Updated: Jan 27, 2020
Shawn Whitsell is, among many things, an educator, actor, director, playwright, and administrator out of Nashville, Tennessee. He works with and supports a myriad of local organizations that offer arts training, education, and services to those in need and provides a platform for many local artists with his Focused Dreams Films production company and professional theatre venture, Destiny Theatre Experience. Read below to find out more about Shawn!
MONUMENT: Let's begin as always with the classic introduction - what’s your favorite color?
SHAWN WHITSELL: It changes from time to time but there is something about gold that has always resonated deeply with me.
M: Favorite food?
SW: Crab legs.
M: Favorite article of clothing?
SW: Right now, it's my "Hella Black, Hella Proud" jacket.
M: We must know the origins of such a jacket.
SW: I remember adoring the dashikis I occasionally saw on TV as a kid and wanting to have one so badly. To me, they represented Black pride, love, beauty, strength and resistance. I never owned one as a kid but I have a collection of them now. A few years ago, I created an event called Dashikis & Daiquiris. Attendees come dressed in dashikis and other African apparel to celebrate the culture. My friends and I also have Afro Punk-themed parties. I love expressing myself through clothing. I have a number of t-shirts, hats, hoodies and pins with affirming statements on them. Most of them are a celebration of Blackness. About five years ago, I came across this brother named Ron Green out of Philly who was selling these really dope hoodies with "What's Up African" on them. I bought one and I never stopped buying his products. I've watched his brand, Tribe Worldwide Apparel, grow tremendously over the years. I bought a "Hella Black Hella Proud" t-shirt from him a few years back and when the jacket came out a couple of years after that, I had to have it as well. I have a hoodie that has "Free Black Man" on it that I wear often. It's a different brand. I love that I can make statements without even saying a word. I plan to start my own brand of tees, hats and hoodies one day.
M: Do you have any tattoos? If so, is there a favorite?
SW: I have two. One is a red, black, green and gold tattoo of Africa with a fist in the middle, on my chest. On my right arm, there are kanji symbols for "destiny" and "soulmate." When my daughter Destiny was about six, she heard me say the word "soulmate" and asked what it was. I told her it was two people who were meant to be together forever. She said, "Oh, like you and me?" I replied, "Yes, baby, like you and me." It was the sweetest moment. Shortly after, I got "Destiny's Soulmate" in kanji symbols on my arm. It was my first and will always be my favorite.
M: Well that is just adorable. And sweet. And perfect. Ok! Favorite weather or time of year?
M: Are you a sports fan?
SW: I'm not a sports fanatic but I enjoy watching. My favorites are basketball and track & field.
M: Track and field? Interesting choice. Coffee or tea?
SW: I love them both but I rely on coffee a lot when I'm studying or writing scripts.
M: Cat or dog?
SW: Though I love animals, I'm not much of a pet person. I enjoy playing with dogs but I'm too busy to have one of my own. It wouldn't be fair. I find cats hilarious and love to watch videos of the funny and feisty things they do.
M: If you had to guess, what's your spirit animal?
SW: I was thinking of an actual animal and then remembered hearing people refer to other people as their spirit animal so I'm going to go that route and say Lenny Kravitz.
M: Keeping us on our toes. Ok then, what are some hobbies or interests of yours we might not know about?
SW: I am an absolute bookworm. I love reading, writing, volunteering, community service, activism and bringing people together for cultural experiences.
M: What do you do to relax?
SW: Read, watch a good series or documentary.
M: Dream Vacation?
SW: I've done the tropical island thing and I love that. However, my dream is to visit Africa. As a descendant of the continent, I would like to stand on the soil, breathe in the air and touch the people. I know it will be a powerful spiritual experience when it finally happens.
M: Do you have a favorite author or poet?
SW: It's hard to pick a favorite but Toni Morrison is one of them.
M: An excellent choice. What are some of her works you most connect with?
SW: I will admit that I haven't read as much of Toni Morrison's work as I would have liked at this point, but I will get there. I have a few of her books on my shelf, waiting on me to say when. So far, the two that I've connected with most are "The Bluest Eye" and "Beloved." They deal with those really dark realities that I am often so drawn to in art.
M: Do you have a favorite actor?
SW: Jeffrey Wright. He's incredible.
M: Who is a hero or inspiration of yours?
SW: My mother, Wanda Whitsell Thompson, is love in action. The ways in which she gives tirelessly to her family, church and community is amazing to see. I admire her commitment to humanity.
M: On that note, what do you admire in people?
SW: I love kindness, boldness and humility.
M: What do you despise in people?
SW: I despise when people spew hate toward other people. However, I do believe that hatred can be combated with love, knowledge and proximity so there's hope for everyone to be better.
M: What charms you in a person?
M: Where are you from?
SW: I am from Madisonville, KY, "the best town on Earth."
M: When did you develop an interest in theatre?
SW: I don't remember a time in my life when I didn't want to be on stage. I was always performing. When it comes to theater specifically, I would say, third grade.
M: What happened in the third grade?
SW: When I was in the 3rd grade, I was in a play and an actor with a bigger role got sick or injured and it was uncertain if he'd return to school before the play opened. I overheard two teachers discussing what to do and their plan was to give me his role. I already had one of the larger roles in the play and my lines were already memorized. However, they believed if anyone could handle this challenge, it would be me, out of all the other males in the whole 3rd grade. The way they talked about me gave me an extra boost of confidence. The other kid ended up being able to come back so I didn't have to do his role but to know how much my teachers believed in my ability was empowering. It has stuck with me all these years. I never revealed to them that I'd overheard them whispering about me. I can't say that was the exact time I knew I wanted to do this professionally but it was a milestone moment that affirmed that I had what it took to be successful.
M: When did you decide you would pursue it professionally?
SW: When I was in elementary school, I dreamed of being on stages and TV with thousands of people watching. I didn't know all the ins and outs of the business but I always felt destined to be in front of an audience. My plan was to take the money I made to help the less fortunate.
M: You studied sociology at Middle Tennessee State. Can you talk about the role that plays in your craft?
SW: Absolutely. Sociology is the study of human relationships, interaction, beliefs, systems and society. Studying sociology definitely informs the questions I ask when building a character, whether I'm writing or acting. As a sociology major, I had to do a great deal of research, which is a skill also needed for writing, acting and directing. I look at every script as a class or case study. My goal is to dive deep and get as much out of it as I can so I can pass it on to the audience through my character and performance. It's also going to make me a better, more informed person and I can take what I've learned from one script or experience and apply it to my next project or just life in general.
M: What are the kinds of stories you gravitate to?
SW: I'm often attracted to dark, heavy subject matter. I think it's important to reflect the difficult realities that people face in our world in order to facilitate awareness, healing and justice.
M: What is it about these stories that resonates with you?
SW: I like material that's honest and gives voice to the marginalized. I believe people can find hope and inspiration in the truth.
M: What is the effect you want your work to have on the audience?
SW: I want people to feel. I want them to leave better than they came. Whether they are more informed, or more empathetic, or they are motivated to get involved with a cause or they have a much-needed laugh or cry, I want people to be elevated in some way.
M: What draws you to Dutchman?
SW: First and foremost, the opportunity is dive into Amiri Baraka's work in this way is a prize all its own but in addition to that, I love the symbolism in the piece. I think it gives everyone involved in the experience lots to unpack, which is especially important when dealing with the complexities and nuances of race in America.
M: What about being the director of this project excites you?
SW: There is so much symbolism in this piece, I am excited about all the little touches we can add that help tell the story in a fresh way. I'm also excited about what I can learn through this text in collaboration with others.
M: To date, what has been your most gratifying theatrical experience?
SW: I volunteer at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. I taught the guys in my program, the School for Alternative Learning and Transformation (SALT), playwriting. Then I produced their short plays for the public. It was an incredibly powerful and fulfilling experience. Honorable mention: My one-man show 23/1, which is about solitary confinement.
M: Let's talk about that for a moment. The SALT program is a massive success in terms of speaking to the healing quality of self-expression. How much resistance did you receive initially from the participants? When did you know you were breaking through? What did that look like?
SW: SALT brings the incarcerated, who we call insiders, and the volunteers, who we call outsiders, into a space to learn and grow together. During my first semester as a volunteer for the program, I was only supposed be a class participant but ended up co-teaching after my first couple of classes. That same year, I had them write monologues. Then I brought my actor friends in to perform the insiders' pieces.
By the time I'd gotten to writing short plays three years later, it was almost a completely different group of guys but they were familiar with me and the work I did. None of them resisted. However, not all of them had the confidence that they could write a play. Still, they trusted me and the process, and they were willing to take the journey. Though they couldn't attend the performance, I was able to show them a video. To see their faces light up when they saw actors on a stage, performing their pieces in front of a sold out crowd was priceless.
M: You recently had an award-nominated, encore performance of 23/1, which is remarkable. What kind of experience is it to write, create, and perform a one-man show that tackles this subject matter? How did you manage to compile what you witnessed into a show like this?
SW: All of the pieces I write hold their own special place in my heart, but some just stand out a little more. 23/1 is one of those. The piece was written in such an organic way. It was almost like I didn't write it. It just revealed itself. The way it came together felt spiritual. I'd wanted to tackle the subject of solitary confinement for years. I'd done some research on the topic and knew I'd do a show one day. I bought the book "Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson but it sat on my shelf for years. Then, I got asked to come read the young adult version with high school sophomores and lead them through some conversations and writing exercises around the book, in preparation for their field trip to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which Stevenson created. After reading a few chapters from the book with the kids and going on the field trip, I came back and read the original version on my own. It was completely transformative. I took the book on a cruise with me. I was on a cruise ship, surrounded by deep blue water and beautiful scenery and in the middle of all this fun and hyper-activity, and I couldn't put this heartbreaking book about injustice down. The day I left for the cruise, "When They See Us," the mini-series about the the Exonerated Five, came out. As soon as I got off the cruise ship, I rushed to watch it. The book and the series motivated me to get started on my one-man show right away. I actually had another show scheduled but I postponed it so that I could do 23/1. At the point that I announced the show, I had no script. I just had a title, a synopsis and lots of inspiration but I knew it had to be my next project. I wrote the script in about a week, which sometimes meant being still and waiting for the piece to tell me what it wanted to say. I rehearsed for only a week before I was in front of an audience. It was really one of the easiest shows I've ever done and I think it's because it was so meant to be. I learned the lines in record time. I don't know how I did that. Like I said, it was spiritual. Though I was dealing with heartbreaking subjects and I could often hear people sobbing in the audience, I felt good because I knew the importance and power of what I was doing. I was telling a story that wasn't new or uncommon. It was just waiting on ears to hear. I was representing so many of the incarcerated men and boys I've worked with over the years, who didn't have a platform to tell their own stories. It was a lot of pressure but it was good pressure. Plus, the guys in the SALT program offered me a lot of great insight that I was able to apply. I try to incorporate them into my work whenever I can. I love this show. It's one of the most important pieces of work I've ever done. I can't wait to take it to other cities.
M: A hundred years from now, what would you like to be remembered for?
SW: Being a good person who went after his dreams and did his best to help others.
Now you know Shawn! Make sure to mark your calendar for opening night of Dutchman - you won't want to miss it. Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and subscribe to our Monument newsletter so you never miss an announcement or update!