James Baldwin once said, “Fires can’t be made with dead embers, nor can enthusiasm be stirred by spiritless men. Enthusiasm in our daily work lightens effort and turns even labor into pleasant tasks.” It’s evident in the first few minutes of meeting actor Ryan Jamaal Swain, that the dynamic performer is the sheer embodiment of Baldwin’s words. From his powerful performance as Damon on FX’s Pose to his magnetic role as Love in Keenan Scott II’s Thoughts of a Colored Man, Swain has brought intensity, light and grace to his work. In Baltimore Center Stage’s Thoughts of a Colored Man (running thru November 10th), Swain joins an extraordinary ensemble that showcases the vibrant inner life of being Black, proud, and thriving in the 21st Century. Swain recently spoke exclusively with Baltimore OUTloud regarding this mind-blowing production that is a must-see!
Frankie Kujawa: What can audiences expect from “Thoughts of a Colored Man?”
Ryan Jamaal Swain: I think what [audiences] learn to love from this piece is that it paints black culture – black men and black women – as polylith and not monolith. We get to see a very specific story illuminating universal truths about humanity. [A story] about wanting love, wanting acceptance, wanting to be seen and to be heard. I think that what Keenan [Scott II] has done so beautifully in this, is he’s allowed a space for all types of men to exist under the sun. You have heteronormative men; you have homosexual men. You have people that are trying to figure out, ‘Am I a pansexual? Am I a sapiosexual?’ All these things wrapped up into one; when you really don’t get to do that in any type of contemporary text. I think what [this piece] will do is inject some type of understanding and empathy for a whole bunch of people across the board.
FK: In your opinion, is this a timely production given our point in society and culture?
RJS: Absolutely! It feels as though, because of the strains that our political administration has thrown us, we are yearning for authentic stories. We get a quantified number of authentic stories which run the gamut in regard to our barometer of quality. I think that this piece, specifically, is needed right here, right now, in Baltimore, in New York, on the globe at large. There are so many things backwards about a term like ‘Make America Great Again.’ A notion that, ‘It was once great and, therefore, it can’t be great anymore unless we retreat back to things that we left and diminished.’ The idea that we almost have to erase the progress we’ve made in order to then go back. That’s a notion that we as a nation don’t need. Having that be the slogan; the mantra for this new leadership really puts a strain on humanity. It doesn’t allow us to be our full, authentic selves. It’s asking us to fit a square box into a circle hole. It just doesn’t make sense. I think, right now, what we need more than ever is to be able to provide empathy. We need something that gives us grace and compassion. Something that allows us to be a unified front and not this divisive culture that has enabled this administration for this amount of time. This production does that for audiences.
FK: Both “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” as well as your work on the critically-acclaimed “Pose,” tell poignant, thought-provoking stories. What is it about story-telling that’s so important for you, and appeals to you?
RJS: I love when stories can puncture the hearts and minds of everyone. That [stories] can change the molecular structure of what somebody is thinking. People come out thinking something new, and that thought funnels into action, and that action funnels into community and that community turns into a nation. I’ve been so fortunate and blessed with the work I’ve done with Thoughts of a Colored Man, as well as Pose, to be on the front line of social change. I think that’s been very impactful for me. What it has allowed me to do is to tap into my ‘Why?’ as an artist. My ‘why’ is to be in-service of the people. To always have the stories of the people. If we’re not telling those stories, and we’re not inside saturating and talking to the youth, and being vessels for that, then what am I doing? As an actor, my job is to provide and to bring life. My job as a storyteller is to tell stories. If I have no stories to tell, then how good am I as a storyteller? So, I think when we think things like ‘Art is for art sake,’ no – art should be able to reflect the times. It should be able to be so immensely tapped-in to what is happening with humanity and citizens, that you can go and tell that story and then have the power to shift the paradigm for so many other people. That’s means more to me than anything. Beyond the fame, beyond the celebrity, being able to be noticed on the street – F*ck that! It’s not about that. It’s about how am I impacting and being in service to human beings. That I know that when they come home from their long days, sweaty from a shop or a corporate office – having to go through the trials and tribulations of being under a boss they don’t like, or the boss doesn’t like them. That these people can turn on that TV or go to the theater to escape that. To be able to go on and move forward again and again and give [people] more gusto to get to the next day. And that’s why I do what I do. I do it for those common folks – the people I grew up with. And I’ve been so fortunate to use my gift as a conduit for people to have healing – whether it be spiritual, emotional, mental, or physical.
FK: What messages do you hope audiences take away from this production?
RJS: I hope that they take understanding of marginalized people, of brown and black folk, of Latinx people, of queer-folk, of gender non-binary people, of questioning people. I hope that they take that we are all here trying to get through it the best way that we know how. What a privilege it is and what an honor it is, to be able to have a space to get through it. I think that I want audiences to take away that black people, black folk, this is a movement and not a moment. Black people are in Vogue, black and brown people are on TV, they’re producing, they have a staged play here in Baltimore. They’re going on Broadway and have been on Broadway. It is a beautiful time to be black, but I also want people to understand that we have always been at the center of culture, of ethics and morale. We are just pushing the pendulum forward. With this show [audiences] are going to see something they’ve never seen before.
For more information on Thoughts of a Colored Man, please visit: https://www.centerstage.org/
- Since 2011, arts writer Frankie Kujawa has covered a wide scope of entertainment stories and celebrity interviews. From the late Carrie Fisher and LGBTQ icon George Takei to comedians Lily Tomlin and Kathy Griffin to performer Idina Menzel, Kujawa’s candid interview ability brings readers past the byline and into the heart of the story. His unbiased previews of Baltimore-Washington’s theatre scene have allowed readers an inside glimpse of today’s most popular local and national performances. A Baltimore-native, Kujawa is proud to call Charm City his home.