The following is a partial transcript of a talk-back after the 10/5/08 showing of Bug at the Providence Black Rep, recorded and transcribed by Black Rep Dramaturgy Intern Ryan Hanley. Click here to go to the 10/19 talkback. Enjoy!
Present at the talk-back are director Megan Sandberg-Zakian, cast members Jackie Davis, Marie Michaelle Saintil, Cedric Lilly, Raidge, and Bob Jaffe, as well as various members of the audience.
MSZ: Good afternoon, and thank you all so much for coming! I'm Megan Sandberg-Zakian, Associate Artistic Director at Black Rep, and I also had the privilege of directing these wonderful actors in BUG. I'd like to introduce the actors to you. Raidge, Cedric Lilly, Jackie Davis, Michaelle Saintil. (applause) Bob Jaffe is a bit bloody so he’s upstairs getting clean and will be down shortly. We like to do these talkbacks in three parts. The first part is affirmation, where you tell us what you liked about the show. In the second part, we have some questions that we'd like to ask you, things we have been struggling with over the course of our work on the play, and we're interested to hear what you think. Finally, in part three, you’ll have the opportunity to ask us some questions. If you have any questions, it would be great if you could hold them until part three, and we promise to answer them! Make sense? Good. Ok, so part one, affirmation. What did you like about the play? Anything positive about this play or the production, anything that sticks out to you. Images, ideas, moments that you liked, that you remember. Something that surprised you or make you think. Yes?
Ilana: I think the cast did a really great job of conveying the building and danger of paranoia. I think you guys did a great job physically and also conveying the difficult mental space that all the characters embody not just the two main characters.
MSZ: Thank you. And Ilana, I happen to know your name but if you don’t mind saying your name that would be great so we all know who is speaking. Thanks Ilana. Yes?
Vienne: (First part inaudible) Your character just seemed to develop from the beginning, very calm, and you interpreted what you wanted for that character going into what they wanted, which was really interesting. I have a question.
MSZ: Can you wait until part two?
Vienne: Of course.
MSZ: And what’s your name?
MSZ: We’ll get back to you. Any other affirmations?
Patricia: My name’s Patricia and the set was wonderful, all of the space, all of this action...and I enjoyed it.
MSZ: Thank you Patricia. And our set designer Maggie was amazing, just wonderful. All of our designers were are really great. Anything else?
Ilana: I have one more. I just wanted to add to what I was saying that I think that by the end I felt that I was questioning what was real and what wasn’t and I wanted to know was he really a robot. He bleeds, but maybe he’s a special robot. There’s something about being in a presence of people who believe something so deeply that we need to question your own beliefs. I thought that was really interesting.
MSZ: Thanks Ilana. Yes?
Audience Member 1: The whole drug piece makes me question if this has to do with the mess, or if they’re just cracked out, if it’s real, so we’re confused, we question through the whole piece through this drugged induced paranoia.
MSZ: Thank you. Yes?
Megan: My name is Megan. I read through the director’s note before the play and I really liked the line “when we find love we hold onto it at all costs no matter how many things in our lives it shifts or destroys”. That was the line I kept thinking about through the whole play and I’ve been to a private conference about violence awareness a few days ago and(portions inaudible)destructive decisions and I liked watching that develop.
MSZ: Thank you. And good choice to read the note from the director (laughter)!
Toni: My name is Toni, and I think that everybody that was cast did it perfectly. The bigness of the ex-husband makes him feel imposing. Michaelle’s Afro is really big...the kind of diminutive sense of Peter how its related to Goss...I just think it fit all so well so that you bring your own assumption into the imposing figure over her and him over him. It was really great casting.
MSZ: Thank you Toni.
Toni: You’re welcome.
MSZ: And thanks for being such an awesome board member (laughter). Yes?
Don: My name is Don. Fabulous job everybody. The performances were...you guys really did an outstanding job. Again, in this tiny little space for staging you did phenomenal. Seriously, the way you put this piece together. Especially in the second act I have to say, with everything that’s going on, all the junk that’s on the stage, and how everybody moved in this space made it so, I want to say three dimensional, but like into our faces, into the front row, into our laps even, but it all fits very well together and it was very well built, choreographed, and laid out. So, kudos to the director.
MSZ: Thanks. And the play is pretty masterfully constructed in that way, too. He’s a great writer. So my question to all of you is this: why do this play, this play was actually written over ten years ago, why do this play in Providence, RI in 2008, and at Black Rep. Why are we doing this play right now?
Don: Because Sarah Palin is a robot? (laughter)
MSZ: Would you care to expand on that?
Bob: I offered her the role of Dr. Sweet but she didn’t take it.
Don: She would not have done nearly as good, believe me.
MSZ: Yes, Ilana.
Ilana: We were talking about...for a show that is written for a white cast that, putting black actors in the lead roles, it adds a different layer to the proceedings of what transpires between the characters. It questions about mental illness...I think that it adds another layer but whether that exists on the page, I think it works really well in the text.
Bob: I think what you’re getting at is not so much mental illness but mind control experiments.
Alana: I think it brings a question about government (?) actually. I think that choosing to put on this show here...there are more questions to be asked then necessarily the obvious ones.
MSZ: Thank you. Yes?
Don: If I could follow up on that, I think that’s exactly the thing because there are so many questions in the black community about, I will say healthcare, but also how...the mistrust of systems...
Cedric: Authority figures in general.
Don: Yes, authority and the systems that those authorities are in, you know, makes it all the more...I don’t know if anyone has ever seen Undercover Brother, they have all of these stereotypes and there’s Conspiracy Brother. You go to any barber shop and you’ll hear many conspiracy theories. Some of them have just enough truth that you can bite into and gnaw on. That’s is an element you were suggesting is there with this piece cast as is. Even with a white cast, I think there is enough white conspiracy theories.
Cedric: But Dr. Sweet is white, too.
Don: That adds another layer.
MSZ: So why is Dr. Sweet white?
Audience Member 2: It’s mistrust....(inaudible)
Don: “The man” is white.
Raidge: I think if he were black would it have change the story?
Cedric: It would change people’s perception of Dr. Sweet. Why is this person doing this?
Jimmy: It depends on the language you’re looking at it. I didn’t see black actors, I saw actors, what are we talking about?
Don: If Dr. Sweet had been black, the way he was played, he would have been cast as a sell-out or a pawn. He may not have known he was played as a pawn. He could have been a robot in black face. Any of those things. I think it would have added a different layer to it, but I think the same questions could have been brought out.
Megan: Yes, Lydia?
Lydia: The complexion of the play has another resonance for me. The complexion of the theatre company...when Alana said by default this should have been a white cast, there is something so political and slightly offensive in that for me...I could not not be aware of the complexion of the piece. It is very conscious in some ways and I am aware how sometimes it shouldn’t be. But it was, for me, very beautiful and liberating, and it gave me an opportunity to enjoy a play I might be cynical to. It opened a play up to me that I would have not dismissed, certainly, but something that I was not allowed to enjoy from the inside. Thank you for giving me access to these words that I think are quite beautifully written. From the examination of the pictures and if you look at it closely it changes, and the resonance that it has symbolically through the whole piece. It allows me to experience a live piece of theatre, which is liberating, as opposed to sociological, psychological examination of what the rich white people admit when they pretended to be poor white people in a hotel. I didn’t have to be a sociologist, I could be an audience member and fully appreciate this work being done by my peers and it’s a rich liberating experience.
Don: You’re saying it got rid of your bugs?
Lydia: No, it gave me a new set of bugs.
MSZ: Did anyone see “The Bluest Eye”? That’s the playwright.
Raidge: I just wanted to say that it’s similar how that this movie of the play was billed as a horror film, and I am personally not interested in horror films. So when I heard our theater was doing Bug and I hadn’t read it and certainly hadn’t seen the movie, so the question in my mind is why are we doing a horror film. I think after doing and playing this role, even after if I had gone and seen the movie, I would have my own ideas about the information being released in this film, what they were pointing me towards, and a few other of those conspiracies.
Bob: To add what Raidge said, I saw the NY production, and when Megan said we are doing Bug I wondered why are we doing Bug. And when I read the play again, I saw the play was not about bugs and people deluded about what they may or may not being experiencing, but the play was actually about conspiracy and mind control and what’s real and what’s not and what’s true and what’s false. I began to feel like this is the place that should be doing the play and this is the version that Tracy Letts should want to see. And I do feel that regardless of the complexion of the cast that we explored these issues in depth and we made this play about something and not just entertainment.
Jackie: When Megan presented this question to the cast, to me it could be about anybody, anyone who’s American. So it could happen to Asian-Americans living in Ohio, there’s a large Native American population in Oklahoma, so it’s an American piece. But when Megan presented the question to us my immediate thought was people on the fringe...just seem to be so dispensable in America. You know, if you’re poor, if you’re poor and black, if you’re homeless...look at the people in Louisiana and New Orleans during the flood. That was just unacceptable. But they were poor people. That’s how I look at it.
Bob: Was it Barbara Bush that said, when she was visiting people in the Astrodome, that they were better off because of it?
Jackie: Yeah...just so dispensable...
MSZ: We did a lot of research on that...I did a lot of research on that going into it and there’s a great documentary, which the whole time we were talking I’ve been trying to think of the name but I’m sure it will come to me, but in it they talk about screening of soldiers, psychological screening of soldiers before they go into combat and how after the first Gulf War there was so much supposed mental illness among soldiers who came back and the Army said “no, we can’t treat you for post-traumatic stress syndrom because you are mentally ill, you have this pre-existing condition. But there was a law passed that said soldiers need to be screened before they go into combat and none of the soldiers that were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan were screened. So they are coming back now in this particular documentary, oh, it’s called The Ground Truth, really excellent, but they interviewed these guys who say “they’re telling me I’m schizophrenic, they’re telling me I have personality disorders, they’re telling me this is non-combat related.” And I think the play really speaks to that in terms of...you know we had people in the audience who feel really strongly that this is a play about mental illness, we had people in the audience feel really strongly that this is a play about drug-induced paranoia and delusion and we haven’t had anyone speak up and say it’s about post-traumatic stress syndrome. But I think that’s one of the really...and we’ve had people say it’s about experimentation, and I think it’s a play about all of those things and how we are so quick to label people as crazy when in fact there may be a host of different influences working on them that may be as extreme as drug use, mental illness, or post-traumatic stress syndrom or it may be as common as being marginalized and being poor. I’d like to open it up to...do you have one more?
Don: I was going to say the whole idea of being marginalized even without the metaphor of bugs or mental illness or any of those things that the idea of being marginalized especially now when we are being spoon fed that the...with this financial crisis going on we are being spoon fed that something has happened and the people have to put up 400, 700 billion dollars and we are expected to just accept that, you know, because the authorities are telling us that and expected not to examine it. Those who are examining it are being called... “Well, you don’t know. This has to happen. This is the only way.” But here we are giving all this money to the people that broke the system and asking them to fix it, or expecting them to fix it, or expected not to question those decisions. I think it resonates, just as you were saying about the whole mental illness piece all the way down to any group of American people, or marginalized people.
MSZ: Thank you. I just wanted to wrap up by answering your question...
Vienne: It was already answered.
MSZ: Oh, we’re so good! Are there any questions we haven’t answered...well, I won’t ask that...would anyone like to ask a question?
Don: Do you guys itch when you go home?
Lydia: I want to know how you did the things on the chest. That’s just gross.
Bob: Our make-up guru, Michael Bates, who rigged up my blood spurting and gave us the training on how to do that...it’s basically...do we reveal the secret?
MSZ: Oh yeah!
Bob: It’s basically gelatin that’s been diluted and starts to harden. And just as it starts to firm up, you start spreading it to create the welt. And then we use a make-up combination of skin tone plus pink and red for the look of the welt. Then there is this stuff that comes in a little jar called Scab and that’s the shiny red stuff.
MSZ: The basic answer is we have a genius make-up designer.
Jackie: The blood tastes good.
Raidge: The blood does taste good.
Bob: My blood has detergent in it.
MSZ: Any other questions?
Megan: I don’t know what your acting approach is, but for some actors you think about what your motivation is or what are behind the lines of the play. So, do any of you have anything to say about if you, your character, decided what the truth was?
Cedric: Absolutely. I think if you’re going to play Peter, you have believe everything he says. I don’t think I would be able to commit in my discipline.
Bob: I think we all have very different views on what is our truth. If you were to poll each one of us, and we were to agree to answer, we have made very clear decisions what is the truth.
Megan: What’s the truth for your character?
Bob: For Dr. Sweet?
Megan: Yeah. Who is he really?
Bob: Who is he really? I think the truth for Dr. Sweet is knowing when he is telling the truth and when he is not. And I know that. I think that’s a question you really have to wrestle with because I think the truth in this play is a really amorphous thing so there are very different truths for different characters.
Raidge: Well I think that’s the point of the issue. A lot of people are just willing to let someone tell them what the truth is and just live with it and when they find out later that it’s not the truth that they build on top of that truth and...
Bob: When Agnes squashes the bug and shows it to me and I say “that’s no delusion”, it’s really interesting because on different nights changes about that, whether the bug is in her hand or not and it really depends on how that moment plays for me.
MSZ: I think what Raidge just said is part of our reason for doing the play and part of our approach to the play was that if we could somehow pull it off, that each of us believes something totally different, that it would be possible for each one of you to believe something totally different and have a huge set of questions walking out and talking about it. And if you’ve seen the movie, you know that nobody had any questions. Nobody in that movie had any questions and you don’t have any questions walking away from the movie. So it is a horror movie. It’s not a successful horror movie in my opinion, but its simply a story about bugs.
Raidge: And in the end they kill the bugs and that’s the end. But that’s how a horror movie has to end otherwise you’re setting up part two, three, four, up to Jason 25.
Bob: But we know that on this stage we can’t have 700 billion bugs. We can’t do that. So we have ambiguity built into the process here. In the movie you have a specific point of view. You have someone making decisions about what that point of view is. There is no room for ambiguity, you have to make a decision. Do you show a bug or not? I don’t know, I haven’t seen the movie. But here we have the imagination that you bring with you and the imagination or the decisions that we make on stage to provide that ambiguity. I think it’s a good thing to talk about.
MSZ: And that’s why the live theatre is so wonderful and why you should all tell all of your friends to come back every Sunday, pay what you can, and we have a pay what you can subscription. So everyone can think of a number between one and 5000... you can pay that amount of money for the subscription. We have time for one last question.
Audience Member 3: The character that Jackie plays, when you play her did you go in your mind to where she loss. Did you play it where she moves into using drugs, they broke up, he went to prison. Was that all there?
Jackie: Absolutely. When you take on a play and a character, first of all you have to find the thing that connects you to the character on one level or another. I’m a mother, so if I ever lost my child or she disappeared...I’ve been in bad relationships, I’ve been in good relationships, I’ve been hopeful that a new relationship will blossom into something beautiful...I look at the three dimensions of the person on paper and try to embody that because we’ve all been there on one level or another, not to the extreme that Agnes has taken it.
Audience Member 3: Because with (Raidge’s) character, I wanted to know the backdrop of his character. There was a whole story of what put you two there and the loss...it seemed like your character could have had more.
Raidge: My character wanted his place back. He went away and he basically was trying to pick up the pieces and what he came home to, you know, we all watch unfold. Where he came from, he came from there, he came from his home, and I pictured him just as a normal, at risk youth. He was marginalized. Therefore, he’s made bad decisions and he’s continued to make them. (Peter) kind of threw a wrench in his program. I don’t even really think that my character really understood what was actually happening until the last moment where he comes in with Dr. Sweet because he obviously hadn’t seen any bugs. He’s basically at a place where he’s like “OK Agnes, let’s get these people out of here and let’s get down to business.” Continue to live his life.
Jackie: And I think it’s a cycle for the two of them. I think that if this didn’t happen it would be the same story all over again.
Raidge: If (Peter) wasn’t here, if he hadn’t come into her life, I’d still be picking the lock, coming in here, taking a shower, seeing her when she comes home, “hey baby, get out, I’ll leave in a minute.”
Jackie: And I’d move again, hide some more...
MSZ: And I think that’s the reason the play is so great because we want those kinds of answers, in traditional narrative where you are used to getting answers to those kinds of things, people’s back-stories and their relationships, and this play doesn’t give you any of that.
Jackie: You just don’t see sometimes what’s in front of you, that is a possibility. Here is another type of abuse she is falling into but she’s not getting beat up. She has other problems but she’s not getting beat up.
MSZ: I love this conversation. We have to clear out of here because as you may or may not know Black Rep has a whole number of things that we do, not just theatre. We have programs here six nights a week, sometimes seven, and it includes everything from Latin Jazz and Salsa on Wednesday to spoken word on Monday, Afro Sonic, live drummers and DJs here at Xxodus Café. We’re going to make room for the next thing that is going on but I’m serious when I say to spread the word, tell your friends, come back and come back all season for these conversations. We love talking to you. Thank you very much.