This Special Edition of The Playwright’s Playground continues The Playmaker Series: CATF 2014. In a series of in depth conversations, I speak with the artistic teams and talent associated with the plays at this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival. It’s always refreshing and reaffirming to speak with artists who are not only passionate about the work they do, but are open about sharing their creative process and motivations.
Actress Daphne Gaines plays the electrifying lead role in Christina Anderson’s The Ashes Under Gait City. Gaines discusses the rehearsal process leading up to the CATF World Premiere and shares her insights on the challenges and rewards with working with a living playwright and contributing to a new modern play that was being rewritten daily.
Tonight’s 6:30 pm performance of The Ashes Under Gait City in the Marinoff Theatre marks CATF’s final production of 2014.
Daphne Gaines is a Princess Grace Award recipient and was seen performing in the 37th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, originating the role of Savita in O Guru Guru . . . Or Why I Don’t Want to Go to Yoga Class With You by Mallery Avidon directed by Lila Neugebauer.
Gaines is a graduate of the three-year acting conservatory, Circle in the Square Theatre School in New York City, and she has a B.A. in Theatre and Psychology from the University of Georgia. She continues to work extensively on New York, regional, and international stages with credits that include Ruined (Henry Award nomination) by Lynn Nottage and American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose (Henry Award) by Richard Montoya. Gaines originated the role of Master Sunflower in the downtown hit, Lily’s Revenge (Obie Award) by Taylor Mac.
Sydney-Chanele: Who is your character in The Ashes Under Gait City and what is her background?
Daphne: I play the role of Simone the Believer who is an internet guru and people pay her to believe in them. In the story her mother has recently passed and she is inspired to take her successful online career into the real world. So she moves to Gait City, Oregon, and she has this idea of taking her online followers and that online community to a real life community in Gait City of Black people.
What has been the inspiration for this change?
Her mother’s passing.I think sometimes death can inspire you to live and really do the things you dream of doing, and have an impact on people.
What were the challenges with the evolution of this script and all of the rewrites and changes?
The challenge with all of the changes in the script of course, is memorizing the lines. But the other challenge is just remaining open to the changes in the world and the changes in the character. Thank God Christina is such an open playwright and Lucie is such an amazing director because there was a lot of collaboration going on the room because of that. Christina was inspired by what the cast was doing and we are inspired by her.
So change happened daily, but sometimes you can fall in love with certain lines or fall in love with aspects of your character. Then on Monday, you receive a certain aspect of your character and then on Wednesday it’s completely different. So you have to be flexible and completely open to that.
Is there anything about your training that has lent itself positively to you being able to adjust and adapt so easily? What has prepared you for this?
You know I went to Circle in the Square Theatre School and I think I’ve had some really great teachers who had so many different perspectives about how to approach the work, and they were so varied that I’m able to go, “OK. You want to work in this particular way – Great.” Basically, if someone wants to work in a different way I am able to do it because those teachers laid the foundation of – “You can’t come to my class and work in one particular way.” Or they said “if you come to my class you may work a particular way but you’re going to go to another class and get a whole different perspective.”
This is a good point to learn more about your background. When did you begin Acting?
I started acting in my senior year in High School. I was an extremely shy kid, and I was afraid to actually audition for school plays. But I was a good student so I enrolled in a Drama class, and I knew that by enrolling in a class that I was not going to let myself get bad grades – so that would force me to do the work.
I grew up partially in Georgia – Columbus Georgia. But I went to Junior High and High School in Schweinfurt, Germany -“Pig Town.” Afterwards, I did my Undergrad at the University of Georgia, and I double majored in Theatre and Psychology, partially because my parents were not so gung-ho on the whole theatre thing. Then, I went to Circle in the Square Theatre School afterwards for three years.
Why do you act?
Why do I act? I love to tell stories and I grew up reading a lot. To have my day job, be a job where I read tons of stories all of the time and I am able to imagine them and then be the characters and live in that world – WHAT IS BETTER THAN THAT?
Since you mentioned your love of reading, are there three books that you can recommend that parallels the journey of this play or books that you’ve read in preparation for your character, Simone the Believer?
Part of the character study for Simone the Believer is Iyanla Vanzant. Probably fifteen years ago I know I read several of her books – all of which the whole titles are escaping me – but I feel like they are very inspirational in my life and it’s ironic to do a role that is partly inspired from her. I love Alice Walker for the variety of men and women and Black issues that she portrays in so many of her books. And my third recommendation would be something outside of the box – Zadie Smith. Zadie, because she also is writing stories that have a different slant on some African -American characters.
That’s great. I really like your selections, and I think others will too. I want to go back to something you said about The Ashes Under Gait City and the cast collaborating on this ever changing work in progress. What were your contributions to the story and your character, Simone the Believer?
First and foremost, just having a contemporary play I can contribute as a black woman. I have a lot of ideas about the issues and the themes in the play. Some of the themes are race issues, but they are race issues in relation to current contemporary times. Often I do plays where it’s not in relation to the contemporary world.
That has to be refreshing because it sounds like there’s a sense of freedom about that.
It is. One of the things this character wants to do is that she wants to create community. And, as an actor who travels a lot, I can so relate to that need for community. Being on the road all the time and then being able to go back home and walk down my street where I know all of my neighbors and they know me – it’s a safe space. It’s a place where I see people of color, and there are traditions in that neighborhood, that help me dig into what this character is seeking.
And what is Simone the Believer seeking?
I think she is seeking a safe haven, a home. She’s seeking a place she says in the play, “where Black people can be their authentic self,” in all the ways that you can imagine that. I think she, like a lot of the characters in the play, is seeking connection – a connection that goes beyond screen to screen, text messaging, and email. Although she doesn’t stop doing that, I think there is something to relating to someone in person.
Do you think she is rebelling against her previous success? Or is it, now that she has achieved a certain level of success she just wants something more?
I don’t think she is rebelling against her success, I think she’s expanding upon it. I think she realizes – maybe I’m speaking for myself – but I think she sees the value in connecting with people on line but I think she substituted that online connection for face to face connection, and now she wants more.And, that goes back to her relationship with her mom. Her mom always thought of the internet world is a fake world.
You said Simone the Believer is seeking a safe haven, a place where black people can seek their authentic self. As a black female living in America, how able do you feel you can express your authentic self?
I live in Brooklyn, New York and one of the things that I absolutely love about it is the diversity there. One of the aspects that I don’t necessarily get from the town I’m from in Georgia is this feeling of . . . How can I describe it? You can be so many different aspects of a Black person in New York, and no one questions it. You can have a style that’s very African, you can be very political in your Blackness, you can be very conservative, but all of those varied aspects of being a Black person in New York City – no one questions it. I feel like you’re capable of having that there in ways that people just don’t question it. People feel the freedom to do their own thing and people just accept it.
So because of that, do you feel that you are able to be your authentic self or is it just momentary? By momentary I mean, you only feel authentic when you are in New York or places like it.
Well, you know what; I guess it depends on where you go. For a long time, as a woman who has natural styled hair, I would go home to the South, and there were people constantly questioning me about having an Afro. I was like, really? As if it were a political statement, when it’s just my hair.
I love seeing the diversity of African-Americans as a people in one place, especially where there are a lot of people too. So in a way I do feel like there is a certain expressiveness – but maybe that’s because I’m an artist as well. Because I feel like who I am, is who I am wherever I go; I don’t necessarily feel like that is accepted wherever I go.
Have you ever worked on a new play before? And if so, how was the experience of working so closely with the Playwright, Christina Anderson different?
I have definitely worked on a new play before but it’s been a couple of years. This is the first time that I have ever worked with a Black female Playwright on a new play.The wonderful thing about working with Christina is that she is so open to your ideas – all of our ideas – and that makes the process more collaborative and enriching because you are in the room with a living Playwright. It’s rare to have that. To be able to ask questions in the moment and ask about my character, and for her to be able to answer them in the moment – or not – was great. And, sometimes she has questions about different things. So there is a beauty in it for me.
How has the character changed from the first time you read The Ashes Under Gait City script to the Simone the Believer audiences will see on the stage?
I feel like she has become more conflicted. I think that she has more doubts about the relevance about what she is doing creating this community in Gait City, Oregon.
I know the word “cult” is never used in the play, but does she view it as such?
I don’t think she sees it as a cult at all.
Will the audience?
Perhaps. They might. (“ A can of worms,” Daphne says laughing.) No. I don’t think Simone sees it as a cult. I think she has a mission. I think she is very passionate in wanting to fulfill something in creating a community and a safe place for Black people, and that’s her goal. However and whatever needs to happen to attain that goal – she is ready to do it.
Simone the Believer seems like an intriguing, complex character. What do you hope audiences take away – not only from the story but from this multifaceted, female black character that we don’t often see portrayed?
She is. First I hope people learn something about the complexity of race relations and race issues from a contemporary viewpoint – from today. So often we see plays about Black life from slavery or from fifty to one hundred years ago. But we don’t talk about what’s on our minds from current political issues and stances. So that’s one thing.
I also hope that people see these women and these men beyond the stereotypes we often see on television and movies of Black people. I think Christina has written these characters who I know, but I think a lot of people don’t know. Or, they think they are the exception and I don’t think that they are.
And from Simone the Believer character?
I hope they get if you believe in yourself and you surround yourself with people who believe in you that you can do anything that you dream.
Daphne Gaines website.
The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014: PlaywrightCharles Fuller Talks About His Life, the Encouragement of Ralph Ellison, and the Complicated People in His Play ‘One Night’
The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014: Playwright Chisa Hutchinson Talks About Playwriting, and the Parallels of Real Life and Her Play ‘Dead & Breathing’
The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014: Director Kristin Horton Discusses Radical Love, Lessons Learned, and the Power of Community with ‘Dead & Breathing.’
The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014: Director Lucie Tiberghien Discusses Process, New Plays, and the Complex, Textured Clarity of ‘The Ashes Under Gait City.’
The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014: An Interview with Playwright Christina Anderson (The Ashes Under Gait City).
The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014: Ed Herendeen & Peggy McKowen Discuss the Development of CATF Plays.
The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014: Interview With Ed Herendeen & Peggy McKowen Who Preview The Season.
The Playwright’s Playground is a monthly in-depth conversation with local female playwrights in the D.C. theatre community. Female theatre artists make up more than 50 percent of those involved in the theatre, yet the number of female playwrights being produced is dramatically lower. In this continuing Column, I will also interview and introduce DCMTA readers to the many talented playwrights in the DMV area to learn about their writing process, their inspirations, and their motivations and struggles to write and produce their art. Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.