Co-Directors Keith Arthur Bolden and Alexis K. Woodard on how Hands Up became a story of persistence, authenticity, and Black joy
By Ashley Elliott and Sally Henry Fuller
After almost a year and a half of postponing, Hands Up is finally happening. Based on seven monologues by seven playwrights that depict what it means to be Black in America, this powerful show will be the first Hertz Stage production since Seize the King in early 2020.
“You know,” says co-director Alexis K. Woodard, “we’ve been producing a little this past year outside, but this will be the first time I do something in a theater [in a year].”
“And we had a couple of casting snafus, too–” adds co-director Keith Arthur Bolden – “because they had other commitments – and some of those other commitments were other Alliance shows.
We lost people due to other shows, but we found some really great people, too.”
Woodard chimes in here: “I don’t know how we both started with a dream cast and ended with a dream cast because everyone is incredible.”
One of the Best
Alexis K. Woodard is an Alliance Theatre Spelman Leadership Fellow, co-directing an Alliance
show after associate directing the Alliance’s production of Working and A Christmas Carol: A Live Radio Play. She’s not a stranger to the position, however, having previously directed a new retelling of Romeo and Juliet at Spelman College (that Spelman’s President later said was “one of the best productions of Romeo and Juliet she had ever seen”). Keith Arthur Bolden is a professor at Spelman and usually onstage rather than off, but has directed before alongside his wife, Tinashe Kajese-Bolden, the Alliance’s BOLD Women’s Leadership Circle Artistic Director Fellow.
Although the two are one-minded in how they approach directing, they both had completely different reactions to the pandemic’s impact on their show.
“I didn’t do well this past year,” Woodard admits. “I really like to know what’s going on and how things are going to happen, and I really like to have a plan. Everyone’s plans just went out the window in the past year and a half. So the second it looked like it was going left, I would say, ‘Okay, here’s the version we could do in a parking lot. Okay, here’s the version we can do for streaming.’ I was always on top of the next way that we could do this show. Eventually, I just had to sit down and say, ‘It’s going to happen when it happens.’”
“I did the exact opposite,” Bolden replies. “I was invested, but I wouldn’t fully invest until I knew we were starting. Also, the difference between Alexis and I is [that] Alexis is in meetings at the Alliance. I’m removed from that because I’m at Spelman and doing some TV stuff. But that’s what I love about our dynamic – she keeps me informed when it’s not on my radar because she asks me, ‘Well, have you thought about this?’ And I say, ‘Hell, no, I haven’t thought about that! I’m bathing children right now.’”
Genuine and Moving
Both have a deep connection to Hands Up, but it’s Woodard who has had the unique experience of observing it from all sides. She first watched the show when it first premiered at Spelman College, as a student and audience member.
“I came from a very white area in Southern Georgia,” Woodard explains, “and I was one of, like, three Black people in my entire class. Hands Up at the [Atlanta University Center] was the first time that I’d ever seen theater that felt as if it spoke to me and my experience. It felt really genuine and moving and real in a way that I had never experienced in a theater before. And I said, ‘Wow, I have to be involved in this somehow.’ And here we are.”
After working with each other previously on Romeo and Juliet (Woodard directed and Bolden did fight choreography), the pair only had kind words to say about each other. Bolden says he didn’t have to “worry about anything [with Hands Up] because I know that she’s doing it. So how could I not, right? How can this not be an example of my ministry, which is empowering people to find their Black joy – their happy space. I’m very proud and very awestruck.”
“If I was going to have to co-direct with anyone,” Woodard replies, “it would be Bolden. And just because we know each other so well and particularly with this show – we’re so in each other’s heads.”
This Is What I Want to Do
Although most of the questions were directed at the pair, Bolden often deferred to Woodard, making it apparent that he wanted her to have her day in the sun. She deserves it, too, after all the work and thought she’s put into this production.
“In preparing for Romeo and Juliet, I had the dramaturgy knowledge from a Shakespeare program I had done the summer before in England,” she says. “And from working on Hands Up with Bolden in previous years I learned a lot about the director’s job as an interpreter. I was learning how to use shifts in scripts to help tell the story. I was doing the lights; I was doing the sound – I was thinking about how all those things intersected with the play. And then, on top of that, having these ideas and thoughts about the movement, the blocking, and how we can better physically tell our story. And then I just applied it all to Romeo and Juliet. After that show, I just said, ‘Oh, this is it. This is what I want to do and what makes me really happy.’”
Towards the end of the interview, Bolden made a point to commend the Alliance for investing in the story. “It’s not easy to always support what some people may consider hateful or one-sided,” he explained. “This is not that. It’s a story. It’s a bunch of stories.”
“The thing that always got me about this piece and still gets me to this day,” says Woodard, “are the conversations. It’s all about the conversations that happen after people see it. No matter what the demographic is, there are always really fruitful, engaging, productive conversations. So, yeah, I’m super excited about the potential to change hearts and minds – to steal from the Alliance’s mission [statement].”