEY: Coming of age is a hard story to tell because it's so individual. I mean, we all do it, and we all - but we all do it in so many ways, you know, and particularly black men in America. I wanted to isolate that threshold and that moment. And then you get into the notion of class, meaning, who are the talented tenth? How are they identified? Who do we point to and say, these will be our leaders for tomorrow, right? And who does that selecting and why?

And so it was interesting to me to try to put, you know, if we're going to look at the experiment of the American dream, we need to do the case study on folks who are in one place and have the same variables, which is this school. They all want to be here. They all want to excel and be thought of as good in this school. But how much of the school is allowing them to be their best self?

MARTIN: I don't want to gloss past how important the music is to this piece, the music and the step routines.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF PLAY, "CHOIR BOY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) I couldn't hear nobody praying. Lord, I couldn't hear nobody pray. Oh, way down yonder by myself, and I couldn't hear nobody pray.

MARTIN: Was it always your - in your mind that those elements would be important to the play, and what role do they play, and why is it so important to you that that be represented in the play?

MCCRANEY: Well, the music has always been important to me in that, you know, the legacy that we are handed down as artists come directly from the Negro spiritual.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF PLAY, "CHOIR BOY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) I couldn't hear nobody pray. Chilly water. I couldn't hear nobody pray. In the Jordan. I couldn't hear nobody pray. Hallelujah. Crossing over.

MCCRANEY: We can chart where jazz and gospel, even R&B, come from this very important music that was made by our ancestors in the fields or in the house or in domestic trade, in their labor - but even in protest. I mean, these are the songs that they sang on the bridge in Selma. You know, these are the songs that have held us up. And they go back so deep that they are both spiritual, political and personal for all of us. And what does it mean to hand that legacy down was important to me.

MARTIN: That was Tarell Alvin McCraney talking about his play, "Choir Boy." And earlier, we heard from Dominique Morisseau and Otis Williams about the musical "Ain't Too Proud: The Life And Times Of The Temptations." We wish all the nominees good luck at tonight's Tony Awards. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.