A new play written by playwright Thomas Bradshaw about an African American Republican lawyer, and how he came to be so, is set to open next week at Goodman Theatre. Bradshaw is a Midwesterner by design (originally east coast) and a professor at Northwestern, but he is best known for his thought-provoking plays that avoid the cliché of the fairy tale ending in favor of addressing controversial issues. I spoke with director Benjamin Kamine about the time and energy that went in to the making of Carlyle. Kamine directs primarily new works and says he loves working with the playwright in the room, which is why he enjoyed the process of directing Carlyle. Kamine has been working on Carlyle with Thomas Bradshaw and actor James Earl Jones II since 2014 as part of the New Stages Festival at Goodman Theatre.
What is the premise of the play? Does it have a political agenda (pro-Republican or poke fun at Republicans)? There is no political agenda. I am hesitant to speak for Thomas since it is his play, but I would say that this production is about spending time with black Republicans and getting to know them. Some people will take that as poking fun because they don’t believe black Republicans are like that and some people will take that as being in favor because they recognize the characters on stage. We’ve had audiences respond both ways. It’s certainly a funny play, but I don’t think it’s poking fun. I think it is honestly vested in the question of how someone becomes a black Republican. Thomas Bradshaw writes without subtext, so all of the performances are sort of hyper real. People say exactly what they mean and they mean it when they say it, so there are no ulterior motives and people don’t lie.
Does Carlyle aim to debunk some clichés about African Americans and Republicans? That depends on whether or not you come in with clichés. I don’t mean to be elusive. The whole point is to honestly investigate the question and if someone walks out feeling like their clichés have been debunked then that means they came in with clichés and if they leave feeling like something sacred within them has been reaffirmed that means that they came in with something sacred. I do think that this is not a propaganda piece. It’s a piece of art and it’s asking a question.
What was it like working with James Earl Jones II? Great! He has played the part since we did the New Stages workshop two years ago. He is endlessly charismatic and that’s part of the fun. The play really does center on Carlyle in a significant way. The amount of text that is James talking to us requires someone who can just capture us, and James does. He is effusive and exciting and very funny.
Why is the time right for this play? Because we are witnessing a moment that is perhaps unusual in American politics. The relationship between the parties and their bases is in flux. We see these populist incursions on both sides. I don’t mean to equate Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders because I don’t think they are the same, but there is no doubt that both of them caught their respective parties by surprise. Their parties thought that centrist candidates were going to dominate the primaries and instead candidates that appeal to a different part of the party have made real inroads, whether or not either of those candidates become the nominee. And Carlyle is actually about that on some level. It’s about taking an honest look at the intersection between identity politics and political affiliation. It uncovers some really surprising things and we are in the midst of challenging the conventional wisdom of party politics as a country.
Is the cast mostly from Chicago? They are all local hires. Are you kidding? We have all the talent we need in Chicago and they’re great.
What will surprise audiences about Carlyle? It’s a credit to Thomas and James and the whole cast, but people will find that when you spend serious time with someone you disagree with and start to see them as a person it becomes easier to navigate that disagreement. The play runs 75 minutes and I don’t think that many non-Republicans have spent 75 minutes listening to a Republican talk to them. I think a big part of what is happening in our political discourse right now is that there is a real tendency to view the other side as not human and to let political affiliations replace other conversations. I think that if our audience comes in with preconceptions they will be surprised by the ways in which those preconceptions are affirmed or debunked—but also surprised by the fact that those preconceptions may not matter when you spend a lot of time with someone who is really charming and smart and engaging. The play is meant to provoke thought. I was doing a teacher workshop yesterday and one of the teachers asked me what I wanted the students to come away with. Did I want them to vote differently? I said if they come away thinking about the play and the core questions of identity politics and party affiliation and the way those things intersect, that’s all we’re looking for. It’s a piece of art and it’s a question. And the aim is for people to keep thinking long after they leave the theater.
Can you tell us about Thomas? He’s brilliant. One of the things that I find really impressive and admirable about Thomas is that he is endlessly rigorous. Thomas’ work is intended to provoke in such a specific way and really get us thinking and the rigor takes on a slightly different tone. When I say that he writes without subtext I mean he recognized something particular about theater that I think is really old. Shakespeare’s characters said what they meant. Even Shakespeare’s greatest liars like Iago would turn to the audience and say “See, I’m lying right now.” There was no attempt at psychological realism. The performance existed in service of the larger story and the Greeks were like that too. There are other playwrights who do that, but I enjoy how really specific Thomas is about that. His plays read like musical scores in the sense that a comma is one kind of pause. A period is another kind of pause. You read it and you realize that like a piece of music, there is only one way to do this play. He is formally rigorous, like Shakespeare.
Is Carlyle addressing the audience or is he acting? It’s sort of a split. The play is set on the night the audience is watching it. He comes out and says (and I’m paraphrasing here) ‘Hi , I’m Carlyle Myers and I’m going to do this play about my life to show you how someone becomes a black Republican.’ And then he performs the play and sometimes steps out of the play to set up scenes and he really leads us through his journey.
How was the Goodman Theatre important in the development of Carlyle? This play is a Goodman commission. It started with a reading internally at the Goodman and it’s been shepherded through this extraordinary process. We had this workshop where we got to see it in front of an audience six times on its feet—not a reading—which is incredibly unusual and it really helped shape the play. It gave us an opportunity that doesn’t exist in many places to really build something from the ground up rather than just jump in and try to make it happen as quickly as we can.
Carlyle will be at Goodman Theatre April 11-May 1. Tickets run from $10-$30.