Friday, July 3, 2015

The More Things Stay the Same

While I was rehearsing Nice Work If You Can Get It at the Gateway, I received an interesting and unexpected offer: to take on a role in a workshop of a new musical at the highly respected Powerhouse Theater festival produced by Vassar College and New York Stage and Film.  For over thirty years, this summer 'incubator' on the Vassar campus has brought together artists to collaborate and develop new works for the theatre.  Some important and successful plays and musicals have found their genesis there, including two works that are slated for the upcoming Broadway season, Bright Star and the wildly acclaimed Hamilton.

So of course I am thrilled to be a part of Loving v. Virginia, a musical by Marcus Gardley with music by Justin Ellington, conceived and directed by Patricia McGregor. The piece had a first workshop at Williamstown Theatre Festival and will have its next incarnation at Vassar.  And the true story it is based upon, its themes and message, could not be more timely in 2015.

Mildred Jeter Loving and Richard Loving in 1958
The historic Supreme Court case of Mildred and Richard Loving--an interracial couple married legally in the District of Columbia in the late 1950s--against the State of Virginia essentially made interracial marriage legal in every state in the U.S.  The couple, Virginia natives who returned to Caroline County to live and raise their family, were awakened one morning in 1958 by Sheriff R. Garnett Brooks and his deputies, intent on enforcing their state's law against interracial marriage.  They arrested the couple, dismissing their DC marriage certificate, separated them, and imprisoned them. They were tried and convicted to a year in jail by a circuit county judge.  The judge offered them a deal, however: that they stay out of the state of Virginia for the next 25 years.  Eventually this courageous couple challenged Virginia's statute, and the Supreme Court's unanimous decision struck the last remaining racist anti-miscegenation laws off the country's books.  Marriage Equality.  Sound familiar?

Anti-Marriage Equality protesters, 2015
Anti-Interracial Marriage protesters, 1968

An astonishing story that I knew nothing about until being invited to work on this piece.  And how incredibly relevant and important it is today for 2015, on so many levels.  The very recent Supreme Court ruling which has made same sex marriage legal in all states, despite protest and threatened resistance by several states (predictably mainly Southern ones) could not have happened without the Loving case.  

With a distinctly virulent rise in our country of racism and Southern white conservative backlash, including a wave of blatant, racially motivated police brutality events; a movement to preserve the Confederate flag; and conservative southern states fighting to uphold states' rights regarding the retention of discriminatory laws, cloaking their motives in religious liberty arguments... all these themes are represented in the Loving's story and in the musical Loving v. Virginia, a provocative moment to show how far we have come as a country and how so much is mired in the same bigotry the Lovings faced.

R. Garnett Brooks, late in life
My challenge is perhaps one of the biggest I have faced as an actor, undertaking the role of R. Garnett Brooks, the bigoted sheriff who chose to enforce the law and to  humiliate and bring to heel this interracial couple he felt deserved punishment.  Brooks, both in his life and as depicted in the play, is the epitome of the narrow minded, racist, small town redneck local despot, who uses his authority to perpetrate his persecution of African-Americans.  Appallingly, but perhaps not unpredictably, Brooks defended until the day he died the justness of his actions and his belief that races shouldn't mix and that black people are an inferior race undeserving of equality with whites. 

My work as an actor has long been chameleonic, if you will; I have sought out every opportunity to transform myself as an actor, immersing myself in a wild variety of characters, stretching my physical and imaginative limits.  Sheriff Brooks could not be further from who I am, my beliefs, and my background.  I'm an openly gay man, raised Jewish in an interfaith household in the northeast, by parents whose views and beliefs were liberal and progressive.  My adopted sister is interracial, and she and I dealt with our own experience of persecution in our Massachusetts community in the 1970s. I staunchly support equality for all people, I believe in the diversity of American culture, and I passionately repudiate racism, bigotry and persecution, especially where it is enforced by law.  So to play this man who is the polar opposite of all I stand for will be an incredible opportunity to find what humanity he has, to get into his head, and to play him with commitment as I join with the creators of this piece and everyone at Powerhouse Theater bringing this new work to life.  For information and tickets, visit the festival website.  I head up to Vassar next week, and am excited to get to work!