‘You are all the Black Panther’: the electric theatre of Chadwick Boseman | Stage

‘He had humongous joy’

Derrick Sanders, director

Chad was a craftsman and a gentleman. He was always seeking knowledge and was interested in how to bring people together and tell the stories of black people in complex, real and thoughtful ways. At one point he was a student of martial arts and he applied that to his work ethic: testing his limits, so he could grow.

We met at Howard University in Washington DC. Chad began to work in hip-hop theatre, which took the elements of hip-hop culture – graffiti, DJing, rapping, breakdancing – and combined them into a narrative form. The storytelling would move it in and out of hip-hop, almost as a precursor to Hamilton.

I had got the chance to see his play Hieroglyphic Graffiti and I wanted to commission a show for my theatre company, Congo Square, in Chicago. Chad had long had admiration for Shakespeare – he’d studied him at Oxford University with the British American Drama Academy in 1998. We were both interested in how Shakespeare uses the emotional arc of the characters to heighten the language. I wondered if we could take urban prose and poetry and kind of lift it up like Shakespearean verse. Chad said he’d always wanted to do something like that. So I signed him up for the commission, which became the play Deep Azure.

A college student he knew at Howard, Prince Jones, had been followed and killed by a police officer and there were protests about it. In Deep Azure, Chad wanted to show somebody who had been murdered by police officers as well as including a relationship drama with a young lady dealing with anorexia and bulimia. We took it to the Hip-Hop theatre festival in New York to workshop it and did it at the Apollo theatre there. It was a huge success.

Chadwick Boseman’s most memorable roles, from Black Panther to 42 – video

Chad loved to take on a challenge – he always had a big vision of what he wanted to achieve. His material was always heightened and spoke to the spiritual world – not exactly magical realism but the spirits and the motivations for the characters are intertwined. That’s what he believed: that the spirits motivated your mood and that the ancestors were with you. His characters wrestle with free will, god and all of that.

He wanted to turn Deep Azure into a film and then his acting career blew up but Chad was thinking about coming back to directing and was always writing. Fame never changed him: he had great generosity, deep respect and a humongous joy.

‘It blew my mind’
Vanessa German, actor and artist

Chad had worked in a black bookshop near university and it was really important to him. Hieroglyphic Graffiti brought ancient stories about Horus and Osiris and Isis into the present-day environment of a bookstore to consider issues that black folks dealt with in America. When it was staged at Pittsburgh’s [since closed] Kuntu Repertory theatre in 2002, I auditioned using a monologue from a Neil Simon play, of all things. Afterwards, I started to walk off the stage and Chad called me back. He said: “Could you please do it again and not move, just deliver the words to me?” I did and he cast me as the female lead.

Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther

Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther. Photograph: Marvel/Disney/ Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

It was no surprise to me that Chad played the Black Panther. He was a giant, an enormous spirit, so wise. He had this huge presence and wouldn’t look away from your gaze. He was so contained and composed and had this ability to meet you right where you were. There was a big speech in Hieroglyphic Graffiti that I couldn’t deliver the way he wanted. I couldn’t breathe right. He sat down in front of me, cross-legged on the floor, and read this poem and it blew my mind. He did a whole minute, talking really fast, in different intensities and volumes and you could never see him breathe. He taught me how to sip air in a circle to deliver the speech without panting.

Chad could see you. I know he saw me. He told me about my career as an artist before I had it. He had a very specific way of speaking about the art that was inside people. He was the first artist that I understood was using love intentionally. One of the last things he said to me was that people would think he was the Black Panther and all-powerful and they’d say to him: “You’re my king! Wakanda for ever!” What people don’t realise, he said, is that whatever is in me is in you. You are all the Black Panther. Everywhere you create is Wakanda. All of this power is inside you.

‘A rare bridge-builder’
Daniel Banks, director

What is so meaningful and powerful about Chad’s scripts is that he was writing in 360 degrees. He had done his research and knew who came before him in terms of Afrocentric performance, ritual and story and Eurocentric, Kemetic and Judeo-Christian traditions. He had a deep knowledge of the Old and New Testaments and studied Hebrew. His writing was full of myth made present. He could tell a very specific story within the context of broader traditions and cultures.

Deep Azure, which I directed at the Folger theatre in Washington DC, was written as a ritual of community healing. His characters are invested in the cultural side of hip-hop, and the community knowledge and ancestral connection to the power of the word. They are members of the global culture of hip-hop and view themselves as having a responsibility to their community and to their origins as people of African heritage.

Boseman in 2008 at the NAACP Image awards.

Boseman in 2019 at the NAACP Image awards. Photograph: Rich Fury/FilmMagic

In his writing there is a deep amount of pride, a concern about violence among and against black men, an understanding of kinship that goes beyond present-day blood relationships and a commitment to staging the complexity of our relationships with our ancestors. People who had died too soon would share the stage with present-day characters, who would sense their presence and in some cases interact with them. This is a cosmological reality for so many people who don’t have the opportunity to see it represented.

Chad’s integrity, and his commitment to culture and heritage, were in his DNA. He brought it all into the room with him. His capacity to love so many cultures, to draw on and speak to them, made him one of those rare bridge-builders who spoke with a sacred voice.

Because Chad studied directing and writing, working with him as a director was so special – intimate, trusting, and joy-filled, with an exquisite attention to detail. The collaborative process was like jazz – a call-and-response of ideas, brainstorming, trial and error, always focused on the cultural importance of the work and its potential impact on audiences. And always loving and respectful.

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