The second half of Plan-B Theatre's '11-'12 season kicks off in one of the boldest ways possible, diving directly into the topic of interracial relationships in America. --- The Third Crossing takes an objective and creative look at the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, exploring the idea behind the play's title and the children they had together. The play also delves into race relations from all viewpoints over the past two centuries (portrayed by a six-piece ensemble taking numerous roles), examining the problems of yesteryear and the continuing struggles of today.
Before the productions makes its world debut tonight, we sit down and chat with playwright Debora Threedy, director Jerry Rapier, as well as Bob Nelson and Kalyn West, who are portraying Jefferson and Hemings, respectively, to talk about the play and bringing it to the Plan-B stage, and their thoughts on everything going into opening night. (All pics by Rick Pollock)
Bob Nelson, Kalyn West, Debora Threedy & Jerry Rapier
Gavin: Hey, everyone. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.
Bob: I'm a really lucky guy -- a teacher with great students and colleagues; an actor and director; a happy spouse; a doting dad; and a grateful grandpa.
Jerry: This is my 12th season with Plan-B. I plan my entire life around the needs Stella, our 1- year-old paraplegic chihuahua.
Debora: I'm a law professor at the U, but I've been working in theater for 45 years.
Kalyn: I grew up in a family of all women. I'm a student at Weber State University.
Gavin: How did each of you become involved with theater, and what projects have you all worked on in the past year?
Bob: In seventh grade, in front of the whole school, I did a monologue I had written: a woman who'd stood up against the 11 men on the jury because such a good-looking young man just couldn't have done the awful things those nasty prosecutors said. I began to learn during those two performances as a youngster that I could engage an audience, that I could make them laugh and that I loved it!
Jerry: When I was 18, I somehow found myself in a play at Eastern Arizona College. I knew nothing about theater, but there I was. And I never left. Most recently, I directed The Adding Machine as a guest artist at the U.
Debora: Two things happened between my sophomore and junior years in high school: I took a summer acting class, and I saw my first live theater -- in London, no less -- and I was hooked. In addition to finishing a rewrite of The Third Crossing, in the last year I've had three public readings of my new play about archaeology and unintended consequences called Underground.
Kalyn: My mom says I was dancing before I could walk and singing before I could talk. My addiction to theater began in seventh grade when I started doing the school musicals, but it didn't really lock in until my junior year of high school. Something clicked for me that year and I realized that there was nothing else I wanted to do. Most recently, I played Juliet in Romeo & Juliet at Weber. For me, artistic expression is my life force; it is the most fulfilling, enlightening, human experience out there, and it is constantly introducing me to myself.
Gavin: Debora, where did the idea come from for the play, and what made you decide to tackle the subject of interracial relationships?
Debora: I read a novel about Sally Hemings by Barbara Chase-Rboud, which led me to do some more reading about her. For example, the historian Fawn Brodie wrote a history of Thomas Jefferson and dealt fairly extensively with Sally Hemings, and a more recent historian, Annette Gordon-Reed, has written two books about Sally and her life at Monticello. So that's where the idea came from. And then I became fascinated by the idea of "passing," of mixed-race people who cross the color line, which means that there are people in this country who think they are white but who, if you buy the "one drop" rule, are actually black — but what does that mean if you think you're white and everyone treats you as white? Mixed-race children inevitably trouble the whole idea of race for white America. And that led to wider meditations about race, including the appalling fact that I was about six or seven before I ever became aware that there were other races living in this country. I grew up in a white suburb of Chicago and I can remember the first time I ever saw a black person. Race still remains one of the most important topics in the life of our country, and black/white relationships have been, and continue to be, troubled by our history of slavery.
Gavin: How much research did you do on Sally Hemings and her relationship with Thomas Jefferson prior to writing, and how much liberty did you give yourself to play with these figures?
Debora: I've done a lot of research. And some of that overlaps with my academic life as a legal scholar, as my legal research is what is sometimes called "outsider jurisprudence," which means I look at law from the perspective of those without privilege and power in our society. Some of that legal research spills over into the play — in the scene called "Road To Loving," which explores the long history of criminal prosecutions for people who dared to marry across racial lines, and the scene about the Lovings themselves, an interracial couple who challenged Virginia's law in Loving v. Virginia, which ended with the Supreme Court holding such laws unconstitutional in 1967. And keep in mind that while that may seem like ancient history, that's in my lifetime. I was in high school in 1967. It was about that time that I had a crush on a guy who happened to be black, and it is very troubling to think that there were still laws prohibiting any relationship between us. However, I didn't let the history prevent me from following the story and the characters as I was constructing them. For example, in the very first scene, Betty says that her mother was impregnated by the captain of the slaver who was bringing her from Africa. All history tells us is that Betty's mother was pregnant when John Wayles bought her and that the father was a sea captain named Hemings. I'm the one who decided that she was impregnated on the voyage over, because that fit with what I wanted to say in the play — but who knows what actually happened? And obviously, the details of Tom and Sally's personal life — whatever it was — are lost to us, so all of the scenes between Tom and Sally and the other members of Monticello, those are all invented pretty much from whole cloth. But ironically, some of the most shocking or controversial speeches in the play are actually based on history. Everything the judge says is written in a case — you could look it up. Jefferson's two speeches to the audience are pretty much exactly what he said. The character of Professor Sloan is based on a real scholar named Suzette Spencer. So the bottom line is that the play is a melding of truth and fiction.
Gavin: The play itself take a harsh look at miscegenation in America, including the infamous formula for “the third crossing” and laws preventing interracial relationships. What was it like for you to shine a light on topics that people would prefer to believe we've evolved from?
Debora: As Mildred Loving says, “If some people's feelings are hurt, that's just too bad.” It's their problem not mine. I feel very strongly that the story of race in this country is a story all Americans need to be concerned with. The legacy of slavery, and the ideas about race that it spawned, have damaged all of us and continue to do so. I was raised Catholic and so I tend to think in these terms, but for me, slavery is our national "original sin." The Founding Fathers got so much right in their vision for our country but on that, they failed; they got it wrong. Metaphorically speaking, Tom and Sally are the "founding family" of interracial relationships in this country.
Gavin: Jerry, what was your initial reaction to the play, and what made you decide not only to bring it to Plan-B, but direct it, as well?
Jerry: Debora has a gift for making history accessible.
Gavin: Plan-B has never been one to shy away from controversy, but considering the content, was there any hesitation as to how it might be received by the public, or did that ever play a part in bringing it on?
Jerry: Not at all.
Gavin: Bob and Kalyn, how did you first find out about The Third Crossing, and what were your thoughts about it after reading it?
Bob: Jerry asked if I’d be interested in auditioning for Debora Threedy's play about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. I immediately wanted to know more. When I read the script, I was captivated by its intelligence, its tackling of such charged, difficult, vitally important material.
Kalyn: Jerry called me about the role a month or so before the auditions and sent me the script. I was very moved after reading The Third Crossing for the first time, instantly eager for more. There are scripts/shows you encounter that you have an instant connection to and this was one of them. The simplistic beauty through which Debora frames such a difficult issue presses all the right buttons, bringing you to an understanding that is deeply moving and necessary. Debora is so passionate and invested in the complexity of this story, and it's contagious.
Gavin: What was it like for each of you during auditions and eventually landing your roles?
Bob: Auditioning is always such a challenge. You try to relax, focus, make eye contact, be in the moment, and do an honest reading. Then you hope to heaven that someone will take a risk on you, and help you to learn how to do this thing!
Kalyn: The auditions were pure fun! Everyone brought their A-game to the table and created a really supportive atmosphere. The process fed my excitement even more so that being cast felt wonderful.
Gavin: What has it been like for the two of you interacting and finding the characters of Jefferson and Hemings together?
Bob: It's been great fun working with Kalyn. She's smart, disciplined, intense, cheerful, and open. I've enjoyed seeing her in a number of roles before, and feel fortunate to share so many scenes with her.
Kalyn: Bob has been so much fun to work with. He has a playful attitude that makes the process comfortable and engaging. Working opposite of him is greatly rewarding because he is so giving and open — I learn something new about Sally every time I interact with him on stage.
Gavin: The play includes four other talented individuals from the SLC theatre scene — Carleton Bluford, Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin, David Fetzer and Deena Marie Manzanares. How has it been for all of you working together and bringing this play to life?
Bob: I've seen them all in other performances and have admired their work. It's a real kick to share the stage with them — a great privilege. I learn from every one of them.
Jerry: We instantly knew at auditions when each of these people read for us that this was our cast.
Kalyn: In a word, wonderful. Everyone is driven and excited to be here, so the atmosphere is nothing but enjoyable. I look up to and respect all of them so much and I feel deeply grateful to share the stage with such talented individuals.
Gavin: What are your thoughts going into opening night?
Bob: As opening night approaches, I feel increasingly nervous — I'm responsible to Mr. Jefferson, the playwright, everyone on the production team, and, of course, the audience. But, thanks to the good work of all those people, I also feel increasingly prepared. It's a very exciting time!
Jerry: I love finally being able to invite people into the world that has taken over mine.
Debora: Thoughts? Opening night triggers feelings! I'm always both excited and nervous.
Kalyn: Excitement and pride. I think people are really going to enjoy this piece and get something substantial to chew on out of it. The Third Crossing deals with events that are right behind us in our past and still among us today, so I think audiences will be pleasantly challenged to consider things they haven't before. I am very proud to be a part of this production.
Gavin: What can we expect next from each of you?
Bob: I'm always looking for chances to act and direct!
Jerry: My next directing project is Plan-B’s 10th anniversary re-boot of Hedwig & The Angry Inch.
Debora: Not sure. I'd like to continue working on a couple of plays that are in process, and maybe start working on a new play inspired by Clarence Darrow, who was a famous defense lawyer in the first half of the 20th century, a man who did much good — but who also probably bribed a juror. I'm intrigued by that contradiction. We'll see where the spirit moves me.
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Jerry: Next up at Plan-B is The Scarlet Letter, April 12-22.
Kalyn: Come see Tartuffe March 2-10, and The Cradle Will Rock March 23-31 at Weber State University. I choreographed them both!
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