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What's New on the Rialto

Interview with Eisa Davis: Kings
by Beth Herstein

Eisa Davis and Zach Grenier
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In the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and the state legislature's quick vote against considering a ban on semiautomatic guns like the AR-15 rifles like the one used in the shooting, Kings, a new play by Sarah Burgess at the Public Theater, feels especially timely. It revolves around politics, elections, and the power of lobbyists and special interest groups like the NRA and big business.

In the show, newly elected Representative Sydney Millsap (Eisa Davis), a Gold Star widow, votes her conscience against a bill to preserve a tax loophole even though she knows it will cost her some major donors. Kate (Gillian Jacobs) is a bright and jaded lobbyist who initially clashes with Millsap. Zach Grenier plays Senator John McDowell, a longstanding powerhouse with a strong pragmatic streak, and Aya Cash co-stars as Lauren, a lobbyist whose status as a former protegee and a confidant of McDowell has landed her a coveted and high-powered position. When Millsap's vote gains her positive national attention and her charisma adds to her popularity, Kate must decide whether to play it safe or take a chance and align herself with Millsap. At one hour and forty minutes and no intermission, Kings, directed by Thomas Kail, is a beautifully acted examination of a critical aspect of our flawed political system.

I've been a fan of Eisa Davis, who plays Millsap, since I saw her in Passing Strange at the Public in 2007. In addition to Passing Strange, she has appeared in Julius Caesar, Preludes, and numerous other productions, and she brings her keen intelligence and radiance to her roles. Her varied television work includes stints on "House of Cards" and "The Wire." She also is a pianist and a singer-songwriter who has performed in concert at Joe's Pub and released a CD called "Something Else." And if that weren't enough, Davis is an accomplished playwright whose works include Bulrusher, a 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Drama finalist; and Angela's Mixtape. The latter work, in which she also starred, centered on her upbringing and the powerful women who surrounded her, including her mother Fania, a civil rights lawyer and activist, and her aunt, the renowned activist Angela Davis. In 2016, she started writing for Spike Lee's Netflix series' "She's Gotta Have It," which premiered in 2017, and she is just to begin work on the show's second season. Though Davis was busy promoting the play, rehearsing, and performing in previews, we had a leisurely, thoughtful, discursive telephone conversation, talking about the show, politics, and the power and pleasures of acting and writing.

Beth Herstein:  I saw the play last Friday and really enjoyed it. The performances are terrific.

Eisa Davis:  Oh, great. I'm glad you got the chance to see it.

BH:  Can you tell me a little about your character?

ED:  My character is a firebrand. She is someone who thinks by sheer force of will and by her truth-telling that she can make a change in Washington, in the way our legislation is made and the way our Congress is run. She is not a career politician but just came out of the civilian population after the death of her husband in combat, and decided she wanted to make a change. She really doesn't have any regard for the niceties and the way things are normally done. She just wants to come in and shift things around, and I think she catches a little bit of momentum with that. But ultimately, [because of] the system and how it works—the power of money and private donations, and the way our campaign financing has shifted since the Supreme Court decision in 2010 in favor of Citizens United [v. the Financial Election Commission, in which the Court ruled that corporations and unions can spend unlimited funds on their own to elect politicians]—she cannot make the changes that she wants.

BH:  She's such a charismatic and passionate advocate, and you are so dynamic in the debate scene. It made me think you should run for office. [laughter] I'm thinking about this also against the background of your own personal history. You were raised by a mother and close to an aunt who were very much invested in trying to change the system from the outside. Here, your character is trying to change things from the inside.

ED:  When I take on a character—and when I chose to be an actor at all—I'm trying to understand the character from the inside. Why is it that she would want to do this, regardless of the background that I might have? That's something that's really lovely about working as an actor, and working as a writer as well, that you can view people's experiences and try to honor those experiences, even if they are starkly different from your own.

[Unlike me, Millsap has] a very pro-business platform. It's not said in the play what party she's in, but I don't even think I've been registered in one of the major parties for a long time because there's just such a difference in terms of who this woman is and who I am. Yet, I was so excited to play this character. Of course, there are some overlapping areas [between us] ... like not doing what the crowd expects of you but simply doing what you think—what you think is necessary in order to achieve justice and combat oppression. What I love about her is her fearlessness. I think it comes from the fact that she has experienced this devastating loss. Her whole life has changed because, as she says, the worst has occurred. When you're a military spouse you have to prepare yourself for the death of a loved one. That's happened to her, and I think because of that she has a new kind of intrepid spirit that has been activated. I haven't experienced anything like that, but I know that sense of free fall that you roll into once you've experienced a great loss or a huge amount of grief.

BH:  When I interviewed Frederic Weller several years ago, he talked about the unsympathetic character he played in Glengarry Glen Ross. Even in that part, he looked for the humanity and motivation of that person, so he could latch onto something human.

AD:  Exactly. That's the most amazing thing that we get to do in theater and in the arts, to recognize what we have in common with each other's spirits. No matter what we disagree upon, we can always have this kind of social discourse.

You see something as horrendous as all the mass shootings that we've had. People want to know, "Who is this person?" We want to understand their motivation, and what made them snap, what set them off, what background they have. Even though in a lot of ways that has nothing to do with making the change that we need—which of course is to get all the guns out of circulation. That's the biggest difference between our country and all the other countries that don't experience mass shootings on this level. We just have a much higher number of guns in circulation. That's the thing that we should be focusing on, getting rid of the NRA lobby.

That actually has a lot to do with our play, acknowledging that the NRA has done so much to cordon in all these Congresspeople and Senators by giving them tons and tons of money, and basically gagging them to talk about anything around gun control. I'm getting at several things at once, but the thing that we do is try to understand the psyche of that person who enacts the violence ...

BH:  I write, and my two sisters used to get mad at me because I'd always try to figure out what was motivating the person they were mad at. I'd say, "Maybe she meant this," and they'd say, "Don't take her side!"

ED:  Exactly! And you know it's funny—after the show one night I was out in the lobby with Gillian Jacobs. I think [we were talking to] a friend of mine who came to the show, this amazing economist and very close friend of mine named Heather Boushey. She's one of the few progressive economists that we have who is working on the Hill. Anyway, we talked about what we'd wanted to do growing up. Both Gillian and I said we'd been interested in being judges, but that we didn't want to be lawyers first. We wanted to be judges because we wanted to see the picture as a whole and see why people did the things they did, as opposed to only advocating for a single side.

That's what you get to do when you're in a play like this, and when you have amazing writing like this. You look to understand how a person would become a lobbyist or a Congressperson, when that is something so far from the playwright's experience. Sarah [Burgess], the playwright, comes from Alexandria, Virginia, which is also where Tommy Kail, our director, is from, and it's of course a DC-focused town. So, she's writing about a world she knows, but she's looking at it and really trying to understand it. The amount of research that she's done really allows you to step into the character as opposed to feeling like this is a cardboard two-dimensional person that she inserted into the plot in order to try to make a comment.

BH:  The scenes when your character has to make those fundraiser phone calls are pretty accurate. I remember watching a news feature about how exhausting and frustrating it is for representatives to make those fundraising calls. They can't spend as much time as they'd like doing their job, because they have to spend so much time on the telephone.

ED:  It was actually news to me when I learned about that. I did not realize the extent to which lawmakers have to do this. They can literally spend the majority of their day, three-fourths of their day, doing just that. That's absolutely ridiculous. That's not what I want my representative to be doing, at all. I want my representative to focus on making the kinds of changes that will be good for all of his or her or other constituents.

BH:  I started following you on Twitter, because I knew I'd be interviewing you ...

ED:  I don't tweet much.

BH:  I know. I was hoping for day-by-day updates on the play, so I could dazzle you by asking about what happened yesterday in rehearsal. [laughter] But I did see how excited you were to be working with this group of people. How did you come to this production?

ED:  I really feel that the reason I'm in this play at all is because Tommy Kail and I have known each other since the days that In the Heights and Passing Strange were both on Broadway at the same time. Even though we ended up being competitors at the Tonys, that is not at all how we felt with one another. We admired their work, and they admired our work. What has happened over the years is that we've all worked together. For example, Daniel Breaker, who starred in Passing Strange, is in Hamilton right now, playing Aaron Burr. Rebecca Naomi Jones was in workshops of Hamilton. In our first week in rehearsal, Tommy quoted Tyne Daly. She said at one point during the Tonys, "We're all thoroughbreds, our job is to run. That's what we do. It's all these other people who put different colors on us and make us run against each other."

Tommy is someone I admire very much. Over these ten years we'd been on each other's radar, but we'd never been in the room together. We were trying to hatch some idea about when that would happen. It's finally happening with this play, because Tommy was interested in casting me in this role. I give him so much credit for me being able to be involved in this—along with Jordan Thaler and Heidi Griffiths, the casting directors at the Public, who were instrumental in my being cast. Of course, Sarah agreed with them. To be playing such a dynamite character—I just want to thank Tommy for all he did in making sure that I would be able to do this.

Everyone at the Public, they're very much family for me at this point. I met Oskar [Eustis] when I was 21 working out in L.A. with Anna Deavere Smith at the Mark Taper Forum. [Davis was the assistant to director Emily Mann when, in 1993, Smith's Twilight: LA, 1992 was produced there. Oskar Eustis was the dramaturg. Davis later served as Smith's research assistant.] So, I've known him since I was a kid. It always feels exactly right to be working at the Public.

BH:  How familiar were you with Sarah Burgess' work going into this production?

ED:  I didn't know her at all. I knew about Dry Powder [Burgess' play that was produced at the Public in 2016], but I didn't get to see it. I read it before meeting with her after they cast me. The obvious word for her is "precocious," because she's been hitting it out of the park with every single one of her plays. Dry Powder was her first play, with all these stars [Claire Danes, John Krasinski, and Hank Azaria] and Tommy Kail. Now she has this play with us.

I've been so thrilled to get to know Sarah and her mind. Working with playwrights, being a playwright myself, is always so thrilling for me because I get to be sort of an in-house dramaturg. I get to ask the kinds of questions I would ask about my own play, but from inside. Sometimes it's easier to see the play and how it works as a whole from the position of an actor. It surprises me again and again when that happens.

Also, I'm really impressed by Sarah's ability to digest all of the information that she's learned from all of the research she has done. She has major gifts when it comes to comic rhythm, and when it comes to language and what it is that she hears. She has a very particular voice that is quite smooth and quite unexpected for a writer with as little experience as she has. She is kind of a natural.

BH:  What has it been like working with this great cast?

ED:  Gillian and Aya and Zach are all revelations for me. I didn't know any of them personally. Aya is so funny and so honest ... She killed me, too, because I had seen her in a play and totally forgotten she was in it. I was talking to her about the play, and she said, "I was in that." That just goes to show that she's transforming herself in each role. She would probably take it as me thinking that she is not distinctive in some ways, but she is very distinctive. It's so great being onstage and in that dressing room with her.

Then, Gillian, I've been really impressed with her. ... The two of us joke that we're twins. There are so many things [that we have in common] about our personal lives. Our wardrobes are exactly the same. Just yesterday I was talking to her about where I went to college and she said, "Oh my God! I almost went there!" Also, she has a kind and open soul. I call her The Rock when we're working. You just know you can depend on her out on the stage. You have to trust everybody, but she's very much carrying me in the show in a lot of our scenes together.

Zach is a delight. He's just hysterical. He's so fun. I love playing our scenes. Of them, the debate between our characters is the highlight. But I also really love our last scene, when we ... are living with the aftereffects [of what has happened to us in the show]. That is something we rarely get to see or even think about. Things go in and out of our newsfeed, and people disappear. People are shamed or disgraced, or they simply want to retire. They just go away from the public view, but, actually, their lives are continuing. You get to see a little bit of a taste of that here. I really appreciate that window.

BH:  I first noticed you in Passing Strange. I interviewed Daniel Breaker and Rebecca Naomi Jones for that. They were fantastic to talk to. That must have been an incredible experience. Is that how you met Spike Lee [who filmed the Broadway production] and got to write for "She's Gotta Have It"?

ED:  No, I also met Spike when I was a kid. He was my professor in college. It was my senior year. It was this coup to be able to get into his class and talk to him about his films. At that point, She's Gotta Have It, School Daze, Do the Right Thing had all been out. I think Jungle Fever and Malcolm X had not been released when we had that class—maybe "Jungle Fever" was just coming out. So, he was just making his classic films, the ones that were groundbreaking and shifted cinema in the country and the world. We've known each other and seen each other over the years, both being Fort Greene residents, and in Passing Strange we reconnected.

But, really, it was Lynn Nottage who wrote for the first season of "She's Gotta Have It" who recommended me for the writers room. I'm going to be on double duty. The opening night of Kings is also our first day back in the room. I'll be going through at least a month of no days off, and I'll be working on both the show—and the show.

BH:  That's a lot to juggle. But, you won't get bored.

ED:  That's true. I won't get bored.

BH:  There are so many things I could talk to you about. I saw you and Gabriel Ebert ...

ED:  Oh, yeah! Preludes. I'm so glad you saw that. I loved that play.

BH:  It was great. So humane and interesting and challenging. I really admire you and your diverse talents—writing, performing, singing, songwriting. But, I know you have to go. Is there anything you want to say before we wrap up?

ED:  The only thing I would add is that this play is something that is really helpful for us to consider right now. A lot of the trouble that we've gotten into in our government and the way that it's run has to do with these very issues. The lobbyists influencing those in office, and what are [our representatives'] golden handcuffs? Some people think we're in the middle of the apocalypse right now, and it would be hard to disagree in a lot of ways. But I would hope that in this play, in a light play—with comedy, with humanity and understanding—we can start to see a little more, crack open or pull the curtain back, and understand a little more about why things are the way they are. Once we have a little more of that awareness, perhaps we can enact some change. That's what I hope that the conversations that happen after they see this play lead to.

Kings, at the Public Theater through April 1, 2018. For more information, visit

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