Interview with Sweat star Khris Davis
Khris Davis is an Obie and Drama Desk Award-winning actor, who is currently making his Broadway debut as Chris in Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Sweat at Studio 54.
He was awarded an Obie and Drama Desk Award, as well as a Theatre World Award, for his off-Broadway debut in Lincoln Center's Theater production of The Royale.
We caught up with Khris to get his thoughts on appearing in Broadway's grittiest and most timely drama...
Thomas Hayden Millward: So I guess the most current news concerning Sweat is that you are now starring in a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Have you spoken to playwright Lynn Nottage since the win?
Khris Davis: Yes, we all actually met up at the theatre the day after and opened some champagne and congratulated her. Watching her take it all in with so much humility was so refreshing. I think that the excitement that we were feeling was even more than what she was giving from herself. I personally feel excited about being in this stream of history with her – her stream of brilliance. She has made history in that she is the first woman to win multiple Pulitzer Prizes and she is also a woman of color which is very important. I’m so happy to be here, but she is really chilled about it.
THM: And she certainly put the hours of research into this play – studying the real life people of Reading, PA, and their circumstances! Was your character of Chris loosely based on somebody in particular or a completely fictional character?
KD: None of the characters are based on particular people. She was just interested in getting people’s perspectives about the world they were living in as a town experiencing de-industrialization and the effect that was having on family dynamics and community dynamics. The town used to be thriving and then rapidly deteriorated and in her brilliance, she created a story around completely fictional characters and a dialogue about the American narrative and what has been the American narrative for a long time.
THM: I thought you did a fantastic job of depicting your character’s evolution from 2000 to 2008 through the change in your entire physicality and demeanour, as a result of his jail sentence. Was that a challenge for you?
KD: The main challenges for me with this character were specifically the 2008 scenes after he had gotten out of prison. I’ve never been to prison and I don’t know what it feels like to be in prison. But what I have experienced in my life is seeing someone go to prison and seeing them after they get out. It’s usually the first year and a half after they come out of prison that they’re holding onto a lot of things that they’ve experienced while incarcerated. I feel like there’s a sense of shame that they may have that forces them to hold that mirror up and say “I’m strong. I’m super tough and nothing’s gonna get to me. I can’t let anybody see me be weak otherwise they’ll take advantage of me.” When I first started, I thought we’d make Chris a tough guy as he comes out of prison. He was doing his thing and wasn’t gonna take any crap off anybody. But then I realised that was the wrong way to go. It dawned on me that what happens to a lot of men when they leave prison is that they have such anxiety because they have been incarcerated for so long and they come out into a new world having been in a situation that doesn’t help you prepare for that new world. 8 years is a long time to miss what’s happening in the world. You come out and then the world is designed to ignore you and to shun you and to give you no chances. But somehow you’ve still got to stay afloat. That type of fear and anxiety was a challenge for me.
THM: This is your Broadway debut, but you had already garnered great acclaim off-Broadway for your turn in ‘The Royale.’ When you got the call that Sweat was going to move uptown from The Public Theater, does it affect your mindset at all as an actor that you are now on Broadway?
KD: To be honest, I thought it was going to be a whole different type of thing. But it is still a powerful story and it’s just in a theatre space with more chairs. That’s the way I see it. I just really put my trust into the work that we’re doing as a team and in the words that Lynn has written. And we’re going full throttle. It doesn’t feel like a bigger, grander thing, although it is. I’m not going to lie – at our first preview, I was telling myself: “Come on, Khris. You’re good. It’s just another theatre, man. It’s just seats. It’s just people.” And I went out there and I could feel the building vibrating. It was insane. And then the darkness closed in on the audience and it felt like I was in this pocket with the other actors on stage as we were telling this story. I could feel this energy. But that’s the only time I’ve felt like this was really something else.
THM: And what is the “something else” that you personally would like audiences to take away with them after seeing Sweat?
KD: Personally what I would like audience members to take away from Sweat is empathy because these characters are really characters that we never get to see on stage. They are people who we see every day but have no dialogue with. We never think about what’s happening in those middle States and those small towns. We think that we don’t have to listen to them. We think that we don’t have to listen to people who may have different opinions or views than us. So I would like for people, when they’ve seen this play, to have empathy and encourage open dialogue. Everybody has a story to tell. Everyone goes through experiences that create who they are in this moment right now. That all comes from somewhere, but you’ve got to be willing to listen to where they came from. You can’t just jump down people’s throats. You can’t just ignore people. That’s what put us in the position we’re at right now in our country.