President Abraham Lincoln. Anita Hill. Ann Richards. George Stephanopolous. President Bill Clinton.
We know the names of those connected to the political sphere, but do we know how they told their own stories?
Actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith’s “House Arrest” is a collection of monologues from each of the aforementioned historical figures, plus many more, centered around the American presidency. Smith is a verbatim theater practitioner who interviews her subjects and records each word. She edits for length when she crafts her scripts, but is meticulous with how each person spoke.
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TheatreWorks will present a streaming version of the play Thursday through Nov. 1. Go online to uccspresents.org.
“A lot of the monologues came out of the actual mouths of these people,” says Cheerish Evans, who takes on duo roles, that of Lizzie McDuffie, who was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s head chef during his presidency, and Maggie Williams, the campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
The monologues, which range in length, aren’t meant to serve as impersonations, but as a chance for that person to tell the story of their White House experience.
“We forget our president and electives are people, too, and they’re connected to other people and they have a grand story we don’t get to see as citizens,” says Evans. “It’s interesting to see what these presidents were like and be in their home every single day.”
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The two-and-a-half hour play, featuring 16 actors and eight directors, is divided into eight movements that feature a historical period or theme. Director Lynne Hastings and actor Desirée Myers tackled a heart-wrenching story themed around “moral slippage.” It’s the story of Paulette Jenkins, who went to jail for the secondhand murder of her daughter. She sat in another room and listened to her boyfriend beat up and kill her 9-year-old child.
“It was hard. Desirée and I had some intense conversations,” says Hastings, who also directed four other monologues. “It’s pretty graphic in some parts. I said don’t get caught up in the emotion as an actor, but be in the moment. What parts is she (Jenkins) removed from or does she speed through?”
Hastings also directed Warren Epstein in his President George Bush Sr. monologue. It was a matter of bringing the president’s personality traits to the text.
“George was funny, quippy. He said as long as people are fat, dumb and happy, they don’t care about what’s going on in the White House,” she says. “We tried to tie into the humor and wit of George Bush instead of doing a Dana Carvey impersonation.”
Creating the streaming play took a lot of Zoom interactions and adherence to COVID-19 protocols. Actors and directors rehearsed over the online platform, then the actors made appointments at the theater to film their pieces with masks, distancing and sanitizing in place.
Inspired by “House Arrest,” a group of students at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Max Shulman, an assistant professor of theater in the UCCS Department of Visual and Performing Arts, have replicated the playwright’s process. They interviewed local folks connected to politics and elections and will perform the resulting monologues in the production “Elections at Elevation.” It will stream for free online at uccspresents.org through Nov. 1.
TheatreWorks Artistic Director Caitlin Lowans, who also directs some “House Arrest” monologues, including one by President Clinton, couldn’t resist the show and its compatibility with the current political climate and upcoming election.
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“There are questions about gender, celebrity and racial dynamics. Thematically, it was all the things people want to be talking about right now, and that we need to be talking about as we run up to Nov. 3,” she says. “For theater to make a relevant entry into that conversation, and give people another lens and a historical lens to contextualize everything we’re experiencing, we couldn’t pass it up.”
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