As part of the University of Kentucky’s 70 Years of Integration commemoration, we are doing a monthly Q&A featuring an alumni to discuss their time at UK and how that helped shape what they have done in their life and career. This month we are featuring 2010 UK graduate Jeremy Gillett, who will perform his one-man play “Black and 25 in America,” Sept. 13-14 at the UK Fine Arts Building.
Year graduated/degree: 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in theater from the UK College of Fine Arts
Current city of residence: Los Angeles
Jeremy Gillett began developing his one-man play, “Black & 25 in America,” while a student at the University of Kentucky.
Now Gillett is coming back to Lexington to perform “Black & 25 in America” Sept. 13-14 in the UK Fine Arts Building’s Guginol Theater. Tickets are available by clicking here. Gillett will also be giving a master class from 3:30-5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 12, in Room 106 of the Fine Arts building.
Gillett, a semifinalist for the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, graduated
from UK in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in theater in 2010 and earned his Master of Fine Arts degree from Arizona State University.
In 2018, Gillett was an artist-in-residence for The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, Region 4, where he performed his one man show and led acting and writing workshops. Gillett was chosen as The Broadway League and Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers first national diversity intern for the musicals “Memphis” and “Motown.”
He has also written the play “Trap House,” which centers on Big Man, a character from “Black and 25 in America” and his struggles to carve out a new path in life.
We talked with Gillett about his career, inspiration for his work and how UK helped shape his career before he was scheduled to perform “Black and 25 in America,” and here is what he had to say:
Q: What are you currently doing now?
A: My career in Los Angeles has included regional and national commercials and independent films. I was in the movie “Raptors” that was produced by Martin Lawrence about a middle class urban community that was once really safe that is now being terrorized by some little punk thug. Two men who grew up in the community come back and try to help the people in their community. One of the tasks is to rid community of the young punk. I play the young punk thug.
Q: What clubs/groups/organizations were you involved in at UK?
A: I really wasn’t involved in clubs, being an actor was all consuming and I spent my time in the Theater Department. I was also trying to earn my degree and move to the next phase and get my MFA and become a professional actor.
Q: What professors/instructors/mentors were instrumental in your success at UK and/or after?
A: I must give thanks to Dr. Herman Farrell for being my mentor. He and Drs. Kimbrough and Young were the best. Herman in particular has been there every step of the way with “Black and 25 in America.” And I have to thank (UK Department of Theater and Dance chairman) Tony Hardin, as well for his support. Tony was the first person to do lighting for “Black and 25 in America,” so he’s also kind of come full circle. I’m honored to return to campus under his leadership and present to his students.
Dr. Tim Davis at BCTC has been very supportive and instrumental in my development for me as person and artist. I got my first acting role with him, and from that day on, he’s been one of my biggest advocates. To all of them, I am very grateful.
Q: How does it feel to return to UK and get to share this story with the community that inspired you?
A: It’s always good any time you can come back home and share your gift and talent with part of an organization and in this case, the institution that provided the space to create the product that has been well-received by audiences for 10 years. I’m excited that the product I created at UK is still being valued and in demand 10 years later. As a former student and artist, I’m able to come back and share what I created with a new generation of students. Hopefully it will inspire them to create their own work to show that valuable and important work is a hallmark of the UK Theater program.
Q: You’ve been developing “Black & 25 in America” since you were a student at UK — where did that inspiration come from?
A: I traveled a lot as a kid so my experiences in Chicago, Lexington and in the US, and when I traveled to Africa and did a college stint in Texas — those were inspirational and instrumental to my thinking. I really grew to understand people didn’t understand who I was as a young black boy. It became clear to me that young black boys and girls as a result didn’t understand who they were and didn’t have the vocabulary from ages 16-21 to vocalize their frustrations with being put in a box.
Although “Black and 25 in America” isn’t autobiographical, it is a way in which I see the struggle and tension between black America and traditional America. And the tension and struggle is created because one side isn’t willing to hear the other side. One side isn’t willing to take steps to get to know the other side. This is from both ends of the question. This idea that the two are so incredibly different, that being black is so different from being a white person or being a black parent is so different than being a white parent or Asian parent — society put these constraints on us that allow us to think being different is an issue. Don’t get me wrong our differences are critical. But there is a deeper truth.
The truth is at the core, is whether you’re a white or black parent — or a straight or gay parent — you love your kid and want what is best for your kid and family. “Black and 25 in America” is a conduit for people to understand it doesn’t matter what you sound like or look like, but just being a human being on this quest to have regular human experiences is what we are all striving to achieve. We are all striving to be loved and accepted and have a voice. And my goal as performer and creator of this play and other works is to help young black men, young black girls and biracial kids connect with their identity and voice such that they are comfortable with who they are.
I hope to also help those who haven’t interacted with or don’t understand young black kids. This play can be a conduit to give them insight that being young and black in America is wanting to have an identity and voice in a society that may not see them. It’s a conduit for understanding that they are human beings.
Q: What does the commemoration of 70 years of integration mean to you?
A: Celebrating 70 years of integration is needed. It’s interesting that I am returning on the 70th anniversary of integration. One of the characters in “Black and 25 in America” comes to understand his parents only after he’s had some difficult life experiences. Meaning he has come to appreciate that they had the struggle of integrating society and because of their struggle he lived a life of middle- upper income privilege. Lifting up the history and struggle of integration is needed to demonstrate progress but plays like B25 are needed to demonstrate how much remains to be done. Sometimes, we see the world more clearly as a result of the arts. I certainly hope this is the case with my performance and our conversation.
Q: Besides your stage career as an actor, you’re making your way as an arts entrepreneur — how did your experience as a UK Theatre major help shape that for you?
A: My experience at UK helped shape me outside acting because when I was developing Black and 25 in America, I wasn’t specifically conscious of the steps I was taking (for my career), I was more conscious of the product. I wanted to get that final product to achieve a good grade in my independent study.
UK forced me to consider and develop a process. Conducting research, taking notes, interviewing people — this is all part of the process of creating a play. UK forced me to document my creativity in a way that led to this play and that has led to other works. I had to revisit this process to teach and secure employment, to share the knowledge of my process in workshops. The end product is seeing the performance. Seeing that the performance is good, but if you’re an artist, being given the chance to create something that is your own, it’s something invaluable. UK helped shape and mold me as a budding actor but it was the writing process guided by two UK professors that was the jewel of my experience.
Q: It’s so important for young people of color to see themselves represented onstage and in film. What are some words of advice for young artists who might want to create their own work like you?
A: This is for all artists, if it is not your first priority, if it is not your true passion, the art you’re pursuing, then stop what you’re doing and pursue your true passion. Speak your truth…being an artist is rigorous, hard and unforgiving. If you do not have passion and love for that art that allows you to plow through, knock down any door, overcome any obstacle and keep your head high when told no, then you need to do something else. Because you’re going to have doors closed and hear “no” more often than not.
I’m an actor and I go auditions regularly. I get told no all the time. I’m a writer. I have a one man play, a full play and more plays that are in me trying to get out. They come from something inside me…you just have to develop your passion. It’s important to understand that the world of the arts is so subjective. It’s not about whether a piece is good or great, but did you have the courage to develop it and complete it and have the heart and belief in it to fight for it.
I’m fighting for “Black and 25 in America” because I believe it speaks to all of us. I’m fighting for myself as an actor and I’m fighting for myself as a teacher. I’m fighting for all of me and for those who look like me and whose stories don’t make it to Broadway but are nonetheless important for us to know.
— Story by Hal Morris