Acting Thesis Interview: Tenneh Sillah
For the first of two thesis productions featuring Columbia MFA actors presented at Lenfest this fall, the company of Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven shows the effects of displacement on a group of women seeking refuge at a shelter. We sat down with cast member and Acting student Tenneh Sillah to discuss her acting process and the upcoming production.
You play Melba Diaz in this play. What has it been like connecting to your character?
It’s been challenging but liberating. Melba is 15. She has a lot of energy, but she also has so much trauma and so many things that have happened to her. She’s had a lot of life experience, and so it’s been difficult balancing that energetic youthfulness with her past.
Also, I’m an old woman. I’m 27 and I’m old and tired. My preparation has been jumping jacks—I have to get energetic. I have to talk 50 miles per hour every single time. But it’s fun to be a child and to get excited about the small things again.
What other preparation have you had to do for this role and the overall play?
I’ve been watching lots of interviews & documentaries and finding music. I find images, photos, quotes that look like Melba, that feel like Melba.
My process starts with a lot of mental work, lots of meditation, and thinking about the things that I think are important to her. I think education is important to Melba, and I decided her mother (who isn’t really brought up in the play) is very important to her. So I sit and imagine her relationship with her mother. I meditate about my relationship to Sarge and the two younger people in the halfway house and my history with them. I think about all the trauma that she’s been through, and she’s only 15. It’s about allowing myself to imagine the parts of her I don’t know.
Right now, I’m in the process of letting all that go and focusing on the youthfulness of her—her physical life. The trauma lives in her but it doesn’t live in her physically. She’s still cool, she still has great outfits, she’s still funny and wants to make jokes. She’s excited to share her day. We’re about two weeks away from opening, and now it’s just about being energetic, having fun, and allowing my connections with people in scenes to bounce and ping pong with each other.
As far as movement, did you have to work on anything specific?
Our teacher, Lecturer Sita Mani, teaches Acting Body. My process before every rehearsal is an actors warm-up, where we get into our bodies. And then after that, I go into the actors' gym, which gets me energetic. Again, right now, it’s all physical work.
Your character has a pretty emotional poem in the beginning of this play. How did you prepare for the spoken word portion?
The poem is one of the first things I had to get off book for. I don’t have a background in poetry or spoken word performance, but the closest I can get is Shakespeare. I first worked on this piece with my Alexander teacher, and she helped me discover that it’s also a rap. You know, listen to the rhythms of it and show off your skills of connecting this with that. That built the world of it.
Then I worked on it with Sita, who allowed me to deepen the work and have more fun. It’s a speech that can very easily become eternal and sad, but it is a rap, a song. And I’ve structured it in a way where I want the audience to have fun but also see the pain that she’s having. The greatest note I got was from [our director, Adjunct Assistant Professor] Lisa Benavides-Nelson: this whole play is Shakespeare, it’s heightened language, use the words.
This play has a famously large cast—how have rehearsals been with this many people?
It’s been exciting and really fun. When it comes to plays, we’re only rehearsing scenes at a time, you don’t really comprehend how big of a cast it is until you do those huge scenes when all 18 of us are on stage. It’s also an honor because we’re working with second year actors, and it’s just been so joyous. It’s so exciting to see how this program is training people, and everyone’s working at such a high level, so it’s inspiring to work alongside them. It’s also exciting watching our director wrangle us all, and everyone has so much respect for our stage manager, costume designers, and everyone who's part of this production.
But overall, the project is so human. It’s about a world that we see when we walk out of rehearsal. So no one comes into this space not wanting to be honest. And there’s that respect that takes over the space. So it’s been a really good experience. I feel so grateful. Every time I leave rehearsal, I’m like, what more can I do to make my cast proud and our director happy?
Is there something that you’re hoping the audience will leave with after watching this play?
I hope that people make an effort to give more to shelters. I really hope people leave wanting to give back because we all have a lot of stuff. You know, don’t take stuff to a store that’s going to put a price on it and charge other people. Take it to a shelter, especially if it’s in a good condition. There are kids that want to go to prom and don’t have money to buy dresses. If you have a nice dress, take it to a shelter and offer it to them. There are people down the street that really need it. Sometimes it’s easier to drop it off at Goodwill, but it’s hard to go on the street to find a shelter and see if someone might need it.
The other thing that I want people to leave with is not to judge other people as soon as you see them, especially people that are asking for money. To show some type of care, because these are invisible people. Children are involved, too. I’m reading this book right now, Invisible Child, and it said that we don’t see the children because they spend their days in school and then their nights in the shelter. The halfway house doesn’t have everything the kids need, but they give them just enough to show them that there’s hope in their future. It’s about giving them an ounce of hope. And the way we raise our children is the way the world will become.
The other thing I want audiences to see—it’s hard to see at first—but if you look really closely there’s a theme of mothers and daughters. I have such a close relationship with my mother, and I lost her recently. So for me, doing this play and seeing all the different relationships with mothers and daughters (with some that have it and some that are fighting back to get to their children). I am just in a place right now where I want to be a part of any project about mothers. For me, it just gives me a chance to celebrate mine.
What kind of productions would you like to be doing in the next five years?
I would love to work at Atlantic Stage Company on any of their upcoming projects. It’d be such an honor to be on a dope sci-fi tv show. You know, you don’t see a lot of people of color in the sci-fi world, and I’d be so excited to be part of a project like that. I’d also love to be part of a big cast on Broadway, something like Halfway Bitches. I also just saw Death of a Salesman, and I’m looking forward it to becoming a show about reversing the sex because I’d love to play Biff. It’s one of my dream roles.