Daniel Beaty spent his first 18 years in Dayton. He considers that a blessing. “I’m a native Ohioan,” he said in a recent phone interview, as he prepares to bring his one-man show, Through the Night, to the Cincinnati Playhouse, where it begins a four-week run (through Oct. 21) on Thursday. “My worldview has been shaped by spending my early life here, so I’m glad to be returning to Ohio to perform.”
Beaty’s path has been a remarkable one, with stops at Yale University for an undergraduate education and graduate study at the American Conservatory Theatre. He’s been onstage in Cincinnati several times to perform another solo work, originally titled Emergence-SEE!, which was part of the Playhouse’s “alteractive” series of alternative works in 2007. (The work won a 2007 Obie Award as an outstanding Off-Broadway production.) The piece, about a slave ship emerged near the Statue of Liberty in contemporary New York City’s harbor (it’s been retitled Emergency), was presented again locally at the Freedom Center on July 12.
Through the Night, which received 2011 Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk, Drama League and Outer Critics Circle nominations, is a more extensive and demanding piece that Beaty wrote and in which he personally creates the stories of six African-American men whose lives weave together in unexpected ways during one evening. They range in age from 10 to 60, including a young man from the projects on his way to college, an ex-convict, a corporate executive, a health food store manager and the bishop of a large church. Beaty also plays numerous minor characters that are part of these men’s lives.
Beaty wrote Through the Night after reading the Urban League’s 2007 report, “Portrait of the Black Male.” “I learned that one in three boys born today will spend time in prison.” He adds, “What if we remember that American theater can and must play a role in shifting these odds in order to create an America, a world, we want all our children to grow into? I believe it is the duty of theater artists to be the life’s blood of culture, the bridge to possibility, true excellence in a time of celebrated mediocrity and truth tellers, even when a lie seems most bearable.
These thoughts of possibility are what inspired me to write Through the Night.”
Despite his careful, deliberate, almost erudite observations, I ask a mundane question: “Are these people you know?” He tells me, “I write from imagination, so they are my inventions, not created from other people. But they are also characters I have come to know intimately, and over the two years I’ve been performing, they have grown and evolved. I can speak in their voices more sparingly, condensing and distilling who they are.”
Asked what challenges he has faced in performing Through the Night, he tells me that keeping the various story arcs of his characters moving forward as they intertwine is something he must constantly focus on. He does so by making them more and more unique. He says, “Observation is a great tool, and I watch and absorb people around me — physically, how someone walks or expresses himself. I incorporate these things into my performance, which is constantly evolving.”
Calling Beaty “a force of nature,” Cincinnati Playhouse Artistic Director Blake Robison adds, “I’m thrilled to introduce Playhouse audiences to his talent and insight. I think it’s important to celebrate the accomplishments of local artists who have achieved national recognition. Through the Night had a hugely successful run off-Broadway last year, so it seems right to bring Daniel back home to share it with us. His play explores important issues of family, personal struggle and fatherhood that will resonate with all of us.”
Beaty uses a serious tone throughout our phone conversation, but when I ask him what he would say to encourage someone to see Through the Night, his voice crackles with a spark of humor. “It’s really good!” he exclaims. Then he adds, “It’s a chance to see life from another person’s perspective. That can help us learn to act in new ways.”
If you’d like to hear more of what Daniel Beaty has to say, you should plan to attend his 2 p.m. performance this Sunday or on Oct. 7, Oct. 10 (7:30 p.m.) or Oct. 18 (8 p.m.). The show runs 80 minutes without intermission. Following his curtain call, Beaty will return to the stage to answer questions from the audience.
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