Our People: Q&A with Martin Damien Wilkins

Director of ‘BootyCandy’ with Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte talks the arts

In the world of thespians (not to be confused with lesbians), the Charlotte theatre scene is diverse and lively. No one knows this better than Martin Damien Wilkins, 37, a local stage director whose newest production, “BootyCandy,” is playing at the Mint Museum on Randolph Rd. until March 19. Wilkins has worked with the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte for several years, spending two as the company’s National New Play Network’s Producer-in-Residence. He is a member of the inaugural class of National Directors Fellows and has directed for B Street Theatre and Howard University. In Wilkins’ introduction in the program of “BootyCandy,” he wrote that the show speaks to him personally in a “world [that] feels less safe for people like me, whose experiences are reflected so boldly in this play.” Wilkins and the show itself are defiantly out and proud.

What’s the best part of working in theatre?

The most amazing part of working as a professional theatre artist is that I have an opportunity to collaborate with incredibly gifted individuals to create my work. As much as I love seeing one of my shows with an audience, and you all are the critical final piece of the puzzle, I am a sucker for process. That means I’m watching movies on DVD with the audio commentary turned on so that I can gain insight into how the film was made. Or I’m watching Mariah’s World not simply to see if she’ll leave her billionaire fiancé for Tanaka. I want to see what all goes into creating her stage shows. I geek out over stuff like that because it helps inform what I do. I don’t really perform anymore, so my relationship to the work mostly happens during the pre-production and rehearsal process. I am in contact with practically every person who is involved in mounting a show. I’m discussing the set, lighting and costume designs with the creative team. I’m organizing rehearsals with the stage manager. And, of course, I’m staging the show with the actors. There may be some additional community engagement once the show has opened. For example, if I am still in town, I may participate in post-show discussions to help provide insight into the process for the audience. But once the curtain goes up on opening night, my work on a piece is usually complete, and if I’m fortunate, I’m already working on the next project.

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Which show was your favorite to work on, and why?

I am single with no children of my own, although my sister has four beautiful kids so I understand why a parent may be reluctant to identify their favorite. I nurture my shows like they are my babies, and while I won’t say that I’ve enjoyed making each of them equally, I also can’t choose my favorite. My favorite aspect of working on my latest project, directing Robert O’Hara’s “Bootycandy” at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, is that it’s a script that I first encountered more than a decade ago in a very early draft shortly after meeting Mr. O’Hara at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. I can’t remember all the ways in which the script has changed since, but for those of you who have seen the show, the outrageous scene with the preacher was already in that draft. I had never read anything like that and promised that I’d have to make it a priority to see a production, which I did when it finally premiered at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in D.C. about six years ago. That’s when I knew that if the opportunity ever presented itself, I had to direct a production. So, when ATC’s Artistic Director Chip Decker first suggested that he wanted to do it, I made it clear that I wanted to direct. It took about 12 years, but I finally persevered in directing one of my dream shows. That it has been for the hometown crowd is an extra special treat.

What inspired you to become involved in the arts?

I grew up in Charlotte, as did both of my parents, so my roots in the city are very deep. They were ministers and the denomination that they raised my sister, Tenae, and I in was very traditional. Women couldn’t wear makeup or pants, and congregants were discouraged from dancing and going to the movies. But we were also Pentecostal, so preachers delivered passionate, fiery sermons literally for hours, the choir lifted their voices, sang and conjured the Holy Spirit until the church was slain in the Spirit, people spoke in tongues and danced in the aisles. If you’ve ever passed a church on a Sunday morning and heard what sounded like a sanctified party inside, that was my church. Couple that with the number of hours I spent watching Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker on “PTL” with my family, it truly was all the theatrical training I could have ever needed. But my mother also had a beautiful singing voice. Think Sandy Patti performing “We Shall Behold Him.” My mother had the range. In fact, one of my earliest memories is of her performing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” in church pageants. This was before I knew what a musical was, let alone that the song was from “The Sound of Music” and not a gospel hymn. She performed the song with the same emotion as if she were praising God. That instilled a passion for music in me, and while I didn’t quite inherit her voice, I did eventually begin playing in the band in elementary school and continued through high school. And once I became a student at Charlotte Latin School, I found my way on the stage. I even had a featured role in our high school musical my senior year, playing the Hungarian stage director in our production of “Crazy for You.” Reflecting recently on the profound impact that experience had on me, I found the fake beard and taps that I wore on my shoes. I’ve kept them for nearly two decades. I also became a stage director.

What are some of your hobbies or personal interests?

Because I make theatre for a living, my interests are usually centered around people, places and things that are creative. I was born shortly before MTV was created, so I remember when the network played music videos basically non-stop throughout the day. And even though my religious upbringing dictated that I should not have been watching, I grew up on a healthy diet of Michael, Janet, Prince, Madonna, George, and my ultimate diva, Whitney. Indulging on such excellence from a very young age has made me a bit of a pop culture junkie throughout my life. I’m not the type who is keeping up with the Kardashians or the Housewives of Atlanta. But I do, for example, keep up with stats on the Billboard charts like a sports fan may keep up with the stats for their favorite athletes or sports teams. So, I know that Whitney Houston clinched the record for the most consecutive number one hits in a row from the Beatles when “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” climbed to the top of the Hot 100 in 1988. I also know that Mariah Carey stills holds the record for the most weeks at number one for her 1996 hit duet with Boyz II Men, “One Sweet Day.” I also know that despite having 14 number one hits, which is the third most amongst all artists in the history of the Hot 100, Rihanna did not score her first number one album in the U.S. until 2012’s “Unapologetic.” Like I said, I’m a geek when it comes to that kind of stuff.

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When you look in the mirror, what are you most confident about?

Well, I still have too many insecurities about how I look to say that it’s anything physical, although I do think I have a cute butt. But seriously, I can relate to anyone reading this who experienced trauma growing up in a hostile community because they were gay. It’s why aspects of the film, “Moonlight,” were such an intensely personal experience for me. I was that kid, especially in middle school, who avoided certain hallways or spots on campus during certain times of the day to try and avoid being picked on by some of my classmates. I felt misunderstood by some of the closest members of my family as it became clear to them that I was gay. I was once even called a faggot by a preacher during a church service to the dismay of practically no one in the congregation. Even now, as I think back on some of the most painful memories I had as I grew into an adult, I would have had a hard time convincing my younger self that I would have the support of many of my family members as I came out. I was in high school when the “Angels in America” controversy erupted in the city, so even the notion that I would helm a production of a play called “Bootycandy” in my hometown would have seemed ludicrous to me. So, if I’ve grown confident about anything, it’s that I have full permission to be my best self and live my best life. I do not have to fear that I must hide any part of what makes me uniquely the person that I am. That is my resistance. That is also freedom.

How would you describe your “happy place?”

Anyone who knows me well knows that there is definitely a lot of Beyoncé in my happy place and has been for nearly two decades when “No, No, No” was also a ballad. In fact, friends and I attended her concert in Tampa last spring. We scored tickets in the front row of the BeyStage, and while performing “Crazy in Love,” she stopped, saw that I was losing my mind, smiled and winked at me. True story. I even posted about it on my Facebook page. So, if I’m having a day when I’m struggling to find my happy place, I just conjure that memory, and I’m usually okay. I’m a Sagittarius, and one trait that we typically possess is optimism. Throughout my life, I’ve looked at what might be possible to give me inspiration even when I was at my lowest. That is, in part, what brought me back home a few years ago. There’s no guarantee that you’ll have security if you choose to be a working artist, and I was not happy with the direction that my life and career had taken. I always had an open invitation from my father to return home if I was ever looking to hit the reset button on my life. When I did so, I could not have imagined the possibilities that would arise to create, not only in the community where I grew up, but for institutions across the country. In fact, I’m preparing to travel to Atlanta next month to direct Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)” at Actor’s Express. I am also surrounded again by my family, as well as a tight-knit group of friends who help keep me inspired and encouraged. So, when I put all these things together, I’m in my happiest place of all.

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