Joshua Morgan and Derek Kahn Thompson on playing Danny and Young Reuven in The Chosen
I read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen when it was first published in 1967. I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home in Buffalo, NY where me and most of my 5 brothers played hockey and baseball in the streets of Buffalo, just like Reuven and Danny. And like Danny, I had a religious clergyman father who didn’t know how to talk to me and gave me the ‘silent treatment’. And like Danny, I injured a friend in a sporting event – at a ‘Putt-Putt’ miniature golf game where I teed off and hit someone’s right eye. The injured boy later became a good friend of mine.
Reading The Chosen book brought back many memories – some good and some bad – and when I saw Aaron Posner’s production ten years ago at Theater J it moved me so much that I kept coming back to see it. Now, Theater J is mounting a new production of The Chosen, this time directed by Aaron Posner (the first production in 2000/1 was directed by Steven Carpenter) in The Fichandler at Arena Stage, and I am very much looking forward to seeing two talented young actors – Joshua Morgan and Derek Thompson perform the roles of Danny and Reuven. And of course I am looking forward to watching local treasures Rick Foucheux and Edward Gero playing their fathers. But before I attended a performance of the show, I wanted to learn more about how Joshua and Derek were preparing for their roles and how their own religious upbringing influenced their performances.
Why did you want to play Danny?
Joshua: Ever since I moved to Washington, DC a year ago, I’ve been very interested in the work Theater J has been doing. I so believe in what Ari’s doing with the company because he produces for a reason. He’s committed to bringing the best artists together to tell some remarkable stories. So, right away, I was interested in working with them. When I was called in for the play and then had the chance to read it, I was even more excited and determined to be a part of this cast. I knew Aaron Posner indirectly through an NRTC board member, Jeremy Skidmore, and had only heard wonderful things about his work and then I got the chance to see Orestes, a Tragic Romp last year at the Folger. I was determined.
Have either of you grown up in a religious family?
Joshua: I did not grow up in a religious family. My mother is a Buddhist and a yoga teacher back in NY and we lived a pretty secular life. With that said, I had many devout Christian friends growing up who encouraged me to continue to think about my own spirituality. This story is not about Judaism but instead about, in my opinion, discovering one’s own spiritual truth/path. It’s made me think of that a lot recently.
Derek: My family is Jewish, heavy emphasis on the “ish.” All you have to know about my family’s brand of Judaism is that we celebrate Christmas, hate Chanukah, and held an Easter egg hunt for the neighborhood in middle school. In a nation with thousands of “bad Jews” we really might be the worst Jews of them all. But we’re also unrelentingly self-deprecating, we’re passionate about Passover, and we pretend to fast on Yom Kippur, so in that sense, we’re just like every Jewish family in the world.
Did you play baseball when you were younger? Did you have a similar experience where you hit or were hit by a baseball or you injured or were injured by a teammate or opponent?
Joshua: Haha. I most certainly did not play baseball when I was younger. I liked to bowl 🙂
Derek: I played pitcher when I was younger, and because I was very short and unable to overpower even a kindergarten girl with my fastball, I always relied on my curve ball, like my character Reuven. Fortunately, I never got a ball to the eye like Reu. I once got hit in the arm with a line drive and fell to the ground. Everybody rushed out of the dugout to make sure I was okay. I was totally fine, and knew I was totally fine, but I stayed down there and writhed around in the dirt for the few minutes, to play it up and to make the kid feel bad about himself. I was always a better actor than baseball player, even on the pitcher’s mound.
What advice did Director Aaron Posner give you that helped you with your performance?
Joshua: Oh, goodness…so many things. Aaron is very much an actor’s director so he helps and supports the process in a big way. He nurtured our creativity and imagination and kept pushing. His big phrase is “Yes, and…” in reference to our need to continue to search for the depth in these characters. He wrote the play, so he brings a whole other layer of dedication and determination to the process in terms of digging deeper into this amazing story. He also has this wonderful, frustrating way of finding and fighting all of my bad habits. Ha.
What have you learned about Judaism and Zionism and Chasidism and about yourselves since you became involved with this production?
Joshua: Big question. Short answer…there’s so much more to experience compared to what I live day to day in my little insular world. That sounds a little esoteric but it’s true. One of the main reasons I feel so lucky I get to do the work I do is because in a world where we’re constantly getting sucked further into technology and it’s “simplification” of how to live, it’s so easy to lose sight of true human connection. From there, it’s easy to become blind to the bigger picture. Our work forces us to really look at the world from a bigger perspective.
Chaim Potok’s wife, Adena, came and spoke to you.
Joshua: It was really lovely. She’s such a strong woman who offered a whole other level of insight into the world of this play. She’s had such a long relationship with this story and was, of course, around while Chaim was writing the book. She knows these characters inside and out and was up on her feet working with us alongside Aaron. The experience made the story more palpable to me.
You are rehearsing and performing the show in the Fichandler in-the-round space at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater. What are the benefits and challenges of performing this piece in that space?
Joshua: This show is being staged in the round for the first time. It has allowed Aaron to play with it in a different way and allows us to play in a bigger way. We, of course, have to be even more conscious of being heard and being seen so the play has been staged carefully even if it, hopefully, seems completely organic. It’s also a matter of being aware of sharing the story with so many people all around you. Patsy Rodenburg talks a lot about the “circles of sharing” and early on, I started thinking about that in terms of sending my energy 200 feet behind me even in the most intimate scenes.
You are appearing in this production with two of DC’s most honored actors Rick Foucheux and Edward Gero. What have you learned working with and watching them?
Joshua: I’ve learned a tremendous amount from both Rick and Ed. They’ve been so kind to both Derek and I; encouraging us and guiding us. It took me a week or so to really feel comfortable enough to dive in but as we worked, I realized that they were on the same journey as we were and had many of the same questions. The biggest difference is that their process is very solid. They know how they work and how to “bring it”. We also laugh constantly. They’re hilarious.
Derek: Rick and Ed aren’t just as good as their reputations, they’re better, and they’re wonderful people to boot. Rick’s got a beautiful quiet dignity to his work that’s an incredible contrast to his powerful performances, and it’s awesome to see him internalize direction in his taciturn way and respond on stage with hurricane force. Ed’s a force of nature himself, and he’s got this insatiable curiosity about the world offstage that translates very clearly to his performances. He’s a thinking actor and he acts thinking with amazing clarity and precision, which sounds like a small thing, but it’s so important and it’s taught me a lot. Reuven is constantly learning, and being shocked and amazed by the world, and Ed’s example has (I hope!) kept me from going through the play with an annoying gosh-wow gape on my face. My hope is that he’s made me a better actor by making me a more interesting thinker to watch.
Joshua, what do you admire about your character’s father?
Joshua: Aaron has said from day one that these characters are all smarter than anyone in the room and that is especially true for Danny. He’s brilliant. His ability to take in the world and calculate everything he’s experiencing at the same time is mind boggling to me. I also admire his ability to work through some massive questions that he’s confronted with every single day. He’s an incredibly strong young man.
I think what I admire most about Reb Saunders is his conviction. Sometimes I feel like I’m unsure about what I value most as a person and values are so incredibly important. They help to define a person’s character. Reb Saunders is so rooted in his beliefs that it’s so clear what gives his life meaning and purpose. Sometimes, I feel a bit directionless and question my own sense of self. With that said, I’m fully aware that I’m on my own spiritual path and will continue to discover where I “belong”.
Joshua, we all have experiences where we had a hard time communicating with our parents. When you are playing the scenes where you have that intense confrontation with Rick Foucheux –do you think of experiences with your father?
Joshua: This has been an interesting process for me as an actor as I’ve had to really tap into different parts of myself. I haven’t spoken with my father in 16 years so I don’t have many memories of having a conversation with him, let alone any “heated” conversations. Each actor has their own way “in”, so to speak, and I’ve used my imagination in a big way for this piece.
What’s the most difficult scene for you to do with Rick?
Joshua: I guess there are two depending on what “difficult” means to you. The last scene is definitely the most difficult because everything seems to come crashing together. My whole life is summed up in one moment and so it turns into 3 minutes of me processing everything. The other scene is a small scene very early on where the two of us are having tea and studying. This is shortly after I’ve met Reuven and I want more than anything to have a conversation with my father about my new friend…but it’s, of course, the last thing I could do.
How would you describe Rick’s performance?
Joshua: I love watching Rick work. He, as a person, is so incredibly generous and loving. He has been so supportive of Derek and I throughout this entire process and then he plays this Jewish “King” who, in many people’s eyes, is incredibly hard and closed off. His performance is so rich and so full. He intimidated me a great deal the first time I met him. Haha.
Have you encountered anyone in your life who was Reb Saunders-like?
Joshua: Absolutely. I won’t mention names…but I had a mentor in college who was very hard on me. He was borderline abusive at times but I later realized that it came out of a place of love and his want for me to learn as much as I could. I have a great deal of respect for him.
Silence is a way of life in the Saunders home. How does Danny survive the ‘silent treatment’ and how does this make him stronger? Could Joshua survive the ‘silent treatment’?
Joshua: Danny survives the ‘silent treatment’ by staying true to his religion. He studies Talmud and lives his life by the word of God. He doesn’t understand what his Father is doing with the silence but trusts he knows what’s best seeing as how he’s the leader of thousands of people. Reb Saunders explains at the end that he was using silence to hurt me in order to teach me how to have compassion. It’s hard for us to understand now but to be a true Tzaddik, [“a righteous man”] in his eyes, I needed to suffer to learn compassion.
I, Joshua, could not live with someone I loved and respected who didn’t speak to me. It would kill me.
Why is there no older Danny in the show?
Joshua: The book is told through the eyes of Reuven so I’m not surprised that Aaron chose to keep the narrator centralized around Reuven. Even though the play is very different in form, having the narrator being an older version of Reuven sort of pays homage to what Chaim created, in my opinion.
Joshua, how do you, a non-Jewish man, play a “Chassid” – an ultra religious Jew?
Joshua: Well, it’s my job. Haha. In all actuality, it’s been such an exciting journey that I’m looking forward to continuing on until the day we close. I learn more and more about this boy every day. I’m shocked at how much I’ve been able to read about Judaism and the Hassidic community. I just didn’t think I’d have the time. I’ve also watched a number of documentaries as well as having reached out to various members of the Jewish community for guidance. Everyone has been very welcoming because people seem to feel pretty strongly about sharing this story with the rest of the world.
I hear you are doing another Assembly Required in this year’s Fringe Festival.
Joshua: Brian and I had such success with last years Assembly Required – How to Write, Produce and Stage a Musical; the Musical that we’ve decided to bring Rob and Flick back for another presentation. Seeing as how they fancy themselves as quite the connoisseurs of just about everything, this year they’re presenting an assembly on comedy (Assembly Required – Comedy: A to Y). This year we’re also bringing in a pretty fabulous director who understands our humor and this form. We’re very excited about it.
You’ve had a whirlwind year- rolling in jelly in the Fringe Festival, appearing as Linus, directing Touch, and now No Rules Theatre Company is receiving this year’s John Aniello Award at this year’s Helen Hayes Award ceremony on April 25th. How did this happen so quickly?
Joshua: If you’re referring to the Helen Hayes Award, I believe it comes down to our work. Brian [Sutow], Anne [Kohn] and I believe wholeheartedly in bringing together the best artists we can to tell some of these amazing stories we’ve chosen to share. A lot of that is casting. We spent about 5 months casting both Charlie Brown and Touch this year which both have very small casts and yet it was crucial that we find the right 4 – 6 people to tell these stories. We’re committed to presenting the best theatre we possibly can with all the resources that are available to us. Thankfully, people are recognizing that and want more. Besides that, we have the most amazing support system in terms of our boards and staff. They go above and beyond to keep No Rules Theatre Company plowing ahead. I’m very excited for what’s to come…
Derek: You have appeared in Shakespearean roles at STC and the Folger. Anything Shakespearean about Danny and his father?
Derek: Shakespearean about Danny and his father and in Danny’s relationship with his father? It’s interesting because there IS no silence written into Shakespeare. It’s so damn talky that you literally have to kill characters for them to shut the hell up! (Isn’t Hamlet’s last sentence “the rest is silence?”) So silence isn’t an immediately obvious theme in Shakespeare but Danny’s relationship with his father is sort of the opposite of Henry V, I guess. Hal rejects his father in many ways, turns out a very different soul, but ultimately embraces the kingship. Danny accepts his father’s teaching, turns out to be a beautiful soul, but ultimately rejects his father’s profession in a big way.
What’s next for you both after The Chosen?
Joshua: My company is putting on a production of The Stephen Schwartz Project in honor of Michael Bobbitt who is the Producing Artistic Director at Adventure Theatre in April. After that, I’ll be musically directing a few of Adventure Theatre’s summer shows, preparing for a second Assembly Required in this year’s Fringe Festival and then heading down to North Carolina to co-direct with co-artistic director of NRTC, Brian Sutow, a show and webseries for the Open Dream Ensemble. Right now, we’re in the midst of prepping for next season (to be announced soon!) which we’d go into rehearsals for shortly after our stint in NC.
Derek: My editor at The Atlantic magazine [where Derek is Associate Editor] was kind enough to give me February half off to rehearse for The Chosen. When the play is over, I think I owe it to him and my friends at the magazine to put in some overtime back at Atlantic HQ.
Why should DC audiences come and see this production of The Chosen?
Derek: One reason, two words: Joshua Morgan.
Joshua: Theater J is committed to having many students see this production as well as their normal audience base. It’s because this is a play about living in a world of contradictions and all of us finding our own personal truths. Acceptance is built into that concept. We need this play right now.
Theater J’s production of The Chosen plays through March 27th in The Fichandler at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater, in Washington, DC.
Watch a video interview with Adena Potok being interviewed by Theater J’s Ari Roth and Shirley Sorotsky.