Bringing the World of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Briefly, to Stage


It was his longstanding friendship with Ms. Forbes that softened his stance and led him to award her the stage rights. They met in 1994, when Ms. Forbes was a freshman at Howard University and Mr. Coates was a sophomore; they helped organize a hip-hop and poetry cypher on campus that year and remained close ever since. “Knowing Kam, there’s nobody else I would have trusted to do it,” Mr. Coates said.

But rather than providing input, Mr. Coates decided to remove himself from the process entirely and give Ms. Forbes full artistic control. When Ms. Forbes tried showing Mr. Coates some of the more aggressive edits, he declined to look at all. “Kam has the freedom to pursue her truth. She don’t need me breathing down her neck,” he said, adding jokingly: “I’ll give you my review next week. We’ll see if this friendship is still a thing.”

At a rehearsal at the Apollo on Friday, Mr. Moran sat at a grand piano on a platform far above the stage, attacking taut arpeggio patterns with the bassist Mimi Jones and the drummer Nate Smith. Mr. Moran, a MacArthur fellow and composer behind the score for the 2014 film “Selma,” nonetheless approached the project with trepidation. “I usually think that nothing needs music because I love silence so much,” he said.

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Kamilah Forbes, the production’s director, met Mr. Coates when they were students at Howard University in the 1990s.

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Emon Hassan for The New York Times

Onstage, his anxious chords matched the book’s seething tone and simmering tension. “What I like about the book is that there’s no soft edge on it,” Mr. Moran said. “I’m trying to make sure I don’t soften anything up.” Behind and below him, the projections, by the artist Tal Yarden, flashed across multiple screens, showing the smiling face of Prince Jones, or two black hands outstretched in surrender or protest.

To adapt the book, Ms. Forbes enlisted two dramaturges, Lauren A. Whitehead and Talvin Wilks, who faced the challenge of paring down a text that, under 200 pages, was already concise. They decided to use the poetry technique of erasure, which consists of blacking out portions of a larger text, to expose terse emotional outbursts and visually arresting moments.

In his book, for example, Mr. Coates wrote about Jones’s murder: “This entire episode took me from fear to a rage that burned in me then, animates me now, and will likely leave me on fire for the rest of my days.”

In the production, the sentence became: “This entire episode took me from fear to / rage / Fire for the rest of my days.”

The process stripped away Mr. Coates’s sober tone, Ms. Whitehead said, revealing that “there was actually a voice of rage.”

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Lauren A. Whitehead

Ms. Forbes and the two dramaturges started to develop the work at an intensive two-week residency at Sundance in December along with four actors, including the Tony-nominated actress Michelle Wilson (“Sweat”), who will perform in Monday’s show. The reading sessions were filled with discussions, arguments and crying.

“The first day was so emotionally and spiritually exhausting,” Ms. Wilson said.

Eventually, the team whittled down the book into a 90-minute presentation consisting of 21 excerpts from the book. The cast, which will be different for each performance and includes Susan Kelechi Watson, Joe Morton and Pauletta Washington, will not memorize lines but rather will rely on scripts onstage to channel the effect of reading something powerful for the first time.

Some excerpts will be read verbatim, while other poetic passages will be less recognizable, with dialogue being passed back and forth among actors. One of those moments, which captures Mr. Coates’ whirlwind education at Howard, “relies on overlap and speed,” Ms. Whitehead said. “You have this feeling of vertigo, which is what he was experiencing when he was learning all these other black narratives he had never heard before.”

In Harlem, the production will be seen by thousands, including the one person the book was meant for originally. Mr. Coates said that his son, Samori, whom “Between the World and Me” is addressed to, will be in the audience. He will watch as an intensely personal letter will be transformed into a communal performance.

Though there are no concrete plans for further shows, Ms. Forbes said she will observe how the text from three years ago plays to an already drastically changed world and think about how the project could continue and evolve.

“If there isn’t an immediate resonant response, for at least the work we’ve set out to do, we’ve got to change it,” she said. “It’s not just a reflection: I see this work as a call to action.”

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