Home » Ato Blankson-Wood rebuilds a famous ‘Cabaret’ role from scratch

Ato Blankson-Wood rebuilds a famous ‘Cabaret’ role from scratch

by NBC News

One of the main characters in the renowned musical “Cabaret,” bisexual American writer Clifford Bradshaw, is a cipher for author Christopher Isherwood, whose book “The Berlin Stories” serves as the musical’s inspiration. But for Ato Blankson-Wood, the first Black actor to play Clifford on Broadway, he looked beyond Isherwood for inspiration. 

“It was really important to me that I wasn’t a Black body playing Christopher Isherwood,” Blankson-Wood told NBC News. “I looked at a lot of his biography, but he is so deeply embedded in the role, I didn’t feel like there was a lot of him I wanted to highlight.” 

What Blankson-Wood ended up creating in his Clifford is something of a unicorn on the Broadway stage: a Black queer American fleeing America for the freedoms of Weimar Berlin. 

“History can give you a context, but like what is playable, what is actable, what is artistic fuel is how people were actually being treated and how they were relating to each other at that time,” he said. “So I love to go into personal accounts. That helps me the most.”  

Ato Blankson-Wood and Henry Gottfried in rehearsals for “Cabaret,” where Blankson-Wood plays a Black queer American fleeing the U.S. for the freedoms of Berlin.Amir Hamja / The New York Times / Redux Pictures

Central to his research for the role were two Black queer figures, bisexual writer Claude McKay and gay philosopher Alain Locke, both of whom lived — and loved — in Berlin during the fraught time reflected in “Cabaret”: Germany between the World Wars during the rise of Nazism. The two writers, both considered architects of the Harlem Renaissance, met in Germany in 1923 and ended up influencing Blankson-Wood’s Clifford who, like Locke and McKay, seeks refuge in Europe. 

“Many queer Black men felt comfortable going to Europe not only because they could explore their sexuality, but they could be treated in ways that made them feel human,” Blankson-Wood said. “The expression…

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