This past February I was introduced to Marina Tempelsman and Nicco Aeed when their show Unpacking: A Ghost Story Told in the Dark debuted at The PIT in NYC as part of their six-month residency. Now, one of their other shows, Room 4 has been expanded to a full length show and given an extended run. I'm so excited to have had the chance to speak with half the cast of Room 4 to get their perspective on this important, funny, and informative show!
Room 4 is a new comedy about race and time loops. The Academy Awards has a race problem. It’s big. But the four black actors in Room 4 aren’t particularly concerned with that, because they have a much bigger problem at hand. They’ve just realized they’re stuck in a time loop, auditioning for the same "Drug Dealer #2" role over and over. What once felt like a messedup metaphor has become a literal existential nightmare. Get them out of there.
Room 4 will play NYC's The PIT (123 East 24th Street, by Lexington Avenue) September 9 at 9:30pm, September 11 at 7pm, September 16 at 8pm, September 18 at 7pm, September 22 at 8pm, September 30 at 8pm, and October 2 at 5pm and October 7 at 7pm. Click here for tickets!
1. This fall you are part of Marina & Nicco's new play Room 4, comedy about four black actors caught in a time loop as they audition for the same "Drug Dealer #2" role over and over. What made you want to be part of this show?
Anthony Franqui: Honestly, I do it for young actors of color. When I started out, I kind of knew what casting was like anecdotally through my professors and mentors back in school, but that didn’t really prepare me for what that form of exclusion really was in the industry.
Eric Lockley: I enjoy exploring the performance of blackness and what that means. In what ways is blackness performed? Who performs it? These questions really get me excited, so the opportunity to play with fellow actors and to pose the questions to an audience in a funny, perhaps uncomfortable way, was all I needed to get on board.
Tristan Griffin: The script. When I read it, I thought it was really funny. But when we had our first table read, I was really on board. Everyone’s voices came out and it got me even more excited. I write as well, and I know how hard it can be, especially if it’s a comedy. Hats off to Nicco and Marina for writing this.
Richard Armstead: First and foremost, I wanted to be part of Room 4 because Marina & Nicco are amazing writers who thought of me for the role. I've worked with them at Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre with the Livia Scott Sketch Program, as well as MURDER! a live reading of a radio playbacks previously at the People's Improv Theater. They do exquisite work and it's always a privilege to help their vision come to life. The real treat though is that, while they've often provided me with material that has allowed me to stretch my acting vision, this piece hits very close to home as it makes a statement in addressing the adversity facing myself and fellow performers of color.
Anthony Franqui: I relate mostly to my character’s sense of daring. "Allen" is really willing to fully commit outside of his comfort zone if he is intrigued enough. I think the main difference with him is that he is very skeptical about interracial love, wherein I don’t see it as that much of a hinderance nowadays.
Eric Lockley: I’m not as outspoken as "Greg," but I do have a passion for "togetherness" and believing that we can get more accomplished together rather than apart.
Tristan Griffin: "Charles" is a little cocky, and has a great deal of selfish pride about himself. But once confronted, his vulnerability comes out. I have those moments a lot. As a matter of fact, I don’t even get the chance to be selfish. Whenever I try to, the universe slaps me in the face with a delayed subway train or a notification from my bank account.
Richard Armstead: At times characters I've been asked to play are one note caricatures based on stereotype. As a 6 foot 5 inch 300 pound black man I'm often asked to play imposing figures (bouncers, gangsters, security guards). Often these characters lack dynamics and are written based on an outside understanding of the world from which these characters are supposed to have come. My job as an actor is to produce a fully formed character with wants and needs. It's frustrating and tougher to do so when those directing you can't tell you any more about your character than,"You're intimidating, black, and a disagreeable character." You're asked to be more "urban" or "street." One of the characters I play is pretty much an embodiment of this idea. In actuality I'm definitely NOT this character. I've always kind of been the exception to the rule. I'm large and can be intimidating when I'd like to be, but usually I'm a jovial and approachable individual. In school I'd rather be on a stage than a football field or basketball court. Summers, I wasn't in the streets earning cred, I was in the woods earning merit badges.
Anthony Franqui: It mostly came from my day job stuff. I worked as a real estate agent and I felt like in that industry there was a need to perform. A need to show up for a customer and pretend like my daily slate was clean, when the truth of the matter was I was just like them with good days and bad days.
Tristan Griffin: I’m in that loop now. Life’s obstacles happen everyday. Well, mainly Monday through Friday between 9am and 6pm. That’s pretty much when the loop starts for me. I usually get out of it Friday at 8pm, if I’m lucky.
Richard Armstead: I've had several points in time when I just feel stuck, like every day is the same in and out and I'm not advancing anywhere on my life's path. I think the key is to change up your routine and work in new things while letting some of the unwanted or unnecessary activities fall by the wayside.
4. It's amazing that in 2016, this type-casting is still an issue. What has been an audition you've been called in for and when you got there, you realized, it was for another type-casted role? Did you continue with the audition or leave?
Tristan Griffin: Not sure if this answers the question, but I have auditioned for various gang members/drug dealer roles and always thought "I’m not getting this. Why was I even sent out for this?" Then as moments pass in the audition room, I think "What if I do get this? I know how to act." Then when the audition’s over, I think "Yeah, I didn’t get that."
Anthony Franqui: I kind of agree with Tristan. A lot of my submissions go toward a drug dealer, pot head or criminal of some sort and when I get there I really feel conflicted in my desire to even get the role. Most of the time I just think, "Daydream in the audition room as to what made them want to see me in the first place. Was it my scar/name??"
Richard Armstead: I auditioned for a role for a popular series on a premium channel. The show itself at the time had one very clever black character and eventually had another. It was phasing on in and the other out, but never seemed to have two intelligent black men in the storyline at the same time. I knew that the character would not have genius tendencies, but as I was given notes in front of the camera I realized that not only was this character unintelligent, but he was actually written as a simpleton. I continued with the the audition, but tried less and less for the role as it wasn't a character I was particularly interested in playing. I guess you could say I threw the audition.
Anthony Franqui: It’s funny because I think about the situation with Colin Kaepernick’s protests. Agree or not with his opinion, the most important thing to do is talk about these issues and to have conversations. The platform of this play is comedy but it evokes that conversation of what the entertainment industry lacks in terms of diversity.
Richard Armstead: Room 4 does a good job of educating the audience to the issues from the perspective of actors who are constantly getting pigeonholed into the same types of role. I hope those who make decisions about mainstream casting will open themselves to casting diverse actors in roles they didn't initially imagine as such. I also hope it will encourage the creation of characters who are people of color (P.O.C.) who are not stereotypes, but are relatable for the reality of the person they are portraying. We're written as disenfranchised sidekicks, there for the protagonist to save. Even when we're written as a protagonist, we are often written as the anti-hero. I hope for roles that are relatable to the audience due to the human elements and struggles in the piece.
6. A lot of strides in colorblind casting have been made, but there is still a ways to go. From your personal experience, why do you think it's still hard for casting directors and others to see an African American actor in the same role as a white actor?
Anthony Franqui: I personally don’t like the words colorblind casting. I think that it has some inherent erasure behind it. What we should be striving for metaphorically is adding ingredients to the pot or rather adding new dishes to the menu, not dumbing it down so no one’s tastes are offended.
Eric Lockley: We’ve just got to get more people of color in positions of power to force a paradigm shift. Casting Directors are a cog in the wheel - a necessary cog with significant power, but ultimately we need Producers and Studio Executives to want to cast Black people as Jedis and Princes.
Richard Armstead: Truthfully I think it's all about the experiences we have in our own lives and the lives of those around us that enable us to sympathize or empathize with the character being portrayed. When a casting director doesn't come from a diverse community or immerse themselves in the experiences of those outside of their regular social circles, they fall back on what they know from what society has presented to them. Even if a casting director themselves can see a P.O.C. in the role, you've still got to make it past other decision makers who could veto the casting directors' choice before a final decision is made. As people we need to reach out to know and understand people whose background and cultures are different from our own. I think it all comes down to relatability.
Anthony Franqui: So I’m not exactly what the role was for, but it was a SAG short film I remember. The role was about a guy who was raped I believe. Anyway, whatever the role was, it was dark, because I remember when I arrived to the audition spot it was in a cafe in Tribeca. When I asked the person there about the listing they literally sent me to a dark closet in the basement and that’s where I did my read for another guy. So weird, but it made me cognizant of the creepiness that female actors face frequently.
Richard Armstead: I waited on line all night one time for an open call for a Broadway show once, it was wet and chilly. By the time I got in to sing, my voice was a wreck and I was kind of delirious from being up all night. I sang the wrong words and sounded like hell. NOBODY got called back.
8. What advice can you give to other African American actors who are just starting out?
Eric Lockley: Don’t be afraid to create your own lane. There is no one path to success, but if you continuously empower yourself by creating your own work and developing material with friends, then you never feel like you HAVE to wait to do what you love. Others can choose to put you in a box, but you’ve always got the option to break outside of it - recognize your own power and use it!
Tristan Griffin: Just focus on you. Build your own craft and listen to your own voice. And when you’re ready to bring your talents out to the world, someone will indeed notice you.
Anthony Franqui: Yeah, Eric and Tristan hit the nail on the head. Create, create, create. We didn’t get into this because we needed permission/approval/acceptance. It is a deep impulse and that is your gift to the world. Also, do yourself a favor and surround yourself with as many writers, directors, and producers as you can that share and challenge your vision.
Richard Armstead: I guess my advice would be to trust your gut and use your time wisely. Audition for projects that you feel are worth of your effort. Be prepared to address uncomfortable situations in a clear and concise manner, it's ok to be offended, but it's most important to be able to vocalize what offends you and where it comes from. Look at those times as teachable moments not only for yourself, but also for the artists you're working with.
Eric Lockley: I’m looking forward to playing "Spider-man" and/or "The Riddler" in the superhero world one day. I’d be thrilled to play any superheros or villains but it’d be really awesome to play one that has traditionally been "white."
Richard Armstead: I've never "known" that I didn't get a role in particular because of my skin color. I do think size is a contributing factor as well. That being said, I'd love to play "Seymour" in Little Shop of Horrors or Sweeney Todd. I guess when I think about it, I gave up on my dream of being "Spider-man" or "Luke Skywalker" a long time ago.
10. On "Call Me Adam" I have a section called One Percent Better, where through my own fitness commitment, I try to encourage people to improve their own life by one percent every day. What is something in your life that you want to improve by one percent better every day?
Anthony Franqui: Finding moments to slow down and be.
Tristan Griffin: Spending more time in nature.
Richard Armstead: I think right now that would apply to writing for myself. I'd like to be better at creating characters and writing down ideas for scripts out of my own head.
More on Anthony:
Anthony is a native Harlemite who has been performing since age 12. He received his BA in Theatre from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. He has worked in the NY Fringe Festival. His film work has also been displayed in the Big Apple Film Festival. He is excited to be working with Marina and Nicco on the second run of Room 4.
More on Eric:
Eric Lockley is a Harlem-based writer, actor, filmmaker and producer and a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. As an actor Eric has been on both stage and screen, featured in plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Marcus Gardley and Idris Goodwin, and in film and TV featured on HBO, BET and MTV. Eric also writes and performs solo work. Notable shows are Last Laugh, which explores the neurosis of black performers based on Sammy Davis Jr. & Stepin Fetchit, and Asking For More, which encourages healthy nutrition and fitness habits in young people. Eric flexes his comedy skills performing with sketch comedy group BoogieManja monthly at The People’s Improv Theater. As a producer Eric produces theatre with his two Harlem-based organizations The Movement Theatre Company [TMTC] and Harlem9 [H9]. In 2015 Eric produced and wrote The Jump, a short film he’s also a featured actor in that is about a boy’s complicated relationship with the water. The Jump is premiering at film festivals throughout the country in 2016.
More on Tristan:
Born in the small town of Rome, Georgia, Tristan enjoyed making his family, friends and teachers laugh. Whether it was pretending to be "Kermit the Frog" or Jim Carrey’s "Fire Marshall Bill" character from In Living Color, Tristan always had a knack for comedy. Tristan got his degree in Film and Television at the Savannah College of Art and Design then made his way to the Big Apple (New York City for the uncultured) where he studied improv and sketch comedy writing at the Upright Citizens Brigade.
Tristan is now a member of the sketch comedy team The Charlies who were winners of the Arena Sketch League Competition in 2011 and performed at Chicago’s Sketchfest 2012. He also performs monthly at the Stand Up NY with the sketch comedy group Uptown Girl.
More on Richard:
Richard "Big Rich" Armstead is an actor from New Jersey. In addition to The PIT, he performs at various other venues including Reckless Theater and Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre. Through the years Richard has been involved in many plays and musicals, but working on Room 4 has been a uniquely exhilarating experience for him as a performer. Love to the cast and crew who are all ballers on the stage and in the sheets.