William Jackson Harper admits that he’s very good at playing stressed out, neurotic characters. The longtime theatre actor got mainstream recognition as the perennially nervous philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye in the NBC show The Good Place. He then followed it up with the anthology series Love Life on HBO Max, where Harper played a man trying to find a relationship but is unable to articulate his own feelings. Now Harper is back on the stage playing Kenneth in Primary Trust Off-Broadway—Kenneth is a reclusive man who has trouble connecting with other people.
Harper says that these roles come to him, but there is a part of him that feels an affinity for those hapless characters: “When it comes to playing stressed-out characters, there is a degree of being like, well, I'm stressed out, I am wound pretty tight. I am pretty angry all the time. I'm only saying, like, 10 percent of the stuff that's on my mind most of the time. Because of that, I understand what it is to move through the world feeling like you're just simmering all the time.”
Primary Trust by Eboni Booth is currently running Off-Broadway at Roundabout Theatre Company until July 2, and has received rave reviews, particularly for Harper’s performance with the New York Times writing, “Harper, who is onstage for nearly all of the production’s 95 minutes, performs with astonishing ease and vulnerability.” Perhaps that vulnerability comes from the fact that like Kenneth, Harper also tends to keep his feelings close to his chest. And then when prodded, such as by an interviewer, Harper’s thoughts come out in a refreshingly unfiltered manner.
For example, Harper directly speaks to the audience for a large chunk of the show’s running time, telling us the things he cannot tell anyone else. When asked how breaking the fourth wall feels, Harper is blunt: “It's fucking awful. And I don't get over it.” He is also honest about the day-to-day realities of being an actor: “I don't know any actor who doesn't feel some kind of terror when they're about to do a show. Everyone I know is like, ‘Oh, geez, I don't want to go out there.’ I know more actors that feel that way than, ‘I can't wait to get out there.’”
In fact, the play as a whole is not a comfortable experience for Harper. It actually scares him to do it (a big fear he has is what happens if he has to go to the bathroom during the show). But for him, the discomfort and the difficulty is part of the point. “Just because you like something doesn't mean it's always fun,” remarks Harper. “When you're doing it, your fear is always there and sort of vibrating. And when you're at the end of the other side of it, it's pretty great. I'm addicted to it, even when it doesn't always feel good.”
And if he’s going to feel uncomfortable, at least Harper is uncomfortable doing a play written by a friend. He’d known Booth since 2017 when they had acted in a post-apocalyptic play together called After the Blast at Lincoln Center. Booth then transitioned to playwriting and about two years ago, she sent Harper a draft of Primary Trust, and asked if he would do a workshop of it. Harper said that the play “snuck up” on him while he was reading it. “It does feel sort of whimsical [initially],” he says. “But then it does sort of dive into some different stuff that is unexpected. And before you know it, you're invested in a very different way from what you expected.”
When the audience enters the Laura Pels Theatre, they are greeted by a set of a small town, but rendered in miniature so the actors loom large over their surroundings. There’s a live musician playing a soothing country-tinged score. You think it’s going to be a buddy play about Kenneth, who sits every night at a tiki bar drinking mai tais, and who only has one friend. It may seem clear on the surface, but as someone who followed up The Good Place with the trippy horror film Midsommar, Harper is attracted to things that have a little more up their sleeve than at first glance. “I can’t do perfection,” he says. “The more jagged and wooly and weird things are, the better it is to me. Something that I enjoy more as an artist is the imperfection of things.”
True to Harper’s words, Primary Trust opens up past its quotidian exterior, turning into an exploration of trauma and grief, and how the normal response to being wounded is to retreat and shut out the world. The play’s title is the name of the bank that Kenneth works at, but it also has a double meaning, for something crucial that Kenneth lacks in his life. And his journey through the play is learning how to open up again and let others in. It all sounds awfully general but to go into too much detail would ruin the delicate surprise and turn of emotions that happen in the play.
As Harper describes him: “Kenneth is this guy who's doing the best he can—not saying a lot, not really expressing himself or having a wide circle of friends—a little bit of a loner, a little bit angry, but really trying not to make that anyone's problem.”
In the play Kenneth self-medicates through his own trauma with alcohol, until he learns a much healthier coping mechanism. And even then, he’s still on a journey at the end of the play. Similarly, Harper is also on a journey to figure out healthy ways to process his own emotions, admitting that, “I feel like it would be cathartic to try to work some of this out in the play.”
When asked what his own coping mechanisms are for dealing with the frustrations of living, Harper answers, again, with refreshing honesty. “The one that I feel that I can say in this interview is going to the gym,” Harper says, who adds that therapy and yoga also help. “And then I have stuff that I can't say. But rest assured, I'm not a Boy Scout. I'm a grown man with emotional problems. And so I probably deal with it in unhealthy ways, but I'm working on it.” Of course, after seeing Primary Trust, audiences will leave realizing that we all deal with life in both healthy and unhealthy ways—and that’s what it is to be human.