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Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles
There are so many pronouncements and jokes and wild, thundering feelings in Between Riverside and Crazy that you may not think about the poetry until you leave the theatre and catch your breath.
The latest from Stephen Adly Guirgis, now in its world premiere at Atlantic Theater Company, the play follows Pops (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a recently widowed police officer who's suing the department, trying to motivate his ex-convict son, and nursing a drink any chance he can get. Life hasn't licked him, though, and eventually, he starts shedding the memories, the people, and the dark private thoughts that have pinned him down.
We especially feel his fire when he speaks. Whether he's scolding his son Junior (Ray Anthony Thomas), telling cop stories, or just making a salty observation about church ladies who eat too much, he delivers beautifully sculpted speeches. Yes, they're peppered with curse words and slang, but their artistry is easy to hear.
It's like that with all the characters. Guirgis, whose earlier plays include The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and The Motherf---er With the Hat, is well known for giving powerful voices to even the most disenfranchised people.
"The characters live in a poetic place, even though they're not poets," says Thomas. "The way they express their lives is almost musical, and when we were in rehearsal, all of us were just trying to find that common musical language."
Thomas draws a comparison between Guirgis and August Wilson, whose plays he's appeared in several times. "They both have this ear for the language of the people they're writing about," he says. "You don't have to layer it with anything, really. You just have to pull stuff out."
Crucially, though, Between Riverside and Crazy isn't only a poetic play. It's also filled with realistic details about the characters and their world. Junior, for instance, has a clear picture of what he wants his life to become. But at the same time, he has a long history of resentment toward his dad and a lingering promise to his dead mother that keeps him from moving on.
For Thomas, this storytelling makes Guirgis an actor's playwright. "You can make choices [with his script], and you don't have to second guess them," he says. "He's very specific. A scene is exactly about this. A character thinks this way or reacts this way to this situation. A lot of playwrights write it and throw it in a room, and they'll say, 'Oh, I wrote that? It works like that? Gee, I didn't know!' But he knows exactly what's going down. So there's no doubt in my mind what I need to bring to a scene."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia