Did you know Otoja Abit has played basketball in front of 17,000 spectators at Madison Square Garden? Did you know he played Trans Pioneer Marsha P Johnson in the feature film Stonewall? He also has a dog named Willa, a deep love for his mama and sister and he’s writing, directing and acting like crazy. Get to know this guy!
InViolet: You are one of our newer InViolet members, but we’ve long been fans of you. So nice to have you officially onboard! What has your InViolet journey been like so far?
Otoja: My InViolet journey thus far has been an interesting one. I’ve been a fan of the company for a while and extremely grateful that my dear friend, Tara Westwood, introduced me to this family. Tara and I studied together with Maggie Flanigan for two years and we both had a deep appreciation for the work and overall aspirations. Tara invited me to a company meeting once and from there InViolet kept me in mind. As time went on, I was a guest artist in the 2014 One Night Stand working on a Michael Henry Harris piece. Then that same summer I attended my first company retreat. Time went on and eventually last fall I was invited to be part of InViolet and never hesitated to join. That same fall we began our fundraising campaign and I was happy to blend my friends and family (new and old) with the InViolet family to aid in attaining a financial goal to support the company.
InViolet: Do you have a favorite InViolet memory you can share?
Otoja: My favorite InViolet memory definitely has to be associated with the retreat. The idea of traveling outside of the hustle/bustle of New York City and escaping the “busyness” with other likeminded artist is an instant recipe for creative success. Remembering my first retreat when the company openly spoke about goals for the next year. It was a very emotional conversation for everyone involved and to experience that truth with a group of fearlessly open hearts is exactly where I wanted to be.
InViolet: You just pulled double duty acting and directing for InViolet’s One Night Stand: The Post-It Plays. How did it all go?
Otoja: Pulling double duty for the 2017 One Night Stand was an exciting experience. Of course the nerves of acting and finding a character were there. But then that part of my brain had to be subdued, so the other part of leading the actors could proudly be on display. I’ve always loved the rehearsal process. As an actor or director nothing changed when approaching the ONS rehearsals. Even how limited the rehearsals were, we focused on getting everyone together and finding the truth in whatever piece we we’re given. Luckily, I was surrounded by willing actors and directed by the incredible truth teller in Juan Villa. Man… Juan saved me during this process and helped me see things about myself and the character that I never could’ve imagined. So far for 2017 — I am grateful to him.
InViolet: You’ve been working hard on your writing lately. What do you have in the works?
Otoja: I have been working on writing lately and am most proud of a short film I wrote called “JITTERS“. Hoping to shoot it next month. In fact, I’m sure I’m going to call in a lot of favors to get this one completed. After workshopping it with the company, the script is in a good place and I do believe that this story has legs. I’m also currently working on two full-length plays. I’m NOWHERE near completion as I constantly chalk those down as works in progress. Basically I’m a Gemini and depending how I’m feeling, my mood or concentration can adjust to “that” particular play…. oh the horror.
InViolet: You’re one of those rare humans who is actually from New York, huh? Born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens? Do you ever visit your old neighborhoods? Are they wildly different now? Have you ever lived outside of NYC?
Otoja: As one of the few in this arts community who is born and raised I’ve always took pride being a homegrown boy. Now I feel the pressure to make something more of myself so people care to know where I’m from, rather than me boasting about my local advantage. I do still revisit where I grew up (Briarwood, Queens) often. That was my youth and I’m undeniably a ruminative guy. On the other hand, in Brooklyn, I stay away; 1) because I don’t know it anymore. 2) I truly believe they don’t want me back for leaving and going to Queens. Ughhh… my territorial guilt! Growing up in NYC it was all about sports due to it being quickly accessible and the main objective to get friends outside. Every summer I enjoyed getting a break from NYC and visiting family in Connecticut. I was fortunate enough, as I got older, to live in Washington, CT for one year during a post-graduate year at The Gunnery. LOVED everything about The Gunnery and there I was able to find the support for my love of the arts. I actually auditioned for my first play, was awarded the lead role and since then have seen incremental progress in this business. The craft was developed later but the confidence was instilled there in Washington, CT.
InViolet: A little birdie told us you’re one hell of an athlete! Basketball, yeah? Was the sport a big part of your life growing up? Do you still play?
Otoja: Growing up I played a lot of sports. Baseball is what I loved and wanted in my future. But playing basketball was always more familial to me since I always craved that team aspect. Because of my height it was a no brainer that basketball was going to be the option of sport to fully pursue. I was all in and lucky enough to accomplish a goal as a 4-year division-1 basketball player at St. John’s University. Extremely proud of that opportunity and where it has brought me. To this day my basketball pedigree has supported me with the confidence I still put into my craft. I mean what better way to rid yourself of stage fright than to annually play in front of 17,000 spectators in Madison Square Garden as a home court.
InViolet: What was it like interning for LAByrinth Theatre Company? How did that gig influence you as you started your career?
Otoja: Interning for LAByrinth theater company was the exact environment I needed when transferring from college to the “real world”. I was fortunate enough to go from a team/program at St. John’s University and land right at a very exclusive/”in” company at LAByrinth. I remember doing “intern duties” and interacting with artists such as John Ortiz, Peter Sellers, Phil Hoffman, Chris Chalk and others and just being engulfed by their aura. It was humbling and helpful to understand that I’m “in the room”… but no one knows how. Ha. I think that can sum up the majority of my career. “Otoja has been here… but I don’t know how”.
InViolet: Word on the street is that one of your first big jobs was assisting Gregory Mosher on Broadway’s That Championship Season (starring Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Patric and Chris Noth). What was that whole experience like for you?
Otoja: Because of LAByrinth, I was often able to attend/work their annual company retreat. One HUGE benefit was working on a staged reading and being directed by Tony Winner Gregory Mosher. I learned so much in a weekend and when it ended hated the fact that I couldn’t learn on THAT level. Ironically months later, one of my favorite plays was coming to Broadway and to be directed by the same man who I respected immensely months prior. Jason Miller’s “That Championship Season” changed my life. It deals with basketball players celebrating a twenty year HS reunion at their coaches home. I knew that play because it was my life— so I instantly reached out to Gregory and I was fortunate enough to assist him in his Broadway revival. That Championship Season gave me the courage, respect and knowledge of what elite creativity, professionalism and what the work truly is. To work with that company and such actors as Jason Patric, Kiefer Sutherland, Chris Noth, Brian Cox and Jim Gaffigan was truly a dream experience and every single day that goes by I count my blessings. I love each and every one of them and their support for me throughout my burgeoning career has been constant.
InViolet: Can we talk about Stonewall? Big movie. Big role. Have we told you that we’re proud of you??
Otoja: I shot the feature film “Stonewall“playing the iconic Trans Pioneer Marsha P Johnson. She will forever be a part of my life. I’m extremely proud of this film and the role because of that important part of American history and being able to portray, one of the many, strong black woman. A dream role that I was grateful to obtain because I did the work. Developing her character and ultimately treating Marsha with the respect that she deserved. The film was directed by Hollywood legend Roland Emmerich and one of the most talented writers in present day, Jon Robin Baitz. To be able to work with those brilliant artist and adding my own artistic merit to that production is something I still strive to attain today. And if anyone has a problem with that I will just say “pay it no mind”… (hope you saw what I did there). :-p
InViolet: You mentioned being excited about the array of strong female leads currently on Broadway. Yes, Otoja! We love supporting lady theater artists! What shows have your attention?
Otoja: I grew up in a household with my sister and mother whom are both strong women. The respect and adoration for women is in my bones. With all that said, as a fan, I’m looking forward to seeing Cate Blanchett on Broadway in “The Present“. Been a fan of Cate forever. She is so alive and exudes such fluidity with how she can bounce back from stage and screen and that’s something I want to do. I’m also looking forward to Bette Midler in “Hello Dolly” and Glen Close in “Sunset Boulevard“. This will be a strong seasom for female leads and I will do my part to support.
InViolet: What’s next for you?
Otoja: Next for me is returning to NY (I’m in LA as this interview is being conducted) and from their making sure my puppy, Willa, is all right. It sounds ridiculous but I’ve learned to simplify things in my life and from there I can put all other things in perspective… In the professional world (MOST IMPORTANTLY) I’m continuing to push a spec-pilot “Harlem Knights” that I co-created, produced and stared in that I’m pitching to producers. It’s a journey to get your work out there but I’m pretty confident that this story has legs and once it opens a specific door I can bring all of InViolet and our support team with me!
You can follow my journey on twitter, instagram @ohabit and on Facebook: @Otoja Abit