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Shawn C. Nabors is a young emerging actor, playwright and poet from Brooklyn. His first play, deliciously titled Cake, will appear Off-Broadway this summer at the American Theatre of Actors from August 1st – 5th as part of the Araca Project. Cake is what Shawn calls a “dramedy,” which explores intimacy, desire, friendship, and grief as they figure in the lives of the two main characters, Messiah and Ari. Hook-ups, uncompromising positions (sexual and otherwise), giggles, smirks, and, of course, cake, make for an interesting narrative illuminating the complexity of masculinity, sexuality, race, and class. We’ve reached out to Shawn to learn more about the play and his artistic self.
So, your first play, Cake, will appear Off-Broadway at the American Theater of Actors. What is the play about?
Cake is a 90-minute dramedy about Messiah & Ari, two young African-American men who meet online for a casual encounter, but wind up invested in and connected to each other in ways neither of them expected. This play takes a heartbreakingly honest look at the unique way grief manifests itself in each of us and, more importantly, how we handle it when it does.
In a play-writing class I took during my junior year at Syracuse University, we were prompted by my professor to look at some photographs by a great photographer named Diane Arbus. We were asked to pick one of her photos and create a scene based on what we saw—whatever the picture inspired within us. I picked a photo of a really interesting looking man. He was a tall and thin black guy who sat with his legs crossed, giving a hint of his effeminate qualities even while he appeared to be masculine as well. I remember being really intrigued by the man in the photo because he spoke to the different qualities that live within me and within most men. He seemed so comfortable with embracing both his masculinity and femininity which, for me, was definitely an area of struggle while growing up and, even now, continues to be sometimes. These ideas, thoughts helped to bring the character Messiah to life.
Around the same time I had this really funky dream about a baby girl lying next to me in my bed. I remember feeling as though my energy was being absorbed and I was getting weaker. In the dream I looked down and realized that there was a tube connecting the baby and me. I was dreaming about breast feeding my daughter. Crazy I know, but the dream had something to do with my fear that I wasn’t going to be able to have children as a gay man. How will I have them? When? I know I’m young but will it be as easy for me as it is for some? How am I going to be able to be the father that I always wanted to have for someone else? Offer the kind of relationship with my child that I always wanted to have with my dad if it will be harder to do so? Long story short, I realized that it was really a dream about my fears and so somehow the two ideas merged over time and now we have Cake.
How long have you been baking Cake? (Just had to!) What challenges have you encountered as an emerging playwright?
I’ve been working on the play for almost two years now. The biggest challenge I’ve encountered as a playwright thus far is really having the courage to tell the story I have in my heart to tell. It’s scary to tell a story that may be honest and raw because that means I have to actually draw from that which is within me. I want to be true to the characters as well. I’ve really had to dig deep to bring to the fore situations that society may be afraid to confront like two young black men openly expressing their sexual selves on stage. It is also very scary for me to present stories like this. However, I have to remind myself that if I’m honest in the story-telling, as a writer, and as an actor, people will feel the honesty too. They’ll be able to connect to the immense amount of humanity that is present within the play because I’ve had to connect to it in order to flesh it out. I pray that the humanity and the universality of the piece really resonate with folks.
Cake is a story of friendship, grief, and sex/sexuality—it’s a dramatic comedy that takes the audience through an exploration of intimacy, Black masculinity, and the challenges of loss. What new insights are you trying to convey?
The more I work and reflect on the piece as we approach rehearsals, I’m constantly reminded of the fact that Messiah & Ari, the two male characters, are really in a situation that many people find themselves in. They both want love and aren’t completely sure about how to give or receive it. That’s something that people can relate to regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, religion, beliefs, etc. These characters find each other in a very unlikely situation and at a very unlikely time in their lives. Who doesn’t fantasize about meeting THAT person in an unexpected way? It’s sort of romantic in that way and who knows if they’ll actually be able to see that manifest into anything more, but that is something that everyone goes through. I want to show that gay relationships are relationships just like all others. At the core of it all, we’re just people who want to love and be loved too. It’s not as different as people like to think it is. On a separate note, I’ve also realized that as men, we spend way too much time linking our relationships and levels of intimacy to roles we feel we have to play as men or ideas of manhood we feel we have to live up to. “I can’t do this because I’m a man.” “I’m afraid to do this although I know I should. I’m a man.” How can we expect to actually connect to someone if we’re spending so much time trying to play roles? Messiah & Ari address this in a very candid and quite comical way that people will have to check out when they come and see the play .
You are a 22-year old African-American playwright and actor from Brooklyn, NY. How much of your own narrative and interior life shows up in the piece?
That’s a totally fair assumption. Parts of me are sprinkled throughout the play, in each and every character, even the only female character in the play, True. From Messiah’s dreams, to Ari’s desire to access his power both over his life and in his sexual experiences, to True’s ability to live in her imagination to escape her “now” at times. Different parts of me are all in there. Very liberating indeed. Overwhelming at the same time too in that sometimes I’m like, am I really doing this? I’m really going to allow myself to feel this naked, huh? Okay. But I know I have to. That’s what we do as artists, right? Expose ourselves, our truths, and fears for the greater good. That’s what people, like one of my heroes, James Baldwin always did so I’m encouraged to do that as well because that’s the kind of legacy I want to leave behind even if it’s scary. I’m also a pretty quirky and awkward guy. I think that comes across in the play as well.
Which works and what playwrights move you?
August Wilson, David Ives, Tarell McCraney, there’s so many. I find that I also draw a lot from movies and music as well. I really love the work that film director Steve McQueen is doing right now. His films are really raw and exciting, I would love to work with him some day.
I am sure that you are nervous and excited right now. What will you be doing over the next few weeks to prepare for the show? How can folk find out more about the play?
I’ll just be continuing to ride the wave. In addition to having written the piece, I’m also co-producing it with a good friend of mine, Jasmine Thomas, and I am acting in the piece too. Therefore, the next couple of weeks will really require me to wear a lot of different hats and knowing when and where to switch them so that everything works out smoothly. People can find out more about our play by visiting some of our pages at:
What’s next for you?
I would really love for a theatre here in New York City to express interest in continuing to work with me in helping to develop Cake further. That’s definitely a goal I’m actively working towards. I want to make sure that the right people come out to see the show. Also, just as an actor, I’d like to get representation and start booking some work soon. A short term goal of mine is to book a regional theatre gig within the next 6 months and start building up my resume with small co-star and guest star roles on some T.V. shows and in films. A lot of goals I have going on, I know, but I think that with the right team, the right amount of faith in God, coupled with a healthy dose of dedication, what’s meant to be is bound to be, you know? So, in other words…next up is the moon!