HIT BY AN ‘A’ TRAIN
I don’t think I realized how much the play I’m working on would get under my skin. All of them do–even the scenes I explored in acting classes–but there have only been a few roles that yank me so far in that it’s hard to find my way out. Saint Joan was the big one. She followed me around everywhere, wouldn’t leave me alone. She was the most demanding of anyone I’d ever played–both emotionally and physically–and I was stick-a-fork-in-me done by the end of that run. She still crosses my path here and there. This time, it’s more the subject matter that’s getting to me…or maybe the head-space of a character who feels so guilty and responsible for a tragic outcome that she can barely live with herself.
I’d read Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train a couple of times over the years and always wanted to work on one of the scenes in class. I never found a partner to do it with and my understanding of the play was superficial at best, kind of like–I want to play a good lawyer scene. And then I actually got cast as Mary Jane and was excited but for a good stretch of my rehearsal process it all felt really distant from me, as if this was the first character I’d ever tackled who had nothing to do with me or my real life. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that every character who enters my sphere has something to do with what I’m currently and personally grappling with, so I couldn’t understand why Mary Jane didn’t. Until she did.
Digging into the text with my directors, we uncovered MJ’s history with an alcoholic father, her efforts at recovery through therapy and Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings, the inexplicable loyalty she still feels towards her father and his rogue sense of justice, the ego she’s developed over her plea-bargaining and trial skills, the poverty she lives in as an underpaid Public Defender and her working-class background that helps her identify even more closely with the clients she defends.
As I started to build from those facts, I realized how much I actually did identify with Mary Jane, even though the circumstances of our lives were different. I, too, come from a childhood that contained deep trauma, that was difficult to make sense of and that has had repercussions throughout my adulthood. I, too, have found myself believing that I could somehow reverse those experiences by falling in with people who reflected my upbringing in mysterious ways. And I, too, have felt that encouraging a person’s (many different persons) potential strongly enough would be sufficient to change a life.
Then, add to that mix, the research I did into the criminal justice system; combined with the on-going despair I’ve felt about our country’s vicious track record when it comes to prison time, racism and police brutality; combined with the stories a former corrections officer brought into one of our rehearsals; combined with the experience of living in Boston again after 11 years away; combined with an incredible scene partner in the role of Angel who brings beautifully complex work to the table and…it’s a lot.
Since our last couple of weeks of rehearsal and into our run, I’ve had a very hard time shaking this play when I leave the theater. I can’t find a way to decompress after shows and I drive the long way home to calm down. It’s to the point where I can only sleep for a couple of hours at a time, my dreams are entirely from Mary Jane’s world, and I wake myself up crying, thinking that I’ve fucked it all up for good and destroyed a man’s life. And, at the same time, I’m so sad that our run is nearly over and I won’t get to continue on with Mary Jane indefinitely. Yes, I am a glutton for punishment. But it’s such a rare and wonderful gift when this happens…for a character to blaze into my life with such intensity that I have to make room for her and learn what she has to teach me.