A Conversation with Duane Boutté, Michael Laurence and Thom Sesma
Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy are trapped together in a room. That’s the basic premise for Scott Carter’s play, The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, which recently opened at the Cherry Lane Theater as part of Primary Stage’s season. I recently sat down for an engaging conversation with the three talented, charming, and intelligent actors who bring Jefferson, Dickens, and Tolstoy to life.
Margarita Javier: I love the title of the play: The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord. What can you tell us about it?
Duane Boutté: Where to begin?
Thom Sesma: How much do you know about it, firstly?
Margarita: I know the playwright, Scott Carter, found out that these different people had written their versions of the gospels, so he wrote an imagined meeting between the three of them in the afterlife. And then they get into a philosophical discussion, all their ideals clashing.
Thom: Thanks for explaining it; now it’s all so much clearer to me! [laughs]
Margarita: But how would you describe it?
Michael Laurence: That’s a pretty good summary. They’re trapped in a limbo, sort of No Exit style.
Duane: And they’re all on a quest to find out why the three of them are together, and that ends up being very, I think, powerful, when they finally do figure it out.
Thom: They’re three very cerebral, self-sufficient individuals, and this meeting of the minds is between three very self-sufficient, powerful egos who can’t help but result in conflict, without effort.
Michael: And it’s a conflict that’s sort of ignited by the discovery—and I don’t think this is a spoiler because it happens pretty early on, the title kind of sums it up anyway—but it turns out that they all edited a version of the New Testament. And so that sends them hurdling into a clash of ideas around theology.
Thom: That’s the premise. But essentially, to reduce it to the most basic idea, it’s about three guys trapped in a room who aren’t getting along.
Duane: It’s about an afterlife, it’s about salvation, it’s about Christianity.
Thom: It’s about doubt, skepticism, and faith. Faith at work even when you don’t realize it.
Margarita: How much did you already know about the characters you’re playing—Jefferson, Tolstoy, or Dickens—before you embarked on this project?
Duane: I think we all knew a little about these people, as much as anyone else. I think we’re all pretty well-read as individuals. We know about Jefferson from history, we know about Tolstoy because we all saw a miniseries of War and Peace at some point in our life, we’ve all read Christmas Carol or seen Oliver! the Musical. But Scott Carter, the author, in addition to being incredibly read and well-informed and deep into the research for this play, is also the most generous playwright I think I’ve ever worked with in sharing his research. So about three months before we started working, we all started getting packages in the mail.
Michael: A tome every week. Giant biographies.
Duane: More reading than you could ever do in a lifetime.
Margarita: And did you actually read all of it?
Duane: We did our best. [laughs]
Margarita: Have you read the gospels that they each wrote?
All three: Yes.
Duane: That was the easy part.
Thom: Those are relatively short.
Michael: He sent me, I think, six biographies of Jefferson, and each one of them is a doorstopper, a 900-page tome.
Thom: I got two biographies of Tolstoy, a stack of essays, several videos, a documentary on Tolstoy’s life, a video adaptation of War and Peace, a new translation of War and Peace, a new translation of Anna Karenina, and a number of other translations of his fiction.
Duane: I got about the same. I got two biographies, I got his notes on Dickens’ American tour, I got three novels, short stories, and videos. We just sort of take it from where you are, and pull what to use as your research for that week.
Michael: I think he told me in a note after the third or fourth package arrived, he said, “I’m helping you to build the Jefferson pavilion in the Scott Carter wing of the Laurence library.” Just a giant shelf of books and videos. [laughs]
Margarita: Is accuracy important to this play in terms of being true to these people or are there liberties taken?
Duane: It’s important for a way in, and then the play is the play. Things are taken at face value of the play, but also knowing that people are coming into the experience with maybe some knowledge of perhaps one more than the other two. So there is a responsibility, but when it comes down to it, the play tells you what you need to know.
Margarita: How has it been working with the director, Kimberly Senior?
Thom: Kimberly’s terrific. It’s a great room to be in. First of all, to be with a couple of incredibly generous actors, guys who are fun to spend time with. Kimberly’s the same way. She makes the room a very safe place to do your work. I’ve heard it said that 75% of a director’s job is getting people on the same page and then getting out of the way. And she has done that since day one. She’s just tremendous.
Duane: She gives us a lot of room for exploration.
Thom: And she challenges us, too, to not take the easy way out.
Margarita: You’re currently in previews. How has the audience response been so far?
Duane: It’s been good. They’re laughing with us a lot, which is I think part of the hopes for the play: that people are drawn by the characters, and their humor, and then they’re more inclined to follow the more philosophical aspects of the play.
Margarita: I’m interested in talking about the casting. I know the casting notice specified that it was open to all ethnicities. Even though these were historically white men, the casting doesn’t necessarily correspond to that. Is this something that Scott has always intended? Was it just for this production? Is it something that makes any difference in the way it’s performed, or does it not matter?
Michael: I’m the “necessarily” in that sentence [laughs]. There have been a few other productions of this play, and I think this is the first production that is not three white actors playing three white dead men. And I think that was purposeful; I think that was in line with Kimberly’s vision of the play in New York, in a post-Hamilton theatrical landscape.
Duane: Kimberly has expressed that she’s grown tired of seeing and working on plays that don’t reflect the world that she lives in. And along with that, she’s wanted to find opportunities in things that she’s now working on. So this is not just this play, this is something that’s important to her going forward in her work. She wants to find ways for the plays to reflect the people she knows. So she came into this with the desire to have a cast of mixed races and really had to hold out for that. It didn’t turn out for her in the initial casting. She had to really be patient. And she was, and I’m grateful that she was.
Thom: You know what’s been really lovely? It’s that we’ve been performing now for a full week, right? A full week of performances. We have an African American playing Dickens, we have an Asian American playing Tolstoy, and a white guy playing Jefferson. I haven’t heard one single comment by anyone about the diverse landscape that’s onstage right now. Which is great, which means it doesn’t matter.
Margarita: It doesn’t. And I imagine it’s a more sophisticated audience going to this show. Because there have been comments about that kind of thing in other productions, even Hamilton had a bit of backlash.
Duane: I think in Hamilton, and also in this play, it adds relevance for me, because we all have these ideas of Thomas Jefferson now, who in our company is the one role played by a white actor. And he’s now running in relation to actors of a different background, which I feel from the inside, I carry who I am in everything I do. So I think it informs Dicken’s reaction to Jefferson, Dicken’s reaction to America. Dickens did visit America, twice, and had strong opinions about slavery and class. I think that for me as an African American male, it’s easy for me to adopt his perceptions, because I agree with them.
Michael: At least one of the themes of the play, one of the major themes, is race relations. I think, in a way, it brings another layer into the room and the experience for the audience watching this play, because the legacy of race relations, the legacy of slavery is threaded into the biography of Jefferson and Dickens, and in a more indirect way Tolstoy as well, because there’s a sort of analog there with Russian serfs and Tolstoy’s relationship to people “who are owned,” as Dickens says in the play. So I think that, whether it’s pointed to or not, there’s an added layer there of some kind.
Margarita: Why is it okay for a person of color to play a historically white person, but it’s not ok for a white actor to play a historical person of color?
Duane: If you look at the canon of American plays, and you’re going to give a ratio of how many roles there are in produced theater that call for white characters, compared to the roles and opportunities available for black characters, or Asian characters, who are more underrepresented, etc., and how many people in this country whose stories aren’t being told. So for that reason, it’s just not time. We’re not there yet. When will we be there? I can’t say. But it’s not time yet.
Thom: To put it another way, to use this as a point of departure: To see a white person playing, for instance, the King of Siam, indicates white ownership of that character. Of that role. In other words, it’s an extension of a kind of slavery, if you will, to put it very crudely. That somehow it’s still ok to be colonial. When in fact it’s not. Why is it correct in the other way? Because it’s the only way we can give the public greater exposure. It’s interesting also, the thing about Hamilton, I just have to point this out, in terms of people’s backlash towards Hamilton: Hamilton is about people of color telling the story of the white person. “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” That’s what that’s about, so that’s why the backlash of show is missing the point.
Margarita: I agree and I feel the same way because I’m Latina and historically a lot of famous Latino roles have been played by white actors and like you say it’s kind of ownership of your role, but it’s also misrepresentation because then it’s portrayed in a way that’s not accurate to our real experience and that furthers the divide and people’s misconceptions about our cultures.
Thom: It’s not just ownership of the role; that minimizes what I’m trying to say. It’s ownership of the race. Ownership of the culture. And that’s what perpetuates more than anything else. You know, there’s a huge controversy right now over the casting of a production of Evita. Which is interesting because ethnically, Eva Perón didn’t have any Latina blood in her. She was Basque and French, right? Or Italian. And yet they never even saw Latina women for the role simply on the basis of their talent; they were excluded because they were Latina.
Margarita: What do you think this play is telling us, why is it relevant to us now in this moment of time?
Michael: For some of the reasons we were just talking about, in terms of how America is haunted by its own past.
Duane: Kimberly came into our dressing room a few nights ago, and said that a friend of hers thanked her for this play because it’s about things that we don’t get to see and discuss in the theater. Religion. Christianity. God. Atheism. And for that reason I find it unique, important. It’s a thing that we avoid because it’s a very tender topic for a lot of people. And it’s potentially divisive.
Michael: I also think it’s enormously relevant in the sense that America, our country is in the throes of an existential crisis right now. An identity crisis, the culture wars of the ‘80s have reared their heads again. The political divide is deeper than it’s been since the 1960s. More savage, more violent. People are more deeply entrenched and tribal in their thinking and their politics. Not to talk about it only from the Jefferson side of things, but I feel that responsibility every night, of walking out onstage and playing one of the great Presidents in our country’s history who, for all of his flaws, which are unmasked appropriately in this play, bring those questions, even just in terms of separation of Church and state which, again, is something that is also tearing questions around that issue. And here we’re reminded that the origins, the founding of our nation, that there was an experiment there, a new experiment in the world, about separating those things and why that was and how that came about. That’s important to see.
Thom: The fact that Christianity has been hijacked by the radical right, has been turned into a truncheon that they can beat anyone with, is frightening. Because it’s not just the origins of our country, it’s the origins of Christianity itself, which is based on charity, which is rooted in thought and kindness and suffering. It goes back to what Duane was saying, what Kimberly told us about her friend. Generally, there are people in the theater who tend to be progressive; left-leaning people don’t want to talk about those things. Don’t want to talk about faith. Don’t want to talk about belief. They will talk about skepticism. And I think that most of those people, like these characters, are more spiritually oriented than they actually realize.
Duane: And it’s not a play just for Christians. It really isn’t, you know?
Michael: It’s relevant too to how essential it is to see three cerebral, great figures who shaped history, each of them in their prominent ways, discussing religion and politics and being nuanced and thoughtful in ways beyond 140 characters.
Thom: And revealing themselves not as icons, but as humans. Deeply flawed, fallible, passionate humans.
Margarita: What are your personal artistic influences? Anything that moves you or any particular work or artist that has really motivated you throughout your career?
Duane: Tough question.
Michael: For me there’s almost too many influences to name here, but I will say, something that is very moving to me personally is I have always been steeped in the lore of Off-Broadway. When I was a teenager, I was meeting Beckett and Albee. And the Cherry Lane, which is ground zero for a lot of those early Off-Broadway experiments of the ‘60s and ‘70s, for me, it’s such a joy to be performing there.
Thom: I’m so glad to hear you say that because I feel exactly the same way. I was telling someone else about that. You can have a career, for 35, almost 40 years, on Broadway and TV and film, but man, I feel like I’ve arrived. At this extraordinary, legendary place. To “trod these boards,” as they say, where Beckett had his American premiere.
Michael: You walk into the stage door and there’s a giant poster of Beckett looming on the wall. And Sam Shepherd and Irene Fornés. Albee.
Thom: We just let the ghosts take care of us. [laughs]
Margarita: Since you mentioned Beckett, Michael, I wanted to tell you I saw Krapp 39.
Michael: You did? Oh my God, wow!
Margarita: Yeah, I studied Beckett in grad school.
Michael: Did you really?
Margarita: Yeah! I saw your play and I loved it.
Michael: Oh thank you!
Margarita: Are you still writing?
Michael: My last play was called Hamlet in Bed, it was at Rattlesnake. And then last summer I took both pieces, Krapp 39 and Hamlet in Bed to the Edinburgh festival, so that was a dream come true. And I’m working on a new play now. Writing—I don’t want to say I love it more than acting, but…
Margarita: Does writing inform your acting? Or does your performing inform your writing?
Michael: I’m sure it does in many ways I’m not great at articulating. But I’m sure it does.
Margarita: And Duane, you’re a composer and a director. What’s it like for you, as a director, when you’re performing for someone else?
Duane: I have to turn it off. Absolutely turn it off. One of the things that I always tell myself is “your director is very smart,” no matter who I’m working with. The other person is sitting on the outside looking at things that I’m not. It’s not my job to look at. So listen to your director. Always say yes, and maybe eventually you’ll figure out why you’ve been asked to do what you’ve been asked to do. It’s nice to just focus on one character and that character’s track and journey, and let someone else be responsible for all the rest of it.
Margarita: What, if anything, is your dream role?
Duane: One of my favorite playwrights is August Wilson. I’ve only been in one of his plays.
Margarita: Which one?
Duane: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. That was in Denver during graduate school. It was a company production, but I was a student. So I would love to do some of his plays. They, for me, are right up there with O’Neill and the other greats. And I’ve had a good time with Shakespeare; there are certainly a lot of those roles that I hope I don’t outage.
Margarita: Which one? Name one.
Duane: Hamlet. I’d love to play Hamlet.
Margarita: You can still play Hamlet!
Thom: You know, I’ve gotten to play a lot of my dream roles. I’ve been very blessed in that way. And I know it sounds like such a cliché, but my dream role is invariably the one I’m working on. It really is. Because it has invariably all the same chewiness—you still have to be truthful, you still have to be naked, eager to work what teaches you. Willing to follow where it leads.
Michael: I’ve been lucky to play many dream roles, and there are many more that I’m a little long in the tooth to play as well. I have always wanted to play Jerry in The Zoo Story. I actually auditioned for Albee for a production of that, and I didn’t get it because I think I was trying too hard. But we ended up having a nice long conversation about Beckett. More than anything these days, what I love doing is working on new plays. So my dream role maybe hasn’t been written yet. I can tell you there are so many playwrights that I would love to work with. A couple of years ago in one season I worked with both Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Sam Hunter, who are two of the most brilliant playwrights I know. So I would eagerly jump into anything, any worlds that they create. Annie Baker, I would love to be in an Annie Baker play. We’re lucky to be living in an era of so many extraordinarily gifted American playwrights. And you know, if none of that works out, I’ll go and write a dream role for myself.
Margarita: Discord is currently running through October 22. Why should people come see this play?
Duane: Because it’s good. And it has heart.
Michael: And funny. It’s very funny.
Thom: Because there’s nothing better than a good night at the theater. What are the six most beautiful words in the English language? “We are going to the theater.”
Duane Boutté (Charles Dickens) played Harlem Renaissance artist “Bruce Nugent, young” in Rodney Evans’ film Brother to Brother, and “Bostonia” in Nigel Finch’s Stonewall (’96). Boutté appeared on Broadway in Parade and Carousel (Lincoln Center), and Off-Broadway in The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin and as “Louis Chauvin” in The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin (Playwrights Horizons).
Michael Laurence (Thomas Jefferson) previously appeared at Primary Stages in Opus and The Morini Strad. Also: Talk Radio (Broadway), Hamlet in Bed (playwright/performer,Rattlestick), Appropriate (Signature), The Few (Rattlestick), Genet’s Splendid’s (La Colline, Paris), Poison (Origin), Krapp 39 (playwright/performer, DramaDesk nomination), “John Proctor” in The Crucible (Hartford), Starbuck in The Rainmaker (Arena). TV: “Shades of Blue” (recurring), “Damages,” “The Good Wife,” “Elementary,” others.
Thom Sesma (Count Leo Tolstoy) has appeared in leading roles on and Off-Broadway, and at some of the nation’s leading regional theaters, including The Old Globe, Yale Rep, Cincinnati Playhouse, Arena Stage, McCarter, and Baltimore Centre Stage. Most recent credit: John Doyle’s acclaimed revival of Pacific Overtures (Classic Stage Company.) Television: “Madam Secretary,” “Jessica Jones,” “Gotham,” “The Good Wife,” “Person Of Interest,” “Over/Under,” “Single Ladies,” and more. Proud member AEA and SAG-AFTRA.