N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk

McQueen-Augustin-Basco

Jackson McQueen, Rafael Augustin, and Dionysio Basco

N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk is a critically acclaimed, renegade stage show about race and racism. Sporting only three actors who reflect the “characters” in the title, and using a combination of theater, stand up and slam poetry, this smart comedy has been a runaway hit throughout the US. The New York Times has called it “A success. Remarkably well-timed to land in the middle of the national discomfort zone,” and Tavis Smiley from NPR has said, “A very funny play, and a very important one, as well.” The live show which stars Rafael Augustin, Jackson McQueen and Dionysio Basco is fresh off its 32-state national tour, and gearing up for its anxiously anticipated Los Angeles run from April 1st to the 23rd. Today, I have the pleasure of talking with two of the charismatic men behind N*W*C—co-writer and co-director, Steven T. Seagle, who is also co-creator of the Cartoon Network series BEN 10 and Generator Rex, and author of numerous graphic novels including It’s A Bird, and Rafael Augustin, director of the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, and N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk co-writer and actor.

 

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The show is called N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk. What gave you the idea to use these slurs as the title for a play about racism and race? Is your intention to deemphasize these words and take away some of their power?

Rafael Augustin

Rafael Augustin

RA: We feel there’s a difference between calling people these words and having a dialogue about them. Any adult that is offended by our title must first consider what these three words did to the three you kids who were called these words, grappled with their sense of cultural identity because of it, and then grew up to co-create N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk.

 

SS: The big push in the past few years has been to tell people to just stop saying the N-Word in particular—

RA: Yeah, no one seems to care too much about eliminating the other two!

SS: The push to suddenly pretend like a word doesn’t exist doesn’t solve a problem, it just brings new ones. As a solution, it’s like not looking at a wound—you don’t see it, but it’s still there—and unattended to—getting worse instead of better. N*W*C starts a dialogue in communities where we perform, and the show advances that dialogue. It puts a human face on those dehumanizing terms. We think that’s a more effective means of grappling with those words.

From the title, I think people may be surprised by what a friendly, disarming show N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk is. The play is laugh-out-loud hilarious, but some parts are also very poignant and heartfelt. Was it a challenge to create a piece that balances engaging comedy with social commentary?

Steven T. Seagle

Steven T. Seagle

SS: Our company, Speak Theater Arts, grew out of a tradition of finding the comedy in the real life struggles and stories of our artists. So we crafted the writing in N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk in such a way that after landing really big laughs we pull the rug out from under the audience and drop in an unexpected serious moment—and then pull that rug out just as fast and land a joke right in the middle of a serious moment too. It creates a really unusual kind of nervous laughter that we’d not really seen in other comedies. The challenge is striking that balance.

 

N*W*C does a good job of exploring race issues by funneling them into the unique experiences of the characters in the piece, as well as presenting that alongside broader, more universal themes of race. How close are the anecdotes in the performance to the actors’ actual experiences?

RA: All of the stories depicted in the show are real. And we’re not talking Hollywood’s “Based on a true story” and then you find out the only thing that’s real are the people’s names! Everything in the show actually happened to us: the Huckleberry Finn story, the beach immigration raid. . . the gay club.

SS: We’ve obviously edited and sweetened the stories in staging them for comedy, but they’re all based on actual events that occurred.

RA: But as to the question everyone has after watching the show’s running joke of the “Big Penis” contest—we can’t confirm or deny who the actual “winner” is because it would ruin the illusion of theater!

Rafael, I know that N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk began as your brainchild, and an idea that you had in response to the lack of performance material available to people of color. Can you tell us a little more about how this play was born?

RA: The play was born out of my necessity to write myself into existence in the Los Angeles theater world. Unless you play a prisoner (which I did!), there aren’t that many opportunities for people of color in the industry. So I turned to Steve and our other co-writer/co-director, Liesel Reinhart, in a desire to create a show where I could play a fully realized individual. But during the writing process we realized that no show that we could invent would be more significant than our personal stories. I credit Steve and Liesel for that realization.

You are both partners along with Liesel Reinhart in leading Speak Theater Arts, the company that houses N*W*C as well as the cultural comedy, Armeniamania!. Part of the goal of Speak Theater Arts is to reach out to new audiences who feel that today’s theater does not speak to them. Can you tell us more about the company?

RA: The company actually formed around the unexpected success of the show. We went from being a student show at the University of California Los Angeles, to a professional run in downtown LA, to being signed for our first national tour in about three months total time. So we had to form Speak Theatre Arts to support that and subsequent local runs and national tours.

SS: As soon as we were an entity, people who loved N*W*C started asking, “What’s next?” And so we reached into the world that N*W*C incubated in—the American Readers Theater Association—and started developing other works with a similar DNA. We’ve staged Armeniamania! locally and hope to bring that work—a comedy about being second generation kids with first generation immigrant parents—back soon. Our star, Sona Movsesian became Conan O’Brien’s assistant and her schedule is nuts! But hopefully this year will see that show come back.

RA: We also produced and directed one of the national premiere staged readings of Moises Kaufman’s Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.

SS: Which was a huge undertaking for a little company! We had sixty members of the Gay Men’s Chorus Los Angeles, Randi Driscoll’s live band, and a cast of celebrity readers including people like Mary McDonnell, Mary McCormack, Bradley Whitford, Sharon Lawrence, and many other great actors.

RA: We were honored to be part of that important day, but our focus going forward is creating original works.

Steven, your background is in screen, animation and comic book writing, and in 2000 you helped form the Development / Production Company Man of Action Studios (the studio behind Ben-10 and Generator Rex). How did you come into the Speak Theater Arts company as a partner and the live N*W*C stage show as co-writer and co-director?

SS: Speak Theater Arts was a project I tried to get off the ground long before Man of Action came into being. I wanted to find a way to take the fringe stylings of the contemporary readers theater movement in America—which had moved far from people in suits sitting on stools reading from notebooks—and stage it for performing arts venues. My early efforts were limited. But once we pulled N*W*C together and saw how viable it was a piece of legitimate theater, I realized that this was what I’d been trying to create six or seven years earlier and gave over the name and the resources for Speak Theater Arts.

Apart from being entertained, what do you hope audiences take away from N*W*C after watching it?

race cards RA: The entertainment aspect of this show is actually very important to me, especially because a lot of people of my generation think theater is boring. I love that people come to watch this play and laugh for 95 minutes and are constantly engaged. We wrote it for the short attention span generations. But luckily, because every member of Speak Theater Arts has an educational background, our comedy comes with a point. N*W*C tackles the concept of “race.” There is no white race or Latino race. . . there is only the human race. So if we are all human (African to be exact), then how do we explain all the racism and social inequality that exists today? We do that through comedy, but the point is not lost on our audiences.

N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk has caught the attention of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, NPR, CBS Radio and countless other outlets. What’s next for the show? Any plans to release a live DVD?

SS: We did a five-camera, full TV shoot for DVD, but we want people to come see it live in theaters, so we’ve resisted releasing that shoot.

RA: Plus, theater never comes across the same on film. And this is definitely a live event. We love that shared laughter creates communities.

SS: We are currently developing a sitcom based around the experiences N*W*C had touring America and running into some interesting kinds of race relations. Our producers are happy and we’ll go out to out to networks with the pitch in the next month or so.

RA: Touring America with this show has been such a trip (no pun intended). We’ve done a lot of national radio: left-leaning radio shows pussyfoot around the title, and have us say it, and right-leaning radio shows can’t stop saying the words! We’ve also managed to piss off Neo-Nazis and the NAACP alike along the way—but people who take offense are also people who have not seen the show. They react to the title without gathering any more information on who we are and what we do.

Speak Theater Arts is also active in educational and community outreach, and in youth art programs. I’m curious what you both think about NewSouth Books’ recent choice to replace all the instances of “Nigger Jim” to “Slave Jim” in their new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Do you think hiding these words and prejudices from children today is helping or hurting them?

SS: Well, this is exactly why our show is still touring and still drawing big audiences. We still live in a world where people think that the best way to handle a derogatory term is to whitewash it—to camouflage the racism that is part of our history. Pretending something didn’t happen doesn’t make it go away. Kids may not read the word in that book, but they’ll hear it somewhere and the context won’t have been in one of America’s most important novels.

RA: I personally hate it! Mostly on the grounds that I refuse to call our show Sl*ve Wetb*ck Ch*nk!

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You can catch N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk live in Los Angeles starting this Friday. Tickets are available online at itsmyseat.com, and the show will run Fridays and Saturdays through April 23rd. You can also visit N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk online at the show’s website, NWClive.com, and learn more about Speak Theater Arts at speaktheaterarts.com.

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  1. […] Standing against mindless political correctness, Rosemary Van Deuren talks with the directors of the stage show N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk, Steven T. Seagle and Rafael Augustin. Read about the producers’ inspiration for the show, the juxtaposition of comedy and social commentary, the contemporary rhetoric of race, and the words you’re too afraid to say in “N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk.” […]

  2. […] / actor of the hit live stage comedy, N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk! Check it out here at The Idler: Interview: Steven T. Seagle and Rafael Augustin of N*gger Wetb*ck […]

  3. […] / actor of the hit live stage comedy, N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk! Check it out here at The Idler: Interview: Steven T. Seagle and Rafael Augustin of N*gger Wetb*ck […]

  4. […] Standing against mindless political correctness, Rosemary Van Deuren talks with the directors of the stage show N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk, Steven T. Seagle and Rafael Augustin. Read about the producers’ inspiration for the show, the juxtaposition of comedy and social commentary, the contemporary rhetoric of race, and the words you’re too afraid to say in “N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk.” […]



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