Carl Clemons-Hopkins blazes trail as non-binary actor

Photo by: Sam Waxman

Carl Clemons-Hopkins is a performer and stage artist best known for their breakout role as Marcus in HBO Max’s Hacks. In 2021, they made history as the first non-binary person to be nominated at the 73rd Emmy Awards. 

Originally from the Atlanta area, Clemons-Hopkins has performed in theaters nationwide. They were nominated for a Barrymore Award for excellence in the Theater. In 2016, they appeared in the Chicago production of Hamilton. 

Clemons-Hopkins appears in Pulitzer winner James Ijames’ “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington,” directed by Whitney White, playing at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago through October 9. 

The play follows the recently widowed “Mother of America” who lies alone in her Mount Vernon bed, ravaged by illness and attended to by the enslaved people who will be free the moment she dies. This uproarious form-shifting fever dream takes us deep into the ramifications of one of America’s original sins. 

A recent Friday afternoon conversation with PrideIndex Clemons-Hopkins talked about how they became associated with “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington,” the importance of being true to their non-binary identity, and Crown Royal with pineapples and a cherry garnish. 

PrideIndex (PI): Introduce yourself and tell us about your journey thus far.

Carl Clemons-Hopkins (CCH): My name is Carl Clemons-Hopkins. I’m an actor working on “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” at the Steppenwolf Theater.

We restarted rehearsing this play in March 2020. And then, after two weeks had to shut down due to the pandemic. It is really exciting to be back and able to tell the story of this piece. We think it’s very important and I’m just grateful that Glenn Davis and Audrey Francis (co-artistic directors at Steppenwolf) were adamant about keeping it in the programming.

PI: How did you become associated with “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington?

CCH: I auditioned for it in 2019. Well, before that, James, the playwright who’s also a friend of mine, sent me this play to read. And I told him, “this is great, but I don’t do plantations.” But by the second page, I was laughing so hard that I knew I had to audition for it. Whitney White, our director, is so brilliant and fabulous; she has crafted this in such a unique and powerful way. We really get to explore; we go from dynamic tragedy to high comedy within a moment, which reflects the Black American experience of things. So, when we got back in August 2022, we kind of hit the ground running. We’ve put together a dynamic piece that’s educational, entertaining, and in many ways, a bit of a balm for some of the authentic, real national tragedy that American slavery is and the effects of it still.

PI: Is this your first time working in Chicago?

CCH: No, I’ve done a good amount of similar television work here. I did the Chicago production of Hamilton here years ago. And I’ve also done a lot of plays in Milwaukee, which is not Chicago, but many of the same players come from here. I’ve lived here for many years. And so it’s just really kind of a pleasant homecoming situation to be working here. This is my first time at the Steppenwolf- I’m very excited to be doing that.

PI: You’ve worked in television and on the stage. Which one do you enjoy most?

CCH: I like enjoying the gig I’m on- and am grateful to be a working actor regardless. So whatever the medium, if it’s right, then it’s right. I will have fun in either.

PI: What can the audience do as expected?

CCH: Expect the unexpected. Expect a very different imagining and different types of storytelling regarding American history. The way the play works is that it jumps so many styles and devices in a split second, so there’s reality at one point, you’re in an absurd game show at another point. I would say expect a 90-minute thrill ride that does not stop until it’s over. And then kind of spit you out the end.

PI: How did you decide which roles or projects to take on?

CCH: Yeah, for me, I don’t necessarily need to do something that I’ve seen before. I don’t need to uphold it. At this point, I don’t need to uphold tropes that I think are damaging. I really tried to look at what is expanding the narrative of my experiences and the experiences of the people that I relate to so, what is increasing the black queer story, what is leading to the liberation and expansion of our imagination, and what is a different way to tell our stories. That really is my guiding post. And also, if I dig it, I dig it. And if I don’t, I’m not trying to put myself in a situation where I’m forcing myself to adhere to someone else’s vision. So I’m just going with my heart and my gut. And, also what works out timewise with work-life balance. It’s really about moving forward.

PI: So, in everything you’ve just mentioned, what stuck out in my head was the black queer narratives. Why are those types of projects vital to you? And why is it important for you to be open regarding your sexuality?

CCH: Those narratives are important to me because, in addition to no reading, writing, or drums, we couldn’t express ourselves outside of the binary outside of the heteronormative mandate that white supremacy had to put on so many cultures to control them. And so if I am pursuing freedom, then I cannot allow myself to succumb to the bondage of hiding, or the bondage of being inauthentic, or the bondage of trying to assimilate into what has been prescribed as the way to be to keep usually white masses complacent. That is not what I’m here to do. And so, other people may have their reasons to do that. And that’s on that, but for me, and my time, I would like to explore freedom as much as I can, in the time that I have in this fucked up system in which we live. Because that, to me, is where some actual progress can be made.

PI: What do you do to prepare for a role? What did you do to put yourself in the zone?

CCH: Yeah, everyone’s different for this one. Honestly, the real treat is that it’s all in the text.

James is such a dynamic playwright that all of the worlds you need are in the text. Do have a sense of self and understanding of the point of your own history- Outside of that, it’s really getting into the text and allowing yourself to surrender to the sometimes outlandish things you’re being asked to do. So I guess a lot of the preparation is rest, water, sleep, and getting your mind right. But also, the real work is the surrender and the listening and being open to the direction, and being available to the authentic ensemble we are building. I cannot stress enough how important and wonderful this group of people are and how wonderful it is to work with them. Because we really get to know once that surrender happens and once that preparation happens, we can play the thing we want to do.

And I think that’s what audiences respond to, they see seven people committing to a piece and telling a story. So the preparation for me is in the literal preparation as in the text work, the scripts analysis, and technique and surrender.

PI: What does non-binary mean? Define what it mean for people who don’t know or who are hearing this term for the first time? Or what does non-binary mean to you?

CCH. I subscribe to a belief that there’s no wrong way to be yourself. And there’s no one right way. We’re all ever-evolving individuals; for me it is a release of the categories put on us and an acceptance of the very real truth of spirit. For some people, it involves fluidity throughout genders. For me, it consists of a release of gender as a category I subscribe to. And it’s something that I’ve known about myself since childhood. And it’s an ever-evolving thing. 

PI: Do you envision the world or Hollywood, or the stage at some point could embrace more non-binary actor’s performers in the future?

CCH: I don’t think they have a choice. You cannot build a future upholding the tenets of the past. It doesn’t work. So I don’t believe the world, Hollywood, or any industry has a choice. Now they can do this the easy way, or they can do it the hard way- That’s on them. But they’re embracing it. At this point, it’s like gravity. You don’t have to believe in it, but it’s there. So get in line and get out.

PI: If the performer Carl Clemens Hopkins was a cocktail. What kind of cocktail would they be?

CCH: Wow. (Laughs) Wow that’s a great question! If I were a cocktail, I would be a Crown Royal on the rocks with Pineapple and a soda splash, and Luxardo Maraschino Cherries to garnish. That’s what I would be, a Royal Pineapple.

PI: What does the future hold for you?

CCH: I don’t know. But I know what I’m doing in the present is trying to stay as present as possible. What I pray is for blessings not curses, peace and not strife. What I’m doing in the present to ensure that is staying in the moment and trying to be as honest and kind as possible. This is interesting because I’m not necessarily pleasant, but I strive to be caring, and I pray the future also holds an honest, accurate focus on rest. I’m excited to rest; I feel like I’ve been in a very work-focused drive since I was 12. So I’m excited to start incorporating rest into my life balance. – and good food!

PI: I noticed you did not mention any EGOTs; how come?

CCH: Trophies are cute. They were never built for me. So I’m not necessarily putting them into my pursuits. I would love to collect a few. That’s great. But I can’t build my hope on trophies. Don’t get me wrong, we love metal with shiny things, but that’s a byproduct.

PI: Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself? Or is this performance coming up?

CCH: I would just share, please, please come see the play! Tell your friends. It’s a cute 90 minutes. And it’s some really dynamic theatre. And I think it’s also some essential theatre for our current landscape in this nation.

Carl Clemons-Hopkins appears in “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Mz Martha Washington” at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago from September 1 – October 9, 2022. Click here for tickets.