Only rarely do Broadway plays and musicals, analogs of entertainment in a digital world, break into the larger culture as they once did. In 1990, however, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation broke through. Capturing a particularly delicious moment of anxiety among the privileged denizens of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the 90-minute play skewered the fluid, ethics-challenged world view of the insecurely wealthy. Paradoxically, it also humanized a roster of characters from both ends of the social spectrum with uncanny empathy not usually found in works of satire.
It’s about a black-market art dealer and his wife, and their circle, who are taken in by a con man, a young African-American hustler named Paul who does a perfect imitation of their absent children’s Harvard schoolmate while pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier with an inside track to cameos in Dad’s upcoming film adaptation of Cats. Sidney Poitier! Cats! With help from Fred Schepisi’s 1993 film, the play even spawned an offshoot, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” favored time-suck of movie nerds.
Six Degrees might have become an artifact, but this season’s Tony-nominated revival has proven otherwise, as scorchingly relevant today as it was a quarter-century ago. Staged by Trip Cullman, the new production stars Allison Janney, John Benjamin Hickey and Corey Hawkins, a Juilliard-trained actor whose profile has grown significantly since his Broadway debut four years ago as Tybalt in Romeo & Juliet; he played Dr. Dre in Straight Outta Compton and starred as Eric Carter in Fox TV’s 24: Legacy, which recently completed its first season and suspended production while Hawkins is otherwise engaged as Paul Poitier. The performance earned him a Tony nomination as best leading actor in a drama. I spoke with Guare and Hawkins recently during an afternoon off from the show.
DEADLINE: John, what’s it been like, coming back to this play?
JOHN GUARE: Like a dog, a playwright lives in an eternal present and a play is never closed. What’s interesting is it was pre-Obama then, now it’s post-Obama. But I can’t speak to that, I can’t sit back and say, Oh, it was so prescient, I can’t believe I…
DEADLINE: It struck a nerve.
GUARE: The first time I was aware of that was when unnamed theater owners, it was going to be done on the Great White Way, said: “We can’t do this show, it will cause riots! It’s too dangerous to do.” That was the first time, and it astonished me.
Hawkins: ‘I remember reading [Six Degrees] and seeing a bit of myself in this young man – in his imagination and will to keep going, to dream, to envision himself and create this reality. That part, the activation of that part of yourself, was thrilling for me as a young black man.’
DEADLINE: Corey, you grew up in Washington. What was the first show you saw?
COREY HAWKINS: Strangely enough, it was A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Daniel Breaker played Puck. And then, when I first got to New York, I saw him in Passing Strange. Daniel went to Juilliard. I had to California Institute of the Arts when everyone told me not to go to Juilliard because they would turn me into a classically trained robot.
DEADLINE: How did your family feel about your career choice?
HAWKINS: My mother is a police officer. My dad drives trucks. My grandmother is a singer; I grew up in the church. Really, they all just wanted me to do what made
me happy. I went to an all-black high school, we were doing The Amen Corner, James Baldwin, Richard Wesley, we were doing August Wilson and the classics, too. Then I auditioned for Juilliard. They accepted me and it changed my life.
GUARE: He came to his audition in a pink shirt.
DEADLINE: Ah, just like Paul Poitier. So how did Juilliard change your life?
HAWKINS: When I first got there, you have all these expectations about what you think the training is and what you think you know acting is. But the first year was a lot of rolling around on the floor, it was kind of silly. Phillipa Soo was in the year behind me, Adam Driver was in the year in front of me. Finn Wittrock, we were all there and would work together on different things. So I got to do [Guare’s] House of Blue Leaves. I was the MP, I think I had one line. My first play after graduating was by Katori Hall, at the Signature. I just wanted to do stuff that was daring and bold.
GUARE: But how did 24 happen?
HAWKINS: Oh my goodness, well I had started getting stuff on TV and then I did Romeo & Juliet on Broadway, and right after that I got Straight Outta Compton, and that gave me a bit of a platform to step into other things. They offered me 24 after seeing that movie.
DEADLINE: And now Six Degrees?
GUARE: Corey’s name just kept bouncing back.
HAWKINS: I remember reading this play and seeing a bit of myself in this young man, in his imagination and will to keep going, to dream, to envision himself and create this reality. That part, the activation of that part of yourself, was thrilling for me as a young black man. What is identity? Everybody’s trying to see themselves not for who they are but who they think they are. I pick this play up and read it and find new things every time we do it.
DEADLINE: So it’s still evolving for you?
HAWKINS: Seeing this character as a whole – there is a bit of artifice to him and a bit of presentation, but you can’t play the presentation. Paul has to believe these things fully and wholeheartedly. Each time we see him I get to reveal a different part. I just feel lucky to be doing this play now.
Guare: ‘People always say I write the con man so well. For me, it’s not about the art of the con man. What fascinates me is the need of the people to be conned.’
DEADLINE: More now than, say, pre-Trump?
HAWKINS: This idea of belonging, and of identity and wanting something better for yourself…and at the end of the play Paul sort of gets lost in the criminal justice system and becomes just a number. I just watched Ava DuVernay’s 13th and the stark reality of where we are in this country – and where we have always been… Straight Outta Compton was too, about these young black men victimized because of circumstance. When I got to Juilliard, I remember feeling like a fish out of water. And you want to speak a certain way just to be accepted.
GUARE: Did that trouble you?
HAWKINS: Yes, it did. And it persists, it does not go away. You have to wear a mask, or you think you have to wear a mask.
DEADLINE: Does success give you a different kind of mask?
HAWKINS: I don’t know what success is. Others want me to do more film work, but my sights were set on Six Degrees because it’s so different. On 24 I play a hero, and in Compton another hero, Dr. Dre, and they were so different. I have to find the hero in all the characters I play.I get work, work that I’m happy to do. I guess there is some form of validation in that, but validation has to come from inside.
GUARE: It’s all about how much race is a construction, how much identity is a social construction. People always say I write the con man so well. For me, it’s not about the art of the con man. What fascinates me is the need of the people to be conned. How people in this play need Paul in their lives, what he is supplying, what missing tile in their puzzle is he supplying.
The Tony Awards will be telecast live by CBS June 11, beginning at 8 PM New York time.