The first time we did the show as teens, we knew the character of 'Jeremiah' needed a special person...with special vocal chords that could show anger and power as well as sadness and some humanity. He's a tough character. A very tough and controversial character. Our first actor to portray him was a friend of ours. He was a giant hulk of a man with pipes to rival Anthony Warlow's (If you don't know who that is look him up!). What Thom brought to the table was almost a caricature of a villain. More so because of his size and presence, it seemed to make him easier to take. People expected this big man with the big voice to be a bad person. And they accepted him.
|Thom Spencer as Jeremiah|
Our first rehearsal with John, he came insanely prepared and blew us away with what he had done with the character. He had found in him things I never had to explain to him. He just knew it. Beyond his talent, he is one of the most charming and kind people you could ever hope to meet.... As is his husband. I found this intriguing. A gay man playing someone full of fear and bigotry was a juxtaposition that seemed to drive his back story for this character on top of his well refined talent. He captivated and moved our audiences to discomfort but also understanding. We've gotten SO much feedback on him and the character of Jeremiah. And part of that I also attribute to the fact he did NOT play him as a 2 dimensional villain AND no one expected this man of small stature to come out with what he did. It took us ALL by surprise! A lot of people hated him, but while they hated him found understanding in the madness of a man distraught by grief and confused as to how to handle it in a world where an easy scape goat could be found to place blame for misfortune on. Some people understood what we were getting at, others were very upset with what we had written.
So with all that in mind, I asked John recently to address the subject of this character in a blog. What is it like for someone who comes from a group of people facing mass discrimination in the world to play a character doing the discriminating? And how do you play a role that shines a light on subjects that can be very divisive and uncomfortable? John wrote this piece and it ended up being 13 pages single spaced. There is a lot to say on all of it...but this is the end result of his work and a chance for all of you to maybe understand this part from the performers' perspective. The following is John's take broken into 3 different parts. They are ALL worth the read!
|The look of pure evil.|
I find it tremendously difficult to write about race.
There are very few subjects on which I feel I can speak with any level of authority, and race is not one of them. One subject on which I feel I can speak is the right of the artist to entertain, to explore, to provoke, to offend, to tell the story they want to tell how they want to tell it, to express themselves in the way they want, need, and have to. Combine the two, and my thoughts are halting, caught between my right to artistic expression and a question of my responsibility, especially being a white person or not a person of color.
This past fall I had the chance to play a racist character in writer/composers Calab Collins & Allison Holman’s new musical Freedom’s Song, a story of love an interracial relationships set in the milieu of the Civil War.
I played the antagonist, Jeremiah Stallings. Jeremiah, a wealthy white farmer, loses both his wife and son, he feels, as a direct result of their abolitionist activism, his son, David, killed in action after enlisting in the Union Army with specific intent to help free the slaves. The grief of his loss drives Jeremiah to seek revenge and “justice” by murdering David’s friend, the mulatto Joshua, and his slave father Cyrus. The climax of Jeremiah’s part of the story involves a lynching.
My job as an actor was to fill this vile character with my own emotional life. I had to find his point of view and sympathize with my character, not with the actions he takes, but with the motivational forces that move him to take those actions. What I wasn’t doing was finding within myself how I am racist like Jeremiah. (Continued In Part 2)