Originally from Delaware, Keith Illidge graduated with an MFA from the theater school at DePaul in Chicago, and works as a stage, film, and TV actor in Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York. He currently stars in the U.S. premiere of a play by Inua Ellams, a Nigerian-British poet, playwright, and performer. UNTITLED blends African mythology with modern day life. In Inis Nua Theatre Company’s production, Illidge takes on the role of twin brothers, X and Y, who lead opposing yet intertwined lives, bound together by destiny. [Read the Phindie review.]
In this interview, Illidge discusses his life, his two roles in UNTITLED, and black representation in contemporary US theater.
Tina Gill:Do you recall an event in your childhood or youth that made you want to get into acting?
Keith Illidge: Yes. I used to just make imaginary movies in our home and played many characters by myself. What I remembered doing most was a play in 5th grade. The audience was very responsive and energized to our performances. I loved the feeling I got from that. It made me feel that I was being heard, even impacting others. I would then go on and perform in my high school drama club. That’s where it really started for me.
Tina: Describe some of the most moving scenes for you from UNTITLED.
Keith: There are so many. I love the interaction between Y and his Mom and how she tells him that he has a destiny to fulfill. I feel it’s one of the more critical moments in the play. I’m also drawn to X and his relationship with Osalu [the elder and role model in Africa] when he’s just starting to become a medicine man. Osalu gave him the attention he desperately wanted from his Father.
Tina: What was your biggest challenge while working on this one-man play?
Keith: The biggest challenge for me was maintaining both the accents I had to play with. Nigerian and British. They may seem like very distinct accents—separate from each other—but, in reality, they have a lot of similarities in how they sound. It’s all about placement in your mouth that makes the difference. But, it was hard to develop that practice and not to slip in and out from each one.
Tina: In UNTITLED, you gave an emotionally raw performance. At one point in the play, as X, you scream out to The Spirits while rain pours down upon you. How did you prepare for this role?
Keith: Thank you so much. I think there’s a little imagination that I can draw from along with an experience in my life. As a black man in America, we are often deemed as dangerous. So, knowing that X feels some type of abandonment from the people in his village, I feel like I can take my experience as a black man and imagine those times where I felt unheard or judged for the color of my skin.
Tina: Tell us about working with director Jerrell L. Henderson.
Keith: Fun fact about our relationship: Jerrell gave me one of my first gigs in Philly ten years ago. We did a play together called, Zooman and the Sign at Allen’s Lane Theatre. It was so dope. He took me in as his little brother and made the process very comfortable. He opened the door for collaboration, which I love when a director does that. Ten years later, we did the same thing with this production and it felt great. Plus, we joke a lot so that takes a lot of tension out of the room and allows for more opportunities for a play to happen.
Tina: You received a Black Theater Alliance Award (BTAA) nomination for your role as Lincoln in the Fleetwood-Jourdain production of Topdog/Underdog. How have you seen black representation in theater evolve over the course of your career?
Keith: A lot of our stories are being told more than before and that feels good. I feel humbled to be a part of that development. You have playwrights like Terell Alvin McCraney, Donja Love, Dominique Morisseau, Lydia Diamond, James Ijames, Inua Ellams, and others that are talking about black life in many ways. They’re all talking about our experiences as black men and women—through all our shapes and sizes, colors, genders, sexual orientation—and all the beautiful stuff that makes us who we are.
Tina: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Keith: I’d like to tell the younger generation, if you have a passion or a dream for something, whether that be the arts or whatever that brings you joy, pursue it. Yes, it will take guts, failures, and long nights to achieve what it is you desire but anything meaningful to you is worth fighting for. Keep learning. Keep growing.
It’s all a marathon, not a sprint.
Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake, 341 S Hicks St, Philadelphia] April 24-May 12, 2019,inisnuatheatre.org