Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009

Research and History: Next Act's GOING TO ST. IVES pt. 3

By Russ Bickerstaff
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This weekend, Next Act Theatre opens its production of Lee Blessing’s drama Going To St, Ives. It’s the story of a British ocular surgeon and the mother of an African dictator. The Next Act production features Milwaukee Rep resident actress Laura Gordon as the surgeon and  Chicago-based actress Ora Jones as the mother. The production is directed by Mary MacDonald Kerr. I spoke with them backstage a few week ago . . .

RESEARCH AND HISTORY

Me: Are you working on a specific dialect fort he character [of N’Kame] because she’s African, she went to school in England—probably learned English with a British accent. Who are you working on that?

Ora Jones: The first couple of days, just so that I could get my mouth around the words—basically there was no accent. We were just reading it . . . it’s the emotional terrain of it that we need to find before you start working on some of that. Although you [to Laura Gordon] had you’re English accent the first day. But [to Mary MacDonald Kerr] if you want to talk about Chip for a while . . . there was a discussion—I had done a Bruce Norris play a couple of seasons ago where the character was from equatorial West Africa, where there’s a lot of French and I didn’t know very much bout East Africa. So we spent some time talking about that, but . . .

Mary MacDonald Kerr: The play itself never says where it is. So Blessing DID refer to the son of this character [N’Kame] being [Idi] Amin-like. And so we had . . . Chip Duncan came in. He’s a documentary film maker. He spent a lot of time in Africa. He came and talked with us. We kind of decided that this is most likely an East African story. It’s most similar to things that have happened there. And then we reached out to Susan Sweeney who is a dialect coach. She’s worked at APT and she’s worked here.

Laura Gordon: She’s in Madison.

Mary MacDonald Kerr: Madison faculty, right? Ad so, she just happened to have worked on some shows where she’d done some East African dialects and gave us materials, so it’s mostly East African. We’ve taken what she came in with and kind of tried to rid it of anything that nails it to the West.

Ora Jones: Or the South.

Mary MacDonald Kerr: Because Chip did say that to a good ear—someone who really knows . . . can say, “oh, you’re east African,” or west African. But it’s important to me because she [Laura Gordon] has a British dialect that’s not that British, so I wanted the difference, so . . . she [N’Kame] was raised in Britain by a man who was not. And I think that she learned to speak English mostly from her father and not from Brtis, so we kind of took the British influence and put it aside.

Me: These characters are representations of larger concepts. Nationalities. England. Africa. Doctor. Royalty. How much are you focusing on the different roles these characters play and how much are you focusing on them as individuals?

Mary MacDonald Kerr: I think the very first thing. The primary thing is that they’re two women. Two mothers. And then the broader canvas is—one’s British, one’s African. You can’t remove that. That’s huge baggage that comes with both of those things. [Initially] I didn’t think it was as large as I now think it is now that I’m working on it and how much influence that has. And how fresh and present those wounds are. But I think whenever you’re doing a play, you have to focus on the individuals first. It’s a bout Africa and Britain, but it’s about any . . . they talk a lot about the maps being re-drawn. It could be about Native American and American. Any time someone has been uprooted, jostled, taken-over, abused, killed, resources taken, there’s an oppressor. Any of those things. And we have lots of examples of that. It’s very timely. Israel. Iran and Iraq. Any places where the maps were re-drawn. You can’t remove the political . . . [Lee Blessing] did it intentionally. But it’s really about 2 moms. The box office personnel say, “give me one sentence to tell people when they call. [laughs]

Laura Gordon: It’ll be . . . like . . . Thelma and Louise . . .

Ora Jones: Meets Hotel Rwanda.

Mary MacDonald Kerr:
Every monster has a mother. Could you kill your own to save thousands? Man’s obligation to humanity.

The promo postcards features the tagline You can never imagine . . .  centered over a tea stain shaped like Africa on a white tablecloth. The conversation with cast and director continues tomorrow as they discuss the play’s second act. Next Act’s productionof Going to St. Ives runs though February 22.

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