Plays about extreme Beauty always seem to contain extreme ugliness. Woolly Mammoth’s newest offering, the off-Broadway smash and award-winning straight play Guards at the Taj, is no exception.
Described alternately by Woolly’s cast as “A play that takes place in Agra the day the Taj Mahal is going to open where two guards who are childhood friends are assigned a gruesome task and that task changes their relationship” and “A comedy about best friends who are trying to survive while doing horrible things.” The play is simultaneously buddy comedy and disturbing drama, so I wanted to sit down with Kenneth de Abrew and Ethan Hova, who form the entire cast of this two hander, to see how they deal with the extremes of the play.
Along the way, I got a peek into what it is like to be a Brown actor, Rajiv Joseph’s poetry, and how 17th century Agra is like 21st century DC.
Alan Katz: How did you both come to be involved with Guards at the Taj?
Ethan Hova: As soon as the script was made available in American Theater Magazine, I read it and loved it. As soon as came it up, I jumped on the chance to audition for the play.
Kenneth de Abrew: I had heard about the play, but it wasn’t until I read it that I said, “Yeah, I gotta have this role.”
EH: One of the things about being an actor who is, well, brown (I’m half Arab and Kenneth is Sri Lankan) is that almost all the roles that I go out for because of my ethnicity in some way have accents; they’re painted as Other. Rajiv goes to great lengths to not do that. These characters speak colloquially, just like you and me. I just don’t get that opportunity as an actor. I’m usually running around in a suicide vest with a machine gun.
KdA: [laughing] And I’m a taxi driver!
EH: This opportunity is special and really really rare.
KdA: The way people speak is important. I have a very special [South Asian] dialect. The script specified that the actors had no accent, so we wondered if that meant that I should speak in Standard American. But Rajiv said, “No. Speak the way you speak. First of all, this play is set in Hindustan in 1648. They didn’t speak English. Second, what would something speaking with their accent sound like?” We don’t know. So, don’t have to “put anything on.” I speak the way I speak.
But that’s not the only thing. As an actor, you want to work in general, up for any challenge. But it is rare to look at a script and say, “That feels like it was written for me!” The friendship between Humayun and Babur draws me to this particular role. I’m still friends with a guy who I’ve known since I was 6 or 7, and we have this brotherly friend relationship, the kind who would tell me to tuck my shirt in when we were teenagers. This is the start of Humayun and Babur. Humayun is maybe a little more mature, he has an understanding of how systems work. Meanwhile, Babur is more out there. Which is like me, so that was appealing.
EH: Same here. Humayun could not be written to match more closely what I do well. I enjoy playing the serious clown, the kind of character that you like seeing fall down. The William H. Macey from Fargo type. That’s what I saw in Humayun, the kind of character who trying so hard to follow the rules and be rigidly serious that you laugh at him when he eventually does fall down. That’s the fun of him, but he’s also vulnerable and sensitive.
Humayun and Babur seem much like a double act comedy team, so very funny, but it’s also not a funny play.
KdA: Yes to both!
EH: You laugh when you cry and cry when you laugh. And when you look at great playwrights, the real geniuses, they’re able to do that. Chekhov did that, and Rajiv Joseph can do that.
KdA: There’s a lot of quick switching that goes along with that comedy team dynamic. There are times when Humayun is driving the scene, sometimes when Babur is driving it. But that change can turn on a dime. It keeps our exchanges very active.
Your characters go through such extremes of both emotional and physical distress. The horrible task you are assigned is so extreme, it’s difficult to imagine doing what you do. How do you bring that into reality on a stage, emotionally?
EH: For me, I rely on the text. When you read the text, it isn’t entirely in prose like you might expect. Parts of it are written in verse. Rajiv makes liberal use of carriage returns and punctuation to create poetry. So when I sit down to read the script, if I respect the paragraphing and punctuation, it will have an emotional effect just because of how he has structured the breaths and sentence lengths. That’s why the man is a genius, and why I’ve just put all my faith in the text. Let it be honest.
I actually didn’t and couldn’t look into the emotions of the piece until we started running it as a whole. Each scene feeds perfectly into the next, so you need to build that momentum in rehearsal.
KdA: I grew up in Sri Lanka, which is a country that was in a civil war for many years. And while the violence didn’t happen in front of me all the time, there were plenty of suicide bombs and terrorist attacks. So there is a certain tension that I’m used to, in a sad, but in a very practical way. It was a very real possibility that you could get caught up in something and your life would end. I didn’t grow up in a war zone; it was just that these things would happen. So that is something I recognized in this play.
What about the other extreme? Guards at the Taj is as much about beauty as it is about violence. There’s this gorgeous moment when you see the Taj for the first time. Since neither of you has actually been to the Taj, especially when it first opened, what do you use to inhabit that transcendent moment of Beauty?
EH: It’s different for me every night. Sometimes, and this will sound silly, it’s just seeing a flap of fabric moving. Sometimes it will be a specific memory. That’s worked so far. Knock on would it keeps working.
KdA: I was in India this past Thanksgiving, and while I didn’t get a chance to go to Agra, my father who has been to the Taj Mahal would help me. He would point out designs as we went to shops, and say, “It’s like this. But way better.” So I have that, something small. But there’s another idea. I talk about flying in the play, how it makes us and everything we know look so small, and then when I see the Taj, that magically becomes real.
So that’s how you approach the show emotionally, but what about physicality?
EH: The play places wonderful restrictions on the acting and the staging physically. The first scene is long, almost a third of the play, and throughout it we aren’t allowed to turn around or move from our post. So every move that you make has to be meaningful, especially in those scenes. So we had to find the right and only moments when we could let our guard down. When we’re not guarding, I mostly think of Humayun moving in straight lines and turning at right angles. Not the same for Babur though.
KdA: [laughing] No, no, I was thinking just the opposite. I always think about rounds and amorphous shapes. Another thing we did was start out with a bunch of movement. John [Vreeke, Director] would have us be moving around and we were acting almost as if the Taj wasn’t there.But throughout the process, we pulled back. So, all that work is still there in our bodies and in our [vocal] text. But now we can’t move because, well, we can’t move. Even as adventurous as Babur is, he won’t just move. And, of course, I’ve got to get Humayun to move.
Agra is a capital city, a center of power. With this giant dome under construction in the middle of it. What’s it like to perform that play in a capital city, a center of power. With this giant dome under construction in the middle of it?
EH: I hadn’t made that connection until now. I’ve had very specific reactions to being in DC (this is my first time as an adult. It feels so different from every other city of its size in that things happen here that are relevant, of great import around the world. And for our characters, we’re living in what is, to us, the most important city in the world.
KdA: In the apartment complex where we’re staying, there’s a TV in the lobby. When there’s a football game on, there’s really nobody there. But when there’s a debate on, there’s people. Average people get in on it.
EH: I’ve been thinking about audiences for our show. So much of our play deals with the responsibility of having power and privilege, being close to the center. In that respect, we’re doing this play in the perfect city if we can get the right people to come see it. I really hope people in power come see this play because it is meant for them.
KdA: I think the military community could benefit, too. PTSD and what happens after something terrible happens are big themes in this play. In the world of Agra, you’re supposed to move on like [snaps] that. Can you really? That’s a potent and important question. People are so concerned with the war, who wins and who loses, but don’t think about what happens after.
I think we live in a society and a world where there is no more “after the war.”
EH: How do you cope with that? How do deal with that on a daily basis? Do you ignore it? Try to move on? These are all valid questions.