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Episode 130: When the Swelling Goes Down with Actor, Playwright Samuel Ray Gates

October 18, 2023 | Kristen Chavez

Actor and playwright Samuel Ray Gates (FFP ’22) talks about his Faculty Fellowship experience, where he continued his work on his one-person show, When the Swelling Goes Down. Gates shares the themes of the show, the writing process, and the ways comedy can be used to explore and heal through difficult issues.

Recorded in spring 2023.







Kristen Chavez: Welcome to the Institute, a podcast on the lives and works of Fellows and friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. I’m your host, Kristen Chavez.

Today I’m joined by actor and playwright Samuel Ray Gates. Gates joined Carolina in 2017 as an assistant professor of dramatic art and a company member in PlayMakers Repertory Company. Outside of his work in the classroom and on the Paul Green Theatre stage, you may recognize him from one of his roles on the screen, including the HBO limited series The Staircase as Big Ray and in the Hulu series Dopesick as Jermaine Spellman.

Sam participated in the Faculty Fellowship Program in fall 2023 as a Legacy Fellow with the Institute’s Race, Memory and Reckoning Initiative. Through the Fellowship, he focused on “When the Swelling Goes Down,” a one-person show that explores how a Black man manages distress amid a global pandemic and a racial reckoning — through comedy.

KC: Sam, welcome to the podcast.

Samuel Ray Gates: Thank you, Kristen. Great to be here.

KC: Great. I do want to hear more about how you developed When the Swelling Goes Down. But first, I want to take a step back. How did you come into acting and playwriting?

SRG: Hmm, good question. I, well, I had a job that I hated.

KC: That’s one way to start.

SRG: I like to say that having a job that I hated was really instrumental. It inspired me to consider at that point, really anything I thought I might like. I was in my early-to-mid 20s, working for General Motors in a parts warehouse outside of Chicago. And I was a 20-something-year-old supervisor. And I was in way over my head. And I thought you know what? There had just something that had been like  a voice that it just kind of just what about acting? And then it was seeing Denzel Washington’s, his films with Spike Lee back then, that also sort of like, wow, there’s something that he’s doing that I’m drawn to. But there were no actors in my family. So I thought this is a terrible idea. My father would not like hearing that: “I’d like to become a struggling actor.”

KC: It’s a bit of a shift.

SRG: Yeah, become a struggling actor. So I opened up the Yellow Pages when I was living in Chicago. I looked under “A” for acting, and found Act One Studios. I took an acting class and fell in love with it. And I’ve been acting ever since. I left General Motors, obviously.

KC: Just in case, that wasn’t clear.

SRG: Yes, I left that good paying job and pursued a dream.

KC: Well in addition to acting, you’ve also done a lot of stand-up comedy, if I’m right. And When the Swelling Goes Down was, I guess born more out of that kind of routine?

SRG: Yes, so what happened was, I started doing stand-up after I had been an actor, a professional actor, for maybe five or six years. And I was really frustrated. And I thought, I’ve always loved stand-up comedy. But you know, it’s not one of those things that you just, to me, that you just go, “oh, I think I’ll try stand up.” Acting is tough enough, you know, but then stand up is like you’re doubling down.

SRG: But similar to acting, stand-up was sort of calling me. And I began going to open mics in New York City, that’s where I was living. And sort of seeing what that world was like. I was like, it’s pretty straightforward. You sign up, you get up there and you give it a shot. And so I started doing stand-up comedy in New York City and failing a lot. But what I loved about it is that I didn’t need anyone’s permission to do it.

With acting, you’re always sort of waiting for someone else to hire you. You know, sure, if you know how to write, if you’re a good writer, you can write your own material, your own films. I mean, you can do that. But that wasn’t part of my part of my training, and it wasn’t a part of my identity. I didn’t see myself as a writer. I saw myself as an actor, as an interpreter.

SRG: Well stand-up was great because I could control when I did it. And I learned how to write. I learned how to write stand up. I studied it a lot. I studied my favorite comedians. Richard Pryor. Richard Pryor, to me, he was such a great actor, as well. In his stand-up, he does a lot of acting. In fact, I mean, stand-ups act things out, to add to the sense of humor, to make it funnier. But I mean, he really uses his body. And I thought, ‘wow, that’s… I have that.’ I have that in my toolkit, you know, a talent for physical comedy. That’s something that I do naturally, I do that well naturally. If I thought, if I can also write some jokes to combine with that, then maybe I could, you know, I’d be really funny.

SRG: And When the Swelling Goes Down, is that. It comes out of let’s see, summer of 2020. The plan, I would say, this time 2020, I was planning to go to New York that summer, and take all of the material that I had written over the previous 11 or 12 years at open mics in New York City, and a little bit here, once I’d moved here. But my plan was to work with a movement coach to help me find what I call the physical punctuation of the piece – and a throughline. If there was a way to connect this material, there were themes. I mean, I knew what many of them were.

But the pandemic, and the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery completely changed the piece. It didn’t even have a title at the time. When the Swelling Goes Down, as it’s titled now, and it’s the perfect title — I don’t think it’s, it’s not going to change, I don’t see it changing. But the other two titles, one of them was “Monuments.” One of the things I was very much moved by was the Silent Sam protests, which were right out here — that was my very first semester at UNC.

And so at the beginning of the pandemic, I was thinking about, or even before that, I was thinking a bit about, you know, memory and how markers, how a marker, or a sculpture in this case, or how an object marks a place. And these markers they… we imbue them with values, right? With our — with someone’s values. So I was playing with this question of well, when you remove a marker, do those the values of that are associated with the place, do they remain for people that know the history, for example? So I was playing with that. And with being an African American and traveling, to have an experience of traveling and being in situations where I was frequently the only one, or one of the handful of African Americans. And so these were things that I already had material, and that was sort of kind of running through my head. But the summer of 2020 happened. And it was just, it became really clear. Really clear.

KC: Can you talk a little bit more about I guess, where the new title came from? And kind of what that speaks to thematically?

SRG: Yeah, definitely. It speaks to… I love this. It’s called a poultice –P-O-U-L-T-I-C-E. But I just have, gosh, it’s like…  I’m a very visual person, so I can see what it looks like. So I probably won’t describe it, may not describe it all that well. But what I see is this, it’s a bag, and it’s filled with herbs, and you place it on the surface. So if there was a wound or a person is ill, but you would place it, it would be placed on the surface of the skin and it draws the toxins to the surface for healing. And so early on, I thought, oh, “poultice, “POTUS”, you know, President of the United States. I could play with that, because there was an election that was coming up in the fall of 2020.

And then I let that go, but I thought “poultice.” There’s something about, whether it’s a marker or monument, that it brings things to the surface. For the experience of being an African American being in a predominantly white university or predominantly white space that there are always these other people  — the other thing called the elephant in the room – but they’re always these other things that are in the space. And that works of art bring those things to the surface, or they remind you that they’re there.

SRG: And I thought, okay, so COVID this pandemic… and the murder of George Floyd, is bringing all these things that have been there to the surface. And there are, you know, there were some folks who were you know, that I know, I talk about in the piece being the one black friend to 783 white people. And so I’m talking about how a number of my 783 white friends were really shocked that this happened and that there was a history of African Americans being murdered — unarmed African Americans being murdered by members of law enforcement.

SRG: And so I thought, I need to, I want to talk about my own experience of being in predominantly white spaces and trying to negotiate the world that I’m from, and this particular situation — and it needs to be funny. Because I always find a lot of humor in these very dark spaces.

So you asked me about how I came to the title. That the piece would bring these matters, these issues to the surface in a humorous way for collective healing. The idea was that it wouldn’t just… Like a lot of works of art, or even some of the stand-up comedy that I’ve seen, the artists or the comedian brings these things into the space, but you don’t necessarily… then you go home, it’s over and you go back to your car and it’s over. To me, the swelling sort of goes back down, there’s an opportunity when you bring it up, when it’s in the space, to address it, to process it, to collectively process it. And in that way, maybe, actually move forward. Move beyond. Move into the direction of asking questions that we haven’t asked yet, solutions that we haven’t uncovered yet.

KC: Thank you for sharing that. I do have one question along those lines. And you talked about how you find humor in those dark spaces and using it as collective healing. This is probably more of a personal question, but in developing and performing it, how has that kind of helped you personally? If you don’t mind sharing.

SRG: No, not at all. So during my fellowship, I performed — it turned out, I ended up doing a nine show residency at the School of Social Work. It was amazing. The administrator, Deborah Barrett, who’s also social worker, who invited me to perform a segment of the piece. She said to me one day, I was there rehearsing, she said, “Would you like an audience?” I was like, “Yeah, I’d love an audience.” That’s what I do in an open mic or a comedy club, is I write on stage. I come with some ideas, but then it’s great to have an audience to try things out with.

And she brought students and faculty members and administrators, social workers from the School of Social Work that I performed in front of. And afterwards, we would talk about the piece. And what I’m discovering is, is that, that is when… that’s very healing for me. Because I’m sharing things that are very personal. And even if I’m abstracting them, or, you know, changing names, I am revisiting the feelings, the thoughts and the feelings that I had summer of 2020. And even that I’ve had throughout my life, in relation to these issues of race and homophobia.

And so to perform it, and then hear from audience members, how moved they are by it, and when they began to share their own stories or associations with what I’m talking about, I feel less alone. When I hear some of them say that they feel less alone, or they realize — or sometimes that happens with laughter. People, you’re all laughing together, it’s sort of a recognition that, you know, there’s some agreement. But when you actually talk about and you actually put it into words, you really know, you really know that, “Oh, wow, I thought that very same thing,” or “I couldn’t quite put it into words, but they did.”

KC: Great. Thank you for sharing that. You also performed When the Swelling Goes Down as part of the Process Series, too, right? How did that kind of experience up inform like this next iteration, along with the School of Social Work, I guess, how has it been able to take shape in a different way? Or has it?

SRG: Oh, absolutely. So the Process Series was this time… January-ish, February-ish of 2021. Right, and I don’t even know if I… I think it had a different title then. I don’t think it was titled. I think it was titled “Monuments” still. I’m not sure, I could be wrong. But in terms of the iteration, iterations… So I performed about 75 minutes, I performed that in a friend’s living room.

KC: Oh, wow.

SRG: And it was recorded. And I decided to stream that because I actually had an audience. Because that was a big… in terms of the development of the piece, the fact that due to lockdown, you actually couldn’t get in front of audiences. And so I actually did some work out here with a somatic therapist, right out here near the Silent Sam site. And that helped me to write some material. So then, Process Series was like the first time….

SRG: Wow. I’m kind of stopping and starting, because so many thoughts and feelings are flooding back to me. Particularly just all the protocols, you know, of how many people could be in a space and how that was shaping, certainly shaping my thinking. In fact, I ended up writing quite a bit, because of that writing quite a bit about the fact that I had spent lockdown by myself. Alone. And that this performance, which was happening in a friend’s living room, I was seeing people who, it was a big deal for us to be together. We hadn’t seen each other in a while. That really shaped the piece in terms of me thinking more about, especially after getting their feedback, about what we’re going through. How lockdown is impacting us in the current moment, but it’s also impacting and shaping what it is, how we’re perceiving the near future, what we want. Right. And so then… that’s next summer of 2021, I was actually able to go to New York and work with the movement director on the physical punctuation of the piece. And that’s around the time, I think I had the title When the Swelling Goes Down. I think it was after that. I’m not sure. But I think I think it was after that. Yeah.

KC: That’s great. Thank you.

SRG: Yeah. I have long answers.

KC: No, this is great. I think this is what it should be. Right?

SRG: OK, good.

KC: So flash forward to fall 2022. When you’re in the middle of the Faculty Fellowship Program, where you also were able to take more time to you know, develop this further, can you share what that process was like for you?

SRG: When I got here for my Fellowship last fall, the script was really tight. I’d written and refined, I would say, the first half of the piece. And I knew I had at least another hour of unrefined material from the Process Series that I wanted to spend the fellowship on. So I knew that I was going to set aside the first hour of material that I spent the prior two years working on. And I was going to work with another coach, another director, on the physical punctuation and layering. There are all these characters, so I really wanted to make them distinct. I do like my grandfather, myself at different ages, my father. And again, finding the physical punctuation of the piece, that physical humor. I also, I consulted with some people who are really, really great directors — really, really insightful people I’ve had conversations with over the years, not about my piece, but about some of the themes around race, and so on and so forth. And I gave it to one of them before the fellowship. And it worked out perfectly. The feedback he gave me really sort of helped me to direct and really narrow down. Because it was a lot of time and I hadn’t a fellowship before, and so trying to figure out how to best use of time was one of the more challenging things.

And there’s this thing of…. Sort of like saying, “Okay, this piece does this,” you know, “it says this, I’m addressing this,” right? And then you give it to people, and you go, “Okay, this is what I say it’s doing, read it, listen to it – is it actually doing it?” Right? Okay, so. A lot of what I want to do, I am doing, but I needed to go further. I needed to go further in terms of this matter of what it’s like being in between. Being in between the sort of two worlds: being African American in that world and also being an African American in predominantly white situations. And there are particular events from my life that I describe. But I also needed to go deeper, in terms of including some of the other, the perspectives of some of the white folks who are in these particular scenarios, to make it richer, to really heighten the contrast.

KC: Yeah, within the Faculty Fellowship, you know, you are in a space with people from all different disciplines and departments. What was that like, with people that perhaps are not as familiar with, say, movement or acting or performance? How did maybe that shift the perspective, with a different audience?

SRG: Yes, in order to make the most of the situation, I needed to figure out how to articulate what kind of feedback would be useful. But I also needed to give some thought to my audience, like, how do I describe, what do I need to explain? What information do I need to provide, or background information do I need to provide to them to help them understand what it is that I’m trying to do and then ideally, give me the best feedback that they could possibly give me, based upon who they are and where they are sort of coming from. And because this particular, as Andrew, my writing coach, I talked to him about it, you know, how to make the most of it. And Andrew said, you know, of all the audiences this piece is ever going to have, you probably never going to have an audience quite like this one. You know, which is, which is great, you know, great opportunity.

Yeah, actually, I performed the opening of the piece here for them. So that they… I also supplied them with a recording of it, but I thought, because it’s something that happens — the interaction between the audience and myself is so important, I wanted to give them a little taste of that. I also wanted them to share with me, what it brought up for them. If there was swelling, you know, what were the things that you know, came to the surface for them, and it was very useful.

I’ll say, you know, I had an epiphany during the Fellowship. I hit a wall pretty early, sort of early on. I didn’t quite know what it was initially. But then it came to me. There’s material that I planned to work on last semester, and I titled it “the gun stuff.” One of the things that I did during the pandemic is that I seriously considered becoming a gun owner. In response to murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, all of that. I mean, I’ve written a lot of material about it. But then when it was time, this past fall to revisit the circumstances that brought me to that place, it was really hard. I didn’t anticipate that it will be that difficult to go back to. It just seemed like just a short — just a few years ago. It wasn’t how… it was just that there were things that had not been processed… So that was my time to do it. Even now, as I’m trying to talk about it, I’m like….

SRG: It was interesting because it was seemed like it was a matter of, yeah it was reframing it. The epiphany was that it’s not, I’m not focusing this semester on becoming a gun owner. It was also hard because of because of Uvalde. And then was another, and then Pittsburgh, the mass shooting in Pittsburgh. So I really, I want the piece to be healing for as many people as possible. I don’t want it to do more harm, I don’t want to bring things to the surface and from people, you know, feel worse. So the epiphany was, “ah, it’s not about becoming a gun owner. What I’m talking about in the piece is about becoming. It’s about becoming.”

It’s about how it is, the social forces, it’s about our conditioning. It is about, the thing that throughout my life, it is about the various: my upbringing, the environments, the markers, you know, my education, the places and spaces that I have been in and how they shape one’s becoming. And how something that has been absent is coming together to consider what it is that we want to become as individuals, but also as a society, as a collective. What do we, rather than playing sort of Whack-a-Mole, like, ‘Okay, do this, defund the police and then do that, don’t defund the police, do this.’ It’s like what do we want to become? And, and so I was very satisfying to see that, oh, that’s already in the piece. I’m already doing it. So this particular bit about the gun is about, I’m wanting to share with an audience, the fact that the social forces, the way that I am I’m trying to relate with them, and it actually makes sense. When I do the calculation, it seems to make sense, sometimes that I should become a gun owner. But I don’t want to become a gun owner. It’s that this, all that’s happening, makes it seem like, I must be crazy if I as a Black man in America don’t have one! Right?

And so at the School of Social Work, at one of the talk-backs, one of the social worker said, a Black woman, she said, “My husband is the exact same way. He is going back and forth. Should I get one? Should I not get one? Should I?” I’m like, that’s what I want to do. I want us to collectively so that we are all trying to negotiate. Let’s do it, let’s do it together. Decide what do we want to become? Who and what do we need to become to live our best lives?

KC: Yeah, it sounds like there really is like the theme of the piece.

SRG:  Yeah. Yes.

KC: Yeah. I look forward to seeing where it goes next. So, our final question is a bit of a tradition on the podcast. Is there a book that has changed your life? I’ll also open that up to kind of any kind of creative piece really, you know, whether it’s a film, a play or a performance. Has there been anything around those lines that have kind of spoken to you and shaped you?

SRG: Absolutely. The first thing that comes to mind is August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned. It’s a one-person show. It’s a memoir piece. And I had the opportunity to perform it myself here at PlayMakers last spring. And it was so, it was informative. I mean, I teach August Wilson in my class here. Before I came to UNC, I was already trying to, I was already developing. I wanted to develop a curriculum that we use August Wilson’s plays to teach American history. But really, what I really wanted to do was drawing from my experience working with incarcerated boys and girls in New York City. And recognizing that mentorship is such a big part of it. So I was trying to I was trying to figure out a way to kind of bring all these things together.

And so doing How I Learned What I Learned here, it was a one-person show and I had not done a one- person show before. And it was like, This is amazing. It was basically like doing a masterclass with a master — you know, with August Wilson. And it answered so many of the questions that I needed to answer for my own piece. Like, how do you structure it? It turns out that August Wilson, in writing the piece, he and his dramaturg went to LA and listen to and watched comedians. So I’m thinking like, wow, look at this. While I’m developing this piece, one of my heroes, I get this opportunity to play one of my heroes. I went to Pittsburgh, his hometown to prepare for it. I visited all the sites that he talks about in all of his plays. Because he wrote 11 plays, and 10 of them — nine of the 10 take place in the same neighborhood in Pittsburgh where he’s from.

So in working on his one-person show about his life, I was working on my own. I knew by the time I finished, I knew exactly what it felt like to do, to hold the stage, to hold an audience for 95 minutes and play all these different characters and go on these different directions, tell all these different stories and draw from your own, draw from my own life. And even include some histories in it as well. And make people laugh, cry, scream, shout, and jump for joy.

The only thing that was missing — and the only thing there was the other thing that it really inspired me to do. Actually it affirmed for me, that in this time that we’re living in now – if a piece brings, it’s discussing race and gender, and it’s dealing with these things in a way that brings all these issues to the surface, we ought not send people back off into, the back home into the community without having….

I got to tell this story. All right, early on, after the third performance, it was during preview, so the show hasn’t had opening night yet, right? You get a couple of you get a couple of go, you know, performances in front of an audience for you, and then you and the director. The director and the cast get to talk about hey, you know, here’s what we learned from having a live audience after rehearsing it for a bunch of weeks. So I returned to the theater after the performance to talk to the director, Letitia James, who is one of my colleagues in the department of dramatic arts, was my director. And I come back down to have notes to talk about how it went that night. So all the patrons have left. Well, one of them reenters the theater.

It’s a white woman, middle aged, and she’s crying. Her face is flush with tears. So of course we stop to go and to say, “hey, it was everything all right?” Thinking maybe she left something in the theater or keys, or what have you. And she said, you know, this is my first time back in the theater. So right, because of COVID. And she said, I’ve been coming to PlayMakers for years. And this is my first time back without my theater-going buddy. And we would have been sitting over there, she would have, they would have been with me. And this person had recently passed away. And she said, “they would have loved this.” Then she paused and she said, “You know sometimes you just don’t know when it’s okay to laugh.”

And I thought, yeah, okay, I’m on to something. Because when I was performing that show, August Wilson, he uses the word nigger. And while I was performing the piece, it brought up something I’ve been thinking about a long time, which is when using that word, it’s doing a lot of work. And to use it, to be saying it now – he wrote the piece 10 years ago, 11 years ago, and he’s since passed on – but to do it now is to bring all this stuff up to the surface. I know that there are African Americans, people in from my community in this audience who don’t typically come to PlayMakers. I know there were way more African Americans during the run of that show because of the subject matter. And I know that some of them are sitting in the audience. And there are jokes that I’m telling that some of them are thinking ‘what are white folks doing laughing at it that? You shouldn’t be laughing at that. Why are you laughing at that? I don’t feel comfortable laughing if they’re laughing. If I don’t want to laugh, because then they may think it’s okay for them. I’m not comfortable, right?” And I thought, it was an opportunity missed.

That woman who returned to the theater and said, “sometimes you don’t know when it’s okay to laugh.” A friend of mine, I did like my own little sort of a survey, I asked friends who’d come and seen, African American friends who’d come and seen it. And I told them this story, and they said, “you know, my son, he said, during the show like, Mommy, what are they doing? That’s not, they can’t laugh at.” That sort of thing. I thought we have to… you can’t make people stay and have the conversation, but what we ought to offer is an opportunity in terms of what we are becoming. Because of the, we have smartphones and things are being recorded and things are being you know, it’s up for us. And the pandemic just sort of shut everything down. So people kind of couldn’t, we didn’t have access to our ritual distractions. So there’s real opportunity. We had a tension on these issues. And we… I feel like it’s certainly – what I can do is as an artist or as a performer, and as a writer, is to offer something that will allow people who want to have a conversation about when is it okay to laugh? And here’s why I don’t think you should be laughing at that. For it to become something. Something healing that brings people together.

KC: Yeah. And that facilitating in that those talk-backs in a way that helps not just the artist but the audience as well, I think to process a lot.

SRG: Yes.

KC: Yeah. Thank you, for all of us. I’ve truly loved our conversation and learning more about the project and you. And yeah, just thank you again for joining the podcast.

SRG: Absolutely. Thank you for bearing with my long answers.

KC: No, not at all. This is great.


KC: Thank you for listening to The Institute podcast, listen to other and upcoming episodes by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, and wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. Visit our website, to find past episodes and transcripts. You can also learn more about our upcoming events, programs, grants and leadership opportunities for UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, and read stories that feature our arts and humanities Fellows. Thank you for joining us.


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