Safety First: The Making of ‘Some Old Black Man’
By Jake GibsonTweet
As part of his UMS Digital Artist Residency, actor Wendell Pierce sought a way to safely produce theater live theater in 2020. This was no easy task. Against a backdrop of the pandemic, social unrest, and a turbulent election, the production faced many roadblocks along the way.
From creating a safety plan, to discovering a positive COVID test, to filming at The Jam Handy in Detroit, this is the story of UMS’s production of Some Old Black Man.
Wendell Pierce’s relationship with UMS began in August 2019 when he met UMS President Matthew VanBesien and Senior Programming Manager Mark Jacobson in Chautauqua, NY. The three were connected by Wynton Marsalis following rehearsals of Marsalis’s work The Ever Fonky Lowdown, which Pierce narrated. They quickly hit it off, spending time together that week. It was in this informal setting that conversations first began about UMS collaborating with Pierce.
These conversations continued when VanBesien attended a night of Pierce’s run of Death of a Salesman on the West End in London (Pierce was nominated for an Olivier Award for his portrayal of Willy Loman). The two caught up backstage and reaffirmed their desires of working together.
The Pandemic Begins
In the early months of the pandemic, UMS began to envision its Digital Artist Residency program. The program sought artists who were eager to adapt in order to continue to create in this difficult time. Specifically, the program aimed to create projects for the digital frame. VanBesien and Pierce reconnected with the desire of producing a piece of theater for digital audiences.
In discussions about what play to eventually produce, Wendell immediately and enthusiastically suggested Some Old Black Man by James Anthony Tyler. Wendell was involved with the play’s development at the Berkshire Playwrights Lab in 2017 and its off-Broadway premiere at the 59E59 Theaters in 2018. The play was supposed to open for another run in New York in June 2020, but that had to be canceled due to the pandemic.
Pierce saw embarking on a work such as this as central in his role as an artist. “Art is the place where we collectively come together, reflect on who we are, where we’ve been, where we hope to go. We reflect on what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are. We debate, challenge our ideas amongst each other, decide what our values are, and then go out and implement them in our lives. That’s the role of art…Just because we’re in a pandemic, we should not give up that pursuit.”
Some Old Black Man explores the personal trauma of a family’s history, as father and son try to rectify past hurts enabled in a racist world that has damaged their personal relationship. “I thought it was the perfect play to do,” Pierce noted. “It is timely for what’s happening in the country and the discussions we’re having right now.”
But from the beginning of this project, one question was central: how do you produce theater safely during COVID? However, instead of considering this as a barrier, Pierce and UMS considered it an opportunity. It became clear that the ambitious project could be “exemplary for a public health case study of how to produce during a pandemic” while at the same time, provide audiences with an artistic experience even though it is “isolated away from the theater.”
The Quarantine Process
One of Wendell and UMS’s main desires was to keep the collaborative artistic process in place while following strict health and safety guidelines. With guidance from U-M public health officials, UMS Assistant Production Manager Alex Gay developed a safety plan that was ultimately approved by SAG-AFTRA (the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, a union overseeing filmed production work). UMS brought together a creative team including Pierce, actor Charlie Robinson, director Joe Cacaci, playwright James Anthony Tyler, and stage manager Tiffany Robinson to quarantine, reside, and rehearse together in a home on the west side of Ann Arbor. Special considerations were made to accommodate the group for everything from meal delivery to exercise equipment to ground transportation.
In order to convene safely, all members of the creative team were sent a pre-travel, at-home COVID test, requiring a negative test result before arriving in Ann Arbor. Once in Ann Arbor, UMS arranged for the creative team to be tested by a local Ann Arbor lab, LynxDx, Inc., one of the few labs in the country that employed a “gold-standard” PCR saliva test. The team was to be tested daily for the first week and then 3 times a week for the rest of the production.
The Positive Test
On the morning of Tuesday, October 20, just days after the creative team moved into their quarantine housing, the production faced unfortunate news – Joe Cacaci, the play’s director, tested positive for COVID-19. The positive test presented a challenge for UMS and the creative team; however, they were well-prepared for just this type of situation.
As part of the safety process required by the SAG-AFTRA, UMS had already developed a strict protocol in the event of a positive test. Immediately, the entire creative team was notified, and by mid-morning, UMS Artist Services Manager Anne Grove had made arrangements for Joe to be transported to isolation housing.
In these moments, it was not clear whether the production would be able to continue. There were hesitations from both UMS and the creative team about continuing. As Mark Jacobson noted, “There was a lot of concern and fear that everyone in the house was going to get COVID.”
In any event, safety guidelines prevented any team members from being immediately sent home regardless of the status of the project – it was important to keep any cases contained, rather than spreading them further – a unanimous decision was reached to continue rehearsals remotely and distanced, even within the quarantine environment while further testing and monitoring were conducted. The period of daily testing was expanded to another 14 days.
In the end, the regime of mask-wearing and social distancing in place before and after the positive test paid off. No other individuals tested positive. Thankfully, Cacaci remained only mildly symptomatic. He had virtual visits with a physician through U-M’s University Health Services, allowing him to appropriately monitor symptoms.
It is clear that the strict safety plan developed in advance saved the project from what could have ultimately led to its collapse.
Joe’s isolation, however, forced the team to completely revamp their rehearsal plans. A testament to the resilience of the entire team, all rehearsal work transitioned to Zoom. Over the next two and a half weeks, they rehearsed with Joe remotely. At times all of the team called-in from separate rooms in the same house. Later on in the process, they had distanced staging rehearsals in the house, allowing Joe to direct the unfolding work through two cameras that James Anthony Tyler periodically moved upon request.
This certainly was not the preferred way of rehearsing, but, nevertheless, the team stayed on schedule. They brought the production to The Jam Handy in Detroit on November 9 for their first full in-person rehearsals with Joe.
Joe noted, “One of my happiest days was when I walked into this space and saw everybody in person, and we got to do what we really do.”
By this time, a full set had been designed and constructed by Scenic and Lighting Designer Justin Lang (watch a behind-the-scenes tour of the set). This, alone, was a difficult process requiring testing, masking, distancing, and more for all of the IATSE Local 395 members who participated in building the set. It was then transported to Detroit and assembled in the Jam Handy with assistance from members of IATSE Local 38, who worked on the rest of the production on set.
Filming the production took place over three days from November 11-13. Present at the filming were the two actors, Wendell Pierce and Charlie Robinson, director Joe Cacaci, playwright James Anthony Tyler, stage manager Tiffany Robinson, UMS’s Rochelle Clark (who assisted with stage management), and a crew of essential production staff who oversaw the filming and set. HMS Media, a company out of Chicago that has filmed many theatrical performances at Lyric Opera of Chicago and Steppenwolf, among others, worked closely with director Joe Cacaci to capture several takes of the entire play, always focused throughout the editing and post-production process on making sure that it felt like a live theater experience.
Convening this group presented new safety challenges to overcome. Every individual who came on set for any reason had to have a negative test before arriving and was required to be tested three times a week. By the end of the project, over 250 tests were run.
In addition, critical safety measures were implemented to protect the actors while in front of the camera unmasked. Two zones, with one including the stage, were set up in the Jam Handy. Only the actors were allowed in the stage zone while they were unmasked for filming. UMS employed COVID-19 Supervisors to assist in oversight of the set to ensure that all protocols were followed.
After a difficult production process, being able to complete the project and showcase the incredible work of both actors and the many people who helped to bring it about was a triumph for the team and everyone at UMS. Wendell Pierce felt confident that the production would provide “an answer to these difficult times. I believe this special experiment and experience will be an answer to performance during a pandemic, and it also shows UMS demonstrating a legacy of vanguard performances and the importance of artists to our community as a whole.”
UMS President Matthew VanBesien also noted how excited he was for the premiere of the production. “Some Old Black Man resonates with both social justice themes and with intergenerational conflict, making it a very fitting title for our times when the reality of more togetherness also unveils some of the tensions underlying even the closest of relationships. We are extraordinarily proud and humbled to present theater once again — albeit without in-person audiences and by using the digital frame.”
Sign up for updates about the special digital screening of Some Old Black Man on Friday, January 15, 2021, followed by a live talkback with the artists.