When Theo Langason was asked to co-direct a production of “All American Boys,” a play based on the bestselling young-adult novel about the violent arrest of a Black teenager, he considered turning the job down.
“I read through it,” Langason said of the play, “and frankly it scared me. I knew it had the potential to be a really beautiful piece but I also knew it had the potential to be really challenging — and not in a fun way.”
Langason, whose decadelong career in Twin Cities theater has included acting in and directing several plays focused on race and racism, knew the emotional toll that this kind of work can have on everyone involved in the production. As a Black Minnesotan, he felt particularly wary about being involved in yet another play focusing on the more challenging side of the Black experience. And because the play was aimed at a younger audience, he felt an extra weight of responsibility settle on his shoulders.
“I have been in a number of ‘race plays’ or ‘racial trauma plays’ or ‘racism plays,’ and they always ultimately felt extractive for me as an artist,” Langason said. Those experiences often led him to ask himself, he recalled, “‘Who am I doing this for? To educate an elderly white audience?’ That had been the general feeling I got from those experiences. There has been a cost to that work that I was afraid of incurring on myself again.”
But, after he took thought about the opportunity, Langason decided that those very real concerns made him perfectly suited for the role. “I trusted myself to be able to figure out how to do it in a way that felt good,” he said. “I was excited to take on that challenge.”
Langason knew that if he was going to work on “All American Boys,” a collaboration between Hopkins-based Stages Theatre Company and the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis, he had to make sure that organizers created a space that protected the mental health of everyone involved. The play’s subject matter is tough, he explained, and has the potential to be emotionally triggering or even damaging.
“It was a concern that I brought up from the jump,” he said. “I asked, ‘How are we supporting the actors in this piece, especially the young actors?’ ‘How are we doing that in the design of the piece?’” Langeson’s co-director, Cody Braudt, a Children’s Theatre alumni and production associate at Stages, agreed. The two raised their concerns with the production’s organizers.
In response, Stages and the Capri Theater hired Washburn Center for Children to provide a range of mental health supports, including a rotating team of therapists who attend weekly rehearsals and will offer “community conversation” sessions, where the audience and cast members will have an opportunity to have a therapist-mediated discussion about issues raised in the play.
Becky Pilarzyk, an individual and family therapist at Washburn Center for Children, is part of the therapy team working on “All American Boys.”
A former musical theater major and a proud North Side resident, she’s excited to provide mental health support to the cast and crew. “I believe that the arts, whatever medium it is, can be really cathartic for people in processing some of the stressors and trauma they might be experiencing,” she said. “I wanted to be able to provide support as the cast and crew worked through all of the emotions that come when you work through challenging material.”
Miles Johnson plays Rashad in “All American Boys.” The St. Louis Park High School student has been in other plays at Stages, including “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” This is his first acting gig where a mental health team is part of the production.
“At the first rehearsal,” Johnson recalled, “they explained to our families that someone would be there to support us.” He knew that the play tackled serious topics, and he said he felt it was “very smart” to have that resource available.
Johnson said that Langason told cast members that he had performed in plays focused on race and racism when he was a young actor: “It wasn’t fun for him. It was such a hard thing to portray with no help learning how to deal with this and how to act well. I think it is important that we have someone to talk to if we need it.”
Ready and waiting
During production of “All American Boys,” the Washburn mental health team of two therapists joined rehearsals one day a week, Pilarzyk said.
“We call it ‘Washburn Wednesday. We make ourselves available to the cast and crew 30 minutes before they start their rehearsals. Then we stay through at least half of the rehearsal.” So far it’s been pretty uneventful, Pilarzyk explained. “Mostly we have just been establishing ourselves. We are just being present and available.”
This low-key approach is intended to give participants a clear message that the mental health support team is there whenever they are needed. It’s perfectly OK if no one ever sits down with them, she explained. The most important thing is knowing that support is there.
“I’ve only had a couple of cast members come in and say hi,” Pilarzyk said. “It’s just being a presence, a resource. We haven’t been utilized much, but they all know that we are there and are available at any time.”
The community conversations are another important part of the therapists’ role.
“The two directors will be leading the community conversations after several performances,” Pilarzyk said. Mental health support is important for audience members, too, she believes: “This play could be triggering for them, if they’ve either experienced police brutality personally, knew someone who did or are saturated with the media conversation. They might need to process what they are experiencing and might need to have some support.”
Langason said he believes that, for members of the cast and crew, just knowing that the therapy team is present gives a message that the production’s leaders care about protecting their mental health.
“Mostly I think it is knowing that the support is there has been the most impactful. It is a reinforcement of the idea that your mental health matters the most,” he said. “If you need to take time out of the rehearsal to talk to the Washburn folks, you can do that. They’ve become part of this little community we created that is working on the show.”
Rather than holding actors back from taking risks in their performances, Langason believes that having mental health professionals available gives his young actors an extra sense of strength or support so they can take risks.
“When the rail is there you can get a little closer to the edge,” he said. “When you know that you are supported you can go into those depths of being an actor. The act of playing another person and getting in to their psyche is a vulnerable act, especially when it has to do with racial trauma that is ongoing. Having that support is essential.”
As an African American, Johnson said the play’s topic gave him pause. “It did play a role in my debating if this would be a good show for my mental health,” he said. “It is a really heavy piece with a lot of violence.” At first, he thought he’d take a pass on the role, but when staff at Stages asked him to audition for the role, Johnson changed his mind and decided to give it a try.
Now that he’s landed the leading role of Rashad, Johnson said he’s glad he agreed to give it a try, though there are times when the performances feel challenging. “I wouldn’t say I feel triggered by being in this play,” he said, “but it does take a toll emotionally.”
At the end of each performance, cast members recite a list of African Americans who have been killed by police. “It hits you that this is just a fraction of who this has happened to,” Johnson said. “If we said every name it would be going on for years and years.”
Langason decided to dedicate each rehearsal to a Black person who has been killed by police. “To do that is really hard,” he said. He knows it is important to give that message, but he also knows it is just as important to protect his cast and crew from the pain this might cause: “I wanted to make sure I’d be able to protect myself from that — and also help the performers.”
Johnson said that having a team of mental health professionals available throughout the production helps him and his fellow actors feel confident that, should the weight of the play ever feel too much to bear, there are people who can hold them up.
“I think it is for sure helpful that they are there to let us know that they aren’t alone.”
A sense of responsibility
Langason said that he and Braudt have adjusted elements of the play — like the brutal assault of an African American teen by a police officer — that had the potential to be particularly difficult for their young actors to portray.
They wanted to make sure that these situations would be handled in a manner that respected the mental health of the cast and crew. The assault, for instance, is abstracted rather than a literal recreation.
“What are we showing directly versus what are we abstracting?” Langason asked. “You don’t actually ever see a literal representation of police violence in the piece. It is abstracted as a way to not force the young Black boy who is playing this lead character to have to embody that trauma.”
He also worked hard to shift the play’s focus on the two main characters, an approach that comes from the book. “Even though the book sets up this duality of white kid/black kid, I came in and said, ‘We’re going to push up against this false equivalence that presumes that a white person struggling to come to grips with racism existing is the same amount of burden as it is to be a Black person living under racism.”
As for critics who may say that this protective approach takes the realism out of a production, Langason looks back to his own acting experiences. “It was still the point of view that in order to be a good actor you have to put yourself through pain. If you don’t have a breakdown you’re not a real actor.”
It doesn’t have to be that way, he said, and he’s pleased to see that attitude is fading: “I think the field is really shifting to say, ‘Actually we don’t have to bare our souls like that. We don’t have to re-traumatize ourselves. Now, in a rehearsal room, we can say, ‘Directors don’t run our lives.’ There is a lot more consent present.”
Though he’s heard the saying, “the show must go on,” plenty of times, Johnson said he also appreciates the fact that his directors have his mental health in mind. “If the play is jeopardizing someone’s mental or physical health it is important to pay attention,” he said. “You are more than a character in a play. You are a human being. You need to pay attention to how it impacts your emotions.”