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I Can't Touch You, But I Have To Reach You

Date: Jan 23, 2014


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Welcome to Building Character, TDF's ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles

Malik Yoba plays two characters in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and they both have strikingly emotional scenes. In rehearsal, though, emotion was often the last thing on the company's mind.

"We first worked on the staging, really," Yoba says. "We didn't really work on the acting until the end. We worked on, 'You're gonna move here, move there. This panel moves. That panel moves.' It was very much from the outside in."

That might seem like a counterintuitive process---and for many actors, it is---but once you see the play, which is now at Atlantic Stage 2, the attention to movement makes sense.

Adapted by Roy Williams from Alan Sillitoe's 1959 short story, the show follows Colin Smith (Sheldon Best), a black London teenager who's arrested for robbing a bakery. Once he's in a facility for delinquent youth, he's told he can have a lighter work load if he wins a long-distance race against boys from more privileged backgrounds. This will supposedly prove that the system can elevate troubled young people, but for Colin, playing by the rules feels like ignoring how his Socialist father taught him to live and abandoning the community where he was raised.

The conflict tears at Colin as he runs the race, and throughout the play, his memories keep breaking onto the stage. With a single light adjustment or the quick tilt of a wall, the running path can become Colin's living room, the yard of the juvenile facility, or the street outside the bakery. The transitions need to be quick and precise, lest the production lose its relentless energy, so every step and costume change must be perfectly calibrated.

"In some ways, it feels like being a member of a sports team, where if your timing's off you're gonna miss the ball" says Yoba, who plays both Colin's deceased father and a man who later dates Colin's mother. "But when you're no longer thinking about the mechanics and you're just responding, the game slows down. Athletes talk about that, and the same thing is true with this. As you keep doing it, it feels like it slows down, and you can continue to find those emotional beats."

In fact, Yoba has found that the blocking gives him insight on what those emotional beats mean. As Trevor, the man dating Colin's mother, Yoba is physical with Best, clapping his shoulder and looking him squarely in the eye. It makes Trevor feel like a real and present threat, even if he's just in Colin's memory. But during a crucial scene where Yoba plays Colin's father, he stands behind co-star, meaning Best mostly responds to the sound of his voice. The two actors don't even make eye contact, even though Colin's father is trying to give him important advice about how to live in the world.

On stage, that distance makes Yoba's character seem more godlike and unapproachable, and it underlines how Colin ignored the advice that might have kept him out of prison.

"That helps me go deeper and deeper into the emotional impact of that moment," Yoba says. "I realize that's the one moment in the play where Colin's memory of his father is really eliciting an emotional response from him. And if I impact him, then the audience is impacted."

Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor

Photo by Ahron Foster