How Claude McKay Informed Ato Blankson-Wood’s Take on Cliff in Cabaret on Broadway | Playbill

Special Features How Claude McKay Informed Ato Blankson-Wood’s Take on Cliff in Cabaret on Broadway

The prolific actor is exploring Black queerness on stage in the new revival of the Kander and Ebb classic.

Ato Blankson-Wood Heather Gershonowitz

Ato Blankson-Wood loves to dig deep into his characters. When the actor played Hamlet last summer in Central Park, he used Kanye West for inspiration. Now, while playing Clifford Bradshaw in the Broadway revival of Cabaret, the performer isn’t using Christopher Isherwood as inspiration. Though Isherwood’s memoir Goodbye to Berlin was the basis for John Kander and Fred Ebb for Cabaret, the writer was a gay white man. Blankson-Wood is a gay Black man—the lived experiences aren’t exactly the same.

So, the talented actor turned to Harlem Renaissance legend Claude McKay. The poet, like Isherwood, traveled to Berlin in the 1930s, but for more poignant reasons. “One of the things that Claude McKay said was that he felt that he could be treated like a human in Europe, Berlin specifically,” says Blankson-Wood, while reclining on a couch in the Playbill office. “And I think that really does contextualize how bad things were in America.”

This rigor is why Blankson-Wood has become one of New York City’s go-to stage actors, lending his talent to a variety of meaty, challenging roles in both plays and musicals. Beside Cabaret at the August Wilson Theatre and Hamlet (which can now be streamed on PBS until June 30), Blankson-Wood originated the role of Gary in Jeremy O. HarrisSlave Play on Broadway. He made his Broadway debut in 2009 in the Hair revival. For someone with such an intense resume, Blankson-Wood is friendly and warm in person. During his photo shoot with Playbill, his music of choice was Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter.

“I've been thinking a lot about like, what is it about me that wants to really be in these super intense emotional spaces,” he says with a smile, before chuckling, “I am still looking forward to that very light farce.”

Ato Blankson-Wood Heather Gershonowitz

Even in Cabaret, which is a musical, the character of Cliff doesn’t sing much. Instead, he’s given some of the most intense book scenes in the show, as a novelist looking for inspiration in Berlin—where he falls in love with the flighty Sally Bowles and comes face-to-face with the rising Nazi party. He doesn’t get a jaunty song-and-dance number to balance out all that pathos (though Blankson-Wood admits he likes to hum along to the cast singing while waiting backstage). Cliff is all pain, especially in this version as a bisexual Black man (in this production, Cliff kisses one of the Kit Kat Club male dancers).

“Clifford's from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. And so, I was like, what would it be like to have grown up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, around that time?” posits Blankson-Wood. “There was this movement in the eighth ward of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where room needed to be made for developing. A lot of Black neighborhoods were evacuated and torn down in order for this to happen. And so, I think, all right, ‘Cliff grew up in that. And so he has an understanding of what it means when people are pushed aside or when hatred rears its head.’”

Blankson-Wood understands what it’s like to have to hide your true self, and needing to leave home in order to discover who you truly are and live authentically. He grew up in Silver Springs, Maryland; his parents are Ghanaian immigrants, and he didn’t come out to them until he was 19. Though his mother introduced him to movie musicals at a young age, homosexuality was frowned upon in Ghanaian culture—there isn’t even a word for being gay.

“Doing theatre, and being around other queer people in the theatre—that really helped me to find the language and to see myself in other people, and to understand that I belonged to a group,” says Blankson-Wood. “That's part of the harm that's done by not really having language—you don't see yourself anywhere, and you feel like you don't belong anywhere.”

In the show, Cliff escapes to Berlin. In the script, he's written as someone who is looking for inspiration for his novel. But Blankson-Wood brings a deeper conceptualization of the character as a Black man "looking for a space where he actually feels at home. America obviously doesn't feel like that space because of his race. But I also think, specifically, because of his sexuality. And I think he's looking for family. I think that's what he find with Sally, for the first time, a kindred spirit who wants to maybe make a life with him." In Berlin, this Cliff is able to fully explore his bisexuality. But when the Nazism begins to break out, the hairs on Cliff's neck begin to raise, as he realizes that it's time to, once again, flee. Here is where, again, Blankson-Wood's casting adds another tragic dimension to the character of Cliff.

Gayle Rankin and Ato Blankson-Wood in Cabaret Marc Brenner

When (spoiler alert) Sally and Cliff break up at the end of the musical after Sally has an abortion and refuses to leave with him, the actor who plays Cliff usually slaps the actor who plays Sally. But in this version of Cabaret, Blankson-Wood doesn't respond to Gayle Rankin's Sally with violence, he falls to his knees and lets out a primal cry. For Blankson-Wood, being able to portray a masculinity that is also filled with a deep sensitivity was important. In explaining his rationale for the scene, he goes straight to dramaturgy.

"I think part of that breakdown is: anger is a secondary emotion, right?" the actor says rhetorically. "So he goes to the anger, but what it's really covering is this deep hurt, right? And I think what is possible, when we didn't go straight into the violence was having to watch these two people deal with the pain of what's underneath that anger, which is the loss of this child, the loss of the potential, the loss of this relationship. That's so much more important than the actual violence."

And it's even more tragic when, at the end, Sally chooses to put on a beige suit, which in this revival, represents the queer space of the Kit Kat Klub being completely overtaken by fascism. The dancers and singers the audience has come to know and love end the show marching robotically while wearing business suits, as Cliff looks on in horror.

Ato Blankson-Wood Heather Gershonowitz

As a gay man, Blankson-Wood is hyperaware of the current dangers faced by the LGBTQIA+ community, as state legislatures around the country are introducing anti-trans, anti-gay bills. That’s what makes this new version of Cabaret so visceral for him (besides the in-the-round staging, which invites audience interactions).

“What we're also seeing is this wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation, all of these things are represented in [the suits],” he says. “This idea that we need to conform, that there's a standard of ‘normal.’ It really represents the ways that a lot of these right-wing politicians are attacking the queer community.”

At the end of this Cabaret, there’s a sense that while Cliff can leave Berlin, as a gay Black man, he won’t truly be safe anywhere. It’s a seemingly hopeless ending, but there’s opportunity there for the audience, says Blankson-Wood.

“Really, what it's ending on is a question mark,” he says. “It's saying, ‘Okay, you've seen this, what will you do about it? What will you do? I think the hope is in how we leave that theatre, and we make sure that we are not donning our beige suits and just letting conformity rule the day. When we let ourselves be fully authentic—there’s the hope that I think the show is trying to shout. Which I think is a very important thing to say in an election year.”

In The Playbill Studio With Ato Blankson-Wood

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