Posted on February 17, 2022

How Confronting His White Privilege Led Bryan Cranston to ‘Power of Sail’

Jessica Gelt, Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2022

“I’m 65 years old now, and I need to learn, I need to change.”

The words tumble with intensity out of actor Bryan Cranston’s mouth. {snip}

Cranston is telling me why he chose to step away from an offer to direct a show at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse and how that decision led him to take the role of Charles Nichols in the theater’s West Coast premiere of “Power of Sail,” written by Paul Grellong and directed by Weyni Mengesha, running through March 20.

As Nichols, Cranston plays an aging, highly respected Harvard professor who faces intense backlash for inviting a white nationalist and Holocaust denier named Carver to speak at his annual symposium. As student protests intensify, Nichols presses forward, claiming his intention is to give Carver and his repugnant ideas a thorough dressing down in a debate.

An avowed “free-speech absolutist,” Nichols says, “The answer to hate speech is more speech.”

“Power of Sail” had its world premiere in 2019 at the Warehouse Theatre in Greenville, S.C., but Cranston believes the play gained resonance in the wake of the pandemic and the social and racial justice uprisings following the murder of George Floyd.

As those occurrences shook the world, they also transformed Cranston, who says in these troubling years he came face to face with his own “white blindness” and privilege. It was necessary work for a man tasked with playing a character whose white privilege prevents him from seeing the very real harm caused by his actions until it is much too late.

When, in 2019, Matt Shakman, the Geffen’s artistic director, asked Cranston if he had any interest in directing for an upcoming season, Cranston — who has never directed a play thought he’d like to give it a try. The play he had in mind was Larry Shue’s 1984 comedy “The Foreigner,” about an Englishman who foils a nefarious plot by the Ku Klux Klan to convert the Georgia fishing lodge where he’s staying into a Klan meeting place.

Two years of global grief and pain later, the play no longer felt like an acceptable choice to Cranston

“It is a privileged viewpoint to be able to look at the Ku Klux Klan and laugh at them and belittle them for their broken and hateful ideology,” says Cranston. “But the Ku Klux Klan and Charlottesville and white supremacists — that’s still happening and it’s not funny. It’s not funny to any group that is marginalized by these groups’ hatred, and it really taught me something.”

Cranston says he had been laughing at the play for decades and he had to confront the fact that his white privilege allowed him to laugh.

“And I realized, ‘Oh my God, if there’s one, there’s two, and if there’s two, there are 20 blind spots that I have … what else am I blind to?” Cranston says. “If we’re taking up space with a very palatable play from the 1980s where rich old white people can laugh at white supremacists and say, ‘Shame on you,’ and have a good night in the theater, things need to change, I need to change.”


Cranston also stipulated that he wanted to be a part of “something that changes the conversation.” {snip}

For Cranston, “Power of Sail” meets that criterion with its pointed critique of America’s devotion to the primacy of free speech.


“There need to be barriers, there need to be guard rails,” he says. “If someone wants to say the Holocaust was a hoax, which is against history … to give a person space to amplify that speech is not tolerance. It’s abusive.”