Ato Blankson-Wood – pronounced a-TWO – has become one of my favorite actors. I first saw him at The Public Theatre in Heidi Rodewall and Stew’s The Total Bent, a musical about the battle between the son of a preacher man and that preacher man himself. Charles Isherwood in his review of the show in The New York Times wrote: “And as his son, Ato Blankson-Wood gives a breakout performance of wry wit and musical intensity. Portraying a gay young man who moves from composing songs for his father to composing them for himself, he transforms before our eyes from a rebellious boy fiddling with a recording console into a live-wire performer, half Tina Turner, half Mick Jagger and all strutting bravado and androgynous sex appeal.”
I next saw Ato in Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play at The New York Theatre Workshop before it moved to Broadway, where I saw him once again in this startlingly original and artful work about race and sex and the hyper-reality of play acting in all its forms, which was described by Jesse Green in The New York Times as a “willfully provocative, gaudily transgressive and altogether staggering new play … Though Mr. Harris is still in drama school, and Slave Play is his first professional New York production, he writes as if he’s known all his life how to twist audiences into all kinds of pretzels. In particular I can say as a white person that he manipulates white discomfort expertly to the advantage of his storytelling. Until I encountered his potent brew of minstrelsy and melodrama I hadn’t known it was possible … to cringe and laugh and blush at the same time.” Blankson-Wood and James Cusati-Moyer portrayed the African America Gary and his “not white” but, okay, really white boyfriend Dustin in the play about racially divergent couples and their deeply disturbing yet hilarious and harrowingly moving self-help weekend. Both are nominated for a Tony this weekend, as is the play itself.
I also witnessed the deep well of talent possessed by this young actor at Lincoln Center Theatre in Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone in which the out gay actor – a first generation American who is the son of parents who immigrated from Ghana – played another gay character, this one closer to home. In this play, his character Dembe was the teenage African boyfriend of a young Irish doctor who was working in Africa and their story unfolded in a parallel way to the outings that happened in Ugandan newspapers within a deeply homophobic culture along with the tragic results that occurred in the crosscurrents of family and religion and the harsh realities of navigating such a culture. Ben Brantley wrote about Blankson-Wood’s “touching mixture of swagger and insecurity” in the role.
In January, the young actor will portray Edmund in a production of Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York. Elizabeth Marvel will portray Mary Tyrone and her husband Bill Camp will portray the family patriarch, James. Robert O’Hara, who helmed Slave Play and is also nominated for a Tony this weekend, will direct.
I find in Ato Blankson-Wood the swoon-worthy matinee idol-ness of Sidney Poitier coupled with the ambisexual swagger of the late Paula Kelly. And yet there is also a deep-seated sweetness to the young man himself which I encountered the afternoon I met him backstage in his dressing room on Broadway when Slave Play was still playing at the John Golden Theatre, a room filled with art and family photos.
Is that your mother in that photo over there? She’s beautiful. She looks rather artsy-fartsy. Is she?
Yes. That’s my mom. She looooves clothes. That woman can dress. I think that is her mode of creativity. She loves music. When I was growing up music was a big thing in our house. The reason I do theatre is that we’d go to the library once a week and check out a movie musical along with the books. I have four siblings, but by the time I was ten or so I was the only one left and I was the one watching all the movie musicals with her since my siblings had all gotten over it. All the Rogers and Hammerstein shows. And Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – especially that one.
My parents grew up in Ghana. So the musicals were part of being American to her. And in Ghana there was a lot of Western influence. It was colonized by the British and wasn’t independent until the 1960s. So when they were growing up over there, there were deeply western influences in the country. It’s interesting. My mom grew up really well-off and my dad not so much, but they share a lot of sensibilities especially about what they feel about this country.
They met here. There is a huge Ghanaian community here in New York and in D.C. My mom came to the states when she was 27. They met in New York in the 1980s.
How old were you when you came out as gay?
I came out when I was 19 to my parents, but I had had a boyfriend for two years at that point so I was out to my friends and my siblings.
The Ghanaian culture is deeply homophobic. It’s a deeply homophobic culture. So much so that I never even heard a word for gay people. There’s not even a derogatory word for gay people. That is the extent of the erasure. But when I came out to my sister, she told me that we had an uncle who had passed away from AIDS. He was gay. We were so close. He was my favorite uncle. In hindsight, I’m sure it is because we had that connection. He passed away when I was nine, but I feel as if he saw himself in me.
Coming out of undergrad, I considered being in the closet as an actor. But I feel like a lot of what I like about myself and what feels true for me is an expression of feminine energy as well. My dad was around for sure, but I was raised by my mom and my sisters and my grandma. They were all sort of my entryway into love and care and how I walk through the world. So that presentation of femininity is something that I avoided for awhile and wanted to push away. But it has always been a part of me. But it finally didn’t feel like something I could mask or hide – or even want to hide.
I sometimes worry about [being thought of mostly for gay roles because I am out], but ultimately I can’t expend energy on that because the only way I can walk into a room and do anything that is true is to believe that I can do that. Whatever they see is what they see. I don’t have any control over that. And coming out of undergrad, I felt I definitely had to be a certain way and be a certain person. And also, since I graduated we have now social media and we have all this access. Privacy has died. I am in and out with social media. I am trying to find a healthy relationship to it because I think it is really great for building community.
What do your parents do?
They are retired. My mother was a midwife for 35 years in a hospital. A lot of the people in the Ghanaian community surrounding D.C. would come to her. She’s very nurturing. My father was an accountant for the Department of Housing and Urban Development … He is a registered Republican. Very conservative. He just turned 76. I do think he is proud of me, but we are definitely doing some healing both in my choice of being an actor and in my queerness.
I remember going to work with him when I was child and thinking I can not go to an office from 9 to 5 every day. That was the spark of my being an actor. I had to figure out what I could do with my life that was not that.
You were going be in a movie musical! What was your favorite movie musical when you were a kid that you would check out from the library with your mom?
It would have to be Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. It’s about a huge family that merged into one family. I had a big old family. That was exciting to me. My grandmother lived with us. I had a cousin living with us. There was something about that musical which I recognized – the intimacy of family, but also it was about the conflict of a family.
What do you think your role as an artist is in the world?
First, to lead with love. And then to tell the truth.