Shortly before rehearsals began, production dramaturg Jonathan L. Green sat down with the playwright to discuss his inspiration for Blind Date, and the path from inception to opening night.
Jonathan L. Green: You grew up in Cuba not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Blind Date is your final play in a series of works centered on international relations during the Cold War. Can you talk a bit about your enduring fascination with this subject?
Rogelio Martinez: I wasn’t alive during the Missile Crisis, but obviously the aftershocks affected many families, including my own. My interest in the Cold War is, in some ways, my desire to understand who I was before arriving here, and who I became after. I was born under communism. I was taught one way of life, only to be told at the age of nine that everything I had learned up to that point was false. The Cold War had two opposing ideologies. Both sides believed they were doing right for their people and the world at large. When you reduce it to two people—Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev—you not only have competing ideologies on stage, but two very real human beings with very strong beliefs. To get a little more philosophical, I am a divided self. Even at my age, I still have conversations with that other boy who stayed behind. What are plays, after all, but conversations between people who need something from one another?
JLG: When did you decide on the 1985 Geneva Summit as your point of focus?
RM: At the time, I wanted to write about the Reagan years. It was simply instinct. At first, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to say, or even the specific topic. Originally, I started to write about the whole of Reagan’s life, but a few months into the process I realized I made a mistake and didn’t need to look at his entire life. In the lead-up to Geneva and the time he spent there, one could understand where this man came from while also witnessing his transformation. I also realized that two background characters—former Secretary of State George Shultz and Eduard Shevardnadze, former Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Soviet Union— had to be, in fact, moved forward to lead the play.
JLG: While working on this production, I found the number of primary resources you used in your research harrowing, frankly; there are so many declassified documents— transcriptions, eyewitness accounts, diary entries and shorthand summaries—that are now publicly available through the Reagan Library and other national study centers. Was it a challenge to boil down all the real facts and create a dramatically viable narrative?
RM: The research is part of the thrill for me. Yes, it’s difficult to boil it all down—so many delicious details you must let go of!—but you soon realize that even the various “official” accounts of certain events differ in the telling of it. This fact alone gives you the permission to fold multiple characters into one, change when events really took place, and play with the facts. The moment writers—of fiction or non-fiction—choose to put pen to paper, they are already betraying history. Late in the process, I discovered that many of these events were not recorded. All we have left are the memoranda of what took place—no recordings. This, along with access to declassified material, was the last push I needed.
“I like to think I am not partisan when I write—but whether it’s Reagan, Gorbachev, Shultz or Shevardnadze, you ultimately end up seeing the world from their point of view.”
JLG: Although the events depicted in the play happened only a little more than 30 years ago, so many of the major players have passed away; only Gorbachev, Schultz and Morris are living. That is true of several of your other plays, as well: you find yourself writing about a time that feels both present and historical. How have you tried to negotiate between any sense of obligation to portray the real history-makers on stage, their true characters, versus a more fictive version of your own creation?
RM: I do feel some moral obligation to the audience. They are there to watch a play, not necessarily a documentary. It would be wrong to say I don’t feel some obligation to history—to those who are still alive, as well as those who have passed on—but in their own lives, they also molded the truth to serve their own purposes and pursuits. They created a narrative that served their needs. So I don’t believe they would have any problem with me creating a narrative that serves my needs (and the needs of the audience). To be clear, this is not speculative fiction. This is not a “what if” story. The events in the play did occur. But maybe not exactly in the same way they occur on stage.
JLG: After this play was announced as part of the Goodman’s season, but well before rehearsals began, you almost by accident crossed paths with George Shultz.
RM: I was at Penn Station waiting for a train and found myself talking to another passenger. We got to chatting about what we each did, and I talked a little about this play. Before long, he was asking me if I was interested in meeting George Shultz. I don’t think I need to tell you my reply. Sure enough, here I was talking to a total stranger who was one degree away from Shultz. A few weeks later, I traveled to San Francisco and sat down with Dr. Shultz. We had scheduled a half-hour-long conversation that ended up lasting over an hour. Did it influence the play? Absolutely. The word Dr. Shultz kept emphasizing was “trust.” How does one go about creating trust? The word “trust” appears quite a few times in the play and this is directly linked to our conversation. As an aside, his dog, Stanford, was present for some of the conversation and he can attest to some of the facts I share with the audience.
JLG: In conversation with some of my colleagues about this play, we’ve been circling around the difference between being political and being partisan as an artist. Our hope is that this play finds a welcome home with audience members of many different political views and standpoints—but still, the play is necessarily political, especially in its investigation of Russian/American relations, a topic even more sensitive right now than when we first announced the play 10 months ago. How do you try to navigate that place as you write?
RM: My playwriting professor would often quote Anton Chekhov. I paraphrase: “Don’t tell me the horse thief is bad; just show me the horse thief.” It’s my job to present a set of characters and let you arrive at a conclusion all your own. I like to think I am not partisan when I write—but whether it’s Reagan, Gorbachev, Shultz or Shevardnadze, you ultimately end up seeing the world from their point of view. While writing a play, it’s as if a spell has been cast and the world they see is the same one you see. Once rehearsals start and you’re no longer alone on the journey, the spell is broken.
JLG: I first saw a reading of this play in Denver in February 2017—a very raw and difficult time in our divided nation’s psyche— and left feeling both emotionally on-edge and also strangely hopeful. Is that where you want to leave us at the end of the play?
RM: I am an optimist. The world could be ending in front of my eyes, and I would search desperately for hope. Yes, I do want to leave the audience with some hope. Not just hope. Agency. They as individuals can do something about today’s problems. If a man—President Reagan— who was an ardent anti-communist can change course, then I am certain we can, too.
Before Blind Date, There Was Ping Pong, Born in East Berlin and When Tang Met Laika:
The Cold War Era Plays of Rogelio Martinez
By Justin J. Sacramone
No one in the Nixon Administration had any idea what would result when American table tennis champ Glenn Cowan stumbled onto China’s national team bus at the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships. But Secretary of State Henry Kissinger saw a strategic opportunity, and seized it. Ping Pong examines how the games played between the United States and China in 1971 were directly responsible for restored diplomatic relations. At the center of this play is a literal table tennis match between the reigning champions of each nation. What appears to be a budding honest friendship between two athletes, however, reveals a cleverly fabricated plan by the people of China to attract Richard Nixon’s attention.
Born in East Berlin is set in a politically and physically divided Germany in 1988 and deals with the paranoia of a surveillance state. Anne, an American music producer, feverishly attempts to convince the Communist Party to permit a Bruce Springsteen concert in East Germany. Rock ‘n’ roll had been considered a destabilizing threat ever since the soundwaves of David Bowie’s historic 1987 Concert for Berlin penetrated the wall and unified the two halves of this broken nation. Now, Soviet officials will only allow The Boss to perform under some absurdly bureaucratic circumstances. An ensemble of characters reflecting the sweeping range of post-war political ideologies drives the action, as they debate the potential of rock ‘n’ roll to unite East and West Germany once and for all.
When Tang Met Laika, set in the mid-1990s, is chronologically the last installment in the set of Martinez’s plays. Although the Cold War is now in the past, it is not hard to imagine the lingering doubt Americans and Russians feel toward one another. Within the last decade, the two nations have gone from pointing nuclear weapons at each other to collaborating on the International Space Station mission. Feelings are different for American astronaut Patrick, when he meets and falls in love with Russian cosmonaut Elena on the Mir Space Station. Their relationship hits a hard reality once they land back on Earth, and their respective lives enter into the equation. This non-linear play examines the quiet chaos of a personal affair juxtaposed against the public disorder of restoring international diplomatic relations.