PHOTOS / Rachel Thalia Fisher
STYLING / Thomas Carter Phillips @ The Wall Group
MAKEUP / Billie Gene for Exclusive Artists using MAC Cosmetics
HAIR / Iyana Winfield @ Ken Barboza
STORY / Catherine Santino
I’m a bit uncomfortable saying the name of Teyonah Parris’ new play out loud during our interview – but I suppose that’s the entire point.
The show, entitled Slave Play, debuted in November 2018 at New York Theatre Workshop, an off-Broadway theater company known for developing powerful, provocative new work, and played its last performance on January 13, 2019. Slave Play takes place at the MacGregor Plantation, and, Parris tells me, “rips apart American history in an effort to deal with the very deep issues of race and sexuality in America.”
Needless to say, was an intense experience for her. The play was written by Jeremy O. Harris, a current student of Yale’s playwrighting program, and directed by Robert O’Hara, whose bold and somewhat divisive work has been produced in celebrated theaters all over the country.
Though Parris got her start in the theater as a graduate of the Juilliard School, Slave Play will be her first return to the stage in eight years. She says she’s embarrassed by this, but to her credit, she’s been plenty busy. At only 31, Parris has already amassed an impressive body of work. One of her first notable roles was as Dawn Chambers on Mad Men, the first major African American character on the hit AMC drama.
She went on to be cast in the 2014 independent film Dear White People, which has since been adapted into a successful Netflix series. The following year, Parris starred in the satirical drama Chi-Raq, which earned her a nomination for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture. She also managed to nab a recurring role on Empire, a lead role in the Starz Sitcom Survivor’s Remorse, and several other supporting roles in television and film.
And now, after nearly a decade, Parris returned to her roots.
“It’s vulnerable because you do share your process with others; it’s a communal art form,” she tells me when I ask about oscillating between stage and screen. “You go through this whole rehearsal process with your cast who becomes family and you fail and you find things and you have triumphs and you do all of that together as a company, and that’s been really rewarding to experience.”
Parris was able to form a similar connection outside of the theater, during the production of her latest project, Golden-Globe-nominated feature film If Beale Street Could Talk. The film is based on the novel of the same name by James Baldwin, and centers around wife-to-be Tish Rivers (played by Kiki Layne), whose fiancé is arrested for a crime he did not commit. Parris plays Ernestine, Tish’s resourceful and strong-willed sister, aside Regina King (who plays their mother) and a slew of other talented actors.
White lace Top/Skirt : Brock Collection. Shoes : Manolo Blahnik . Jewelry : Fallon
“From the moment we met at the table read, it was like we’d all known each other for a lifetime,” Parris tells me when I ask how the cast was able to establish a familial relationship on screen so quickly. “It was my first time meeting Kiki, but I swear that was my baby sis from the jump…I mean, there was no work we really had to do to.”Unlike many movies and TV shows that are set in New York City, Beale Street was actually filmed there – adding to the already palpable authenticity of the film. Parris describes a day on set filming a particularly difficult scene, in which the cast and crew were squeezed into an actual Brownstone in Harlem. “That was quite surreal. But it also poses a challenge when you have a large cast and a large crew trying to film it all in a very small, tight New York City apartment. It was challenging, and it’s such an intense scene.” Surely, the conditions while filming helped Parris and the rest of the cast to enter the world of the film and derive truthful performances from it.
The reception to Beale Street has been glowing. It was nominated for three Golden Globe Awards (with Regina King winning for Best Supporting Actress) and five Critics’ Choice Awards, and, for what it’s worth, currently holds a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
But before she attended Juilliard and starred in award-winning feature films, Parris was just an artsy kid in South Carolina. Born and raised in Hopkins, South Carolina, she began taking drama classes in middle school and then enrolled in the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. She describes it as “a very intense performing arts high school”, a place where she was able to delve deep into the craft of acting and creating characters.
Parris credits her success in part to her parents’ unwavering support from the very beginning. “[My mother] was like, ‘well, if you work hard and have the discipline then you can do it…and my dad was the one who would take me to every rehearsal, every practice, anything.”
“To be from Hopkins, South Carolina, if I didn’t have my parents’ support, I don’t know…” she continues. “There’s not a lot of resources there and as a child, you don’t have any real control. I certainly couldn’t have gotten as far as I have without their help.”
Surely, the care and attention Parris puts into choosing projects is also a huge factor in her upward climb. Most actors have one or two roles they’re less than proud of, a lapse in their judgement here and there when it comes to accepting a script. But Parris’ body of work – from Dawn Chambers to Slave Play – is an impressive trajectory; one complex, meaty character after another.
“Anytime I decide to work on a character or to tell a story, I look for what this piece has to say,” she explains. “What does this playwright or this screenwriter want to say with this material? Is it a message that I think needs to be in the world? It doesn’t have to be quote unquote positive, but if it helps us grow as people and to see ourselves or our neighbors, our family, other people more deeply and nuanced, then I want to be part of telling stories like that.”
“I want to be a part of telling stories that are particular to an African American experience,” Parris continues. “I want to tell stories that are maybe about aliens and things that aren’t real because you know, I have an imagination. But truly, what does this put in the world?”
It’s important to Parris that her roles not only align with her values but that they continue to pave the way for women and minorities. “When I was growing up, I didn’t see a lot of images of young girls and young women who had dark skin, who had big hair and wide noses and was thick, that looked like me,” she says when I ask if she considers herself to be a role model.
“And so, if I can be that, then I’m grateful, because that means that there’s a little more exposure for someone else who’s in the backcountry of South Carolina or wherever to say ‘hey, if she can do it, I can too.’”
Clearly, a lot of hard work, focus, and strategic choices have contributed to Parris becoming the force that she is. But sometimes, sitting back and trusting the universe is just as advantageous a tactic.
“There are just certain things I cannot control,” she says. “It is fruitless to overexert yourself and to over plan and try to over-orchestrate because there are just too many moving parts in this industry.”
“I might want something today that, come the new year, come 2019, I’m like ‘you know what? I don’t want that.’ But you know, I spent the last two and half months praying for it so now what do I do because I got it, you know? So, I will pray for peace, for happiness, for artistic fulfillment, for love, for family, and just to continue to grow. And whatever that means and however that manifests itself, I will be okay with.”
Where others might over orchestrate, Parris chooses to trust herself and her path, a lesson that I think could be gleaned by our generation of bullet journal-obsessed, achievement-oriented go-getters.
“Listen, like Maxine [Waters] says, you reclaim your time and you get the things that you need and what you want,” Parris says to me, and I am all ears.
She goes on to define reclaiming herself as “being unapologetic and sort of asserting myself in who I am as a woman, who I am as a black woman, who I am as an American citizen, and all of the other things that make me who I am.”
“And saying ‘I am here, I am not apologizing for being here, you will make room for me, because I’m not leaving.’”
Floral gown Dress : Carolina Herrera. Shoes : Gianvito Rossi. Jewelry : Effy.
Red dress with fur Dress : Sally LaPointe . Shoe : Clergerie . Jewelry : Effy
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