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All in the Family

by Polly Carl, Alanas Arenas, K. Todd Freeman and Ora Jones

Polly Carl: What was your first impression when you read these plays? Alana Arenas: I loved the people—the familiarity of knowing that experience. There were many characters who were way older than me, and I just wanted to say their lines because I know those women. I come from humble beginnings, and so does Tarell, and what I love is that he actually uses the word “projects” in one of the plays. Three-dimensional people from the projects do not often walk up on American stages. K. Todd Freeman: For me it was a familiarity. I read these [plays] and, like Alana, I knew these people. I knew these people all day, and I knew it was a Southern thing. I have never seen these people on the stage in America before, and that’s what I thought was so phenomenal. That, and the poetry of it. You know, sometimes these women do say things exactly as he has put it out. It’s so honest and so real that we think it’s poetry. Ora Jones: Honestly, I was a little concerned with In The Red And Brown Water. As an African-American woman, I’ve become very frustrated with our succeeding generations of women who destroy themselves. I think it’s very important to me these days to know that young people have a way to express themselves that does not involve weapons. That they have a way to talk about anger, and fear, and loneliness, and sadness, and in this young woman’s case, unrequited love. There is a way to express those things without destroying yourself. So I have to say that it took me a minute to find something hopeful in that story. But in the end, that’s the whole point of doing theater—just because I have a particular reaction to something doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything else to consider. Polly Carl: There’s so much weight in how we represent any community that we feel has been underrepresented for any reason. How do you as an actor of color feel about how black characters are represented on the stage? KTF: I think it’s about underrepresentation. There are so few [representations of black characters] that aren’t the drug dealer, or the rapper, or else like the Huxtables [from The Cosby Show.] It’s either one or the other—if there were more in the middle then it would not be an issue. For me, Tarell’s work covers a spectrum of types of people. AA: As long as a play is about a person and not a caricature, I think that it’s necessary. OJ: Sometimes there is some frustration that every story that gets told, if it is specifically about African-Americans, is heavy: it’s weighed, everybody’s in pain, everybody is moaning about the ancestors, and nobody is creating their history and ancestry here. I’m not saying that it’s not important—our history as Africans in America is in many ways a very painful one, a humiliating one, a frustrating one—but we’re here now. Not everything I do in this life has something to do with me being an African-American. That does not mean that I’m trying to dismiss race; it just means it’s not everything I am. PC: Tarell mentions in an interview about trying to find a delicate happiness that could exist next to the pressing tragedy of kith and kin. I love that notion of a delicate happiness through all these family tragedies—the difficulties which are universal. Could you talk about family in these plays? AA: I grew up in a culture of understanding that, as a dysfunctional as it can be, sometimes family is all you have. Coming from a community populated by people who are lower class with middle class aspirations, you see things like, so and so’s parent is addicted to something, and so their aunt is raising them. Coming from a community where stuff like that is normal, where the family might not be the traditional family, I feel like I intuitively understand Oya’s decision that, “I will put my track career on hold” [to care for her mother]. OJ: People sacrifice for their loved ones. I think it is enormous of that young woman to give up her track career for her mother. People give up one kind of career for another. They stay home and, especially these days—Good Lord, you know the economy being what it is—children are moving back in with their parents. Grandparents are raising their grand-children. Parents are moving in with their own children. People who want to go work in offices are working from home so they can be near people who are sick. There’s so much sacrifice that’s happening now, that I think this story goes a long ways toward that. No matter what your family is doing, no matter how bad you think a family member is behaving, they’re still your family. PC: One of the ways I think Tarell creates intimacy for me as an audience member is by having the actors read their own stage directions. Can you just reflect on that a little? What impact does that have on you finding your character? AA: What I love is that it’s a connection between the actor and the audience. And the actor’s sending a headnod to the person that, “You’re feeling my experience.” What makes it fuller is that when you see a character, and you know what they’re thinking, and they have to do something against that; it’s almost like the audience is in on an inside joke. OJ: It is unique to these plays. If you can get it, then the impact is wonderful because the anticipation has been set. It gives the audience an opportunity to be in on something right before it happens. The character may not know what’s going to happen, but the audience knows. I think it piques their interest. PC: The other thing about these plays is that time feels particularly elusive. Can you give me any insight into time and where you feel you are locating yourself as actors? KTF: I know these plays span some years, although that’s not defined specifically in what [Tarell’s] written, so I’m still dealing with that question. So I agree with you, they do seem timeless—especially In the Red and Brown Water, sometimes I feel like it could be the forties or the fifties—it could just be anywhere, at any time. And then the modern things come out, and then I think, “Ok, then, it’s now, or yesterday.” AA: I think that when [In the Red and Brown Water] starts out, it feels older to me. And then the more you get into the play, it feels more and more modern. KTF: Within the plays, it is clear that time is passing, and the next year comes and she doesn’t get the scholarship, and the chance is done, but in the way he writes and with the music he involves there seems to be no time passing. It’s just an experience, and it’s done. And oh, time passed as an after thought. PC: Like all of a sudden you’re in a different place, and you’re not sure how you got there. KTF: Exactly, and it doesn’t matter. It’s a Pollack painting—it’s a bunch of things thrown up there, and you get the experience, and the story has been told in the meantime. It’s always, and it’s now. It was always existing, it always is, this moment has been here forever. OJ: Time for all of us is where we are in that moment—how many times in a day do you find yourself thinking about something that you believe is going to happen, and what you think is good or bad about your future? Or being lost in thought over something that may have happened 20 years ago, but it feels like it’s happening right now? That is the nature of time in our lives in general, and, in a piece like this, it has a lot to do with all kinds of aspects of the African-American experience—the notion of ancestry, and time, and how far back you go in your history to be able to move forward. PC: This is Steppenwolf’s season that centers around the theme of belief, and how we authenticate our lives. How does this play resonate with your core beliefs? AA: I can say that the center of my core beliefs is the importance of love. In all of these plays, I just feel like everybody is desperately, delicately trying to hold on to some aspect of love. What becomes very tender are the things that people do to negotiate their portion of love—like the idea of Oya knowing that she can’t have a child, but still has a desire to give something, of Ogun reaching out to Oya, of Ogun doing everything he can for his brother. The beautiful thing [about these plays] is that often times I feel like there is a real lack of people really talking about the way that black people love and showing the fact that we love one another. KTF: I do believe that we’re all the same—and it’s so clichéd and so trite that phrase, but I think it’s what you can call a core belief of mine. I never thought that humanity was so different; I’ve never thought that we are all such disparate people, and I guess that’s one thing that gets me cranky—and I get really cranky—is that everyone is working so hard to plant their feet into the earth to claim, “This is me. Don’t fuck with me.” Stop trying to draw attention to how different we are, let’s draw attention to how similar we are, and then it can work better. That is something that I really believe in.