Before portraying the mathematician David in How To Transcend a Happy Marriage, Austin Smith thought of Pythagoras in terms of his famous theorem: a squared plus b squared equals c squared. “As a result of this play,” Smith told me the other day between matinee and evening performances, “I’ve learned that he was so much more profound than that.”
“Yes, there were the strict formulas and calculations that we think of as math today,” Smith elaborated. “But math for Pythagoras was almost akin to religion or spirituality.”
Smith, who was born in Chicago and spent much of his youth there, mentioned Pythagoras and right-angled triangles in terms of one of the play’s chief motifs: the number three. “The most obvious manifestation is the polyamory. I’m part of a three-sided relationship of two men and a woman.”
Smith is quick to dispel the notion that polyamory means free love. “These people are committed to each other, and they have developed principles to express that commitment.” Prior to doing the play, Smith said he didn’t know of many polyamorous situations in his immediate or near-immediate life circumstances. “I do now,” he said. “My generation is less bound by the previous norms of gender and sexuality in our relationships.”
As a child, Smith sang in church, but his desire to perform increased exponentially in high school. “I was lucky. My school did five full productions a year, and they provided many opportunities.” A strong student, Smith wanted a liberal-arts education, which he got at Columbia University, where he majored in psychology and theater. Then it was on to the acting program at Juilliard; going there, Smith said, “was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The teachers were inspiring. One of mine was Deb Hecht, the dialect coach for this play.”
Smith’s first professional job, after Juilliard, was in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon, in early 2015. He was slated to proceed to a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in Washington, D.C., but got derailed. “Hamilton happened,” Smith explained. The musical was moving to Broadway in July, 2015, and was expanding its roster. “I was cast, in an open-ended contract, to be part of the ensemble and to cover three of the leads – Oak (Okieriete Onaodowan), Chris (Christopher Jackson), and Leslie (Leslie Odom, Jr.).”
Smith never went on for Oak, who was Hercules Mulligan and James Madison, but he did go on “a fair amount” for Jackson, who was George Washington, and “even more” for Odom, who was Aaron Burr. One of Smith’s most dramatic memories of Hamilton is the moment he came down with laryngitis. He was on as Washington. “It was the second show of the day,” Smith remembered. “I was fine during the intermission. Early in the second act, I felt a frog in my throat. That had never happened to me. It was scary.”
Smith made it through the second act, and went the next day to the doctor, who diagnosed the laryngitis and put the actor on vocal rest. “It was ironic that it all happened when it did,” Smith said. “The performance took place the day before I planned to put in my notice. It was as if God were saying: ‘It’s been 15 months and it’s time to go.’” Smith is very grateful that he was part of “a once-in-a-generation phenomenon,” but he was ready for new challenges.
Transcend has been the first of those challenges. “I keep discovering things by doing the play night after night,” Smith said. “Sarah [Ruhl] has a tremendous imagination.” Part of Smith’s learning has involved the ensemble. “This is the first play I’ve done in 8 years in which I’ve been the only black person in the cast.” He added: “As an actor of color, I’m very aware that what I do help forward the conversation about representation.” And how does Transcend do that? Smith replied that even with the success of the movie Hidden Figures, about African-American female mathematicians, “We still need to see more stories that feature black scientists and mathematicians. So I’m happy to be playing one.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.