The Hairy Ape – Interview with Monty Cole



Photo: Joe Mazza, Brave Lux, Inc. / Pictured (left to right): Monty Cole, Isaac Gomez











O’Neill & Blackness: Reimagining The Hairy Ape

An interview with director Monty Cole
Interview conducted by Isaac Gomez, dramaturg

ISAAC: I know O’Neill wrote this play with Irish immigrants in mind. Yet you’ve cast this play with an all black cast. Tell me a bit about that.

MONTY: I revisited the play last winter, and I was really saddened and angry about shootings and events that were happening to black men in this country. I couldn’t hear the play in any other voice than a black man. And I knew it was about Irish men but when you see this production – what intersects between those two cultures – is class. He’s talking about the disenfranchised and poor in this country and how we treat them and it just so happens that it relates more to black men in 2016.

ISAAC: Not only does the play address hard and interesting questions on race in this country, but gender is also a huge component. Why cast all black men?

MONTY: I was walking to my apartment from the red line one day (I live in Rogers Park) and it was late at night and I heard a gunshot from the alley behind my apartment so I started to walk faster. I could have sworn I heard footsteps behind me and I saw a shadow appear behind me in my periphery and as the shadow got closer and closer, my first thought immediately was that it was a black man. And that scared the shit out of me.

As the shadow got closer, it came in front of me and I realized the shadow was mine. Then it hit me — part of me definitely fears black men and I am a black man so what does that mean? A lot of this play is confronting one’s fear of self, the fear you impress upon other people, and the fear others have of you.

But this isn’t a production about black on black crime. It’s a critical examination of an old American system that fears black men, which makes it hard for them to succeed.

ISAAC: What has changed in working with an all black cast?

MONTY: The most fun thing is seeing this go from a concept in my brain to hearing these black men speak these words out loud. The culture Eugene O’Neill has originally written has completely changed and to hear these men make these words their own is incredible. The IWW is still the IWW, but when it’s spoken out of Breon Arzell’s mouth, it sounds like a black fraternity. When we go to a prison, it’s still a prison in 1922, but you’re hearing an old black man singing the blues. At the bottom of this ocean liner, it’s still these men Eugene O’Neill wrote, but its also 6 brothers on a street corner on the south side of Chicago.

ISAAC: What does that say about the state of American theater and black performers taking ownership over text “not meant for them”?

MONTY: I think it’s an incredible kind of ownership and I commend Oracle for this. All these artists are able to respond to events happening in this country with a piece of work that’s universal, a classic and strikingly American. And for these black men to speak it, it identifies them as American in a real and true way.


Photo: Joe Mazza, Brave Lux, Inc. / Pictured: Monty Cole