Zahra Ndirangu, Contributing Writer
VCU alumnus Blair Russell remembers the moment when he was nominated for a Tony Award, he was surrounded by the silence of his Mexico City home in October 2020.
“I remember when the nominations came out because we were still in a weird time during the pandemic,” Russell said. “It was exciting, but it felt really small. You could only have that moment with yourself.”
Russell served as a producer for the Broadway show “Slave Play,” written by Jeremy O. Harris. The show was nominated for 12 Tony Awards, the most in Tony history for a play, according to the Tony Awards.
“There was a sense of pride, there was a sense that things are changing and that people care and are going in and seeing the story, and it’s speaking to the Broadway community and the nominators and the critics,” Russell said. “To have all of that and to have audiences being really joyous was really, really great.”
Russell graduated from the VCUarts theater program in 2012 with a degree in stage management. He credits the program for its constructive nature that mirrors the realities of the professional theater industry as an integral element to his success.
“I was always the kind of person who wanted to get in and get my hands dirty,” Russell said. “I always felt that the VCU program was very hands-on and very practical. The way I worked as a stage manager at VCU is the way I worked as a stage manager in my professional career.”
The play centers around the story of three interracial couples who are seeking to rekindle their intimacy with their respective partners, turning to slavery role-play to do so, according to Russell.
The show has been lauded as both controversial and brilliant in the theater world, with the New York Times calling it “one of the best and most provocative new works” and the New York Post naming it “Broadway’s most thoughtful mess.”
“I would never describe ‘Slave Play’ as a crowd pleaser,” Russell said. “I think that is important. I love a show where you’re happy and cheering at the end and everything wraps up in a nice bow, but I don’t need to produce those shows.”
The thought-provoking nature of “Slave Play” is the heart of the story, according to Russell. He insists that being prompted to reflect is one of the most important aspects of theater.
“I went to see the show at New York Theatre Workshop and I was stunned,” Russell said. “It was months of thinking about it before I could make a decision to produce it, which is how I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of.”
By the end of Tony night however, the show had lost every single one of its nominations and left empty-handed.
“I wasn’t upset,” Russell said. “I wasn’t surprised and I wasn’t angry. I would be angry if the system that was in place was different and the outcome was still the same. But we haven’t changed the system.”
Bonnie Brady, head of the VCU stage management department, said that Russell’s career as a producer has encouraged theater students to think outside of their specific degrees within the theater program.
“We say ‘listen guys, take what you get from VCU theater and allow it to inform everything else that you do,’” Brady said. “They can realize that just because they’re a lighting design student here doesn’t mean they can’t go out and do greater production areas in the industry.”
For VCU theater professor Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, Russell’s involvement with “Slave Play” highlights the importance of authentic tellings of Black stories and the lack of Black stories in mainstream theater.
“It is incredibly important for Black people to tell our own stories,” Pettiford-Wates said. “Because I think when they are contextualized through the lens of the white gaze and the frame of the commercial theater industry, often the story majors on the trauma of the Black experience.”
Pettiford-Wates said that the Black theater experience draws its audiences to look within themselves.
“Audiences in the Western model of theater are allowed to be spectators, they’re allowed to be voyeurs, they’re allowed to look in or look away with no responsibility,” Pettiford-Wates said. “Black theater calls people in the experience to witness the story and then be responsible for what you have witnessed. You cannot unsee what you’ve seen, and you cannot unhear what you’ve heard.”
Brady said she is elated for what Russell’s success means for current students in the VCUarts theater program.
“I’m really excited for him and for what that sets up for our current students, it helps them set some goals and believe that it can happen,” Brady said.