Backstage Banter with Hugh Kennedy and Namir Smallwood

What do a Harvard Law School grad student, teacher, and recovering drug addict have in common? Nothing, really. That is, unless you’re talking about Tracey Scott Wilson’s 2012 critical darling Buzzer, in which case Jackson, the black grad student, is dating Suzy, the white teacher, and they’ve recently moved back to his hometown and taken in Don, his recovering drug addict best friend.

After getting a nip and tuck to make it even sharper and wittier, Buzzer had its second-round debut Saturday, February 9, at the Guthrie Theater. The cast is the same—Namir Smallwood as Jackson, Sara Richardson as Suzy, Hugh Kennedy as Don (for which he won a 2012 Ivey)—as is the play’s built-in ability to make people talk about the things often left unspoken: namely race, gender, prejudice, and loyalty.

I sat down with Smallwood and Kennedy last week, a few days before opening night. Here’s what they had to say.

Michal Daniel

How does it feel doing the play a second time within a year of its premiere?

Hugh Kennedy: So nice we had to do it twice. It feels good. There are only three of us, plus our playwright, who’s been with us every hour of every rehearsal we’ve ever had, and Marion (McClinton, the director). We function like a tight-knit band. You can’t hide in the rehearsal room.

Is it intimidating to be in a production with such a small cast?

Namir Smallwood: No. It’s all about the play and trying to figure out what it is and who we are—and who our characters are—inside of it. We just formed a great bond.

What were your initial reactions to the show when you first got the script last year?

NS: I did one of the first workshops when it was only 18 pages long, so there wasn’t much to go on. My character’s a lawyer—I don’t know anything about law. But one of my close friends is a lawyer, so I was able to bounce things off him.

How about you, Mr. Drug Addict?

HK: Well, I did a lot of research… just kidding. I didn’t really know what this play was all about at first. I didn’t truly start to wrap my head around it until we had an audience and heard the gasps and groans and laughs where we didn’t think they would happen.

How is it different from other shows you’ve acted in?

HK: Namir says he wasn’t intimidated by the play—I don’t think Namir is intimidated by anything—but I was. This is a play about really weighty material. Especially race, which I think is probably the most fearsome, fearful thing people talk about in 2013. It’s such a hot-button issue. It always has been and will continue to be so.

We’re classically trained actors. We’ve done Shakespeare, recited famous speeches played famous parts. But I’ve never felt more listened to than during this play. I think that’s a testament to the writing and it has to do with how relevant this information is that we’re trying to breathe life into. It feels like you’re going on stage with a loaded gun sometimes.

Namir, you weren’t intimidated by that?

NS: No. I mean, I’m all about the process. I don’t think about the audience or how they’ll react.

HK: My character does some really unforgiveable stuff. I remember asking Namir in our first rehearsals if he’d walk me to my car after shows because I was sure people would come after me.

NS: Every character has their “thing” that’s not so nice.

HK: I love that: not so nice.

NS: Acting 101 is: don’t judge. You can’t judge your character, you just figure it out while doing it. Whatever the audience comes away with, they come away with. As actor James A. Williams says, “The audience will tell on themselves.” Meaning they always end up siding with one of the characters or berating another or what he or she did. But with Buzzer, it’s like, no, this is real life. This happens every day. It’s just something we never talk about.

Michal Daniel

Is it hard not to judge some of the characters you play?

NS: Some characters, it’s difficult. But it just comes along with the territory—you’ve gotta throw all that out and approach it as a blank palate. Start adding colors, mixing stuff together.

HK: It helps when you’re inside of it and not just trying to portray somebody. It’s hard to explain. I mean, sometimes I do judge my character and the choices he makes.

Well, in real life we judge ourselves.

NS: Right, it’s human nature.

What keeps this from feeling preachy, like some books or shows about these topics can be?

HK: It’s great writing. That, and Tracey wrote it in such a way that it’s openly ambiguous. We fight hard to keep parts of the play ambiguously confusing, to be honest.

NS: All in all, it’s a play about relationships and how outside energy can affect relationships. The way Tracey weaves the neighborhood into this one little apartment and how it affects these three individuals, and how prejudices and race and class and gender play into it—she’s incredible.

HK: And she’s able to cover all that stuff with dialogue that’s written the way people actually talk.

NS: She wrote real people, not characters. She wrote something based on real people—what real people think about, what real people talk about. Or should talk about.

HK: I wish we could all talk about race every day for an hour to make up for lost time. Our talkbacks with the audience are incredible. By the end, people are just unpacking their hearts.

What holds people back from talking about these things if they clearly want to?

HK: Fear.

NS: I think people need to be pushed. They need something to egg them on. Could it be fear holding them back? Perhaps. Could it be nobody wants to seem like they’re racist or prejudiced? Maybe.

Do gender and other “hot-topic issues” get addressed in the play the same way, too?

NS: It’s all in there.

HK: But it’s veiled in language that just sounds like people having conversations, without ever having anyone using the word “race,” or saying, “Let’s talk about…” you know?

How has acting in Buzzer impacted your lives off the stage?

NS: This play last year taught me to be more honest. You can’t walk around lying to yourself about whatever situation you’re in. This year, I think I’m learning about relationships and friendship. The relationships between us, as actors and our characters, have gotten even deeper. It’s like, okay, now we’re in the bowels of the earth, we’re really getting dirty and trying to figure out who these people are and why we’re in this situation. I think people get into stuff and they don’t know why they’re doing it. Why am I friends with this person? Why am I in this relationship? Those are everyday things, and doing the play this time around has made me think about that.

HK: I like to think I’m more honest because of it—a more active listener, especially when it comes to those big grandiose topics of conversation. I’m hungry to hear people out. I’m not afraid to talk about any of that stuff with anybody from any angle. And that’s come from talking about this play for two to three hours every night after the show, every time I go out to dinner, or out with friends at a bar. It’s a play I never tire of talking about. Buzzer it’s hugely different than other shows. It sticks with people and doesn’t let you go.

 What do you think audiences will take away from their experience?

HK: It’s impossible to pin down one singular reaction because of how people bring their autobiographical “stuff” to the table. It’s impossible to watch this play and not have your experience be sculpted by your upbringing, experiences, friendships, loyalties, betrayals, social status. I’ve never heard so many different reactions to a play.

NS: People come in with their own experiences, and what they will get from the play is what they bring to it. The play forces people to pay attention, and if we do our jobs as the vessel through which the story is told, I think we’ll have done the play—and Tracey and Marion—a great service.

Buzzer plays through March 3 at Guthrie Theater. For more information, see