I’ve seen Roslyn Ruff do some tremendous acting in a variety of roles—as Vera in Seven Guitars, as a young attorney juggling a family and a fiance in Familiar, as the title character in X, or Betty Shabazz vs. the Nation. But it was a moment at the end of Fairview, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s meta-play on the white gaze at Soho Rep, that haunts me. Ruff had just played the role of Jasmine, the too-smart-for-the-room sister to the play’s lead matriarch, Beverly, in an ostensibly sitcomish tale of a bickering Black family that had been partly taken over by a troupe of white actors. And then Jasmine’s niece Keisha, played by MaYaa Boateng, broke the fourth wall to express her discomfort at performing Blackness for a mostly white audience, and modestly proposed that the white folks in the audience go up on the stage and switch places with the Black cast. (I obliged, along with most of the white members of the audience, though I noticed that producer Scott Rudin, who was also there that night, chose to stay in his seat.)
It was a hair-raising exchange, but what I remember most vividly from it is the look on Ruff’s heart-stoppingly expressive face while Keisha/MaYaa spoke. It was a mix of exhaustion, alertness, vulnerability, and resolve—I might even call it plaintive, a silent cry of the heart. If it could be put into a word, that look might have been translated as, “Help!”
And Help, fittingly enough, is the title of Ruff’s newest project, a unique theatrical piece created by poet/author Claudia Rankine and directed by Taibi Magar that begins performances tonight at the Shed in New York City’s Hudson Yards. Based on an essay Rankine wrote for The New York Times Magazine, Help follows a Black woman (Ruff) as she moves through a gauntlet of microaggressions thoughtlessly inflicted by privileged white men—in other words, as she goes about her daily life—and decides to give up quietly brooding on these encounters and instead to question white men directly about their privilege and their assumptions. It’s a bold gambit with its own risks, and some men react defensively, while others are chastened and grateful to be asked to face ingrained injustices they simply take for granted.
The white men of the essay are represented onstage in Help by a cast of 19 white male performers—a fascinating concept I’m having trouble picturing (even as I look at the pictures provided; see below). But Ruff, who has an MFA from American Repertory Theater’s Institute for Advanced Theater Training, seems particularly qualified to take it on, as she has lately starred in a series of plays about race and the white gaze (not just Fairview and X but The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World). I spoke to her recently about her approach to, and personal connections to, this work. The following interview has been condensed from our conversation.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Could you tell me a little about your background? Where did you grow up?
ROSYLN RUFF: In Buffalo, New York. My dad worked for a Mobil oil refinery and my mother worked for the Erie County department of social services. I went to parochial school, K-12. It wasn’t the easiest for them, but they got it done.
How did you catch the theatre bug?
It was just always there. I danced for a really long time, and I thought I was going to be a dancer, honestly. I also ran track. As a middle schooler I was already in national championships, and I went to the Jesse Owens games the year of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. But my high school did not have a women’s track program, and I had been with the same group of kids since was in kindergarten and didn’t want to leave them—isn’t that awful? I tried to pick it back up in college, because the University of Buffalo, where I went for a few years, actually was Division 1 in track and field. But being away from it for so long, it just didn’t work out.
When did you get serious about acting?
I picked up acting in my junior year of high school. Buffalo actually has a beautiful, thriving theatre community.
What was the racial makeup of your schools?
Interestingly enough, my high school and my grammar school were both Catholic and both predominantly Black. More so the middle school; high school was more mixed, but still predominantly African American.
Do you feel that gave you a different perspective from Black folks who were raised in more racially mixed settings? I’ve heard from some who’ve grown up in predominantly Black settings, as you did, that they didn’t grow up thinking of themselves as different, let alone “less than.”
Even the ballet and the dance school I went to early, the Inner City Ballet, were all within the community and predominantly Black. I definitely knew I was different—I was aware of the world that we lived in—but given the way that I grew up, I didn’t feel the effects of that or really have any experiences that were jarring until later, transitioning into graduate school.
Right, that wasn’t just more mixed, it was also theatre school. When I read Claudia’s work about perceptions and stereotypes around race, it makes me think how prevalent these conversations are in entertainment and theatre, especially for performers, who are often classified by their “look,” which can mean and imply a lot of things, including what kind of roles you’ll be considered for. And of course the American theatre still has a canon that privileges a white Western tradition. Did you have to adjust your point of view when you got to theatre school?
I don’t think it was an adjustment necessarily, because nothing changed about me. It’s just that the world I was a part of had different ideas about who I was. But whether or not my confidence or psyche somehow is affected by those things, it still doesn’t change that I was brought up to think that I could do whatever I wanted. You know what I mean?
I’ve heard Help described as mostly a monologue. But do you also interact with all the white male actors?
Oh God, nobody’s asked me to describe it. It helps me not to think of it in terms of playing a play. It’s a theatrical piece, a performance.
It’s got dance in it too, though?
Movement—it’s got movement. There is a narrator who has a burning curiosity about the world she lives in. It’s that thing where all of the answers to our problems and issues are right before us, but it’s easier said than done. It’s like, we have all the answers, but are we going to do the work?
Do you share that curiosity, to find out what’s behind the kinds of fraught encounters Claudia writes about? Are you someone who moves through the world and goes, “Huh, that was weird—I wanna find out more about that”?
It depends on where I am in my life, how much of it I let in at any given time. The interesting thing about this is, given just the atmosphere, the times we are living in right now, just living in the world day to day, things like this happen all the time. So you’re dealing with it as you navigate your life day to day; you go home, turn on the television, you can’t help but see it. And then in my work and in my creative life, at least for the last year, I’ve made choices to be a part of pieces that really are attacking the heart of the matter. And that can be overwhelming, right?
Right, Claudia talks about exhaustion, and I’ve also heard and read other Black artists who reasonably ask, “Why do we have to do all the work here?” That reminds of the moment at the end of Fairview that moved me the most, when MaYaa was up there talking to the audience, breaking the fourth wall, and the rest of you all were looking out at us too. Just the look on your face—I can’t describe it. It was partly exhaustion, but it was also, you were just so in that moment. It looked like it was as much Roslyn as it was that character.
I think that could have been many things. It’s a piece where you can never relax. But at the specific part you were talking about, we always had a heightened sense of awareness because it’s one of our family, and it’s a very daring moment. Night to night things would change; the responses sometimes felt a little more vocal. A lot of times we were just kind of on, as well as being exhausted, because as much fun as I had moving through that piece, it was a workout. But I think it was probably also us being protective of our family member who was out in the house.
That sounds right. There was an alertness to it, and again, it just spoke to me. The wall really came down there a little bit.
Yes, it was as much a vulnerable moment for us as it was for the audience. Some days we had people who were angry, some days you had people who were inconsolable. There was no one who was not affected.
One phrase that stuck out in Claudia’s essay was when she wrote about the concept of “social death,” that as a Black woman in white spaces she often feels like she is “there-but-not-there.” Is that a feeling you have had, where you feel erased or invisible in some spaces?
Oh, absolutely. There are many instances where I’ll walk away with the feeling that, you know, to those people I just don’t exist. They don’t see me. People will brush right past you, or enter a room with a group and acknowledge everyone but you. And nobody else notices this but me. Some white cast members have come up to me and said, “Well, did you speak to them?” And you know, there’s a line in this play: “I was perhaps holding my breath, but I just decided to breathe through the moment, because I just didn’t feel that I had to explain myself or defend myself.” But I’ve encountered this situation more than once and I know exactly what it is.
Apologies for what may sound like a very white male question, but while I would concede it’s not your job to tell people like me what we should do to make a difference, if you had to give me and my fellow white people one thing we should think about or do that would make things better, what would it be?
Evolution is necessary for all of us. I myself, as a creature of habit, am afraid of it. I get it, you know. But these last few years of our lives have proved that if you don’t take care of your demons, if you don’t explore what your issues are, they don’t go away. They can come back to haunt you. I feel like our country’s demons are coming back to haunt us right now. They’ve never not been here.
Right. It’s not like this is all new.
But they’re out in the open and walking in the daylight. Day walkers!
Some folks feel like, “Oh, it’s good to just see everything clearly now.” But I think it’s also really dangerous to unleash all this unless it’s dealt with.
Absolutely. There are those of us who’ve always known, and there’s another group that’s just catching up, so we’ve been waiting. But now what do we do, now that you finally see? It’s not about a sense of awareness or even feelings. It’s the work, right? We gotta at some point decide that we’re going to do the work.
Speaking of work, from what I can tell, you seem to be at the center of Help. Do you feel like you’re carrying this whole play on your back?
I don’t know. I’m the worst person to ask that kind of question, because I am always so aware of and so deeply indebted to any ensemble I’m a part of. I know what you mean, but it’s hard for me to think of it in that way.
I guess part of what I’m getting at is that this a real lead role for you, and you’ve mostly worked in ensembles. I know you understudied Viola Davis in Fences on Broadway—did you ever go on?
I did not, thank goodness. Understudying is wonderful, but in some shows you just don’t want to be the one to upset the audience who has paid a lot of money and traveled near and far.
This part in Help just seems like it could be something of a breakout role for you, is all I’m saying.
I haven’t really thought about it like that. What I have thought about is—my father used to always say to me, “Just remember to count your blessings.” As someone who left Buffalo, New York, this middle-class/working-class family, and decided to do this thing that kind of makes you—the black sheep is the wrong word, but I decided I want to be an actor, and they didn’t know what to do with that. They knew how to offer support, but it was still something so foreign to them. Just the fact that I got into a good graduate school, I graduated with a job, and have pretty much worked steadily ever since, and I’ve been a part of some wonderful productions over the years that are extremely meaningful to me and have been very meaningful to other people… It’s always hard for me to say, you know: This is the one. This is another amazing project I am extremely humbled to be a part of, and I feel unworthy, you know, to be in the room with some of these creative spirits and brain power.
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!