Director Steve Scott, an artist of amazing cerebral and theatrical excellence, takes us on a nostalgic journey in time with one the greatest American Playwrights of the 20th century, Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy, play ‘Ah, Wilderness!’ It’s a coming of age story that is sweet and funny and touches on relationships, family, and figuring out your identity in this world.
Tell us a little bit about this play and why your role is not typically played by African Americans?
Larry Bates: I think the initial response is who it was written for and when and where it took place in history as to why it wasn’t originally written for us.
Ora Jones: Actually I think you bring up a very good point. A lot of theaters are trying to increase awareness and diversity by using a different way of storytelling. A lot of it is about when and where a piece was written when the story is being told and who was actually in the room at the time. There isn’t anything specific in this play that is particularly about race; it’s just about a family. A family of people where one is coming to age and sort of rebels and there is some concern over it. For me, the general theme is about this family dealing with certain circumstances that if it would happen to another family; it might send them over the edge and potentially break them apart.
There is potential for substance abuse, infidelity, tension and drama that will literally drive people out of the house. The question for me is what is it about this particular family that is able to keep people together in the face of damaging and irreparable circumstances.
Ora, you mentioned the essence of trying to keep a family together. Did you pull from past experiences you may have seen or witness to prepare yourself for the role?
Ora Jones: No, I think if you grew up in a family you’re going to see struggles. I don’t care what you present to the outside world; you know what goes on inside or sometimes you don’t. You get surprises in your family. I think if you are part of a family it is accessible to everyone, it’s not a big secret how some families work them out or don’t. As this story takes place, where it begins and where it ends, we don’t know what is going to happen with the family. We’re just getting a snapshot of some of them over the holiday weekend. As you know holidays can be potential failures.
This play is said to be the ultimate love story. Can you tell us what drew you to your role in this play?
Larry Bates: Oh wow! I mean…its interesting adding to what Ora said; it is a family about love. One of the things that drew me to the role is the different elements of love in the play. There’s young love, dysfunctional love, working relationship love that is exploration and what comes out of it. My role as Sid is great just because it’s like being the uncle to your brother kids; you make a raucous and leave. You know there is still a lot of heart to him and that exploration of his un-required love and what his past might have been and how it has affected him.
For me being an African American, the struggles we went through as far as family, financially, emotionally; it happens in a lot of families and trying to keep them together is essential. What was it that allowed you to be emotionally a part of the family?
Ora Jones: Well for me, when I look at that family, I don’t know if similarities are the right word. There are echoes of various people in my family. I find Essie (the character I play) to be hilarious. There is a lot of laughter in my family. Sometimes that laughter is about covering up pain or finding a process to that pain. Some of it is just funny. My sister and I make fun of my mother too much. My mother is a very sincere person and she is very determined to keep her family together. Like a lot of mothers, they hang on to every little facet of their family that winds up being funny when they don’t want to be funny. They say something and don’t realize it is funny at the time. That’s one of the things that I love about Essie. She is determined and she will not back off.
Emotionally, I have never been so impressed with my mother than in the moments when I have seen her actually back off of something and allow someone she loves who is heading in absolute danger (hypothetically speaking) and allow them to find their own way. I will watch her want to help but in those moments when she knows you are going to make a mistake; she stood back. Not to be cruel but if she intervenes, you may not learn the things you need throughout the experience.
Did you draw from your Mom while performing in this play?
Ora Jones: Yes, some of it. I don’t know if she will be happy about that (laughter). Yes, she is the heartbeat of our family. Very strong, sometimes to the point we wanted her to sit down and rest for a minute. There are times when you get used to being strong and you don’t take care of yourself because you think your life will fall apart if you reveal anything about yourself and just keep that wall up there or you forget to take care of yourself. Which a lot of family members do in terms of taking care of one another; we don’t always remember to take care of ourselves.
Larry Bates: Yes, there’s a little of dysfunction and unconditional love that kind of surrounds it. When I was a kid I really didn’t have a concept of what being dysfunctional really meant. Having that drunken uncle or someone like that; I was so amazed as an adult about how things transpire in my life with my family. As a kid, I’m just amazed at how well I came out as I think about it as an adult; it’s really amazing how important family is. My mom was really able to keep us cradled, secured and not affected by the outside world. There was no level of judgment placed on different people. It’s family! Nothing is more important than family. It’s unconditional love! So there are definitely mirrors of that I see in this family, which is why Sid can be Uncle Sid and everybody tells him don’t do anything crazy but he still does stuff crazy. That’s when the family would say, “That’s Uncle Sid;” but you love him just the same. It’s something about dysfunctional families that I love. It’s not this perfect pretty picture, often life isn’t that way. Those are always the more interesting things for me to delve into.
Brenda: AH, Wilderness is a love story on every different factor of love. We’re peeling back layers on every character about a dysfunctional functional family.
Tell us a little about how this family works together?
Ora Jones: First of all let me give a huge compliment to our director Steve Scott at The Goodman Theatre. He put together a beautiful room of people; truly, truly funny people and silly people. I was able to be united with a true friend Kate Frye who plays my husband’s sister who lives with us in the house and as my sister in law. Steve managed to put together a group of people who are very loving, very kind and respectful to one another.
The family that you create in rehearsal has transferred very well to the stage. Steve at times had to be like a mother hen, because we were just spinning off of the walls, telling too many jokes, taking up too much time, just to tell one more story; but he’s just as bad as the rest of us. We have been very, very lucky and blessed in order to have that camaraderie.
The Miller family is a family that all are very special and unique. They have their own gifts and each actor brought their gifts to shed some light on this particular family. Within of short amount of time we were able to create a family that worked good on stage and off.
I want to ask a question it’s like the elephant in the room? Because the play is predominately known to have white characters when we see this play are we coming away seeing no color?
Ora Jones: No, there are other ethnicities in the play; African Americans and Latinos. That is always an interesting question, multi-faceted about diversity; about changing the casting and doing something that someone might see as none traditional. When I started in this business that is when they started the phrase none traditional casting and it took a while to get the training wheels off that concept because everybody was wondering how or if they wanted to incorporate it or how not to incorporate this casting process and get away with it.
Steve, the director put people into these roles who he thought would best represent these characters in this family. Not everyone believes in that sort of casting because it sort of glosses over that question.
Larry Bates: Yes, we popped in and showed up every day and just created. I grew up in the south so it was easy for me to pull from where I grew up. This play is all about the universal of love. Watching young love, experiencing it and how you relate to it.
What do you enjoy about the role you play and what do you want people to come away with after they see the play?
Larry Bates: I enjoy the process. Coming to work every day getting to know cast members and learning more about myself as I tried to unfold who this character is in the process by far is my favorite part. I don’t know or really care as I’m performing what the audience takes away; that’s for them. I just want to come in and give my 100% each day and honor the playwright and what they put on paper as well as the director’s vision.
Rick: So, in essence, you’re saying if you do a good job they will come away with?
Larry Bates: We all lived a life together.
Ora Jones: That Essie truly loves her family, sometimes too much according to some of her children. I go back to the question. What keeps this family together? How this character navigates life through her family. “My father use to say “Children grow up, it’s the parents that have to grow.” They encounter a new creature coming through their door every day. I’m so grateful that we were able to come back as a family. I would always say, “You are not raised by your parents; you are raised by your grandparent’s kids.” My mother and father both blessed us and said if this is what they want to do let’s give it a minute; let’s see.
Is this a coming of age for all the characters in the play?
Ora Jones: This is not your grandfather Ah, Wilderness! Yes, I talked about all the dramatics in the play, but there is comedy in it. There are also a lot of jokes and the situations that these people find themselves in, the circumstances and how they deal with it brings that family together. Now if Essie can just back off…but the risk has to be high because it wouldn’t be any point in telling this story. I guess you can come see it for yourself.
AH, Wilderness! is playing at The Goodman Theatre until July 23rd. For tickets, go to https://www.goodmantheatre.org/