Written in 2000, the "script" of the play is taken verbatim from interviews with various personalities in the media, from figures as unavoidable as Bill Clinton to figures as unremarkable as a tour guide at Thomas Jefferson's estate.
The cast learned their roles not just by reading the text, but by watching and listening to recordings of the people they represent. However, the characterization does not stop at the character's words and bearings. Every misstep, gap and stutter forms an essential part of the play.
"There is no question that America has a spirit," we are told by an anti-abortion advocate, played by Nick Muñoz '10. For Muñoz's character, that spirit lies with God. For playwright Anna Deavere Smith, who conducted the interviews and compiled them into 'House Arrest,' that spirit can only be found in the words and gestures of the people who live it.
The Intermediate Acting class each year takes on a unit based on this idea. Rather than looking at celebrities, however, the students in the course each record themselves responding on the spot to questions such as "Have you ever come close to death?"
Then, the students draw names out of a hat, and each must use another student's words as a short monologue, again, with anything misspoken preserved exactly as it was. I worked on this unit last year, alongside several of the actors who worked in this production. It takes a great deal of finesse to accurately portray someone else with such an attention not just to the subject's general bearing, but to the precise patterns that the subject takes on in speaking a specific sentence.
Intuitively, this would seem to offer nothing that a documentary film could not show us. However, the actors themselves lend something to the production that we could not glean simply watching recordings of these people strung together. Because the actors strive so hard to eliminate any trace of the self in their acting, the traces that inevitably remain show through in stark relief against the real-life subject. Maren Searle '08, however perfectly she may imitate Studs Terkel, cannot change the fact that she is a young woman, not a 90 year old man.
And so it is these differences as much as the similarities that drive this play. Intentionally cast across race and across genders, it highlights what makes each person unique. And each person includes not just the characters, but the actors and the audience. Because though we ascribe to the celebrities more importance, the rest of us are no less human, and no less worthy of note.
The company did an excellent job making this divide meaningful. Sometimes the divide was strikingly obvious, as when Courtney Payne '11, a black woman, plays Thomas Jefferson commenting on the inferiority of the black race. In other moments, the difference stood out because of its subtlety. Ross Lambrecht '09 played Bill Clinton very convincingly, but this actually showed us even more clearly how much Lambrecht could not be Bill Clinton. Everyone in the audience certainly has their own idea of Clinton, and likely had this image hovering in their mind, conjured up by Lambrecht's performance. With all of these images, the actors standing there bringing these images to life showed us something not inherent in the images.
Smith got a variety of fantastic stories from her interviews: The first black secretary of labor, as a young girl cowering in a car as her father faced the KKK. Clinton musing on the press in Washington. A woman who stood by and watched, then later helped her husband cover up their daughter's murder. But the real interest of these episodes comes not from the subjects, but from the performers. What can a young woman find in common with a battered wife and accomplice to murder? What can a black woman in the 21st century find in common with a 18th century white guy who held so many slaves?
I don't think House Arrest really answered these questions. These things have taken us centuries to even begin to unravel, and we certainly couldn't manage the rest in a single night.
However, this production moved everyone in the audience somewhat closer to resolution on perenial questions. And for these sorts of intractable issues that run through every inch of our culture, that is quite an accomplishment.