'You Can Bank on Black Stories': Director Whitney White on the Success of Jaja's African Hair Braiding | Playbill

Tony Awards 'You Can Bank on Black Stories': Director Whitney White on the Success of Jaja's African Hair Braiding

White is currently the fifth Black woman to ever be Tony nominated for directing a play.

Whitney White Vi Dang

Director Whitney White and playwright Jocelyn Bioh both made their Broadway debuts with the hit play Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, an original work that had no stars attached but managed to sell out its limited run and bring in a record number of first-time Broadway ticket buyers. And now that both women have been nominated for Tony Awards, for directing and Best Play, respectively, this is White's takeaway: "You can trust Black women. You can bank on Black stories."

Jaja's followed the women working in a hair-braiding salon in Harlem. Following its New York run, the play will go on tour. Its five Tony nominations are notable for a number of reasons. Bioh is the seventh Black woman to have ever been nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play, while White is the fifth Black woman to have ever been nominated for Best Direction of a Play. 

Read: Jocelyn Bioh on Her Best Play Nomination for Jaja's African Hair Braiding

White shares the category with Daniel Aukin (Stereophonic), Anne Kauffman (Mary Jane), Kenny Leon (Purlie Victorious), and Lila Neugebauer (Appropriate).

Below, on the day of Tony nominations, April 30, White shared with Playbill her in-the-moment reactions to being nominated.

How'd you find out this morning?
Whitney White: You know, I was doing my morning house chores, and I was so nervous. I was a little scared to watch the live replay of it all. It was a family member and my agents who called me to tell me the news first. Then I watched everything, and the wonderful flood of calls and texts came from so many people, family members, community members. It's really been a wonderful outpouring of support for the work in the show.

What does it mean to you to be nominated for this show, in particular, considering it was written by Jocelyn and it had an all-Black cast, about Black women?
Oh, it means so much, not just to me, but to my entire family. It was an honor to work on this story. It is about Black women, and it's about immigrants. It's about the many kinds of people that really contribute to the society we live in. So it's been incredibly humbling, but also encouraging to see the work recognized. I think by any standard, this is a breakout show. It was a world premiere, never done anywhere. That never happens in Broadway that stories get to premiere cold like that. To have it all seen means a lot. 

It means, again, you can trust Black women, you can bank on Black stories. This was helmed by Jocelyn and myself. We're both mothers, and we did it. We did the work. It's mostly just exciting, because it's a reminder that audiences are excited for new things, and new stories. And I hope that we all can keep working on more stories like this. It's really encouraging. It gives me the fuel to keep going.

MTC told me the play brought in a record number of first-time audience members. How does it feel to to be bringing in new audiences to Broadway?
Thank you for that question. I mean, this is the hurdle we're all facing. We've got to keep not just Broadway alive, but the arts alive. And this show brought in more first-time attendees to that theatre in its history. And, again, it was a world premiere, new show about immigrant women. It made everyone laugh, and it made everyone cry. It just gives me fuel because the people will come, and we need to make stories for the people. That's what we got to do in this play. So it just gives me hope. For every show that closes, I send those teams so much love. We just all have to pick up and keep daring to bring new stories to the stage. We just all have to keep at it. It just feels good. I've always had this impulse. I think audiences will come if they know this is for them, if they know they're going to leave with a full meal. And I think Jaja's gave everybody a full meal, a full night at the theatre.

I'm so excited that it's going to be touring so that more people can see it.
My family can see it! Shout out to my family in Chicago, and my mother, Janice. My mother raised me. She's a single mom. She raised me all on her own, and mostly that I get to share this with her, someone who gave me so much, is incredible.

How'd she take it?
Oh my gosh, we said a little prayer. We had an encouraging word. Oh God, I'm gonna get emotional. She's always had so much faith in me. She put me through school, and she helped me develop my talent, and helped guide me, and give me faith in what I was doing. I would not have anything without this woman's belief and sacrifice. For her to see our family name on that Manhattan Theatre Club building, for her to see this moment now, is everything to me.

Will Jaja's come back to New York?
I can't say anything yet. But I will say, come catch us on tour, it's gonna be incredible. And we should have some exciting updates very soon.

Check Out Photos of Opening Night of Jaja's African Hair Braiding

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