When he was first asked to take on the role of the unscrupulous title character in Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe, in the SeeNoSun production at DCAC, Sun King Davis was both intrigued and excited. After all, it’s not every day you get to play a police office who moonlights as a contract killer in a play that doesn’t shy away from graphic disturbing content involving violence, sexuality and brutality.
“It is definitely one of those shows that is on the outlier of human experience,” Davis says. “Joe really attracted me because you might meet someone like him once in a lifetime. The idea of getting to play such a bad guy…and indulging your dark side as an actor, really appealed to me.”
Davis especially liked how the character combined cruelty and humor in such a way that is rarely seen on the stage.
“Joe enjoys being himself really much and getting to play a character like that, one who knows exactly what he’s doing, is attractive,” Davis says. “I think Tracy writes Joe as someone who may have fit in perfectly in the 1800s; he’s a man of principals and rules and he’s got a code. He’d be wearing the white hat, but it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t shoot someone in the back if they made him mad.”
The story follows a family living in a trailer park who decide to hire a killer (Police Officer “killer” Joe) to do away with their mother in order to collect the insurance money, but things go awry when they don’t have the money to pay him. What they do have is a young daughter named Dottie who catches the eye of Killer Joe and he decides that she will be his payment and things turn even darker very quickly.
“It’s very childish in some ways…the ‘I want mine,’ mentality,” Davis says. “This play will leave you with a lot of questions. It’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea and you have to have a stomach for it.”
A film version of Killer Joe directed by William Friedkin and starring Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey in the notorious lead role was something of a festival darling last year but received an NC-17 Rating in the United States from the MPAA for “graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality.” The staged version is just as graphic and dark—maybe even more so.
“The movie uses almost the exact script. They have the added advantage that they can change locations a couple of times, but the movie is almost word for word the same as the play,” Davis says. “There’s been a lot of chatter lately about what sort of alerts you need to place on plays and movies, and I’m not really sure how much I’d want the audience to be taken by surprise vs. how much you need to warn them that there are gun shots, there is smoking, there is nudity, extreme violence against women.
It’s a really rough ride but I think it’s interesting enough to get you through the parts that might make you uncomfortable.”
Although King admits he didn’t develop that elaborate of a backstory for his character, he did think about some of what may have made Joe that way.
“The worse a character is, I always seem to find a more tender place in my heart for them,” he says. “I have to think that badness comes from somewhere. People don’t lash out for no reason. So for someone like Joe, it comes from a place of hurt more so than a place of anger or from being a bully. We are well beyond the ’80s teenage movies where a bully is a bully and a nerd is a nerd. Joe is no stereotype.”
King pays nod to director Michael Wright for encouraging the cast to “perform as naturally as possible in these extraordinary circumstances to get a true sense of realism” and also credits the entire cast with making the production a winning experience.
“It’s called Killer Joe but it really is a true ensemble,” he says. “It’s a clockwork inside the way people talk over each other in the show. It really is something that has been so much about teamwork.”
Killer Joe is onstage through June 29, 2014 at DC Arts Center, 2438 18th Street, NW, Washington, DC.
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