Shortly before rehearsals began for Objects in the Mirror, playwright Charles Smith spoke with the play’s dramaturg Jonathan L. Green about the true life inspiration for the story and his enduring partnership with director Chuck Smith.
Jonathan L. Green: Shedrick Yarkpai, the protagonist of Objects in the Mirror, is based on a real person–an actor and Liberian refugee now living in Australia. How did you meet Shedrick?
Charles Smith: In 2009, Shedrick was in a production my play Free Man of Color, in Adelaide. That play is set in 1815 and about the first African American to attend college at Ohio University, where I now teach. In my research for the play, I realized that the reason they brought this ex-slave to the university, to educate him, was to then be able to send him as a free man to Liberia to stand in receivership of all of these people they had planned to deport. It was the goal of the American Colonization Society to deport freed black men and women, so that if people saw black folks walking the streets in America, they would know they were slaves. So that was my discovery, and that’s the play I wrote. Shedrick was cast in that role and I met him there in Australia. Then I went back the next year. They did another play of mine and cast Shedrick again. That’s when Shedrick started to tell me details about his own story.
JLG: How faithful to Shedrick’s true story did you feel you needed to be in Objects in the Mirror?
CS: The first act of the play is the story that Shedrick told me: he left Liberia running from the war and ended up in a series of refugee camps with family. His uncle said, “I can get us out of here.” I wanted to detail those events and that sort of travel. The character of his cousin Zaza is sort of a composite, but the uncle character is real; I never met him and really don’t have an idea of who he is, but I was fascinated with this idea of Shedrick’s dilemma and how his uncle played a part in it.
JLG: In 1996, the Goodman produced your play Black Star Line, about Marcus Garvey and his campaign for a black nation in Liberia to which black Americans could re-locate. Earlier, you spoke about your play Free Man of Color. And in Objects in the Mirror, our hero is a young man seeking to flee Liberia in the midst of the civil war there. Could we consider these plays to be speaking from three very different vantage points on the theme of black identity in a colonized world?
CS: That’s an interesting question. I keep discovering more information and the conversation goes in a different direction with each play, so if they are in conversation with each other I think it’s a sort of conflicted and disjointed conversation. With Black Star Line, I explored what Marcus Garvey was attempting to do, and found that to be very admirable. And of course then the wheels came off soon after, but I thought his goals were very admirable. Then as I was writing Free Man of Color, I understood more of what had been going on. And I thought, “Am I gonna be truthful, or am I gonna follow my original plot?” I ended up having to be truthful, and that play looked at Liberia in a completely different way. Objects in the Mirror is a third point of view that is radically different from the first two. If you follow the plays in chronological order, they say something about the influence of America on Liberia. There is this theory that when an oppressor leaves, the oppressed then emulate the oppressor. The French countries have that sort of French flavor and the English countries have that English flavor. In the Congo, we have that violence that King Leopold of Belgium visited upon them, and that violence can still be seen there. And I think Liberia still has the aroma of American corruption and exploitation. I think they are in conversation with each other. I don’t know if it’s a healthy conversation, but there is a conversation there, certainly.
JLG: You and the Goodman’s Resident Director Chuck Smith (no relation) have worked together several times before through the years. Is it true that you not only share a name but a birthday as well?
CS: Yes, we share the same birthday. Not the same year, though. We always call each other on our birthday and give each other our best wishes. And I love working with him.
JLG: How did you two meet?
CS: Chuck was already established in Chicago theater when I got out of graduate school. I remember everybody in the theater always getting excited because Chuck Smith was in the building. “Chuck Smith is coming, Chuck Smith is coming, Chuck Smith is coming!” And then Chuck Smith walked in the door. I’d be at a party and women would come up to me after hearing my name is Charles Smith and they would say, “Oh, you’re Chuck!” and buddy up to me. I’d reply, “No I’m not Chuck, I’m Charles Smith,” and the light would go out of their eyes and they would say, “Excuse me,” and walk away! I remember telling Chuck, “I’m tired of people mistaking me for you. One day people are going to mistake you for me.” Then one day much later, Chuck called me and said, “Hey man, I got a call, somebody was looking for ‘my play.’ They were looking for you! Congratulations.” It was a great moment in my life. Now we call each other periodically saying, “Hey man, a guy called me looking for you.” We still get a big kick out of it.
JLG: Why do the two of you work together so well?
CS: Chuck doesn’t try to write the play, he directs it. When I’m in rehearsal, I want to make sure everything is firing on all cylinders, and there are times when I hear something and think, “You know, that speech is wonderfully written, but is it moving things forward?” And if it’s not, I cut it. Chuck is the only director I’ve worked with who, when I go to cut the speech, says, “No, no, no, wait, wait, wait, wait! Let’s talk about this.” Other directors say, “Fine, fine, you got any more cuts?” But Chuck looks at every word. He looks at the page and says, “This is the play I’m directing.” I’ve worked with other directors who are trying to direct the play they think I’m going to write. They are directing how they think I’m going to change the play. They’re directing the play that they hope is gonna be. Chuck directs the play that’s there; he directs what’s on the page. I just love working with him. He’s down to earth. I like his sensibility when he talks about characters and relationships.
JLG: In your years working together, have you seen your working relationship change?
CS: I don’t think it has changed, but it’s deepened. We’ve developed a sort of shorthand. And when I say ‘short hand’ it’s literal: Chuck does this thing where he says, “Well, you know…” and he waves his little finger and thumb back to back and sideways, and I know exactly what that means. Now we use fewer words to get to a profound understanding of what’s going on.
JLG: Your play is set in Liberia, South Australia, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire, but certainly audiences will find parallels and echoes as we continue to have deep and difficult conversations about refugees, immigration, genocide and racism in our own country. These aren’t new issues, certainly; but how do you think Goodman audiences might relate to the show in 2017, as opposed to a few years ago when you wrote the script?
CS: I actually thought a couple years ago, “Oh man, I’ve sat on this too long. The play is probably no longer relevant.” Man, was I wrong. I think it was during [the play’s first developmental production at the 2015 New Stages Festival] when the situation in Syria started to get much, much worse that I realized, “Oh man, this speaks to everything that’s going on in the world.” The sort of panic that the play captures, as the characters flee horrible violence, the sense of dread being felt by these good, hardworking people who just want to live peacefully without the fear of being discovered – it’s the same. There are Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorans living in this country under the same fear. Where I teach, there is a student from Syria; he’s here with his family, and he’s terrified. He’s so afraid of being deported and being sent back to his death. And if it was only him, his fear wouldn’t be as great. But he has two children and a wife, and he’s afraid they are going to be murdered as well. That is part of what this play is about.
The sort of panic that the play captures, as the characters flee horrible violence, the sense of dread being felt by these good, hardworking people who just want to live peacefully without the fear of being discovered – it’s the same.
JLG: Have you been in touch with Shedrick as you were writing this play? Does he know it’s going to open in front of 900 people in a few weeks?
CS: We have been in touch. In fact, when I finished a draft of it, I was a little concerned. I wanted to show him, and I thought, “He may not like it. And if he doesn’t like it, hopefully I can address his concerns. But if I can’t address his concerns, what do I do? Do I just put it in a drawer?” But he read it and he was deeply moved and honored. It was a difficult thing to do because I felt the responsibility of telling his story, but ultimately I’m not only telling his story; I have to tell my story as well. To serve both of those masters well, I think, was the great challenge of the play.
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