Jeffrey Wright on the HBO Documentary ‘We Are Not Done Yet’ and Working with Veterans

     November 8, 2018

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Directed by Sareen Hairabedian and produced by Jeffrey Wright, the documentary We Are Not Done Yet (debuting on HBO on November 8th, in conjunction with Veterans Day, and also available on HBO On-Demand, HBO NOW and HBO GO) profiles a group of veterans and active-duty service members as they come together to share their past and current traumas through the written word, giving voice to their experiences serving their country. In workshop sessions and rehearsals, and then in their final performance on stage and in front of a live audience, these men and women confront the best and the worst of their lives in the military and open up about ongoing struggles with PTSD (as a result of combat and, in some cases, sexual assault), and how challenging it is to readjust to civilian life.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Jeffrey Wright talked about how he got involved with this documentary, how he’s become increasingly aware and respectful of those who serve, why it’s important for veterans and active-duty military to find ways to heal themselves through the arts, why he’s so outspoken about his own feelings and beliefs, and that he’d like to continue working with soldiers. He also talked about what it’s meant to him to be a part of such a thought-provoking and conversation-starting TV series as Westworld, and how the material challenges him.

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Image via HBO

Collider: This is such a powerful and emotional documentary, and it very effectively shows how difficult it is for soldiers to communicate all the turmoil that’s inside of them, once they return home and struggle with PTSD. How did you specifically get involved with this?

JEFFREY WRIGHT: Over the course of the last 20 years or so, I’ve just become increasingly aware and respectful of those who serve, and increasingly respectful of soldiering, in a way that I took for granted, in the years prior. The first milestone for me was traveling to Sierra Leone in 2001, during a time of war. It was a cease fire when I visited, but it was still a war zone. And I ended up going back to that country regularly, three or four times a year, for 11 or 12 years, and became more intimately knowledgeable of the consequences of war, on both civilians and combatants. So gradually, over time, my desire to get involved, on some deeper level, with veterans coming home, evolved.

I started doing a series of stage readings, called Theater of War, with a guy named Bryan Doerries, who has actors come in and read scenes from various Greek tragedies, and he uses them as a platform for discussions around PTSD, inviting relevant communities to these readings and having discussions that spring from that. His arguments is that the Greeks were a warrior society who gathered around stories of war in the amphitheater in Athens, en masse, and that those stories were celebrations of war, but also examined the effect of war, on individuals and society.

We had an opportunity to do one of these readings in Washington D.C. There was some representatives from the Pentagon who attended, and I asked them if there was any way I could get more closely involved. A few weeks later, they reached out to me saying that there was a group of veterans who were taking part in an art therapy workshop, writing poetry as a means of processing and confronting their trauma, and working towards healing themselves and one another. One of them wanted to put on a stage reading of collective poems that they had written, and they needed some help with that. They were curious if I’d like to come down and direct them through this process. I said to myself, “I don’t know what it is to serve in the military, but I know what it is to serve on a stage.”

So, I came down with my backpack full of my theater experience and I worked with them, starting in November 2016, and then a few times in December. Then, we had a week of rehearsal in early January, leading up to a performance on January 18, 2017, at the Landford Theater in Washington D.C. It turned out to be one of the most powerful nights I’ve ever had in the theater. The documentary was born out of the process of putting that night together, and it also examines days in the lives in five of these vets and active service members.

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Image via HBO

What was it like for you to hear them voice their stories, but also see them really experience other people hearing them?

WRIGHT: Well, that experience, as they’ve described it, was one of the most cathartic and beneficial experiences they’ve had, in working through their trauma. For me, it was just a wonderfully victorious night to see them progress, over the time that I worked with them. Just that short time until that night was stunning, in the best way. Even more so, to see the progress that they’ve made, in the two years since we started working together, has been inspiring and hopeful. They are an outrageously talented group, and are talented in the ways in which they are able to express themselves creatively, through the written word, prose and poetry, but also through their visual art. They are just a powerful group of warriors, artists, and human beings.

You are very politically-minded and you have been very outspoken about your feelings and beliefs, at a time when we keep hearing that actors and entertainers shouldn’t voice their beliefs, and that they should just entertain us. Is that just how you ‘ve always been, or did you get to a point where you just couldn’t not be vocal about the things that you believed in and cared about?

WRIGHT: Obviously, social media makes it easier to get your voice out there, these days, which has its up sides and its down sides. My career began, in a more public way, with Angels in America on Broadway. That wasn’t by accident. That play and the intent behind Tony Kushner’s work matched an aspiration that I had, as an actor, to marry my work with a social and political conscience. The first play that I ever did in college, in my junior year when I started acting, was an adaptation of a Wallace Terry novel, called Bloods, which was about a group of black Vietnam veterans recounting their experiences, both at war and returning home. I was a political science major in college, at the time, and that is what I achieved my degree in. Politically and socially infused theater and film is the music that I love to sing. Some people like to sing other types of music. Some people like to do comedic farce. Some people like to do action movies. I try to do a bit of everything, here and there, but the core notes within the music that I play have political elements to them. That’s just the way it is, and the way it has been, and I’m not shutting up for anybody.

Which some of us are grateful for. It also seems like a perfect fit then, for you to be in a show like Westworld, that not only leads to thought-provoking conversations, but also leads to many existential life conversations. What’s it like to a part of a show like that, that is a big, epic TV series, but that’s also so thought-provoking and really touches on so many life themes?

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Image via HBO

WRIGHT: Well, for those of us who are involved in making it, that’s what drew us to it. It was very clear, from reading the first script, that it was incredibly fertile territory to explore. The construct created broad spaces for examination of existential questions, poetic questions, social questions, and questions around technology. It’s relationship to the present and the future is all inclusive, expansive territory, inside of that. And the writing was among the best writing that I’ve come across, in my career. I can’t speak for everyone, but it’s those types of spaces that I prefer to work in because it challenges me, and they keep me on my toes. They ask me to do things that I might not necessarily have done before, which keeps the work interesting. It asks us to confront our personal experiences in our lives and to bring that to bear through our work. That is what I think many of us hoped to do, when we signed up for this work.

That’s also what we examine in the documentary, We Are Not Done Yet. The ways in which theater, used broadly – whether it be on the stage or in films – is a powerful and useful tool for the individual who engages in it and for the audience that takes it in. There’s such a cynicism right now, in our society, among a lot of voices, about the worthlessness of the arts, the worthlessness of literacy, the worthlessness of thought, and certainly the worthlessness of performance and acting as only make believe, undertaken by thoughtless people. Maybe that is true, in certain cases, but I can tell you, in the case of the group of veterans that I had the privilege to work with, the act of performing was palpably useful, important, and even necessary for them, as a means of crafting a path towards their own survival, as they emerge out of the darkness of these traumatic experiences. It wasn’t a subjective, luxurious indulgence that they dallied in. This was real life and death undertaking. For them, art is certainly as critical a part of this process for them as the pharmaceutical companies think their drugs are. This is real and valuable work, when it is done well. That’s what I hope to do, every once and while.

Before you go, have you heard anything about when Westworld might return for Season 3?

WRIGHT: Yes, Season 3 will return once we return to production and finish it. (Laughs)

We Are Not Done Yet premieres on HBO on November 8th.

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Image via HBO

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