“My parents did three jobs that they didn’t like in order to keep our family. I’m here doing [multiple] jobs that I love. It feels wrong to complain,” says Kwame Kwei-Armah, while talking about his upcoming Broadway play, “The Collaboration.” Kwei-Armah works as the artistic director at the Young Vic theater in London, where he directed the original production of the play earlier this year. Now he is directing a slightly updated version for Broadway, while getting his artistic directorial work done in the early morning.
The play was picked up by the Manhattan Theatre Club, a group that helps create both on and Off-Broadway shows. Previews start November 29, but the official start day is December 20th at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. Written by Anthony McCarten, “The Collaboration,” tells the story how Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat they came together to co-create a series of paintings. It takes place mostly in the homes of the two artists and formulates discussions on what art is, aging out of relevancy and more.
This four-person cast keeps its two main stars from the Young Vic: Jeremy Pope (Basquiat), who’s best known for his work on “Pose,” and Paul Bettany (Warhol) most known for his work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe playing Vision. “Paul and Jeremy are so reactive, they’re so beautiful and organic,” says Kwei-Armah. “If someone says something to them, they don’t just go, ‘Oh, I did this in the Young Vic,’ they respond to it in a live fashion.”
Joining the cast in New York are actors Erik Jensen and Krysta Rodriguez playing Bruno Bischofberger, the Swiss art dealer who brought Basquiat and Warhol together, and Maya, Basquiat’s girlfriend, respectively. “[The cast] feels like the best kind of family without all the complications,” says Jensen. He mentions how he and Bettany recently took their kids to a show and sometimes play music together. “This is one of those ensembles where you don’t just leave and forget everybody’s name.”
Person in the Arts
Kwei-Armah was drawn to the script when McCarten first brought it to him. “It was its intelligence, its wit, and the idea of dancing with Basquiat and Andy Warhol” that inspired him to direct. Kwei-Armah also sees himself as relating to the two main characters as a person in the arts himself. “I’m closer to Andy’s age in the play right now. And, and there’s something about when you you get to a certain age and a certain point in your career where you question your relevancy and others around are questioning your relevancy,” he says.
The play depicts Warhol in his fifties, past his peak, and struggling to grow and change to remain relevant. Meanwhile, the much younger Basquiat is just at the beginning of his career, but his art is new and fresh.
Kwei-Armah connects to Basquiat “as an artist, from the Black and global majority. Being able to create art that is of yourself, and that is not seen through the prism of the European establishment is something that I have tried to do all of my life.”
Similarly, Jensen’s connection comes from going to museums like the Walker Art Center (“that one with a cherry on the spoon”) as a kid. Going into “The Collaboration” he “knew about each of the movements that they were a part of, and was really very excited whenever [he] saw a Warhol or a Basquiat in a museum, or in a book, or on a postcard.” Jensen hopes to leave audiences with the knowledge that “Bruno Bischofberger had great taste.”
The play is only one of the projects the cast is excited for. After “The Collaboration”’s run at the Young Vic, they made it into a movie that wrapped filming a few weeks ago. Unlike the play, which only has four characters, the movie will have a much more expansive view of the lives of the two artists.
“We broke down and tried to look a little bit more at what motivated these men: what were the emotional influences in their lives, their mothers, their backgrounds,” says Kwei-Armah, for whom this movie will be his directorial debut in film.
While most Broadway shows don’t become movies until their run is over, to stop from movie sales disrupting Broadway ticket sales, Kwei-Armah is not worried. Editing won’t begin until January, and he has no idea when the film will actually come out.
Along with Kwei-Armah, many of the original people involved in “The Collaboration” helped to create the movie, including McCarten. Jensen says of the writer: “He seems to have lived in the places that he’s writing about. He somehow figured out how to be part of the art scene in New York [in the 70s]. It’s just so real in his work.”
McCarten captures the two artists’ differences in their perspectives on life and art and how it connects to their work. Warhol, terrified to try something new, stays behind a camera and creates art that is immediately understood. Basquiat is the wild card, painting everyday and basing everything on the depth of his emotion and imbuing his work with magic. The pair clash and blend to create something between pop-art and Neo-Expressionism.
McCarten creates a feeling of community and according to both Jensen and Kwei-Armah the heart of the play is love. “Art matters. Love matters. Seeking commonality is one of the most important tools that we have as human beings,” says Kwei-Armah. “We need stories reflected back at us that give us some hope and give us joy, because the world’s a little hard right now.”
“We broke down and tried to look a little bit more at what motivated these men: what were the emotional influences in their lives, their mothers, their backgrounds.” Director Kwame Kwei-Armah