April Matthis has had a prolonged relationship with Claudia Rankine’s Help. She first read the script back in 2019 and was invited to appear in its movie adaptation, November, which was shot and released during the COVID-19 Broadway shutdown. Now, she returns to the leading role of the Narrator in the show’s limited run at The Shed.
“It makes sense for this to be the work I come to every day, with so many resonances in the world, in my daily life, on the news, everywhere. It feels active to get on my feet about it instead of reading another headline or signing another online petition,” says Matthis. “It feels like an active way to participate in the conversation and really address the stuff that goes beyond soundbites. We really get into: What is whiteness? What is white supremacy? How does it manifest itself in our daily interactions, as Black people with the white people that we know and the white people that we come across in our day?”
Based on real-life encounters the playwright had with white people, Help continues Rankine’s examination of white dominance and privilege following an essay published in the New York Times about her experiences.
The leading character navigates social interactions ladened with microaggressions and racist remarks, offering her commentary to the audience through poetic monologues. .
Matthis hopes the audience is surprised by Help. “The issue gets talked about in a really dry way... but the way that we do it is unique and smart, and super theatrical.”
“There is music, there's movement. There's a chorus of people moving together at the same time. There's lots of humor in it. It's not a think piece. It's not an essay. I hope the audience feels permission to enjoy themselves because there's a way you can see a piece of theater that can be enjoyable while still seeing truths that might be hard for some people.”
Ultimately, Matthis hopes that audiences recognize the universality of a work that might challenge them. “It's about seeing the same reality. That's something that's starting to dawn on me. What does that mean? Because a lot of times we hear politicians talk about two Americas. People talk about two New York Cities. And I think, if you listen to the most marginalized, underrepresented voice in the room, that’s when you get the closest to a shared reality. What the conversation in the piece keeps trying to get to is, can we all live in the same reality so that we don't go 'well, that's happening over there...' or 'if you worked a little harder...' or, 'if you pulled your pants up...' We can get to, 'wow, that's how it is.' That's how this country was designed. I see the design now. And maybe, we can start a different conversation from there."
Claudia Rankine’s Help began previews at The Shed's Griffin Theater March 15 and will run through April 10. For more information, visit TheShed.org.