I first met former Indy resident and now Chicago-based director Mikael Burke when he was actively involved with NoExit Performance. Eventually, he left the city to attend graduate school at The Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago, where I last saw him when I interviewed him in 2017. At the time, the Butler University grad was about to start his last year prior to earning his M.F.A. in directing and had just found out he’d won the prestigious Princess Grace Award, an honor bestowed upon exceptional young artists.
Burke, who is not only a director, but also a deviser and educator, has already accumulated distinguished honors and a list of impressive credits. Most recently, he worked with Indiana Repertory Theatre in “The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963.” In Chicago, he has directed at Geva Theatre Center, Victory Gardens Theatre, Northlight Theatre, Jackalope Theatre Company, Windy City Playhouse, About Face Theatre, First Floor Theater, Chicago Dramatists, and The Story Theatre. A former Victory Gardens Directors Inclusion Initiative Fellow, he also teaches directing, script analysis, and dramatic literature at The Theatre School at DePaul University, Chicago College of the Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, and the National High School Institute at Northwestern University, where the students are known as “Cherubs.” Recent directing credits include “Sugar in Our Wounds” by Donja R. Love and “At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen” by Terry Guest, and “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies” by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm.
I sat down with Burke this week at Phoenix Theatre, where we met to talk about his newest project as director of “The Agitators,” which opens on Friday. Written by Mat Smart, “The Agitators,” starring Lauren Briggeman and Jerome Beck is about the 45-year friendship between women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, both social reformers who were allies, but at times, also adversaries. We also talked about his busy schedule, which portends a promising career, for which he feels well prepared and extremely grateful. Following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Were you aware of “The Agitators” prior to reading the script?
I was aware of the playwright, but not the play. I was fascinated about what it has to say about what is friendship and what is being an ally and are we really truly able to be allies with one another if we can never truly be in the shoes of one another? It’s a really strong examination of all of those dynamics and complications. Friendship and rivalry. Can they both exist? That is a big question in this play and particularly, how can we stay in relationships with people we disagree with? Two very different vantage points of how they move through the world and what that means for their personhood.
Does the play have a relevancy to current events?
One reason why the play is so delicious even now is because they are figures we have all read about in the history books, etc. The things they are wrestling with and the things they are bringing up in this play are things we are still wrestling with right now. We are in the middle of this election cycle, where so many of us are struggling so deeply with “How do I reconcile the person I know with the politics I see you living and the person you are supporting in this election? I can’t support that person, so I don’t know how I can support you as a friend. But you are a friend because we have been friends for years. All the really nuanced and complicated questions that come out of those things are 100 percent what is going on in this play. This play does such a good job of putting all that complication in front of us. One thing I like about this play is that we, as the observer, the audience member, we are really, squarely positioned as outside observer. Human nature never changes. Can I put others needs before my own? That’s been the question forever.
It sounds like more than just a history play.
It is so much more than just a history lesson. If you are coming expecting a history lesson, you will be disappointed. These are two figures who we understand as Susan and Frederick. The play does not grant access to any of those history-making moments. There are 11 scenes in two hours. Some longer, some shorter. It covers about 45 years of their lives. We meet them when they are 29 and 31, respectively, and in the last scene she is 72 and he is 74. Mat (Smart) has eloquently infused his writing with actual quotations from Frederick and Susan, but for the most part, it is imagined ideas of what might have been said. What’s really interesting is that Mat is white.
Do you feel Smart got Frederick’s and Susan’s consciousness right?
I think so. He does a really intelligent thing in the way he deals with both of their experiences. These are two figures in history. There is so much authentic language to pull from them as far as those specific things are communicated. Any time Frederick is speaking about what it feels like to be a black man, a lot of it is coming from Frederick’s writings, speeches or his biography or things like that. And he does a really good job of communicating both Susan and Frederick’s specific views and vantages of the world without, in either case, becoming too preachy or didactic about “This is what it means to be a black man” or “This is what it means to be a white woman.”
He fully recognizes…you can tell in the way he structures the piece…he recognizes that he doesn’t know either of those things. This is not a play that is necessarily asking us to make a choice about whose experience is worse or difficult in contemporary America, black men or white women. I don’t think the play is asking us to do that work. The play is asking us to recognize that those experiences are, in fact, different and given that truth, the play wants us to really look at ourselves and say “OK, we know people have experienced different things and experience them differently than we do, but how do we stay in the room with those people anyway because the only way things are going to change is if we work together?” The way the play explores that is very fascinating and very exciting to witness.
Let’s switch topics and talk about you. Did the Princess Grace Aware open doors for you?
It really did. It also paid for my third year of grad school. It put me on a different plane where I can reach out to theatres that I don’t know that well and they see that and say “Oh, I know what that is. Something’s going on here,” which is great and it has paid dividends. You know how the grind is. You spend so much time hustling and hustling to get any work. Since graduation, due to a confluence of things happening, I have stumbled and lucked into this position where I have work and work is steadily coming my way. And it’s work that is paying a substantial portion of my living. It is in Chicago, here in Indy, Sarasota, Florida, Milwaukee and I am getting to travel. It is a neat, neat time that I have stepped into. Right now, I am just enjoying it and sucking it all up. It could all dry up in a second. Who knows?
When we last spoke, you had this plan that you might try to work in both Indy and Chicago?
I had no idea this would happen, especially this quickly. I am Chicago-based, but next year, I am doing one show right after another. It’s great. I know what I am doing this whole 2020 season and I know at least one thing I am doing in 2021-22.
Do you have an agent?
Not yet. I have met with a couple and am getting close to it. One of my very good friends is an agent and is interested in representing me when we get there, but he said, “Listen, you are doing a great job being your own agent right now. Keep doing that until it gets to the point when you can’t.”
There seem to be lots of opportunities opening up for people of color in TV and film. Is the same happening in the theatre world?
A number of things have converged to get me where I am at this moment. One of them began during the Obama years when a major push began toward diversifying not only the stories that were being told, but the people at the table getting to tell the stories.
And have the Trump years affected that movement?
It fueled it even greater, because as professionals, we are all continuing to figure out, how can we use this thing that we do to ensure that the world is safe for everybody? A big part of that is a major push toward equity in all disciplines in the field. There are a lot more institutions that are looking for minority artists to command these stories on stage and tell them from their perspective and point of views. There are not as many of us as there are of our white counterparts, so there is a wellspring of work right now.
It sounds like it’s good timing for you.
You didn’t expect this success so quickly?
I paid too much money to doubt that I would be working. I paid to go to school to get good at this. I knew that I would eventually find my way into a career. However, I did not at all anticipate that it would happen instantaneously, that I would currently have a full season of work.
The proof of your success is in the pudding.
The first two shows I did out of school, one was a non-equity play and it got nominated for a Jeff Award and got great reviews. Chris Jones (chief theatre critic of the Chicago Tribune) wrote a marvelous paragraph about me, which was really cool because directors usually only get a mention or a couple of sentences, but he dedicated a whole paragraph to me and it is on my website. I came out of a school and did two shows in a row that were remarkably successful, both were plays that I strongly believed in and to have them received so well by the community was incredibly rewarding. It was exciting to know that these are stories that I believe needed to be told and witnessed and apparently the Chicago theatre-going community agreed with that. I got a best director nomination and best production nomination from the Jeff Awards for the first two things I did out of school. It was unprecedented and very exciting. It could all be beginner’s luck, but I also worked very hard for a very long time to be doing what I am doing.
How special is to have this homecoming at the Phoenix and IRT?
It’s really cool. These are the institutions I looked up to when I was a baby in this art form. I did not know what theatre was. These are the places where I cut my teeth. “It can be this. It could be this. It could be this.” I graduated 10 years ago from Butler and getting to come back and be one of the ones creating and directing these pieces is just a really inspiring thing for me. Ten years ago when I was in my early 20s, I thought “One day, I hope I get to direct at these places.”
What influence did NoExit Performance have on you when you worked with them here?
It was sort of the punk, underground scene. I think the NoExit sensibility is still very present in my work.
They must be very proud of you.
I think so.
Are they (company members) coming to see the show?
What’s next after “The Agitators?”
I am back to Chicago and on Monday, I start rehearsals for Aaron Posner’s “Stupid Fucking Bird,” which is riff on “The Seagull.” I am doing that at Roosevelt University with my students. I teach script analysis and dramatic literature there. And after that, I have a break from April through June, which I am thrilled about. In July, I start rehearsals for a couple of pieces I’m doing, including the musical “Passing Strange” in Milwaukee.
Any thoughts of working in New York?
Absolutely. Sometime in the future. I am very reticent to move to New York without being invited in some capacity and right now, Chicago is being incredibly good to me. A lot of new work comes out of Chicago.
What is it about Chicago that has created such a wellspring of creativity in the theatre?
This is going to sound cheesy, but I do think a lot of it has to do with Midwestern sensibility. Just be nice to people. Chicago is so familial. Even when people disagree with one another, we still realize we have the same goals. We are all in the same family. Let’s lift each other up and then the whole will succeed.
What is your perception of Indy now?
Because it is smaller than Chicago, there is less cultural diversity in public spaces, with the exception of Fonseca Theatre Company, IRT and a few others. There is, however, a bubbling in the underground level that is just beginning to be picked up at the wider institutional level that there are more stories out there than just Williams, O’Neill, Arthur Miller and the old chestnuts. These are stories, these are people, these are experiences and human beings that are all American. They are all part of this big, melting-pot place. It is high time these stories about the other versions of the American Experience or American Dream find their way into the public eye in a more specific way.
For tickets and information about “The Agitators,” call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.