When Liesl Tommy was in grade school, her teacher asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her response: “I want to be an actor on Broadway.”
A typical response, you’d think, except that Tommy grew up in apartheid-era South Africa, in a colored township in Cape Town. She had never seen a Broadway show, and didn’t even really knew what Broadway was, apart from a place described on the George Benson version of “On Broadway,” a record her parents owned. She remembers listening to lyrics about “neon lights” and “glitter” and thinking that Broadway was “some sort of magical place, like Oz.”
What Tommy lacked in knowledge, she made up for in conviction—or, as she calls it, “a fucking compulsion.” That quality has served her well. At the 2016 Tony Awards, Tommy became the first woman of color to be nominated for a Tony for best direction of a play for her work in Eclipsed by Danai Gurira; in a memorable moment during the telecast, she raised a power fist when her name was called. (Ivo van Hove took home the statue that night.)
Since then Tommy has kept busy and expanded her horizons. While maintaining her stage career, she’s begun to work in television: an episode of “Queen Sugar” last year, and, as we spoke for this story, an episode of “Dietland,” a new show for AMC. She’s set to direct three more TV episodes this year, and is developing a few feature film projects, including directing Born a Crime, the Trevor Noah biopic, which will also star Eclipsed’s Lupita Nyong’o.
“She’s a workout of a director,” exclaimed Nyong’o. “She requires you to bring your A game when you work with her. She’s full of integrity when it comes to her creative expression and also extremely intelligent. She makes you want to be a better artist and a better person.”
On the theatre front, next February Tommy will direct If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka by Tori Sampson, at Playwrights Horizons Off-Broadway. More immediately, though, just days after we had dinner at a neighborhood favorite, the Grove, near her apartment in Manhattan’s Hamilton Heights, she was on a train to Boston to oversee rehearsals for her revival of Caryl Churchill’s feminist classic Top Girls at the Huntington Theatre Company (April 20-May 20). For this version, the cast comprises primarily women of color.
“It’s just really fun to have an ensemble of adult women,” she enthused over a dinner of scallops and brussels sprouts. “And this is one of the plays where they get to sink their teeth into some cool themes and language and relationships.” With Churchill’s permission, she is also rearranging some scenes in the play. “I found out that she actually had a different idea for the order of the scenes when she first wrote it, and Max Stafford-Clark [who directed the world premiere] wanted to do it in a certain way for a certain reason, and she always wanted it to be this other way.” She added, happily, “It’s always nice when you can correct a long-time wrong.”
How would she describe her production? “Brutal and intense, and angry and edgy and nuanced.” Those adjectives could also be used to describe Tommy’s work as a whole. As a director, Tommy does not shy away from difficult topics, whether it is a family coming to terms with its white supremacist past in Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (which earned her an Obie Award), or child kidnapping in Kid Victory by John Kander and Greg Pierce.
Or Liberian sex slaves finding their voices in Eclipsed, which made history as the first production on Broadway to be written and directed by women, with an all-female cast.
“I feel like she tackles really complicated stories, and they are always grounded in the humanity of the people, no matter how political or emotional or charged the work is,” said JC Lee, whose play Relevance Tommy directed at New York City’s MCC Theater earlier this year. That play featured Tony winner Jayne Houdyshell and Eclipsed actor Pascale Armand going head to head in a fight between two generations of feminists.
For Tommy, the key is to challenge audiences intellectually but grab them emotionally. “You want your work to have emotional resonance,” she explained. “I want it to have a lot of heart, but I also want it to have extremely sophisticated design. I do political works, so you have to have both, because you want to change the hearts and minds of your audience.”
While Eclipsed put Tommy on the map as a director unafraid of political plays (so much so that “people send me political plays all the time”), in person she is calm and a bit playful (she responded to some texts I sent for this story with Beyoncé gifs). Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, whose play Ruined Tommy has directed three times around the country, described her as a “community builder” and a “benign director. She’s very clear about what she wants but at the same time, really allows the voices of others to thrive in the space.”
In talking about her life and career, Tommy doesn’t so much as tell you who she is as shows you, painting verbal pictures of pivotal moments in her memory. One story stands out among the many she told over the course of our three-hour conversation.
Tommy’s family immigrated to the United States when she was 15 years old. As a teenager growing up in the mostly white suburb of Newton, Mass., her after-school job was at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. One day her father, a lifelong activist, told her to ask her manager for a raise. Tommy chuckled as she re-embodied her teenage self, exclaiming, “Dad, there’s no way that that man is going to give me a raise. That’s crazy.” She recalled her father’s response: “It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you go in and you advocate for yourself. People are dying back home fighting for their rights. You can walk in there tomorrow and ask for a raise.”
Tommy did ask for that raise, and didn’t get it. But the lesson stuck. “The worst thing in the world is to be silent when you should have spoken up,” she said, adding, “That should go on my gravestone.”
A pivotal moment of advocating for herself came when she told her family that she wanted to be an actor. The news didn’t just come as a shock to her practically minded parents; they effectively disowned her for a year (though now “they’re my biggest fans,” she said). Tommy stuck to her convictions, studying acting at Oxford University, then getting her master’s at the Brown University/Trinity Rep acting program. It was there that she honed the aesthetic and work ethic that would follow her throughout her career.
“Trinity was the right place for me because it’s a very actor-driven, no-nonsense building that’s about craft,” she said. Another source of inspiration was American Repertory Theatre, located a mere eight miles from Newton. “I was profoundly inspired by the visual scope and the experimentation [of ART]. In a way, I feel like what I learned was a combination of the pragmatism of Trinity and the intense emotional truth of Trinity, with the experimentation and the bold, intellectual design elements that I saw at ART.”
But while her skills were put to great use at school (she acted on Trinity Rep’s mainstage), when she graduated and moved to New York, the realities of the industry became all too clear. Auditioning was a “very unsatisfying” experience, where “a lot of people would say, ‘What’s your ethnicity?’ or ‘Do you have a Latino accent?’”
She realized that as an actor, she would have very little control over her projects, which “as a political being, I do not see how that would be sustainable for me emotionally.” She added, with a laugh, “And I also worked with a lot of dumb directors.”
So Tommy started self-producing. In 2002, for the FringeNYC Festival, she directed a musical called Two Girls From Vermont, a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona. “I used Britney Spears songs, there were drag queens, it was crazy,” she recalled fondly. That show got positive reviews, won an audience favorite award, and was extended. She took it as a sign: “Focus on directing.”
In 2008 she seemingly received her big break: her first big regional theatre gig directing a new play about the civil rights movement, The Good Negro by Tracey Scott Wilson. It was produced at Dallas Theater Center and again at the Public Theater. “I think it’s, to this day, one of the best plays we’ve produced since I took over the Public, and [Liesl] did an absolute perfect job with it,” enthused the Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis.
But though that production received positive reviews and sold well, it would be five years before Tommy would have another New York production—and not for lack of trying.
“I believed the lie that the reason that there weren’t more of us [directors of color] working was because they didn’t believe we were qualified,” she said, still disappointed. “So I was like, ‘Here I am! Here are the reviews, here’s the sales, here’s the work.’” Aside from the Public, it seemed that other institutions were not interested in Tommy’s work. And what it showed her was that those leaders simply were “not concerned with the fact that there are no people of color in leadership positions on these stages; they’re happy to put on a play by a person of color, but they will put a white director at the helm.”
(Tommy said that publicly voicing that opinion has gotten her “blacklisted” from certain New York institutions, but she is unfazed, saying simply, “We should be allowed to call it out.”)
If The Good Negro got her little work in New York, it did give her a national profile: Tommy subsequently directed on the mainstages of large theatres such as Berkeley Rep, La Jolla Playhouse, and Oregon Shakes.
“I think it’s an incredibly great example for younger women who want to pursue this career,” said Nottage. “She was dogged in her pursuit, and I think it really paid off. I think in this business, that’s what you have to do, particularly if you’re a woman of color, because no one is going to create that space. You have to create your own space.”
Tommy isn’t content to create a space just for herself; she wants to make room for those like her. In choosing her projects and the artists for them, her priorities are clear: “Women and people of color have the right to be at the center of our stories.”
In fact, Tommy would have you know that she was casting “non-traditionally” before diversity became a buzzword. The reason: That was the norm when Tommy was growing up. Because she is mixed-race, and so were her parents, they lived in a Cape Town township full of people with multiple genealogies and cultures. “So our community is African, European, Malaysian, and Indonesian,” she explained. “Down the road from me was a mosque and on the other side of the road was a church, and that’s just how most of these communities were. I woke up in the morning with the Muslim call to prayer, every single morning.”
That diversity naturally extends itself to the worlds she has created onstage, and not only in new plays about marginalized groups, à la Party People or Eclipsed. When she directs classics or revivals, she makes sure that people of color are there to reclaim the narrative. In 2014, Tommy made national headlines when she directed a production of Les Misérables at Dallas Theater Center, casting the leads with people of color and updating the show to include visual references to Che Guevara and the prison-industrial complex. Last year at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., she set Macbeth in North Africa.
“I think, frankly, when the history of this era is written of the American theatre, Liesl is going to have a prominent role,” said Eustis without hesitation. “Part of the reason the American theatre is more diverse is because Liesl has been succeeding in the last 10 years, and she just continues to push down barriers.”
Of course, when Tommy started out, her goal wasn’t to be a history-making director. It was to fulfill the compulsion to be an artist. And when she thinks about the future, the foundations remain the same.
“It’s really just about the work,” she said, looking introspectively out the window. “Being able to continue to push myself. To continue to create access for people. To continue to facilitate change and conversations. It’s like a miracle that I get to do that. And I get to make art that I love.”