jakub | April 18, 2024

AMERICAN THEATRE | Eboni Booth on ‘Primary Trust’: Only Connect

Eboni Booth. (Photo by Lauren Crothers)

The complete script of Eboni Booth’s Primary Trust appears in our Spring 2024 issue. The play, about a lonely, full-grown man with an imaginary friend in a small town outside Rochester, N.Y., had its premiere at Roundabout Theatre Company in Spring 2023, under the direction of Knud Adams. It will next play at London’s Donmar Warehouse this summer, before heading into heavy rotation at U.S. resident theatres in the coming 2024-25 season: It will be at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre next fall, at Syracuse Stage next January, at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre next February). Playwright Eboni Booth spoke with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Appropriate, The Comeuppance, An Octoroon) earlier this year about the play’s gestation and meaning.

BRANDEN JACOBS-JENKINS: Months later, I still hear people talking about the show.

EBONI BOOTH: It was very meaningful to me that the piece seemed to resonate with people the way that it did. I hadn’t anticipated that. You know, you write something and you’re like, “Is this a play? Can it stand up in anyone else’s imagination?” I felt connected to what I wrote, but I still wasn’t quite sure if it was complete. Then when we did it, I felt like: Oh, I see how it has its own legs. And that was meaningful. And then three weeks after we closed, I had my son. The relationship between the two births—of the production and my baby—and also the content of the play got me thinking about things in a different way. And that has been meaningful.

You have this thing that I love and that I find a lot of actors-turned-writers have, which is a kind of effortlessness with character building. You write these vehicles for actors in some magical way that, once inhabited, instantly take on this uncanny quality of real emotional depth. Your people just always strike me as so alive and warm and true. I’m just dying to know what your memories are of writing the play and where it came from for you.

Thank you, Branden. You did the Juilliard program too, so you know: I hit my second year and I had to have something to publicly present. The stuff I had was shabby. And I said, okay, I need to write something new. I’m not a fast writer, but I had to write the first draft of this quite quickly. It had very little resemblance to what it became. There was no imaginary friend. I wanted to write about a guy who works at a bank and discovers some sort of unsavory business practices, and he likes to drink. Then, on the last page, I was like: Oh, maybe someone’s imaginary. And I was like, what is that? Then Marsha Norman said, “Read Harvey.”

Wait a minute. First of all, we could spend this entire interview talking about Marsha. I don’t know what your experience of her was, but she kind of single-handedly changed my whole life and almost everything I thought about writing.

And she has such a hand in so much contemporary American theatre right now.

And television! In one class, I think she had Beau Willimon, Liz Meriwether, Carly Mensch, and Bash Doran, who have gone on to be major showrunners. But Marsha has such a gift for cracking things open—it’s almost a little bit psychic, the way she can say or recommend the exact thing that opens up a creative path.

She summons it, right? She’s digging around in her bag, her glasses on top of her head, and she says one thing and you could almost miss it, and you’re like: That was it! And she stays on you. She stayed on me to keep skin in the game and to write something of consequence. She doesn’t want you writing stuff that’s bloodless. I had a sense of her before I started at Juilliard, but then working with her and understanding sort of her patience…she was for me.

Who she’s for she’s really for. I’ve always dreamed of putting together something called The Book of Norman, because everybody has a little Marsha nugget, these kind of Zen koans of storytelling. One I always remember is: “The Wizard of Oz would still be The Wizard of Oz even without the Munchkins. The point is that Dorothy’s lost.” And when I’m writing, I’m now constantly like, “Is this a Munchkin or is this the journey?” Trying to separate the Munchkins from the journey is half of the work when you’re working with your imagination.

She would also say: “The audience needs to know when they can go home.” That’s structure.

Yes, and what she’s also talking about is how readers or viewers are constantly in a state of asking questions quietly and your job as a writer is to say, “I hear you and I know what you’re looking for. Follow me.” And hopefully they trust you enough early on to let you guide them from question to question to question until you’re leading them through an interior journey. Marsha would probably say that all story structure is essentially about anticipating a reader’s question. But anyway! So she tells you about Harvey.

What it taught me was: If there’s an imaginary person, come out with that at the beginning. To go back to your point: What is the play really about? I didn’t want it to be a trick, like in the The Sixth Sense, where it’s like, “Oh, how did I miss that?” It’s about something else. Once she said that, it cracked something open. And then you do what you do: You sit in front of your laptop. Though I was filled with anxiety and doubt, I just started to string together the disparate things in my life that I often wish I could see represented and don’t; some of them dramatic, and some a little more practical and circumstantial. That’s sort of how it came together bit by bit. I remember writing the play and saying, “Jesus, Lord, I’ve never written anything that fast.”

There are these genius-plays-written-quickly which always make me mad to hear about: Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare, he wrote that in like two days, or Topdog/Underdog, written in two days. Obviously there are a lot of plays written in two days that aren’t good, so it’s a testament to the talent of these people, but there is something about the fast plays that feel organic to me, like a dream can feel organic. I can always kind of tell when something hasn’t been stretched out and overworked over many months. And I definitely caught that vibe from your play—the consistency of the mood and its invention and the mysterious kind of connective tissue which held the parts together. And I was like, This is something that came out of her in a leap or something.

I mean, it’s one of the things that doesn’t get much exercise in television. So much of TV is front-brained, and you have to be really conscious about how the story is disseminated; you don’t just have the space to do that unconscious probing, that sort of sensory work. You have to stay in your own way in television work, and that’s something I’m still adjusting to. With this play, it was a process where I said, “I don’t have much time, so what happens when I…?”

Jay O. Sanders, William Jackson Harper, and Eric Berryman in “Primary Trust” at Roundabout Theatre Company. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

I’m wondering where you grew up. From the work of yours I know, you seem to be interested in a certain form of Black life that quietly survives or thrives inside of a predominant white social context, in which being the “lonely only” in any given room is frequently a given. I’m struck by the fact that the New England town in Primary Trust can be as small at it is and yet it feels like everyone’s still a stranger to Kenneth and he’s a stranger to them; he sort of lives in the corner of Wally’s, drinking his mai tais, and living pretty comfortably with his invisibility. I don’t know if that’s intentional.

I’m from the Bronx, and I was born and raised in the city. But I think, like a lot of kids, I read a lot, and there’s part of me internally that is sort of held by other environments—some of my father’s family is from New England and I went to college in Vermont. So the weather, the geography, the politics of the Northeast have sort of captured me. 

I think a feeling of alienation is one I probably will always write about. I rendered it literally in my earlier play, Paris, and in Primary Trust racially, because in those environments, I do feel a certain kind of isolation. Yet there’s a lot of ambivalence, because I did spend a lot of time in all-white environments, growing up and in school, so there’s the tug—there’s both the familiar and the strange, and that sort of liminal space has also mirrored a lot of my experiences emotionally. I often feel like I’m sort of on the margins, so I do find myself gravitating toward people and things that can preserve that alienation. It sounds pejorative, but it’s not—this sort of uneasiness about what home is something that’s interesting to me.

So many people don’t think Black people are where they are, you know? They hear “small town” and automatically think “white.” Those assumptions interest me. 

Primary Trust is haunted by Kenneth’s mother. There’s this line where he’s like, “I never understand why she up and moved to this little town.” I’m curious, when you’re writing, do you only know as much as the characters know, or do you have a fuller biography for his mother that you’re secretly working with?

It’s such a good question, Branden. I don’t. That’s how I am as an actor too. I really respect how other people work, and I know actors who are like, “This is what I ate for breakfast. This is what my character does on Sunday afternoons.” It’s just not how I work. As a writer, I don’t know why his mom moved up there. I know that I’m curious about the fracture of some Black families. I’m interested in what happens when we have children—the anxiety about being able to keep them safe. None of that is top of mind when I’m writing, but I know that’s something that weighs on my heart. So the idea that she would be so far from what feels like a home feels significant to me, but I don’t know why in a plot-specific way.

I think that’s in keeping with my interest in life’s shadows. There’s a lot in my life that remains unknown to me—stuff that I’m concealing from myself, and certainly within the context of family, things that I just feel like, oh, gosh, can I ever know that? There’s something about small-town living where it seems like it should feel safe, and that people are provided for and yet…In New York, the debauchery is laid bare; we see it and deal with the aggression and the corruption in our faces. But there are things that slip between the cracks in smaller towns, and that’s interesting to me; how people end up there, why they stay, why they don’t leave. All of those things that feel a little unknowable, I’m narratively curious about. 

In some ways, that move to the small town explains everything about Kenneth: his affect, the loneliness he feels. I like to imagine a story here about class, that his mom just needed to get out because she couldn’t afford to be where she was. I definitely feel like there’s a real interest in the lives and pressures of the working class. You have a gift for rendering very authentically, not only the language but the emotional texture of precarity. Is there something about that world that specifically fascinates you?

I’m really fascinated by money. I didn’t have it for so long. I was talking to my boyfriend, and I was like, “You don’t check your bank balance two times a day?”, and he was like, “I definitely don’t.” I still do! Branden, I make money. I work in television, I’m very lucky to have money now. But I’ve never, ever broken the habit of doing that. I did not grow up in poverty by any means, but there was an edge that I was well aware of, and the culture of money in my family is something I’ve inherited. I’m really curious about money and questions of power and access.

It’s funny, because money affects us so much, but we’re not taught about it. I feel like we should take money classes in high school. People are really left to their own devices. That is really, really interesting to me, and it gets to a larger question of what I have—if and when I have the means, will I then do right by other people? That was one of the driving questions behind Paris: When I get even a modicum of power, will I treat other people in the way that I want to be treated? Or will I sort of slip into the pattern of being able to take advantage of that power? That feels related to money. I waited tables for almost 20 years; I auditioned forever. I had no money, and it shaped everything.

I’ve said this already but I do think one of the particular gifts you have is that you write these parts for actors—I think everybody left Primary Trust feeling like every actor was celebrated by this play, which is not something that you see all the time. Do you think about the actor when you’re writing? Do you feel like you’re tapping into or calling upon your actor skill set when you’re writing?

You always want to give someone something to do, however small the part is. I spent so many years getting sides, and you’re like, Well, how do I add to this? Or: There’s not a human being who has ever uttered these lines, ever. I think a lot of writers—and this sounds so shitty, and I don’t mean it this way—but I’m not sure a lot of writers understand that they are writing for actors. I want to give people stuff to do, and I want them to feel like the person I’ve written has some correspondence to something in reality. When someone says my characters feel like real people, that means the world to me. Those are the kinds of roles I like to play as an actor.

William Jackson Harper and April Matthis in “Primary Trust” at Roundabout Theatre Company. (Photo by Knud Adams)

I’m curious to hear you talk more about when writing occurred to you as a thing you might do. Were you secretly a writer all this time? Did you have an “aha” moment?

Well, I read a lot. I’ve been reading since I was very young. But I always wanted to be an actor. And then in college, I decided that I didn’t want to be an actor anymore. I interned at the newspaper in Burlington, Vt., and I thought I would be a journalist. They offered me a job when I graduated. And at the last minute, I thought I’d feel haunted if I didn’t give acting a try. So I didn’t take the job. I came back to New York and tried to act. I wasn’t writing, but I read a lot. I was working on a play with Boo Killebrew’s company, CollaborationTown, and she took me out for a drink and said, “You should try to write for TV, because we’re adults, and we need health insurance.” At that point, I had been doing a lot of new-play development, so I was starting to understand how playwrights thought about story and put story together. So I was like, okay, and I wrote a play that wasn’t good, but I wrote that shit. Then I wrote another one that was like 6 percent better. It started like that. But I think the impulses behind a lot of my writing are actually influenced by prose writers. Even though I am an actor, a lot of the prose I’ve read has informed my writing, which is why sometimes I’m nervous—like, is it a play or a short story?

I’m okay with that. That’s what felt so distinct about Primary Trust. It had a novelistic quality to it that was really refreshing; it was just interested in bringing you as close as possible to someone’s psychology, rather than experimenting in realism, which I think is what a lot of people do.

That is what a lot of people do. I feel really satisfied when I read an Alice Munro story about a woman cooking eggs on a farm in Ontario; the change is so incremental, but it feels very significant, and that feels like a whole meal to me.

I need to know who else you read.

I also love Edward P. Jones. With Alice Munro—in some ways, you wouldn’t immediately liken her to Caryl Churchill, but like her, her work is deceptively simple, but there’s something hard and dark and generous underneath all of those stories. And like with Caryl Churchill, I can keep going back to it and finding more.

You talked about having a lonely childhood, but how do you self-identify: Are you a nerd? A weirdo? Because you just strike me as a talented, kind, thoughtful, warm, sweet, darling actress and playwright whom everyone adores. There’s nobody who doesn’t love Eboni.

No, no, they’re out there! They’re just being polite. I’m a Libra, and so much of my pain is people pleasing. But I also think I like being social. I feel like art has taught me how to sort of live with the mess of my life, and not to try to make it neat. For me, the process of making a play is so messy, and filled with so much anxiety and self-loathing and confusion and fear, that making peace with myself through the process, and just being able to say, “You don’t have control over everything, here we are, we just have to sort of give over to it night after night,” has been really therapeutic. I didn’t anticipate it would be so hard, but it’s been really good for me.

Are their pleasures for you in that acknowledgement of your own introversion? Loneliness is a thing I feel very much in the play, in all the characters, but I remember feeling at the end of Primary Trust a kind of relief; I felt good that there was an acceptance of Kenneth’s state. In the end, he didn’t need anything more than just to recover from the loss of something a little bit. Do you think there is a joy to be found in loneliness?

I think so. I didn’t want to resolve it fully at the end, but I did want him to feel a little more comfortable with connection. And I don’t want to tell anybody what to think or what to come away with, but I’ll say that the antidote for me has been really feeling connected and seen by other people. It sounds so Mickey Mouse, but we need each other and I think that’s important, and to be able to let people in is crucial. And yet he still drinks; he is arrested. He has to take the journey that he takes. I didn’t want to make it seem like that would be an easy road, but not having to do it totally alone, or to be a little more elective about how he works his stuff out internally, felt important to me.

William Jackson Harper and Eric Berryman in “Primary Trust” at Roundabout Theatre Company. (Photo by Knud Adams)

Another thing that struck me was how delicately you handle the unfolding of Kenneth’s character and allow us to gradually see him. It kind of creeps up on you that there actually might be something…off about him. When you see this table full of mai tais, you’re like: Wait, he comes here every night after work? I wonder, as his author, did or do you feel that there’s something “wrong” with him? Does the play have a point of view on his love of mai tais?

Some of the questions we got that I wasn’t prepared for were: Is this a play about alcoholism? And, Is this a play about mental illness? I really want to be respectful of both of those issues. But I think it’s about mental illness in the way that I feel like we all mentally struggle. And my relationship with alcohol has been really unpredictable throughout my life. It has allowed me to feel free and imagine a life very different from the one I had, but we know that it has an undertow, and you can get scooped up by that. I worked in bars for so long, so some of it is also a love letter to the culture of: We drink every day, we drink all the time, and it’s not that weird. You tip well, and you make these connections with people you don’t know. But I didn’t want to comment on it. It feels important to the extent that it tells us something about what’s roiling on the inside.

I found myself wrestling with this idea of, “Well, he’s functional, he’s not hurting anyone, and what exactly am I asking to happen right now, as a viewer? Why am I asking him to live his life a certain way?” That was an interesting place to be in. I’m not saying that the play in any way is like, “Alcoholism is okay.” But you’ve painted such a vivid portrait that the questions I’m asking are the questions I would ask about a real person. It made me feel involved in a way that became self-reflexive and very generous.

Branden, thank you so much. That means so much to me. What I would say about that is: I feel like sometimes I do my most existential questioning when I’m doing something quite ordinary, like I’ll be in Target and just start really contemplating much larger questions. There’s something about the mashup of the mundane, the quotidian, with the larger stuff that overwhelms me. Drinking was a way to try to make sense of these very big feelings I often have in small places in small towns and tiny bars off the interstate. I’d be drinking a very unremarkable drink, and a particular song starts playing, and all of a sudden I find myself thinking about my past and my future, and trying to make some sense of it.

In trying to pull forward the emotional impulse of the play itself, I wonder, what do you hope people carry away from it? Do you hope that this play would transform our behavior as we interact with each other, with strangers, and in our communities?

That’s the question: What do we do? This is therapy talking, but it’s the idea that the more self-awareness I have, it might make me more generous and more open. There’s something about knowing yourself and understanding yourself in relation to the people around you, and having politics around that and a real mindfulness of how your behavior affects other people. I just started hiring babysitters. I’ve never been someone’s employer before, and I thought, how much do you pay them? Did you pay them on time? And what if you have to fire them? It’s about, how do you really treat other people?

It’s a question I don’t know how to answer because it’s one I’m still trying to figure out. But I think understanding my own stuff, my own limitations, my own needs that were going unmet that were maybe making me brittle and less reluctant to sort of see other people—something in there was helpful for really being able to take other people in.

Creative credits for Roundabout production: Direction by Knud Adams, scenic design by Marsha Ginsberg, costume design by Qween Jean, lighting design by Isabella Byrd, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman, music by Luke Wygodny, and hair and wig design by Nikiya Mathis. Production stage managers were Rachel Bauder and David Sugarman.

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