Michael John Garcés has always had an eye for engaging people through the power of their own stories. He has turned his ambition into well-recognized programming as Artistic Director of the community-minded Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles.
Now back at Woolly Mammoth after the success of his 2011 production of Oedipus El Rey, Garcés is taking on The Convert, a southern African period drama by OBIE Award-winning playwright Danai Gurira (whose previous plays Eclipsed and In The Continuum became hits at Woolly).
DC Theatre Scene spoke with the hard-working Garcés in the middle of the rehearsal process about how, and why, he’s always eager to cover new territory.
DCTS: Were you familiar with Danai’s work prior to this project?
Michael John Garcés: I was familiar with Danai’s work, but we hadn’t met. Howard [Shalwitz, Woolly’s Artistic Director] sent me the script, and I was really excited about it the first time I read it. Then over the course of a few conversations Howard put me in touch with Danai.
What about The Convert first struck you?
MJG: I think one of the many things that excited me about the play was its form. It’s rare to read a contemporary play that’s so unafraid to couple big emotions with big ideas. This play has some great speeches, big ideas, and a lot of intellectual cut thrust and parry. I found that exciting.
A lot of the big ideas in The Convert address colonialism, right?
MJG: Yes. I grew up in Colombia, so I had a very different experience than Danai with how people come together and mix, but some of our experiences are similar. Most Western stories about the colonial experiment — and specifically European/American stories — tend to take something like the Heart of Darkness model. They take the perspective of the colonists as they find themselves in the element of the Other — surrounded by the beating drums, so to speak. Whether these stories turn out to be good or bad, there’s a dilemma here in how we learn these stories can or can’t be told.
This play takes place in 1895, in the area of colonial southern Africa that was on its way to becoming Rhodesia, and then later Zimbabwe. Yet all of the characters in the play are African. It sort of flips that earlier model around, because in this case the Other that the characters are surrounded by are the English.
What do you find exciting about that reversal?
MJG: I think Danai’s writing makes for a really sophisticated look at the ebb and flow of colonialism. In certain ways you could say that structure of the play is very English. But then Danai finds ways to blow that up. The point she’s making, ultimately, is not that everything about colonialism is bad and every about the original and native is good. She’s looking at how the European and the African were creating this deep synthesis, religiously and culturally, and at the way in which this brought on what we tend to think of as Africa’s entrance into modernity.
Does this project remind you, thematically, of any work that you’ve done with Cornerstone?
MJG: Well, with the way that Cornerstone works, I don’t usually know many details about what our upcoming projects will turn into. But I do think this play feeds into what I do at Cornerstone. Mainly because this story is about a search for an authentic voice. A lot of our plays at Cornerstone are about communities that are trying to define themselves, and right now we are attempting to find an authentic Zimbabwean voice. That’s exactly what the play is about. These characters are trying to find a voice. So yes, I do often find that the plays I direct for other companies tie back in somehow to what we’re working on at Cornerstone.
The cast for The Convert includes Nancy Moricette, Dawn Ursula, Starla Benford, Iringu Mutu, JaBen Early, Alvin Keith and Erik Kilpatrick. Can you tell us more about how they’re finding their way into the play?
MJG: There are a lot of challenges for the cast in this play, and the actors have risen to the occasion really well. We’re primarily an American cast, although our lead male actor Irungu Mutu is Kenyan. And we have to get into a Zimbabwean accent for the show, which is not pan-African. It doesn’t sound West African. It doesn’t even sound like the Kenyan accent — it has specific differences. It’s somewhat closer to the native South African accent.
So we have a cultural consultant working with us, as well as a dialect teacher and coach who have been working with the actors on accents and getting the vocal qualities right. They’re also looking at culturally specific things the actors do, like gestures. Tonally, the play is tricky. It covers a lot of ground. It has comedic elements, tragic elements, and everything in-between.
And on top of that it’s 1895, so there are colonial and Victorian mannerisms and social behaviors we have to take into account. The period matters very much as well. So it’s a challenging thing to not get lost in some of the more technical aspects of language and behavior.
Is directing a period play something that feels new to you?
MJG: I’ve certainly done some period stuff, but it’s not been the norm in my career, and my work at Woolly has been quite contemporary. But that’s part of what excites me about this show. It deals with a lot of contemporary issues, but it’s still a period piece, and I had to avoid making it feel like a stuffy product of its time. It has to feel fresh.
It’s a good challenge. And I think it’s a really interesting piece to be doing in DC right now, given how our own expansionist tendencies as Americans are as strong as ever.
What has surprised you during the rehearsal process?
MJG: The play is incredibly nuanced. That has been consistently surprising to me. The first few times I read the play through, I think I read it in broader strokes. So now that we’re in rehearsal it’s been delightful to get into the moment-to-moment work. That’s often the case — plays come into focus with hard work — but it’s even more true for me this time than ever.
Tell us about the environment for the play.
MJG: Well, our idea for the set went through some changes. With one small exception, the entire play takes place in the same location: in the front room of the house of the lead character, with doors off to the rest of the house. And when I was reading it through for the first time, I think my tendency was to envision the show for a proscenium space. So our set designer Misha Kachman and I first thought to do it like that. This play has a certain sense of platform and speech-giving, so we have to give space to those scenes.
But there’s some thrust to the stage now too. We got excited about bringing the action into the audience. I think it’s interesting to get the African characters to go into the American audience a little bit, so that there is some physical and visual evidence of how they are surrounded by the Other. It can create the sense that they are adventuring out into a larger group.
What else, to your mind, makes this play remarkable?
MJG: One of the biggest things we should note is that this play is a spiritual journey as well as a political one. Unlike a lot of contemporary American plays I’ve seen — and ones I’ve directed — this isn’t just another play about religion. It is, at its core, a religious play. It doesn’t ask whether religion, but how religion. So it presents a spiritual journey toward grace in a pretty serious way, and it really matters how the audience tracks that.
Has Danai been involved much in this process?
MJG: Danai was here with us for the first few days. We did a lot of work at the table with her. Shes not actively doing rewrites on this play right now, but the time we spend together can still be really constructive for everyone. She’s an incredible resource, and she brings such life experience and cultural expertise. She will be here again during previews, and it will be great to have her back.
MJG: I do work on very different plays sometimes one right after another, and I don’t mind it at all. It’s refreshing to change the channel.
I’m directing a show at Cornerstone this summer — it’s being written right now — but the last show I directed, The Motherfucker With The Hat at South Coast Rep, was very different! The characters in Motherfucker are really physically, sexually, and emotionally expressive. The means they have of expressing themselves is of a totally different world than in The Convert.
But as human beings we always find patterns, and I’m definitely feeling some strong thematic patterns between these two shows. Motherfucker is about a guy who’s got problems and is making mistakes, but he’s searching for a final moment of grace. And we carry a certain sense of hope — a possibility of grace — in this production as well.