BACK STAGE WEST
November 13, 1997
ACTORS' DIALOGUE: Darryl Theirse & Veralyn Jones
Reporting by Rob Kendt
An all-black Importance of Being Earnest? Well, why not? With the talented and well-trained actors of all races residing in Los Angeles, it shouldn't be hard to cast--just hard to imagine, for some. Director Gregg Daniel's version, which opened at the 24th Street Theatre two weeks ago (and runs through Nov. 23), dexterously puts up Wilde's classic, in period, without winking, and lets the actors' work speak for itself.
Darryl Theirse, who played Algernon on opening weekend (the role is now being played by Scotch Ellis Loring), did the full classical and contemporary regimen at Yale School of Drama, and went on to star Off-Broadway in Playboy of the West Indies, the original cast of Jeffrey, Steven Berkoff's Richard III at the Public, and Incommunicado. On the West Coast, he made a splash in South Coast Repertory's superlative rendering of Six Degrees of Separation. Theirse has since appeared in guest and recurring roles on various TV shows, and is currently a regular on George & Leo. His films include Jeffrey, Turbulence, and the upcoming Hell Cab.
Veralyn Jones, who plays Lady Bracknell, got her degree at the Brooklyn College School of the Arts and is perhaps best known in West Coast theatre circles for her work with the L.A. Women's Shakespeare Company; she was Claudius in their Hamlet and Elbow/Marianna in their recent Measure for Measure. She won an L.A. Weekly acting award for the title role in Neva's Tale, and appeared in Moon on a Rainbow Shawl with the Caribbean American Theatre. Her earlier theatre credits include work at pioneering black American theatre companies like the New Day Repertory. Recent TV appearances include roles on Brooklyn South, Loving, and a memorable recurring role as Elaine's co-worker on Seinfeld.
Theirse and Jones got together at Campanile before the Earnest opening to talk about non-traditional casting, the classics, and L.A. theatre.
Darryl: People like you and me, and a great number of the actors in the Earnest company, have highly developed language skills, and we don't get to use those skills to the degree that, say, our white counterparts do, because we're not called upon to do it as much. With Shakespeare, they've become a lot more lenient in opening that up, but there are so many other great language plays. We don't get to do Shaw.
Darryl: We don't get to do Wilde. I mean, we can go on and on. . .
Veralyn: About what we don't get to do.
Darryl: To say nothing of the fact that there are so many great authors who just happen to have written plays that involve white casts, because they're writing from that perspective. I'm thinking of great plays like Death of a Salesman.
Veralyn: O'Neill--I'd love to do Long Day's Journey Into Night.
Darryl: All those great plays that we would love to do.
Veralyn: That's why I love working at the L.A. Women's Shakespeare Company, because for the first time, I'm given an opportunity to really use my voice, even playing men's roles. Because there's so little written for women, particularly African-American women, I'm never really called upon to use my strengths as an actress.
Darryl: I think the reason why it's starting to happen more and more is that they realize that African-Americans have the skills to do these plays. Also, these plays are universal--that's why they're great plays to begin with. So it's interesting to see them as reflected through--I won't even say the African-American experience, because that's not what we're doing. I cringe every time I hear that angle, because what is the black experience? It's as diverse as the white experience, so if you try to generalize--things like that make me bristle.
Veralyn: I think a lot has changed, as you've said, because actors are more prepared now. They've studied more. A lot of actors didn't used to have the kind of training that actors are coming out with now. I mean, you went to Yale. The preparation is so incredible. If you have the ability, why shouldn't you be able to do it?
Darryl: When it comes right down to it--even the term non-traditional casting causes a little bout of muscle-tightening in my stomach, because if you really think about it, Caucasians are not "right" for Shakespeare, either. His plays are set in foreign lands we've never heard of, except for the historical plays. So in reality, what makes you think you're more right for it, when you really get right down to it, if you really want to argue about type?
Veralyn: L.A. Women's Shakespeare did a show the other day at UC Riverside for a conference of Shakespeare scholars. And usually after we finish, there's a question-and-answer period, and there was this one man in the audience who was just totally against what we stood for, what we do. I think they actually wanted to behead him, he was so outnumbered. All he kept saying was, "It doesn't inform the play." And the thing that's amazing is that every time we work, the thing that most people say--'cause we usually have a talkback afterwards--is that they understand the text so much more clearly, for some reason, as opposed to when they've see it done normally. I'm not sure why that is.
Darryl: We're hoping this will be the start of a company that will do classical plays with African-American casts--but with that being the only thing that makes it African-American, not putting a spin on it. Which I really like. It's not Importance of Being Earnest set in the Congo. When I tell people about this production, I speak with great pride in telling them that it's being done strictly in period; the only thing that's different is that the people are darker. And it's refreshing, because usually when they do non-traditional casting, it is for a statement--some kind of comment on the play, on the piece, on the world, on our life.
Veralyn: Right. Sometimes doing productions like that is fine, but you don't always get the full brunt of the work as an actor, the way you do when you keep it within the realm of how it was written. You don't get the whole experience.
Darryl: In film and TV, there have been tremendous strides made in the arena of non-traditional casting. A movie that sticks out in my head was Jurassic Park 2. Do you remember that? Jeff Goldblum's daughter was a black girl. At first, I felt a little discomfort when she first came on the screen.
Veralyn: How did they deal with that? I didn't see it.
Darryl: They didn't explain--that was what was most brilliant about it. It wasn't like, "I had an affair with a black girl, and the result was this baby." It was just like, "This is my daughter"--the end, no explanation. Jeff accepted her as a daughter, she accepted him as the father, therefore we accepted it. And that's a great part of it, too: how when the performer buys into it, the audience goes, "OK." That's the direction we need to go in.
Veralyn: Who's best suited for the role.
Darryl: Yes, and also just: It is. No explanation. There are too many biracial families across the country. It's no longer this big, harrowing decision where families are being broken apart--that happens, but for every one situation like that, there are about 10 where families have stayed together, have wanted to be together, and the problems they have do not arise from their race. That's what I want to see more of. There are still problems, there are still issues, but it's a human condition, not because of their skin color.
Veralyn: Yeah, every time you see a biracial couple on TV, it's dealing with the fact that they're biracial and how it affects their lives, as opposed to how they relate to each other: Is she happy with him? or, Is he committed to her? Whatever.
When we did Richard III, I played Queen Elizabeth, and we kind of alternated casts, so on any given night, I had a white child, I had an Asian child. And no one questioned it. It's only if you come in with that thought in your mind that it becomes a problem. But if you're coming to see theatre, to see actors act, and if we're up there acting and doing the work
Darryl: That will all fall away.