The new play White Noise, by Pulitzer-winner Suzan-Lori Parks, is a tense examination of modern race relations, telling the story of four longtime friends who grapple with both their own issues and society at large with varying results. The cast is anchored by Daveed Diggs who stars as Leo, an artist recently roughed up by police who decides to engage in an experiment: voluntarily becoming a slave to his white, wealthy friend Ralph (Thomas Sadoski).
For the multi-hyphenate Diggs — who won a Tony in 2016 for his star-making roles as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the original cast of Hamilton — the systemic racism that White Noise examines feels personal. “This idea of walking outside your door and minding your own business and being strong-armed by a law enforcement officer for literally no reason other than your being — I have experienced that,” he says. He explored similar themes in Blindspotting, the indie film he directed, wrote and starred in which President Obama included on his top films of 2018 list and which earned Diggs an Independent Spirit Award nomination for best male lead and a Director’s Guild nod for outstanding directing for a first time feature.
And Diggs is staying plenty busy otherwise: There’s his recurring role on Black-ish; the upcoming A&E series Snowpiercer; and his experimental hip-hop group Clipping. On May 3, he’ll release an album of original music called 7 Nights in Chicago, a collaboration with Blindspotting co-star and childhood friend Rafael Casal.
In the midst of White Noise’s run at New York’s Public Theater (it’s onstage through May 5), Diggs spoke to Billboard.
White Noise tells a very tense story. How do you emotionally tap into these tough feelings night after night?
Along with being in a cast who’s doing it along with you and a script that requires it of you, there’s also the muscle memory of it. The thing about doing a play is, at a certain point a lot of it just gets in your bones and you can sort of do it asleep. But with Suzan-Lori’s writing and particularly for this show, the forward motion of the story is all connected to the emotional journey of it, so also there’s kind of no escape. You just start at the top and you say the things you say, and if you believe them you’re going to be in a pretty crazy place by the end of it. There’s nowhere to hide: for us, for the audience, for everybody. It’s difficult, but I think it’s a conversation we need to be having.
When you first read this story of a man who engages in modern day slavery, what did you think?
My gut reaction was that I was floored. I read it while doing a TV show sitting in my trailer, and by the end of it I was standing up and pacing around and shouting to myself. I’ve never read anything as brave as that. It’s allowing itself to reach anger and rage in a very true way, but with so much love for all of the characters. Working on the show is the first time in my life that I honestly thought about my safety in terms of what I’m exchanging for my freedom. One of the things my character is struggling with is that if you really commit to who you are supposed to be as a black man in America foundationally, and we strip away all of the ways we think of ourselves as ‘good’ and all of the things we do to excuse, forgive or work around the history of this country… If you strip away all of that and just actually participate in the institution of slavery in the role that you were given, and not by choice, in some senses you are made more safe, and that is terrifying. I’m still processing that everytime I do the show. There’s something Suzan-Lori is working through; that we live in a country that was designed for a certain kind of power system, and when you don’t fall into that power system, the less safe you are. That’s something that my character is struggling with during this show, and it’s also something I think about a lot.
Does grappling with the issues in White Noise change your perspective on your past experiences?
Yes, but I think every show does that. Every time you do something as an actor there’s a cumulative effect. I’m still also in the middle of it, so while I’ve been thinking about it a lot, I won’t know the lasting effects of having done this show till I’m done with it. Is it going to influence the choices I make for the next thing I do? Probably.
Many of your projects, like Blindspotting and White Noise, touch on these themes. Is that due to a conscious effort on your part or more coincidence?
I gravitate toward great writing and I think great writers are at a place where they’re trying to engage with our current world. There’s been a lot of things we’ve been overlooking culturally. In the interest of feeling like we’re progressive and woke, we’ve been glossing over foundational shit. I think a lot of artists and writers are examining our society and the things we’ve been ignoring in order to make ourselves feel like good people. So it’s sort of coincidental, but not really.
You’re also prepping a new Clipping album. What’s the creative process with that?
We’ve [Diggs and collaborators Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson] been working on this about four years now and they do a fair amount of work without me, but the songs are best generated when we’re all together. Clipping songs are usually somebody having an idea and we go off that. Jonathan coud have a particularly technical idea, like he’s always wanted to use a specific piece of equipment in a certain way. Or Bill could have a particularly academic idea, like how a song about a certain topic should exist. Or I have a cadence idea, like I would like to rap in a certain way. Whatever the impetus is, everyone chimes in from there. There’s usually about two and a half to three hours of arguments or discussions, and then we make a sketch of a song pretty quickly.
It’s hard to believe it’s been only around four years since Hamilton launched you to national attention. I know that it wasn’t too long ago you were making ends meet delivering fajitas to hospitals in Los Angeles. Was it always a goal of yours to have a career this multi-faceted?
This was the only way I was ever going to be an artist. I’ve always just done all of the things that are exciting to me and have ignored all of the implied boundaries between them. It’s easy to look at the thrust of my career and separate before Hamilton and after Hamilton, but for me the way I work is the same. The goal was always to be able to support myself and my family in my art, and I am doing that now and hopefully I will be able to continue doing that. The only real rule I’ve ever had is that if it feels good, say yes. Until that breaks, I’m going to keep doing that.