Young director uses theater to change the world
May Adrales hasn't been home to New York for more than two weeks since March.
The freelance director goes wherever work takes her. If any place is really home, it's the theater.
"I had this box of clothes and personal things that I would just mail from theater to theater," she explained, laughing. "It's scary. It's a little taxing."
That box full of clothes most recently was delivered to The Milwaukee Rep's Stiemke Studio, where Adrales is directing "The Mountaintop," an inventive, emotional re-imagining of the last hours in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"It's widely accessible," Adrales said of the play, which was written by her friend Katori Hall and premiered in London in 2009. "It deals with a historical figure that everyone reveres and it also brings up a lot of questions about his character and how we perceive him. And it asks a lot of questions about what it means to be a citizen – because no one has surpassed his ability to be the model American citizen."
Good citizenship is something Adrales has spent a lot of time studying. The daughter of Filipino immigrants, she grew up in Appalachia and was 17 years old before she saw her first performance of professional theater. It must have had an effect, too, because theater became a beloved hobby for Adrales while she pursued her goal of working in social justice.
For the first year and a half out of college she spent time volunteering in Cameroon; eventually she found herself in New York City working with the Council on Foreign Relations, a prestigious think-tank dealing with foreign policy and international affairs.
"I really wanted to create change and address economic inequities," she said. "But this job was pretty demanding and I realized I was still spending all my time at the theater."
What had been a diversion, Adrales realized, was actually a vocation.
"I had this sort of come to Jesus moment where I was like, 'You know what? I don't think this is actually what I really want to do,'" she remembered. "You have to just walk where your feet are walking."
Then she had to tell her parents.
"I was more worried about what my parents were going to do," she said, laughing. "They knew I was on track to be a lawyer so they thought I was going to take this time off between school and then go to law school. And then when they found out I quit my job and I was just temping and working at a bar and doing theater they were a little like, 'OK…'"
Adrales then spent all her time writing and directing in New York City, immersing herself fully in the theatrical community.
"I learned so much. I just worked wherever I could assisting different people, assisting at different levels, creating my own work," she said. "Then I went away to grad school because I realized there was only so much I could teach myself."
She received an MFA from the Yale School of Drama and went on to work at The Public Theatre in New York and later as artistic program director at Lark Play Development Center. She has been a full-time freelance director since 2010.
And her parents have never been more supportive.
"They always have been," she said. "You know, the Yale degree helped! They're trying to get out to see this show ('The Mountaintop')."
Adrales is drawn to new plays by unknown writers, though she still retains a love for all Shakespearean works. She met playwright Katori Hall while working at Lark Play Development; the two roomed together for a while in 2010, during which time she met The Rep's artistic director Mark Clements at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville.
"We ended up talking on a stairwell for I think like two and a half hours," she said. "I think he had just come on board (at The Rep). It was a great, like, simpatico kind of moment. I had directed a show in Chicago and I did a show in Louisville so I was keeping him apprised of what I was doing, and then last year out of nowhere he asked me if I would be interested in directing 'Yellowman.'"
"Yellowman" by Dael Orlandersmith ran last year from Sept. 28 to Nov. 13 at the Stiemke Studio. The work was one of the first productions she had ever assisted on, so being at the helm as director this time around was a significant moment for Adrales.
Reviews for the production were overwhelmingly positive, and Adrales says the love from Milwaukee is mutual.
"I love my time here," she said. "Every time I come here it feels very much like home. I'm invested in the theater and the community. I really like the dialogue and the audience here and I really believe in what Mark is doing; I feel like he's taking The Rep in a really exciting direction."
Adrales was named an Associate Artist at the Milwaukee Rep this August.
"The Associate Artist Initiative is a rare opportunity for an artist to have a greater stake in the community she serves, and to create a deeper, more satisfying dialogue with the audience and the people who make The Rep the strong cultural institution that it is," she wrote at the time.
"The Mountaintop" is a compact play with big themes. Historical figures like King, who gave their lives as martyrs, are not easily accepted as human – but the play demands that the audience accepts his flaws, from his cigarette addiction to his smelly feet to his own crippling self-doubt.
"Katori has a background in journalism so the play is incredibly well-researched," said Adrales. "Her language really captures an essence of King but also adds her own interpretation of him. If you really follow the text you see a lot of different sides to him. He code switches depending on who he's talking to, like great leaders and orators tend to do."
The character of Camae, a maid at the Lorraine Motel where King stayed his last night, is crucial in drawing out the character's weaknesses in all their heartbreaking detail.
"Camae is a dream, and I think she's a dream for any actor to play," said Adrales. "I'm so glad Nikiya (Mathis) is doing it. Katori wrote that character with so much love. There's so much laughter and joy within that character that I think it's easy for even someone like King who has the weight of the world on his shoulders to show a little bit more humanism."
Playing a figure like King could be daunting for anyone, and Adrales sees it as her job to help actor J. Bernard Calloway tackle the task.
"We talked in the audition. Like, 'You're not King. And I know you're not King. And we're just going to have to figure out what works, who you are,'" she said. "I told him, 'Essentially, this King is going to be you.'"
A play with a subject of this import allows for the kind of heavy research Adrales relishes. In preparation for "Yellowman" she spent time with Gullah communities in the South, and for "The Mountaintop" she traveled to Memphis and visited the Lorraine Hotel and Mason Temple, where King delivered his last speech.
"The amount of information on King, the different biographies, authorized and unauthorized, and the documentaries that have been made – that was just thrilling," she said. "I knew King like a chapter in a history book. But you're really trying to understand this life of a man, because we're witnessing him on April 3, 1968 which is the very end of his life."
Although she may not be on track for law school anymore and her foreign policy days are long over, it would seem that Adrales was destined to enact social change after all. She gravitates to plays that illustrate societal injustices, works that challenge the audience to examine themselves and their culture.
"The work that often attracts me all deals with social issues that are important to me – racial inequality, people trying to make change in our society. They deal with hidden problems that are happening in American society that deal with hidden racism, economic disparity. So now I feel like it's all coming together," she said. "Like, 'Finally!' I feel like I'm doing all of the things that always interested me."
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