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In early 2020, now-retired Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with MaYaa Boateng about her work on Exception to the Rule in anticipation of the planned 2020 production of the show. Boateng edited her responses in early 2022.

TED SOD: Why did you choose to play the role of Erika in Dave Harris’s Exception to the Rule? What do you find challenging and/or exciting about this role?

MAYAA BOATENG: Well, I was certainly drawn to the play as a whole first. Whenever I pick up a script, I’m reading for the story and for the important questions raised. Dave’s play immediately resonated on many levels. It’s a dark, but also funny-in-a-dark-way, exciting take on the system and institution that is American education/schooling—and more specifically in this play, detention—for Black and Brown students. I could not put the play down on the first read. I found myself expanding to it. And that is incredibly important to me when agreeing to do a project. As far as Erika goes, she is strangely unique. She is complex and layered and flawed. Even in her determined righteousness, we see her as human and deeply feel for her predicament. This was both exciting and challenging for me because I knew I would have to excavate a lot of layers in order to get to her core so that I could do justice in portraying her. Finally, I resonated with her circumstances on many levels and wanted to explore a kind of role I had not done before.

TS: What kind of preparation or research did you have to do in order to play this role?  Please give us some in-depth insight into your process as an actor.

MB: My process for varying roles varies wildly. It really depends on the role and the project. But in all cases, for me, it takes an incredible amount of focus and endurance. I immerse myself head first into the script and the story the playwright is trying to tell. I do an incredible amount of text work, first. Digging, searching, reading the play several times. I’ve found that everything you need as an actor, the playwright gives you, especially if you have one as brilliantly talented as Dave Harris. My job as the actor is to go a little further and find the nuance and humanity and bring that to life—illuminating something new that cannot be found on the page. Right now, what’s currently gripping my interest as I prepare for this role is researching the question of what it means to be Black in the American educational system.

TS: I realize the rehearsal process hasn’t begun yet, but can you share some of your initial thoughts about who Erika is with us? What do you think the play is about? How is the character of Erika relevant to you?  

MB: Erika is a high-achieving Black student in high school. She hungers to succeed. She is challenged (perhaps internally) with questions of what success as a Black person/student in America means. I think one thing that’s really great about Dave’s play is that on many levels it is pretty simple—it’s a story about these students who are literally stuck in detention. Questions about why they are in detention, why they cannot get out, why they are forgotten about...make this play deeply important, timely, and heartbreaking.

TS: Will you please talk about your understanding of the relationship between Erika and the other students who are in detention with her at this point in your process?

MB: The relationship between Erika and the other students is most exciting for me. It is a complicated and often tense one. She is placed in close proximity with people who are, seemingly, completely different from her. They challenge one another and call each other out and do so in a way that is bold and reaching. Erika may think she has it all figured out, but we find that she has much to learn from the other students.

TS: What do you look for from a director when you are collaborating on a role in a new play? What atmosphere is important to you in a rehearsal room in order to do your best work?

MB: A huge deciding factor for me in choosing to do this project was in fact Miranda [Haymon] and Dave and the kind of room they set up as creative leaders. They are consummate collaborators, they listen in depth, they raise important questions, and they are simply lovely, lovely people. This is especially important for me as an actor and collaborator. The work we do in the room and in finding character and behavior is sacred and often vulnerable. There has to be an incredible amount of trust in the room as we bravely embark on the journey of telling the story. Miranda’s leadership creates a special room and environment that allows for the work to happen. And also, knowing that we are going to have a fun time and laugh a lot is important to me.

TS: Where were you born and educated? When and why did you decide to become an actress? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you?

MB: I am from Prince George’s County, Maryland, in a city called Hyattsville. I was educated in both Maryland and Washington, D.C., where I attended Duke Ellington School of the Arts and concentrated in Drama. I was always a performer. I started out running track as a sprinter but then also found performance—namely step dance. I was stepping with a youth group in Maryland that gave young students in the inner city like myself a positive outlet. We performed at churches, nursing homes, and homeless shelters and were learning at a young age how to have a political voice as artists, putting our skills to good use and exploring the intersection of the arts and social justice. So performance and acting were the gifts that kept finding me. Even at times when I felt it was not the path for me or that I was not good enough, I kept working on the craft, hungry to learn and grow. And I was blessed that more and more opportunities kept coming, saying to me that acting and telling stories—using my instrument to inspire a generation of thinkers and empathizers—is my unique calling.

I’ve had so many teachers and mentors who have had profound influence. My acting teachers in high school really instilled the importance of discipline as an artist, so I knew this very early on, and it carried me into the profession. I also had professors and mentors at Fordham University and then at NYU where I received my Masters who saw something in me and pushed me to find that something for myself. They challenged me, they supported me, they believed in me. And to this day they are still in my life. I am completely indebted to them.

TS: What or who inspires you as an artist?

MB: My inspiration comes from so many different places and how dope! A lot of times it’s music—artists like Pharell Williams and Donald Glover who push boundaries and are profoundly unique and unparalleled in their artistry. I am inspired when I see amazing actors, Viola Davis and Alfre Woodard for example. Elizabeth Marvel, who I had the honor of working with in Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte, inspired me. But mostly, my family inspires me. My mother and her huge complex history—our history as a family—where we’ve been and where we’re going. We are people who persist in the face of obstacles, and we have had many. I appreciate that I can bring all of who I am to my work as an artist.  

TS: Students will read this interview and will want to know what it takes to be a working actresswhat advice can you give young people who say they want to act in theatre?

MB: I would say study, study, study. Like truly. Really work on growing in the craft, learning all you can. Watching all you can, reading all you can. Expect to work hard. Your unique choices will come from your preparation and hard work and your talent as an actor is in your choices. The choices you make about story and character. No one can make the choices you make in the way you make them because no one has your unique experiences.

Don’t be afraid to bring who you are to the work, because people want to see and hear you. Find the love in the work. Find why you do it and the joy it brings you. It has to be greater than just acting—attach a mission or purpose to it and focus on that. And finally, be a human being. Allow yourself to soak up the wonders of life, your hobbies, your academics, your friends and family, learn languages if you can, travel if you can, take and immerse yourself in classes outside of acting also. The experiences that only life can bring—know that these things will make you a beautifully nuanced actor.

My favorite piece of advice: “It’s ok to have fear, we all have it. But the desire must be greater than the fear.” Let your desire—as artists with something to say—lead you.

UPSTAGE GUIDE: What impact has the experience of the two-year pause between the planned production and now had on Exception to the Rule for you?

MB: After 2-plus years of being away from the play, and too much time away from theatre as a whole due to the pandemic, I more understand the value of the need to express and to be within community and creative collaboration. I understand now that we do theatre—we do art—because we must. It’s a beautiful thing to tell stories, to be in community with others, to experience and breathe together as we witness an artistic experience that may resonate with different parts of our lives. To feel something collectively, to laugh and cry together, is such a gift, and I appreciate it now more than ever. 

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