“Room 4” at the PIT – Interview with Temesgen Tocruray

Temesgen Tocruray

Room 4, a new satire about black stereotypes in entertainment, is currently running at the PIT. Described as a mix of Groundhog Day, Waiting for Godot, and A Chorus Line, this comedy follows four black actors as they audition for the same role as an anonymous drug dealer’s friend in a certain prime-time crime drama. Unfortunately, this time, it doesn’t just feel like the same role, but it is the same role. The four actors are stuck in a time loop, and they will have to work together to break out of it.

I sat down with the cast of Room 4 the day before their opening night to talk about frustrating casting calls and unpacking harmful tropes and stereotypes with humor.

To start out, tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got into acting, and as an actor, how do you stick with it in a tough city like New York City?

I’m from Dallas, Texas. I studied at a small black college in Houston called TSU. I don’t know, I guess I always wanted to perform, and I had an opportunity to kind of study it, and I studied it. I liked it, and I kind of moved forward with it. So when I finished college, I went to LA for a couple of years and then I came to New York in 2009, and I’ve been here ever since, just hustling and pushing through. During the day, I’m a teaching artist, so I’m able to continue to support myself as an artist, which is really fortunate, and the question about how I got involved with [Marina and Nicco], someone forwarded me a casting notice. They had this residency here with the PIT who wrote one play a month for six months, and they were all one-act plays, and this was last spring. Their first play – maybe their second play – they were casting, and I’d been wanting to get into a different form of theatre that’s not your typical play. First off, it’s a single-act, and the improv audience is different and the sketch audience is different from your typical theatre audience. So yeah, I did that show with them, and they brought me on for two other shows, one of those shows was [Room 4]. We did a run of that for three nights. I think May or June – I’m not sure – and I just stayed close to Nicco and Marina, working on different projects.

What were the other shows?

One of them was called Unpacking. It’s about this couple who just bought a new house. I want to say in Brooklyn, and they were haunted by the ghosts of their pasts. Their boyfriend, girlfriend, parents, like everybody, old roommates were haunting them. It was really about the things you deal with in a relationship and how that affects you – your previous relationships and how it can affect your current relationships if you’re not conscious of what’s going on.

The other one was called The Night Club. It was based on some type of stand-up night club, you know, gangsters and all that. It was still a comedy, it was good.

What is Room 4, and what is your role in the show?

Room 4 is a play about four black actors caught in a time loop auditioning for racist roles, the same thing over and over and over, like thug roles over and over and over – something I’m familiar with as an actor. I play the wise janitor. Though I’m not eighty years old, I play this old Morgan Freeman-type character, you know, like Driving Miss Daisy, one of the racist roles, and I guess I’m stuck in that role. So they’re stuck in this audition room, and I work in the studio where they are auditioning. I’m just a wise old janitor and kind of get to push the envelope and make people a little awkward hopefully. It’s an interesting exchange, but yeah, I play the wise old janitor.

Room 4 - The PIT

Temesgen Tocruray and Tristan Griffin

Have you ever been pushed to play a part like that before?

Absolutely. I mean, I did one of their videos for promos, and I was telling them about auditioning for Thug 1, Thug 1, Thug 1 when I was in Los Angeles, and even here in New York. I’ve also just been asked the worst questions. In a play that wasn’t a musical, someone asking me, “Do you sing or dance?” The expectation that I’m black, I’m going to do certain things, but I’ve definitely played those roles too. I mean, when you have to eat, nothing really matters but getting work. Yeah, I’ve definitely played those roles. Not happy about it, but yeah. That’s actually why I like this role is because I get to show how stupid and how crazy it is that it’s 2016 and still the same stereotypical roles are being played when it comes to black actors and actresses, really, anyone of color. The stereotypes are still here.

Yeah, unfortunately, that’s something I’ve observed in the New York City arts community. We consider ourselves to be very progressive people, but when it comes to casting and when it comes to so much of this stuff, it’s still so backwards.

Yeah, yeah.

Especially among the white arts community, they get very defensive about it because they like to consider themselves so progressive. I’m curious, what do you think it’s going to take for people to lower their defenses? Is it work like this?

This is what I’ll say. This is going to be controversial, but –

Be controversial!

When you have to use words like “diversity,” you know, or “affirmative action,” these are all terms that have gotten me through a lot of doors, but when that’s still the language behind it, now you’re forcing people to create a job as opposed to changing the mindset. You look at one of the top theatre companies in New York – which I won’t name – but they were so progressive in their whole season, it was all white, heterosexual playwrights, and they had to go back and exchange a couple of those, and then it’s – we have to get into this place of realizing that all of our stories are just as important as the number-1 narrative for America, and once that is respected, once black lives matter – I’ll throw that in there, I’m also an activist – once that actually matters, queer lives, black lives, Asian lives, Latin lives, non-heterosexual white male lives, when people start to respect that in the day-to-day life, then it will reflect in the hearts of it.

I mean, it’s very difficult, you know? Theatre already doesn’t make a lot of money, and there’s a stigma that black entertainers can’t bring in a certain crowd, but I just think the term “diversity,” I think it’s – it’s like, okay, I’m diverse. I have this one black friend, and it’s like, no! It’s like when you don’t look at that anymore, then it’s true diversity, so I would like to get away from that term, “diversity,” and I think once people really start to cast based on talent and who can tell the story, then you’ll see the shift. Maybe not even in my lifetime I’ll see that, I don’t think so.

I hope so.

We have Donald Trump saying the most racist things in the world, and it’s a possibility that he will be the next president. I’m not from New York. I’m from Texas, so Middle America supports Trump. They support Trump. I didn’t think in 2016, we would really have a racist, fascist presidential candidate running, but if that’s happening, how can you expect the arts not to reflect that? It’s a lot of stigmas that have to be lifted, for people to really get to that place of seeing more people who don’t look like white, heterosexual males on stage, especially in the sketch and improv world. It seems worse here than in straight theatre or even musical theatre. I would love to see a shift, but I think you have to shift minds.

Changing subjects for a moment, because of the fact that this show is done here at the PIT, which also does improv, does the script change a lot during the rehearsal process, or did you find that it really didn’t change at all?

What do you mean, with the script?

As far as the performers giving input or things being rewritten as your reading it and performing it.

Well, I think that the good thing about, once again, this is my introduction into the sketch and improv world. I think that’s the great thing about Nicco and Marina is they never presented like they had all the answers, you know? It was always like, if this works, it works. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. That one thing is amazing as an actor, to really have some type of creative control, so they did give us a lot of creative control in everything from line changes to approach to the characters, so that was really beautiful. Some things did change, you know. A line here, a line there. For me, I had already done it already, so it was like alright, I know how I want to do it this time. They were very supportive.

Room 4 - The PIT

Temesgen Tocruray and Tristan Griffin

I was going to ask what it was like working with Marina and Nicco.

I think Nicco and Marina have something really special. First off, you have two people who once again are not from that world of white, heterosexual men. You have a white woman and a mixed-race or a black man – however he identifies, I’m not sure how he identifies – writing these plays that are really pressing the envelope and casting. They’re really looking at stories and not race tied to stories. They’re not looking for a “black story” or a “white story,” this is a story that is being told, and I think they do a great job at doing that. I think they’re hilarious people, so I think that they write really well. The funnier the person is, I think that helps with their writing a little bit, and I think that it was a great experience working with Nicco and Marina, and I will continue to work with them for many, many years.

Do you have any other projects coming up that you’d like to plug?

Right now, a couple of things in the mix. They are up in the air right now, but I’ve got something at UCB that I’m working on, and also, I’m always working on a different form of theatre that I really worked in for the last six or seven years, theatre for social justice. I do a lot of work around that. Right now, me and my business partner, we’re devising opportunities to create theatre for social change. You can follow me on social media, but right now, not too much. Just working on this and the UCB thing.

What do you hope people take away from Room 4?

You know what I really hope? I really hope audiences can take away the complexity of being an artist of color and choosing roles but at the same time, trying to make a living. It’s extremely difficult, and I hope somebody would see something in the conversation. You know what, fuck it. I don’t want them to take anything away. I want them to keep the conversation going. If the conversation is, “This is the most bullshit play I’ve ever seen, ever,” then keep that conversation going, but as long as they are talking about the content of what happened in this play, that’s fine. That’s what I want audiences to do, to keep the conversation going. It’s a conversation that has to keep going. We have a run here for a couple of weeks. It may be extended, it may not be, but this has to – we have to keep telling our stories in hopes that there can be change.

I also think that it’s very important that we stop comparing oppression. “We have it this bad, we have it this bad,” people of color, queer folks, and it’s just like, why don’t we all support each other moving forward? And that’s the other thing that I think Nicco and Marina get that a lot of people in their position don’t get. It’s about pushing this idea of what we millennials view America as. It’s making a ripple in the water, and that could become the status quo as opposed to the exception to the rule.

Yeah, and really, it’s just reflecting what America actually is right now.

It is!

Because the media doesn’t necessarily – if you look at the demographics of America and what it looks like in the media, it’s not even close.

And sometimes, we get it mixed up with Hillary running and we had President Obama for eight years. How much does that really affect – that’s a question I’d really love to ask, how much does President Obama and Hillary Clinton, how much do they really affect us on this level? Not on the super-executive level, but how much trickle-down effect does that have? And I think this play really shows that it hasn’t been much. I still get auditions for stuff like this, and sadly, they pay the most money, so it’s like, man, do I want to go do this?

Thank you for taking the time to sit down with me today.

Thank you for having me.

Tickets are on sale now for Room 4 and can be purchased online here at ThePIT-NYC.com or in-person at the PIT, located at 123 E 24th St. For other questions or assistance with ticket purchases, call the PIT at 212-563-7488.

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One thought on ““Room 4” at the PIT – Interview with Temesgen Tocruray

  1. Pingback: “Room 4” at the PIT – Interview with Playwrights Marina Tempelsman and Niccolo Aeed | Ludus NYC - On Broadway, Off Broadway, And Everything In Between

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