Rep Stage celebrates Black History Month and their 20th season with the 1980 Tony Award-nominated production of Home, written by Samm-Art Williams, in a limited run from February 27- March 17, 2013. In the first part of my interview, Duane Boutté is two weeks into rehearsals, and making his spirited directorial Rep Stage debut (He performed there in 2009-2010 as an actor in On the Verge). Boutté discusses in Part 1 how Home was a perfect fit for his specialty style of direction and his connection to the play’s universal themes. Welcoming the opportunity to present a timeless, intimate, coming of age play from the heart, Boutté will do so – in the round. It’s a Rep Stage first.
Sydney-Chanele: We rarely see African American plays brought to the professional stage – especially those by a black playwright. What attracted you to Home?
Duane: I am African American, and in the same spirit that this play was born – that the circumstances that came about that allowed this play to be born still exist, and that is the need for African American stories from the African American voice being told in the theater. Believe it or not, we are still finding balance in the theater with stories of African American culture.
This play was written for The Negro Ensemble Company, and that company was formed in the late 60’s really out of a need. This company was inspired by the then recent works of Loraine Hansberry’s, A Raisin in the Sun, which really broke barriers in looking at a different perspective of the black experience, and showing black characters as they had not been seen. The characters were leading players, and they weren’t maids, or secondary to Anglo-American stories.
That need still exists for those stories to be told.
How did you find Rep Stage or how did Rep Stage find you?
The play was actually found by Michael Stebbins (Producing Artistic Director of Rep Stage) and he approached me with it; we had been talking about getting me down here to direct. I’m from New York City – well, originally from California – but living in New York for 21 years. Michael is helping me expand my experience as a director. I’ve been primarily an actor all my life – professionally since ’91. I started directing about five or six years ago trying to pepper that and my whole experience as an artist. So I’ve directed something in California, something in New York, I’ve directed for some acting studios like Stella Adler Theatre.
With your most recent productions, you’ve gone from directing big ensembles like Othello and Stalag 17 to Home, a smaller, more intimate piece. What’s the difference and what have you learned?
Well you know when it comes down to it. It’s not different. This play has three actors but it does not have just three characters. The women are playing multiple roles – at some point we have to count – but I don’t think we are finished creating how many of the things that could be narration for them for turning into character.
So the gentleman – Rep Stage newcomer Robert Lee Hardy – plays Cephus Miles the central character throughout. But the women play everyone else in his life and experience, on his journey.
Because we have so much that happens and there’s so much lyricism with this play, I think it was a smart call for Michael to have me – someone who has experience with classical theater, a great deal as an actor, as well as a director a teacher. A play with so much lyricism calls for someone with that experience. It just so happens that it’s also a good fit because of the African-American story, and that culture is used as a vehicle for telling the story. So, there’s lots of similarities.
So instead of the differences, what are the similarities with Home and your directing past?
Interesting, in Stalag 17 – most of us are familiar with the film – the play reads very much like it. There is so much activity, such a large cast, and we actually used 17 actors in our production – we were targeting that because of the title. It actually called for more actors and we got it down to 17 and most of the actors are on stage for the entire play.
It just so happens that we staged that in the round, which we are doing for Home.
Oh really, that’s exciting!
The way that those two plays are similar (Stalag17 and Home) is because the characters – the majority of them – never leave the stage. We are doing the same with Home. All three actors will be visible in some regard throughout the play. So there are a lot of similarities between this play and the others I have directed.
You casually mentioned that this production will be performed in the round. Was the play originally done in the round? I’ve never seen a production at Rep Stage done in the round before, so will this be a first?
This is a first. It’s new for Rep Stage and I was thrilled when Michael responded to the idea positively. I was afraid that there would be complications with adjusting the seating, and I didn’t know how they would take to that process. It felt important to let the audience know that they are included in this experience, and that (performing in the round) to me felt like the best way to do it. Once I discovered that Cephus is really like an ‘everyman’ of the morality plays, and that it really started to feel like ‘this is your life’ and we are all around examining him, I liked the idea of him being in the middle of us – placing him before all of us to be studied. Yet at the same time being aware of each other in that when you are sitting on one side you obviously know – and see that someone is sitting on the other side watching this with you.
The play was the inspiration for that idea, and it was all about how do I bring audiences into this experience.
Playwright, Samm-Art Williams has written a lyrically expressive, Tony Award-nominated play with memorable characters. What is it about Home that you connected with your own personal experience, and what are you learning through the rehearsal process now that has changed your original ideas about the play?
I’d say what I connect with is a love for home. Samm-Art Williams wrote this play really out of a longing for home. He was living in New York City at the time and the Holidays were coming. I was fortunate enough to have a conversation by phone with him yesterday, and he said that he really had a longing to go home for the Holidays and was unable to do so. That’s when he started writing the play.
Home is about that longing to get back to something, and looking at where you are in your life – Is it where you thought you would be? Is it where you thought you should be? Home is a powerful thing for him (Williams), and that being Bergaw, North Carolina.
I come from a very strong family background in terms of support, and I reach out to members in my family multiple times a week. Even though I live in New York and home for me is Fresno, California – where all my family is – it almost feels sometimes like I’m there when the family is going through anything because I am just as much a part of the conversation and the planning, as though I were going to be a part of the event. And a lot of times I can’t be at the events we are planning and discussing … So that, I understand very well.
One thing that this character has that I don’t have is the experience of feeling orphaned; that is something that I don’t have a first hand understanding.
Is this the Cephus character?
Yeah. The Cephus character has the feeling of being orphaned and he has a lot of loss in his life. I know what it is to lose a parent. I loss my mom, and in a sense it gives you an idea of what it’s like to be orphaned. But I have a large family so it doesn’t take me entirely there.
Can you provide a short synopsis for our DCMTA readers what Home is about and a breakdown of the characters in the play?
Home is really a story that feels like an ‘everyman’ story. It has appeal in that what happens to the central character, Cephus Miles, is something that we can all feed ourselves into. He experiences loss. He questions meaning in that loss … and we as an audience, experience how he deals with the unexpected that comes into his life. Inevitably because his story is so open we see ourselves in him. Cephus happens to be an African American farmer, but you don’t have to be an African-American or a farmer to have this play strike you as though it’s yours.
My goal in working on this project is to make this play, which was written in 1979, feel as though it could have been written anytime, and to be a part hopefully, of it continuing to have a life, because I really think that the play is ageless.
On Friday, in Part 2 of my interview, Duane Boutté discusses the audition process, the cast and design team of Home, and his own acting and directing career.
Home opens February 27th with a limited run through March 17th, 2013, at Rep Stage at Howard Community College – 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.
Duane Boutté’s website.