Round four of our Spotlight Series showcases the New York based Actress Benja Kay Thomas! TNEP chats with Benja about women of color in theater, Obie awards and Robert O’Hara.
BENJA KAY THOMAS
TNEP: What inspired you to pursue a career in theatre as an Actress & Performer?
BENJA: I have always wanted to pursue this career. I knew when I was 4 what I wanted to do.
However I was encouraged as a child to try exploring another profession. My mother loved me
and wanted the best but did not think acting was a viable career. However she came to EVERY
ONE of my performance and cheered me on. I did take some years off to be a stepmom to my
husband’s children who were living with us at the time. It was a sacrifice I was willing to take and
put my career on hold. But now that they are older I have gotten back in the game and am pursuing
it full time.
TNEP: You’re currently performing in Robert O’Hara’s newest piece “Barbecue”
at The Public. It’s your second O’Hara play. What do you love about his work?
BENJA: I love that Robert is not afraid to take risks and chances with his work. His voice is very distinct. I have never seen work like his on stage. There is always an element of surprise which I love. He is not afraid to jump off that cliff and fly, he puts characters on stage that we all know but sometimes are afraid to see on stage. That is what I love most about his work.
TNEP: You won an Obie award for your performance in O’Hara’s last play ‘Booty Candy’. How was it to receive that award and what has it meant to you?
BENJA: First off it was such a shock to me. I had no idea I was even up for an Obie, so when I got the invite to go I just thought how nice to be there. I had never really gotten anything that said we were nominated. When they called out play and said we had won, I was shoving some chocolate candy down my throat and didn’t hear it. My husband said “They just called your name you better get yo ass up there”. Hahahahahah. It was very exciting and humbling. What it has meant is that I’ve gotten some great attention from people who I have been trying to be in the room with for years! I have also experienced some people who would have nothing to do with me, suddenly wanting to be my friend. I find that very interesting.
TNEP: What is your take on the current state of women and women of color in the theater and media? And are you optimistic for the future?
BENJA: I think Viola Davis said it best when she won her award. And I am paraphrasing, “We can’t win if we don’t have the opportunities” I am optimistic about the future but there is a lot more work to be done. I love that I am performing at the Public right now and there is another woman playwrite Danai Gurira there with her play “Eclipsed”. There are five African American women in the cast working, one of them being the Academy Award Winner Lupita Nyong’o and directed by a woman Liesl Tommy. I love that Katori Hall and Dominique Morisseau and others are getting their voices out. But we have a lot of work to do. It also falls in the hands of marketing. How do you find audiences to put in the seats. Especially when you have a cast of color that is not on Broadway. We need smarter ways to reach a diverse audience. Who would love theater and would love to support it (If they know about your show)? The audiences you want to reach is not a subscriber based member. Subscribers already know.
TNEP: When it comes to stories about women, is there anything you are craving to see that is different from what has been portrayed in the past on stage?
BENJA: I would love to see the whole spectrum. Women are doing more than just a whore, or someone’s side piece or have a broken heart. I would love to see gritty as well as the love story.
TNEP: Why is theater & the telling of stories important? To you? To community? To society?
BENJA: Theater is a powerful tool that can affect people right away. You can’t change the channel, or stop the tape while you take a lil break. It forces you to focus and be engaged in a way that t.v or social media can’t do. It gives the audience an experience that is right in front of them. The sad thing is that a lot of the arts have been taken out of the schools so this current generation is not exposed to the magic of what theater can be. I am hoping this situation will change. We need them to be exposed or it will unfortunately be a dying art form.
BARBECUE written by Robert O’Hara and directed by Kent Gash, runs at The Public until November 1st.
For tickets and more information go to : The Public