I meet Garrett Turner in a familiar place for us both as Emory alumni. The Depot (a.k.a. the old Zaya’s a.k.a. Kaldi’s) is the on-campus site for our conversation. Garrett has a large smile and friendly personality – this is partly why our rencontre lasts close to two beautiful hours.
He doubled major in music and creative writing at Emory and calls himself a performer – he likes that term because it encompasses many things. “Theater is singing, theater is writing, theater is acting and dancing. Mixing all of those together shape your voice and your message. [Performing] definitely feels like what I am supposed to be doing. […] There are myriad facets within my calling. Being a performer is an umbrella term for my calling.”
Why does he perform?
He laughs and tells me that it’s because he likes it and he’s good at it. “I feel like the ‘why’ shifts and changes, even depending on the project. A unique gift that I need to share is being a black man who is naturally full of joy – I smile easily and find love in the world everywhere I go and joy bubbles up in my spirit even though there are so many reasons for us, black folks to lament. When I’m on stage, when I write a lot – it all comes back to this central theme. Sharing joy can be said to be my ‘why’.”
He thinks theater is important as a tool for advocacy, as well as a way for people to experience empathy. The show he most recently did in Atlanta, “Holler if Ya Hear Me” with Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company, is one such example of theater functioning as advocacy. The play, eponymous with one of late rapper Tupac Shakur’s song titles, is an American non-biographical musical inspired by Shakur’s music and lyrics. Directed by Kenny Leon, the play was prompted by a book written by Todd Kreidler addressing the themes of friendship, family, revenge, change and hope, all while probing inner city families’ struggle for peace against daily toils in the current social climate.
“As a performer you become the vessel for such conversations, and then your ‘why’ changes again,” Garrett says. “I’m doing Holler because we need to speak to the ugly racial reality of the United States.”
Originally from Florence, Alabama, Garrett grew up in “a very white neighborhood, a very white school, and a very white church.” In a small Christian high school of some 200 kids, he was one of five black people.
“I had a preppy, secluded up-bringing,” he says. In that milieu, he developed a fondness for rap. Today, some of his favorite musicians include Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, Chance the Rapper and Jay-Z. “Rap is an incredible art form – it’s poetry, it gives voice to people who are often voiceless. Rappers can speak truth into life.”
It’s no wonder that his role in “Holler if Ya Hear Me” means so much to him. In the rehearsal room, he realized that to understand Vertus, his character, he had to recognize that Vertus and Garrett were the same. “Even though Vertus grew up in the hood and I didn’t, I can just let my charisma be his charisma. It’s great as a person of color working in theater to be able to step on the stage and just be yourself. It’s like, ‘we belong here on the boards as well’.”
On the opening night of Holler, Garrett posted on Facebook: “Amidst the incessant hustle of being an actor, constantly auditioning, looking for the next job, networking, keeping one eye on the road ahead, sometimes it is necessary to come to a full stop and acknowledge the moment you’re a part of now. […] The ecstatic moment of finishing our first preview, our first time in front of an audience, a primarily black Atlanta audience, and feeling their hearts connected to ours, their breath clinging to Tupac’s prescient words, the shared sense of community and responsibility between the community onstage reflecting the community in the audience on a deeply dynamic level of pathos—that is a moment that doesn’t happen in musicals; that is a moment I will never forget. On a personal artistic level, what this show does with words will forever leave an imprint on my aesthetic. To seamlessly move from singing to rap to spoken word to poetry is to what I aspire in my own writing. And the way that rap lives in this show—as monologue, as dialogue, as gospel, as prayer—honors that art form in rapturous fashion.”
We shift the talk to Garrett’s time at Emory. I ask him how that period of his life informed his current career.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do upon arriving: that’s partly why I chose Emory as a liberal arts school. By the end of my first year, I decided I wanted to major in music – I was honest with myself and thought about what I enjoyed and what I wanted to learn more about.” His focus was vocal performance. “I learned how to sing well at Emory. After I decided I wanted to major in music, I thought I’d need something else to go along with it. I didn’t decide my majors based on career at all. So, then I picked creative writing because I always liked writing and words and it seemed like a natural choice.”
He enjoys playwriting and poetry-writing over long-form writing. When he moved to Atlanta, Garrett became passionate about spoken word poetry — he would go to Java Monkey café in Decatur to participate in readings. Two of his plays were staged during his senior year: one played at Spellman College, the other at Emory. For these plays, he was inspired by one of his favorite writers, Langston Hughes, whose poetry Garrett incorporated into the projects.
The Emory hustle and bustle did not end with his studies and playwriting. He was also a part of the AHANA a cappella group for four years, serving as musical director for the group during his last year. “I made amazing friends that way. Some of them went on to become artists in New York City. It was a really great group to be a part of.”
I ask him whether he would change anything of his experience at Emory.
Garrett responds that he would have taken all the classes with Kevin Young and Natasha Tretheway. “They are fantastic faculty that I didn’t utilize as I could have as a student, but I would say that I definitely soaked in and managed my time here. I made friendships for life, gave myself over to some student organizations to do some great work, I created things – music, shows, poems – and shared them with the community.”
He values his diverse community of friends that he made during his time at the university. “Those people changed my world. It’s just contact theory – getting to know and understand others and their world beliefs and backgrounds. Growing up in Florence, Alabama, I didn’t watch CNN every morning and I didn’t have that kind of worldly view on things. The only part of the world that I really took into account every day was the southeast of the United States. It was quite insular in that sense. Coming to Emory opened up my eyes and my world to different ways of thinking, to different races and faiths.”
Post-graduation he received the Bobby Jones scholarship to study in Scotland for a year. He opted to not pursue a degree while there, allowing himself the time to explore his identity and interests. “I didn’t have any exams, so I just read plays, sang in a cappella groups, and travelled around Europe. It was incredible.”
He then received the Marshall scholarship and spent the following two years in the United Kingdom. While in London, he completed two one-year master’s programs back to back. The first was the Masters in Theater and Performance at Queen Mary’s University and the second one was a Masters in Music Theater at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. “It was while I was over there that I made the decision to be an actor,” he confesses.
He chose to move to New York City after the UK stints. “It’s Broadway, it’s the hub, it’s where all the auditions are. It just made sense.”
Working in theater takes him all around the country. “At this stage and age in my life, I enjoy moving around, meeting new people. If only my girlfriend could come with me wherever I go… [laughs].”
I take advantage of the laugh and dig deeper. What’s a credo he lives by?
“Joy is inevitable. I want my art to be conscious, in the sense of woke, in the sense of concerned about the ills of the world. I want it to be inviting too though, and putting those two things together is difficult. Some people are born to be activists and some people have difficulty in relaying that message in a way that invites people in to hear it. I’ve been blessed with a perspective in life that allows me to be able to be a bit more forgiving when having difficult conversations, and to do it with some whimsy. I’m a black man full of joy trying to speak the truth with love.”
He leaves me with some last words of wisdom from his favorite, Langston Hughes – a different take on the golden rule of “do unto others what you want them to do unto you” – the phrase reverberates in my mind long after I say goodbye.
“I play it cool/ I dig all jive/ That’s the reason/ I stay alive/ My motto/ As I live and learn/ Is dig and be dug in return.”
By Loli Lucaciu