Bringing the World of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Briefly, to Stage

Posted March 30, 2018 5:34 p.m. EDT

In 2000, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Kamilah Forbes shared a moment of intense pain. Their friend and former classmate Prince Jones had been shot to death by a police officer in Virginia. Coates wrote in his 2015 book, “Between the World and Me,” that after learning the news he dropped off his infant son with Forbes — called Aunt Kamilah in the book — so he could attend Jones’ funeral. “I sat that there feeling myself a heretic, believing only in this one-shot life and the body,” he wrote.

Now, 18 years later, Coates and Forbes will reconvene in Harlem as she adapts and directs the world premiere stage adaptation of “Between the World and Me” at the Apollo Theater. They’ve come a long way since then, with many achievements to their names: Coates is a MacArthur fellow, while Forbes is the executive producer for the Apollo. But they hope to conjure the visceral anger and grief they felt right after Jones’ death to galvanize a society still besieged by gun violence and discrimination.

“It’s unfortunate that every single week there is another world event that happens that makes the language even more relevant,” Forbes said in an interview.

The production will run for two nights, Monday and Tuesday, before traveling to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., on April 7. It won’t quite be a play or a straight recitation of the celebrated book, which won the National Book Award and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Excerpts and fragments will be read either solo or in groups by a cast that includes actress Angela Bassett and rappers Common and Black Thought. Projections visualizing Coates’ vivid imagery will tower behind them, and jazz musician Jason Moran will perform a live score with a trio.

“How do we, in an overwhelming, arresting and gorgeously beautiful way, illuminate all that the book is?” Forbes asked.

Back in 2015, as soon as Forbes finished the book, she knew she wanted to turn it into a stage production. The only thing in her way was Coates himself. “My recollection is I didn’t want to do it,” he said in a phone interview. “When ‘Between the World and Me’ came out, a lot of people had ideas for things, and I was just really tired and kind of suspicious.”

It was his long-standing friendship with Forbes that softened his stance and led him to award her the stage rights. They met in 1994, when Forbes was a freshman at Howard University and Coates was a sophomore; they helped organize a hip-hop and poetry cypher on campus that year and remained close ever since. “Knowing Kam, there’s nobody else I would have trusted to do it,” Coates said.

But rather than providing input, Coates decided to remove himself from the process entirely and give Forbes full artistic control. When Forbes tried showing Coates some of the more aggressive edits, he declined to look at all. “Kam has the freedom to pursue her truth. She don’t need me breathing down her neck,” he said, adding jokingly: “I’ll give you my review next week. We’ll see if this friendship is still a thing.”

At a rehearsal at the Apollo on Friday, Moran sat at a grand piano on a platform far above the stage, attacking taut arpeggio patterns with bassist Mimi Jones and drummer Nate Smith. Moran, a MacArthur fellow and composer behind the score for the 2014 film “Selma,” nonetheless approached the project with trepidation. “I usually think that nothing needs music because I love silence so much,” he said.

Onstage, his anxious chords matched the book’s seething tone and simmering tension. “What I like about the book is that there’s no soft edge on it,” Moran said. “I’m trying to make sure I don’t soften anything up.” Behind and below him, the projections, by artist Tal Yarden, flashed across screens, showing the smiling face of Jones or two black hands outstretched in surrender or protest.

To adapt the book, Forbes enlisted two dramaturges, Lauren A. Whitehead and Talvin Wilks, who faced the challenge of paring down a text that, under 200 pages, was already concise. They decided to use the poetry technique of erasure, which consists of blacking out portions of a larger text, to expose terse emotional outbursts and visually arresting moments. In his book, for example, Coates wrote about Jones’ murder: “This entire episode took me from fear to a rage that burned in me then, animates me now, and will likely leave me on fire for the rest of my days.”

In the production, the sentence became: “This entire episode took me from fear to / rage / Fire for the rest of my days.”

The process stripped away Coates’ sober tone, Whitehead said, revealing that “there was actually a voice of rage.”

Forbes and the two dramaturges started to develop the work at an intensive two-week residency at Sundance in December along with four actors, including Tony-nominated actress Michelle Wilson (“Sweat”), who will perform in Monday’s show. The reading sessions were filled with discussions, arguments and crying.

“The first day was so emotionally and spiritually exhausting,” Wilson said.

Eventually, the team whittled down the book into a 90-minute presentation consisting of 21 excerpts from the book. The cast, which will be different for each performance and includes Susan Kelechi Watson, Joe Morton and Pauletta Washington, will not memorize lines but rather will rely on scripts onstage to channel the effect of reading something powerful for the first time.

Some excerpts will be read verbatim, while other poetic passages will be less recognizable, with dialogue being passed back and forth among actors. One of those moments, which captures Coates’ whirlwind education at Howard, “relies on overlap and speed,” Whitehead said. “You have this feeling of vertigo, which is what he was experiencing when he was learning all these other black narratives he had never heard before.”

In Harlem, the production will be seen by thousands, including the one person the book was meant for originally. Coates said his son, Samori, to whom “Between the World and Me” is addressed, will be in the audience. He will watch as an intensely personal letter will be transformed into a communal performance.

Although there are no concrete plans for further shows, Forbes said she will observe how the text from three years ago plays to an already drastically changed world and think about how the project could continue and evolve.

“If there isn’t an immediate resonant response, for at least the work we’ve set out to do, we’ve got to change it,” she said. “It’s not just a reflection: I see this work as a call to action.”