A talk with Director Timothy Douglas
By Debbie Minter Jackson
Production photos by Colin Hovde
On opening weekend for Insurrection: Holding History, DCTR reviewer Debbie Minter Jackson sat down with its director, Timothy Douglas.
Mr. Douglas, who has accepted directing assignments throughout the country, is perhaps best recognized as the director chosen by August Wilson to direct the world premiere of Mr. Wilson’s final play Radio Golf for Yale Repertory Theatre. Most recently he directed a workshop of a modern adaptation of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm for the National Theatret in Oslo and premiered its production off-Broadway. In Washington, he directed the 2000 world premiere of The Last Orbit of Billy Mars for Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
Insurrection: Holding History
DCTR: How would you describe this play which in so many ways seems indescribable. It’s got so much in it … different styles, and motifs, and rhythms, and language …
TD: At its basic core, it is one man’s journey through his own family’s history and through himself. At the play’s beginning, Ron is disconnected from how his past completely influences his present and how it also shapes his future. And through the character of his great-great grandfather TJ, he’s taken back in time to really get a first-hand look, and account of being a descendant of a slave, and what slavery was like, and what plantation life was like, and what it was like for Black Americans we call them now, and I’ll have other terms for what we go through the conversation of slaves, fighting for freedom and yearning for freedom and what that feels like and that freedom, once its gotten, is not necessarily the end of the struggle. In many ways, it’s the very beginning. How does one live after being a slave in a country which doesn’t welcome them. But anyway, I’m going on and on. It’s basically one man’s journey into his past, returning himself to his present and finally gets a vision for his future.
DCTR: You did a lot of work with the playwright Robert O’Hara and you have a lot of history with him..
TD: Well, I started developing this play with him back in 1995. He had written it as a thesis project for his MFA directing degree at Columbia University, and when the word got out about the play there was a lot of excitement around the country, and I was working at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. They wanted to develop the play, and they brought me on as a director to help Robert develop the play further. I think we spent about a year and a half together, doing different versions of readings and workshops, and I’ve gone on to direct other productions of it.
DCTR: What would you say are some of the points that resonate with you as you go about directing it around the country.
TD: I keep coming back to Ron’s journey, and his first disconnect and then connection with his own history. That’s really what the play’s about but there are so many things in the play, including a harsh and unblinking look at conditions of slavery, but at the same time this play, as described by the playwright, is a fantasia, and this play dares to also find a lighter side to the life of this play, and what he imagines survival to be like in a highly, highly theatrical way. So, I forgot what the question was. (Laughter)
DCTR: What points in the play still resonate with you?
TD: Yes, yes, because the play has so much in it, and it changed me, it changed my life. I began working on this at the very beginning of my professional career as a director, and to still be directing it twelve years later, I’m constantly finding new things in it because I’m constantly more aware of where I’ve come, and how I’ve grown, just being alive on the planet, specifically how I’ve grown in the theater, and how I’ve grown as a director. How I’ve come to appreciate storytelling and theatricality so on the one hand, I feel it’s my primary responsibility to ground the story, to toward the goal of clear story-telling, and on the other end, is to make it theatrical as possible. This play demands so much of me in both directions.
DCTR: It is daring in so many respects, encompassing so much in the theatrical experience. There’s so much music, and laughter, and humorous tragedy, it’s just a lot to pull together in one piece.
TD: It has everything, but you look at – but what we don’t look at is the legacy and the effects of slavery on this country. There is so much suffering from the non-acknowledgment, and a kind of coming-together on a par with the Jewish holocaust. Or the Japanese-Americans having been interned in concentration camps. Those have been dealt with, formally, in this country but we have not, and we are still suffering as a result of that. Both of us – both white and black, and the rest of America as well. It’s no longer just a white and black issue. So it makes sense to me, in an odd way, that you have to have every part of what’s in the kitchen sink in order to take a look at such a hard, hard conundrum. And on that level is why the play can contain such wildly diverse styles.
DCTR: Are there people who have had negative reactions to the way things are depicted, to the language, for example?
TD: Not so far as I’ve heard with this production. In the past, there have been. It always surprises me, um, when the main character, Ron, or I should say the protagonist, among other things, is also identified as gay. And of all the things we look at in this play, the atrocities of slavery, and redemption, and time-travel, and musical numbers on the plantation performed by slaves, and, ah, all these wild things, and that’s the thing that people go back to when there’s a reservation about this play. Why does he have to be gay? And often that comes from the black community. And I think that comes from the Church. Uh, or some of the Church doctrine, that some who are interpreting the Bible as condemning homosexuality. But, yet, if that’s the most important thing, that it’s okay to have whipped a slave, that it’s okay to have been in bondage, and if you don’t have any problem with that, it, that’s fascinating to me. But even those reservations, at least when presented to me personally, were not so emphatic that it clouded the appreciation of the journey of the play.
DCTR: It sounds like as a writer and as a director you two have said we’re going to deal with this head-on, so come along if you’re willing.
TD: Yes, that’s what happened. But I think that’s more thought than certainly I put into it. The play is exciting. It excites anyone who reads it. Scares the bejesus out of them as well.
TD: But once the commitment is made to the play, the play demands all of those things. Because it will only work with all of the elements, the dangerous ones, the fun ones, the serious ones. But once the commitment is made, the play really tells us what it needs. So I didn’t push much – once Jeremy asked me to do it I said "sure", and "go" –
TD: Go with that (laughter).
DCTR: There’s a sense of full commitment –
TD: Yeah! (Laughter)
DCTR: This is not a toe in the water kind of deal.
DCTR: You jump in, and the language is there, and you have to ride with it …
TD: That’s just as true for the audience. There’s no sitting back and watching.
DCTR: Um-hum. You know people are involved. Because it’s a roller coaster.
TD: It is.
DCTR: You’re jumping in, and you’re feeling euphoric in one minute and the next minute, boom! Straight down. You’re seeing someone being whipped. Very emotional!
TD: It’s like life, and all– all compelling theater will do that. And this is augmented because of the subject matter, and because it’s so deep in our psyche, whether we’re conscious of it or not. That we’re all taken to that place, the place of discomfort, Whether people can articulate it or not, everyone knows that we really have not dealt with this.. And why have I never seen it on stage before? Which many people said last night at the performance. ‘Where has this play been?’
And I am like a one man army, traveling this world, trying to get to people to pay attention to this play. And everyone who reads it acknowledges that this is a great, great play. But they are terrified of it. And don’t feel they can produce it. So thank God there are Jeremy Skidmores [Artistic Director of Theater Alliance] in the world.
DCTR: You mentioned taking this all over the world. You have had some fabulous experiences in, of all places, New Zealand with the Maori people. So tell me what that was like, since the play is so distinctly rooted in the African-American culture…
DCTR: .. to transport and transcend that for people who have been in their own place, and their own continuum in space and time. How did they take this on?
TD: Well, the Maori people experienced a parallel atrocity done to their people centuries ago, and ninety per cent of their culture was wiped out by the colonials. But that last ten percent – wow. That last ten percent – they were able to reclaim their peace on their land, and after their signing of the Treaty of Waitongi, there is this tension in a country which both sides, in this case the Maori and the Europeans, are working in good faith towards returning the rights fully back to the indigenous people, the Maori.
But, of course, in the age we live in, it is for all intents and purposes a Western country. There are issues that it’s not moving fast enough for some people. Even though – and I spent a lot of time there – you can feel that there is an intent of, intention on both sides to make things work. So I was approached by an artistic director by the name of Robin Payne from a theater called Toi Whakaari, and she came to America and we happened to meet, she was looking for a project to do with her Maori and Pacific Island actors in her company to address the social ills and to point out in a theater setting that things weren’t moving fast enough. She felt responsible to do that. But the Maori playwrights at that time were not writing about the atrocity that happened to them because in their culture it was a way of throwing it back in the face of the former enemy and that was something they would not do.
So her idea was to have an African-American play dealing with the [black experience], directed by an African-American director, at her theater, and performed with Pacific Island actors. And you know, I’m just too stupid to say no to things like that (laughter) because you know, I’d just walk into a potential international incident. But, what was remarkably easy is that it is a Western culture and most Western countries are inundated with American culture, popular culture. So, the actors I worked with, knew hip-hop culture, they knew from the music and from the movies, not necessarily the source, the true source of why it evolved, but they really understood the rhythm, and the imagery. So I had that.
But, what was profound was the sense of how they approached the issues of slavery and atrocity and the attempt to annihilate their people, and their response to that. And the difference I discovered after several weeks is that they never left their own land. And there was never a disconnect from ancestors. And for so many years I believed I was completely disconnected from my ancestors. I’ve never been to Africa. I never traced my family back. So I never really meditated on where my connection to Africa. And my time in New Zealand influenced me – well, how should I say, because the ancestors, the Maori ancestors, were present for the entire process. And I don’t mean that to sound too woo-woo and it was a very real presence, and it was acknowledged by every one in the room. Formally, in a prayer before each rehearsal, the Maori company would invite their ancestors to come into the room and help them tell their story, and then would invite my ancestors into the room to help tell the story with integrity and accuracy. And they showed up! So it was life-changing. Life-changing.
DCTR: Why should people come to see this production?
TD: It’s an American play about an American experience and one that is not readily talked about, or experienced, so on that level, also on the level of history, it’s very important to see. To see this play in the H Street corridor as it’s going through its transition, the energy off the street, is absolutely feeding this production. So that’s just the first level, and that would be enough. Also, this highly theatrical, something I don’t regularly see in my travels around DC, and I’ve seen a lot of theater. And, most people know that Theater Alliance is a fully integrated professional company, although it doesn’t have the largest budget in town. Although the design elements are wonderful, this is an actor-driven production, and you will see some of the finest DC talent in this production. So, O.K., so there are three reasons. Do I need to go on? (laughter).
DCTR: The healing, and the power, and the message, and the sense of history that goes on in this play – you’re right, I’ve never seen anything like this either. It’s quite a compilation, and this is quite an accomplishment for you and the theater company. I want to thank you very much for being here…for bringing your insight and experience. It is quite a treasure to have it here.
TD: My pleasure. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in DC.
" Insurrection takes a provocative look at a particular slave uprising, turns it upside down and inside out, spins it around, and serves it up. Be daring, take the shackles off your feet – see, jump, and dance. " Read our review of Insurrection: Holding History
Insurrection: Holding History produced by Theater Alliance at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H Street, N.E., in Washington runs through March 25, Thursday – Saturday at 8, matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2. Ticket: $26 general admission. For further information visit their website or call: 866-811-4111