By Sandi Durell
Michelle Wilson plays the pivotal role of Cynthia in the multi-award nominated Broadway show Sweat written by 2017 Pulitzer Prize Winner, Lynn Nottage. It’s an intense, and timely, ensemble play about working class families and friends, each under pressure from eroding factory jobs facing uncertain economic futures.
Congratulations ‘Sweat’ on their 2017 Tony Nomination for Best Play and to Michelle Wilson for her Tony Nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play!
Speaking with Michelle was illuminating on many levels.
SD: What was your reaction when you read the script?
MW: I was in Detroit at the time, performing in Detroit ’67 and it haunted me from the start. I’m from Detroit, a workers town of the disenfranchised, so it was very familiar. Dominique Morisseau (friend and playwright Detroit ’67) and Lynn (Nottage) said the pieces are in conversation with each other. Factories shutting down and doing what you have to do, being totally stripped . . . very familiar to me.
SD: What are the challenges of the role?
MW: The role is very challenging, the stakes are familiar, the play is so dense. The surprise is Lynn’s compassion. In rehearsal you felt you got to the tip of something, but Kate Whoriskey (director) is so specific and just kept pushing. What’s wonderful about the ensemble is that you’re never done; every night there’s something different taking you in a new direction. Generous ensemble . . . never done playing.
SD: What was you reaction when you found out about the transfer from the Public Theater to Broadway?
MW: It’s so different in that it’s rare to work on something, get it in your bones, get to walk away for a while and come back fresh. You get to walk down the street, figure something else out, go back into rehearsal and say “I got it, I got it!”
SD: Sounds like maybe you didn’t have a lot of fun . . .
MW: We did have fun in rehearsal, generous fun, but all very intense. There’s so much love and support, everyone wants you to do well. At the Public we’d come out after a performance laughing, bawdy, irreverent . . . audiences are shook but we’d have to take a breath and honor where they were because we were just fine. We can turn to each other for refuge. We never have to fall out of love with each other. The audience doesn’t have that.
SD: Let’s talk about backstage stories – anything on or off stage you can share?
MW: What can I tell you? I’m always marveling at the company and how they extend themselves. One night I’m choking on stage during a big fight scene and someone comes up and brings me a beer and says “Drink.” People just take care of you and each other.
SD: What about pre show rituals?
MW: I go out on stage and walk it, look at all the seats in the audience and say a little chant. I need to connect with the space.
SD: Any role models, mentors?
MW: I’m a single mom and my daughter is in her first year at Smith studying neuroscience. It’s the community that has saved me; friends like Dominique. She would do readings in her living room and invite me to participate. It’s the community of artists who are my role models – people who are passionate and ambitious.
SD: Anyone in your family involved in theater?
MW: Well, my mom was a dancer in high school! She married young, had a baby but told me, when I was dancing to Lola Falana on TV, “you can do anything you want.” She really planted the seed.
SD: Is there a role you’d like to play?
MW: Any roles by the new generation of women writers – Katori Hall, Dominique Morriseau . . . all my friends . . anything they write and I can explore. So many stories to be told.
SD: What about hobbies?
MW: I love to cook, at least once a week, even without my baby at home. Lots of cheese frittatas. It also depends on the season; pies, casseroles, one pot wonders! Now it’s salad days.
SD: If you weren’t an actor, what might you be doing?
MW: I’d be an activist, an advocate for social justice. My art is my politics. I’m honored to share the experiences of Sweat every night with audiences. I think we should have a talk back every night. I get as much out of it as they do!
SD: Thank you, Michelle. A great pleasure speaking with you.