For director Lileana Blain-Cruz ’06, the riskier, the better

Lileana Blain-Cruz ’06
Michael Falco/Black Star

Theater director Lileana Blain-Cruz ’06 relishes tackling the most difficult plays out there. If a play looks practically unstageable — no plot, say, and densely theoretical language — her first thought is, “OK, how do we do it? Let’s do it,” she says. 

And she does, as in her 2016 production of Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again, which ran at Soho Rep, a 70-seat downtown-Manhattan theater known for risky, experimental plays. Revolt is an avant-garde piece that unfurls in a series of fragments to explore how women have been oppressed by language, culture, and violence, and how they can rebel. It is playfully absurdist at some moments and unabashedly bloody at others. 

In Blain-Cruz’s production, audience members had to walk across a raised platform to get to their seats, giving a physical dimension to the play’s theme of disrupting social norms. The director “wanted to disorient the audience,” says Sarah Benson, the artistic director of Soho Rep. “She is very willing and eager to turn everything upside down and inside out and see what she finds.” 

Blain-Cruz further unsettled the audience during a scene in which three generations of women discuss the evolution of feminism. Before the scene started, audience members were served slices of watermelon, which she uses in the play as a symbol of abundance and summer. Meanwhile, on stage, two characters appeared to cut out their tongues. The scene demands that the audience contemplate “how you imagine a new society when the language you know is already corrupted by an oppressive system,” Blain-Cruz says. The audience’s snack provided a visceral jolt as it juxtaposed the sharing of food with the characters’ rejection of eating, she explains. 

At 34, Blain-Cruz has emerged as a force to be reckoned with in the theater world. In the last three years, she has directed more than a dozen plays, winning praise from New York City’s leading theater critics. Last year she won an Obie Award, a prize given for excellence in off-Broadway theater; early this year, she received one of the 45 fellowships given annually by the philanthropic arts nonprofit United States Artists, a $50,000 prize recognizing the “most compelling” American artists — an award that is rarely given to directors.

Many of the plays she directs address daunting social and cultural issues of the past and present — the pain and dislocation embedded in the history of African Americans, the obstacles women face from violence and cultural biases. Time and again, her productions are surprising, visually striking, and inventive. 

She is drawn to plays that “represent a truth in the world, that are multilayered and complicated,” Blain-Cruz says. “I like discomfort as we try to figure something out.”

Before arriving at Princeton, Blain-Cruz had been involved in just one theatrical performance, as a chorus member in a high school play. But when she took a Princeton acting class, she found herself leaping out of her role in a scene to tinker with the physical environment. “We’d be working on a scene and I would say, ‘I’ll turn on this light; I’ll close this door.’ What I loved was setting up the world of the scene.” 

In a junior-year course on African American theater taught by former University professor Daphne Brooks, Blain-Cruz got her first exposure to several important playwrights, including Lynn Nottage and Suzan-Lori Parks, with whom she felt a deep connection. (She has since directed plays by both.) Both playwrights are “very literary,” which Blain-Cruz especially enjoyed. She recalls the impact Nottage had simply by “placing black women’s narratives at the center of the story.” Reading Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro in the same class, Blain-Cruz was struck by the way the playwright “played with the psychological damage from being a black woman in this society.” 

Blain-Cruz became an English major, which makes her “gravitate toward thorny, complicated texts” today, she says, because she loves how they play with language. Theater drew her in because it presents an urgency that many other forms of art don’t have: “It’s the one place you are essentially taking people’s time. They can’t multitask,” she says.

“I’m interested in the complicated dynamics of power and injustice and how those things create a kind of deep chaos and emotional scarring.” 

— Lileana Blain-Cruz

By her junior year, she was artistic director of the Princeton Black Arts Company, a student group, spearheading its rebirth. For her directorial debut at the University, she selected a seminal work in the African American canon that is famously challenging to stage, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide /When the Rainbow Is Enuf. In the play, seven nameless black women deliver poetic monologues punctuated by recollections about domestic violence, abortion, and abandonment. There are also meditations on joy, sex, and rebirth.

Blain-Cruz united the play’s tough material with a defining visual element, an approach that has come to be a signature of her work. Instead of building a set, she chose a bare stage, its only adornment a circular mural painted on the floor that was bursting with bright colors. Her production highlighted the play’s call-and-response rhythms and punctuated the poetry with simple, evocative dance movements, connecting the piece to African performance traditions. 

“Most students wouldn’t have undertaken such a challenging piece,” says award-winning playwright and Princeton professor Robert Sandberg ’70, who was her adviser. “It requires a director to bring their own invention and imagination to the piece. You have to invent everything about it.” Blain-Cruz, Sandberg says, has a gift for telling a story “through images and movement as opposed to direct dramatic action.” Sandberg, who has been on the faculty since 1995, considers her one of the most original directors he has taught.

She has also demonstrated her originality when tackling the classics. While earning a master of fine arts degree at the Yale School of Drama, she gave Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew a surprise ending. As written, the play concludes with a wedding feast at which Katherine appears to be “tamed” by her new husband, Petruchio. In Blain-Cruz’s interpretation, performed in 2011, Katherine serves the wedding guests champagne laced with cyanide, and every guest dies. Instead of being defeated, Katherine — played by fellow student Lupita Nyong’o, now an Academy Award-winning actress — emerges as the victor, but a broken one. 

A scene from The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, which may be the most challenging play Blain-Cruz has directed. She won an Obie award last year for her work on the play.
Yi Zhao

“I wanted a black woman as Kate, at the center of the universe,” Blain-Cruz says. “And I thought, what if she resisted to the end? What if she learned how to act and used it against those seeking to oppress her?” Blain-Cruz eliminated the curtain call, so the mass murder is the last note of the performance. She wanted the audience “to sit with that uncomfortable feeling and have to deal with that.”

The production “is legendary on campus” for its freshness and power, says James Bundy, dean of the Yale School of Drama. For a scene in which Petruchio is attempting to tame Katherine, Blain-Cruz set the pair under a single, swinging lightbulb as if he was conducting a CIA interrogation. “She comes up with visual gestures that contextualize the scene rapidly for the audience,” Bundy says. Blain-Cruz went on to direct several Shakespeare productions, including Henry IV Part One at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and a Princeton student production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Berlind Theatre in 2013.

After finishing her master’s degree in 2012 and serving as a directing fellow at the New York Theatre Workshop — the place where Rent was nurtured — Blain-Cruz burst onto the theater scene in 2016, directing six plays in a single year, four of them off-Broadway. 

Blain-Cruz credits her mother, who studied art history in college, with instilling in her a sense of the importance of strong visual gestures. Her parents, who worked in insurance, made sure to take their children to museums, opera, and theater, Blain-Cruz recalls. The family moved several times during her childhood, living in New York City, Miami, and North Carolina. Blain-Cruz’s father is Puerto Rican, and her mother is Haitian. “I live as a human in a space that is betwixt and between — I’m mixed, and so I’m comfortable in living in ambiguity, in that mixed space,” she says. “That feels important to me in the theater that I create — that things can be more than one thing at once.”

Her work has dealt with a panoply of issues relating to African Americans. One of the most acclaimed was Pipeline, written by Dominique Morisseau and performed at Lincoln Center last year, which tells the story of an inner-city public-school teacher hoping to protect her son from the life in prison she fears awaits him. (The name refers to the school-to-prison pipeline.) The production was nominated for five 2018 Lucille Lortel Awards, which recognize off-Broadway shows. It also was shown as a film in more than 80 movie theaters across the country in October. 

Blain-Cruz’s work also captures the experiences of African Americans in several period pieces: A family of free people of color faces the threat of becoming slaves in 1813 after the United States acquires the Louisiana Territory in The House That Will Not Stand; a young black girl in 1940s Ohio wishes for blue eyes in a stage version of Princeton professor emerita Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye; and a British-Jamaican nurse who lived during the 19th century fights racial prejudice during the Crimean War in Mary Seacole, opening at Lincoln Center in February. Not all her work deals with race, however. In 2016, for instance, she directed Red Speedo, a morality tale about competitive swimming with a largely white cast.

“I’m interested in the complicated dynamics of power and injustice, and how those things create a kind of deep chaos and emotional scarring,” she says. “I feel the deep injustices of this world, and I try to explode those injustices in the theater in the hope that, by seeing them clearly, we might change for the better. That’s utopian, but seeing ourselves in others is a way of reminding ourselves of our common humanity and what is so good about really good art. I believe art is powerful, and theater can be an avenue to really important conversations around race and social justice.”

Despite the serious subject matter of her plays, Blain-Cruz is known for her joyous approach to rehearsing: She’s more likely to be physically engaging with the actors as they limber up than sitting in the third row, offering critiques. Working on a play with her is “full of laughing and dancing and music,” says Obie-winning playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins ’06, a close friend since their undergraduate days who has collaborated with her on several projects. One of their collaborations was Gurls, an adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae that was commissioned to celebrate the opening of Princeton’s Lewis Arts complex in 2017. 

This fall alone, Blain-Cruz has directed three productions, including Kate Tarker’s war satire, called Thunderbodies; and Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine, by Nottage, about an African American woman losing her footing in the middle class. And next year, she’ll take on an entirely new challenge: directing an opera. Faust, with a 50-person cast — the largest Blain-Cruz has ever directed — will be performed at Opera Omaha in Nebraska, in April. It’s the “epicness” of the project that drew her in, she says. 

Perhaps the most challenging play Blain-Cruz has directed is The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead, an early play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan-Lori Parks. The 1990 piece — for which Blain-Cruz won the Obie Award in 2017 — is rarely produced because the material is so challenging: One reviewer called it a “jagged, angry, weird text.” 

The play introduces an array of characters that derive from African American stereotypes and biblical, historical, and folkloric figures. The title character, called Black Man With Watermelon, dies again and again throughout the performance by electrocution and lynching, testing the love of the main female character, called Black Woman with Fried Drumstick. The playwright has described the piece as emulating jazz — lines are repeated with variations in the manner of jazz improvisation. “It’s a play many people think of as unstageable, but Lileana is fearless when it comes to things that look formless. She can animate and reveal the architecture of things that look like a mess on the page,” Jacobs-Jenkins says.

 The play, produced by Signature Theatre in 2016, won Blain-Cruz praise from reviewers, who called it “hypnotic” (The New York Times) and “evocative” (Variety). “Blain-Cruz directs as if Parks had handed her a musical comedy, even though the history of innocent black men being subjugated, lynched, and executed is her subject,” wrote Thewrap.com. “There’s song and dance, but most arresting is the stylization of the dialogue, as if the actors were singing recitative a cappella.” 

For Blain-Cruz, the themes of The Last Black Man are connected to the current debate about police officers killing unarmed black men and efforts to bring attention to the names of shooting victims, which resonated with one of the play’s refrains: “You should write it down because if you don’t write it down, then they will come along and tell the future that we did not exist. You should write it down, and you should hide it under a rock. You should write down the past, and you should write down the present.”

“It’s about remembering those who have left, and accepting and embracing our history, in the hope that that doesn’t have to happen again and that wasn’t in vain,” Blain-Cruz says in an interview conducted by Signature Theatre. “In doing that, there’s a celebration of black life, a celebration of black beauty, a celebration of our existence and our complicated and dense history, and those who have come before us.” The play also conveys that “we are here, and we’re still working. We’re making things, and that’s amazing and significant and powerful, and that feels important for right now, too.” 

Jennifer Altmann is a freelance writer and editor who formerly worked at PAW.