Actor and Tufts Ph.D. candidate Jo Michael Rezes talks about teaching, performing in a Tony Award-winning play, and embracing a nonbinary approach to life
The Inheritance, by playwright Matthew López, explores life among gay men in New York City a generation after the AIDS crisis. Described by one critic as “perhaps the most important American play of the century so far,” the 2020 Tony Award winner for Best Play interrogates the legacy left to the gay community by the individuals who suffered the most during the crisis—and asks what, if anything, gay men today owe to their forebears.
For Jo Michael Rezes, an actor in SpeakEasy Stage’s current production of The Inheritance, running in Boston through June 11, landing a role in the show was “a dream come true.” A self-described “nonbinary theatremaker” and Ph.D. candidate at Tufts in Theatre and Performance Studies, Rezes is currently at work on a dissertation project that explores media representations of HIV and AIDS and related topics.
“To appear in a play that is so closely tied to the research that I’m doing for my Ph.D. right now—it’s so exciting,” Rezes says. Equally exciting to Rezes: earlier this year, they won Tufts’ Award for Outstanding Contribution to Undergraduate Education, which recognizes excellence as a teaching assistant and cultural sensitivity toward undergraduate students. “Teaching is my first love,” Rezes explains. “To be recognized for doing well the thing that I love most—I can’t imagine anything better.”
Tufts Now spoke with Rezes to learn more about how their identity as a nonbinary teacher and performer informs their work, and to understand how they juggle their roles as a theatremaker, a teacher, and a Ph.D. student (not to mention how they, in fact, literally juggle).
Tufts Now: How does it feel to be appearing in The Inheritance?
Jo Michael Rezes: In my work as an actor, especially in Boston, I try to focus on fringe plays and new work development. So, appearing in a recent play in itself has been wonderful—but then, to appear in the regional premiere of the Tony Award-winning play from 2020… It’s really kind of the ultimate project for me.
It’s been thrilling to be in a show coming out of COVID lockdowns. I realized how big a deal it was during our first week of shows in April, when we were doing our curtain call: I was standing there with the huge ensemble for our show, in front of an audience that was giving us a standing ovation. It was the first time that I had been in front of an audience since 2019, but until that moment, it just hadn’t registered with me, with everybody on stage and people clapping, and I went, “Oh, weird! We’re really back!”
When did your interest in acting begin?
Anyone in my family would tell you I was performing at a very young age. I liked to take the center of attention away from other people all the time. I thought all the time about how to become an actor. One summer, I taught myself how to juggle: I just sat down outside and started juggling walnuts. I thought it would be a good tool for acting, and so I said, “I’m going to learn how to do this.” I’m still waiting for the production that’s going to put that skill to use.
A Ph.D. may be an unconventional choice for people interested in acting, directing, fringe productions, and small-theater work. Why was that the right path for you?
Teaching has always been my first love. I was drawn to it, and drawn to pedagogy, even as I was nearing the end of my undergrad experience at Vassar. I knew that for my undergrad thesis I would direct my own show, and I wanted to do that partly so that I could work with younger students. I love working with undergrads—collaborating with them, thinking with them. I just didn’t want that to end, so I decided that I was going to apply to MFA programs and Ph.D. programs. What felt particularly right to me was the Ph.D. program here because of the amazing opportunities Tufts offers to teach, create your own courses, and work outside of the molds of both what a Ph.D. is and what theater-making is.
I’ve been able to mentor undergrads at Tufts in new work development; this fall, I’ll get to direct a play on campus, The Interrobangers, by M Sloth Levine. Sloth is a great friend and collaborator I met in the fringe theater community in Boston. There are so many opportunities here—but also, in general, as an artist, there’s stability in being a teacher. It’s very grounding.
Is teaching a performative act for you?
Fully! I think I always play a different version of a teacher-character that I’ve seen in shows or movies. Do I play a version of Ms. Frizzle from “The Magic School Bus” when I teach my acting class? Yes. And did I create a drag persona that co-teaches the course through ExCollege that I teach? Yes, I did. I think if, when we’re teaching, we pretend we’re not performing—that’s not real. To embrace the performance aspect and just go ham with it is the best thing. So, I always try to add a little bit of a character to the teaching environment.
I learned how to do that from my dissertation advisor, Kareem Khubchandani. His work has completely inspired my pedagogy. I think there’s a way of relaxing into a character in front of the classroom that—if, as the teacher, you start making mistakes and being silly and playing—offers a space in which students start feeling comfortable doing the same. And we learn more that way. We all first started learning by telling stories and playing pretend in groups. That’s how we continue to learn, into adulthood.
Can we go back to the drag persona who co-teaches your course?
Camp counselor Susan Skintag! She’s—a little bit different. She wears her Camp Rock t-shirt and her red wig and gives out badges instead of grades.
I established at the top of the semester that Susan sometimes emails the class. She would send commentary about what happened in class or give props to people for having done something heinous. I would then follow-up and be, like, “Sorry, Susan’s having a day.” And then, at the end of the semester, as a surprise when students were starting to feel worn down, I dressed up as Susan and just showed up one day to do a guest lecture. Susan came in and did a presentation about herself and why she is great.
It sounds like your classes are great fun—and like your nonbinary identity informs your work in the classroom.
It informs all my work. I discovered I was nonbinary through performance, and I think I’m fully indebted to performance for the rest of my life for allowing that discovery.
I mention this in my TED talk, but there was a semester in undergrad where I played Charlotta Ivanovna in The Cherry Orchard and Brad Majors in The Rocky Horror Show at the same time. Playing a man and a woman at the same time made me realize that my own gender was somewhere in-between and beyond that binary. Holding these two characters in my body simultaneously made me realize that I enjoyed playing with gender as an actor, but also that parts of the characters I portray come to life from my own gender and lived experiences.
Embodying characters with genders-not-my-own gives me a chance to move my body, navigate my voice, and explore new modes of gender expression. I bring pieces of myself into characters, but pieces of the characters also stay with me after a production.
How does that come into play in your teaching, specifically?
I try through both my performing and my teaching to collapse binary conceptions of—well, really, of anything at all times. I just love the beautiful messiness of the in-between. I use the classroom space to play with ideas related to that. So, in my Camp class, for example, which I will teach again this coming fall, I had students write down pairs of opposites—just known opposites, like they were in kindergarten again. I gave them an example: hot and cold. And then I had them use colored pencils to draw these two different concepts on a sheet of paper. On the back of that piece of paper, I had them then combine the two concepts into one image—it’s so instructive to think about that collapse of opposites.
I try to create a space that’s full of weird things as much as possible—items that inspire me and allow for fun. I keep lots of craft supplies around. Many of my students ask, “Why do you have so many colored pencils and so much craft paper?” And I’m just, like, “Well, why not?” When you use your creativity to start figuring things out, that’s when figuring things out really begins.