Broadway’s ‘Junk’ Is a Clear Meditation on Capitalism + Present-Day Democracy

Photo Source: Illustration: Nathan Arizona/Photo: James Lee Wall

Set in the mid-1980s on the cusp of the financial boom, the precipice of when money became priority, is Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Ayad Akhtar’s latest work, “Junk,” which opened Nov. 2. In her Broadway debut, Ito Aghayere plays Jacqueline Blount, an ambitious lawyer. Here, Aghayere reflects on the years she spent working overnights in an upscale hotel and showing an authentic story of her past, “the stretch marks of progress.”

What has working on ‘Junk’ added to your acting skills?
It’s one thing to be a part of a play that’s brilliantly written, but it’s another to be a part of a piece that’s eerily relevant, that is prophetic in a scary way. [The script] gives you a sense of ease, as though you’re watching something that has already happened. But things change over the course of the play where all of a sudden, echoes of the world we currently exist in start to bleed through. You start to see the beginnings of how we got here, and getting into that every night has been edifying in a way that I’ve never experienced before. On this particular show, it’s been exhilarating because there’s no end to the relevance and the weight of what we are discussing, which is the financialization of America, the nature of public good dying.

How do you prepare to audition for a play like this?
You should read the play before you go in for the audition—that’s pretty obvious—but for this play I was a little intimidated even with my background in political science. I read it in two hours and five minutes and I didn’t move. Letting the play wash over me, being the audience to the play—for me, that’s the way I enter any piece I’m auditioning for. When I did go into the room, it didn’t feel like I was doing the play, it felt like I was giving my interpretation of Jackie’s role in this world buoyed by the different bits I was reading. The play itself is 160-odd pages. I remember thinking “OK, this is a play about finance.” I have to prepare myself to read this, I can’t read this all in one sitting. I procrastinated for a day or two.

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How important is it for you to walk away from a piece of work and say, “This is relevant to today”?
That is at the heart of this play. I think as an actor, it’s quite a gift to be able to, in a way, leave ash in the audience’s mouth. We don’t leave them with an answer. There’s something so vulnerable about doing that without comment, without judgement on my part as an actor, giving that to the audience to digest. I think that is what theater should do. There are moments when things are revealed where past tense becomes present tense and you hear the audience realize that. They realize they’re watching the world that they currently live in through the lens of the past and it’s intoxicating; it makes me want to do it again and again.

Does the setting of the story impact that preparation process?
One of the things that stood out to me is I’m the only black woman in the show. It’s in the ’80s and there’s lots of white guys—15 men and four women. In many ways, Ayad handled that and tells a story within a story about that: the nature of the choices that women had to make. In the ’80s, if you were in corporate finance, what that looked like. If you were a lawyer and you were a black woman and you had ambitions that outpaced the expectations your white superiors had for you. For me, it started shaping the world that my character lived in and the choices that I could make.

It comes back to that present-day relevance, too.
Absolutely. It’s a strange time we live in, and I think it’s really easy, an oversimplification, to look at the time that we live in and pick out any person and say, “It’s that person’s fault, that person did this to us.” What is so damning about this play is it points to a systemic problem, it points to many choices made in the same direction, made consistently over time, that led us here. It’s not just one person, it’s not just one party, it’s a paradigm that has shifted, and I think that’s what makes it relevant.

That’s the beauty of art.
It can be. There’s also a way in which art can deceive you into staying in the mindset that you have and to coddle you in a way rather than show you the comprehensive nature of the problem. It’s really easy to make it a one-solution problem, where you identify the one thing that is the loudest and takes up the most oxygen. It’s really easy to point at the obvious issue without showing all the underlying structure that it created. That’s Ayad’s goal; it’s not a referendum on Trump, but it’s showing the systemic nature of our love of money and our desire to pursue self-interest over public good, and how that became enshrined in the ways that we do democracy.

What was your most memorable survival job?
I worked overnights at a fancy hotel. I think I had some of the fondest memories because I worked with a group of people that became a part of my crew. You have these experiences with super wealthy people who have no filter and live in a completely different universe than you do as an aspiring actor. It’s humbling in some ways, and in others it’s infuriating.

What advice would you give your younger self?
It’s the advice I give myself now: Honor your “yes.” Whatever your “yes” is, whether it was a hard yes, one you’re not excited about, or one that you are, honor it. I think there is something lost when I forget how important every part of the journey actually is, how it builds on [itself]. The idea that one season might be particularly hard, whether it’s working overnight and not getting the auditions you want—that season won’t last forever. Neither will the season where you’re winning awards and on Broadway.

Have you ever used Backstage in the past?
Absolutely! One of the things that I love about Backstage is there is a level of authenticity to the journey that I appreciated over the years, reading stories about people who have landed that dream job but there’s still that thing that tethers them to when that was not even a remote possibility. I have friends even now who are like, “Ito, Broadway, wow!,” and it’s just like, “You guys remember when I wasn’t sleeping for three years?” It’s not like that story is gone now that something exciting happens.

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