Interview with Shaun Neblett, Playwright and Founder of Changing Perceptions Theater
Amy Brady: You’re currently working on a seven-play cycle comprising plays that are thematically linked to famous hip-hop albums. What inspired the cycle?
Shaun Neblett: It started because I’m a lover of the theatre, and I go all the time. But I haven’t seen many stories that I can relate to or that I feel like my friends can relate to. I decided to create plays that attracted an audience of people more like us—folks who listen to hip-hop, between the ages of 18 and 35. I started doing plays with hip-hop themes up in Harlem for community organizations and schools and had these transformative experiences where everyone who participated ended up loving the theatre. I decided I wanted to do that on a larger scale, to get more people to see quality art and be moved by it and reflect on it. It’s a great feeling to create theatre like that.
A lot of people buy into the same narrative of what theatre can be, and that’s why they quit the journey. We do it our way: have fun, stay in it, and say it’s normal to be thirty-eight and still love making theatre.
Amy: How do you choose which hip-hop artists and albums to write about?
Shaun: To start, I ask my friends about their favorite artists. They all have different reasons for liking this or that artist, and it helps to listen to them. Each play is also about the spirit of the album. When I wrote my first play of the cycle, I chose Nas’s Illmatic, because I was inspired by its focus on being a first-time rapper. I wrote the play about Biggie after talking with a friend of mine who said that Biggie was about connecting people. That play became about connection.
Amy: Have you begun to see the kinds of audiences you want to attract?
Shaun: Most definitely. That’s been one of the most rewarding parts of this entire endeavor. We did the Illmatic play Off-Broadway; it was directed by Patricia McGregor. Then last year we brought it to the Schomburg Center, which has a phenomenal theatre space, and we sold it out! I could tell we had an audience of people who were not typical theatre people, because they were talking and whispering about the play while it was going on. It was great: they weren’t typical, but they were really listening.
Amy: Tell me about your production company, Changing Perceptions Theater.
Shaun: We do a lot of work at schools and community theatres that focuses on people of color changing their perceptions of themselves and their perception of the types of characters that we can play. We also focus on finding more depth in the stories we choose to tell. When we go into the schools, we write original plays for the students that are based on their personalities. It’s great because we’ll choose all kinds of students to play main parts, and teachers will say things like “Wow, I didn’t even know that kid could talk.” At the adult level, we change perceptions of theatre by how we operate. We split our ticket proceeds with the actors, for example. A lot of people buy into the same narrative of what theatre can be, and that’s why they quit the journey. We do it our way: have fun, stay in it, and say it’s normal to be thirty-eight and still love making theatre.
Amy: You’ve said that you want Changing Perceptions Theater to “become global.” What do you mean by that?
Shaun: We want to start getting our work online, so we’ll be global in that way. One of the amazing things about using hip-hop as a medium is that it’s a world-wide language. When we did the Biggie play, we had a guy in London reach out to us. We really believe that in a year or two, when our work is online, we’ll be able to connect with people all over the world.
Amy: What role do you see theatre playing in the context of significant social movements like Black Lives Matter?
Shaun: In a way, our means of addressing the Black Lives Matter movement is covert, because it’s not like we’re at a rally. For us it’s about the type of characters we want to see represented in the theatre. We pay attention to universal themes, but inside that universality are the thoughts that our characters have specifically as people of color. In terms of what we can do to cause change in the theatre? Well, we want to inspire artists to come see our work, and equally importantly, see how we do our work. What we do comes out of a desire for a better society and power to the people, out of wanting to create a system that lets artists excel and not defeat themselves. Ultimately, we want folks to replicate what we do: fund art at a grassroots level.
Amy: Who are some of your artistic inspirations?
Shaun: As far as theatre folk, Amiri Baraka and Will Power. Lorraine Hansbury, of course. Also artists with a black vibe like August Wilson and James Baldwin. But what I’m really inspired by now are my friends—actors and writers—who I sit around with and listen to and talk to about art. I hear them saying things like “man, I’m so tired of this bullshit of seeing the same people produced,” and I like to say “I’m going to show you that you can do what you want to do.” And then we do it.
Miles Davis also continues to inspire me. One of the most interesting things about him is that he evolved with the times. He didn’t get boxed into playing one kind of jazz music. Whenever he heard of young and emerging artists, he went after them and put them in his band. That’s how he found John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock. He always went after the folks that he could spot specialness in. That was an important lesson for me. We employ our own artists, too. I go to a lot of college shows and look for the person who is hungry enough, has really great presence, but who hasn’t broken out into the world yet. This young, strong talent then comes in and breathes new life into what we’re creating.
Amy: What are some upcoming projects that we should look forward to?
Shaun: Right now we’re workshopping the Biggie play. People can stay connected by going to our website, which is getting upgraded. Next year is the 20th anniversary of Biggie’s album Life After Death, and we want to celebrate it. So people—especially people in Brooklyn—will soon be hearing about that.
Amy: Your website says “the best is yet to come.” What else do you have in store for your fans and the beneficiaries of your work?
Shaun: By “the best is yet to come” I mean that we’ll continue to get better at what we do and more experienced at telling the stories that we want to hear. We also want to inspire more people. Yes, we do great theatre and people are coming, but we want to get even more people to come, to have more conversations, and to share what we do so that more artists know that it’s possible to do theatre independently.