Interview: JaBen Early in Arena Stage’s ‘Junk’

"I represent morality... It's not any more complicated than that."

JaBen Early is a Washingtonian through and through. His father worked at the Smithsonian, and his mother was a teacher in DC. He went to Morehouse College and Sarah Lawrence University, and studied classical theater at Magdalen College, Oxford University. He has appeared at theaters throughout DC, and he is now returning to Arena Stage to appear in Arena’s current production of Ayad Akhtar’s Junk.

Michael Glenn, Elan Zafir, and JaBen Early in ‘Junk.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Junk takes place in the 1980s, at a time when cut-throat men and women tried to outclass each other in Brioni and Brooks Brothers suits, attacking each other to make big money – at any price. Akhtar has said that America today is a “corporate totalitarian state,” which lacks social cohesion and collective identity. In part, Akhtar traces that back to the era of high-risk, high-reward investment, when some investors believed that no risk was too high for the highest reward.

As has been said of Lady Macbeth, hers is not the largest part in Macbeth, but without her, the Scottish play would not exist. The same could be said about Kevin Walsh, the role Early is playing in Junk. The role may be small, but it is essential.

Barbara Mackay: How do you interpret your part in Junk?

JaBen Early: It’s very simple. A good way to frame it is the answer I got from the playwright himself. When we met with him, Akhtar said that since my character [Walsh] works for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I represent morality. He put that in very plain terms and let us know that it is not any more complicated than that. In a world of finance where people are actually creating rules for themselves and where there is no right or wrong, my character is one of the few who does not live in a gray area.

Several conflicts propel Junk, but the main one is the fight that exists between two central characters: Thomas Everson, Jr. who owns a steel company founded by his father and grandfather, and Robert Merkin, who wants to take over that company. Though this play was written about the 1980s, do you feel that Merkin’s greed and overwhelming desire for capital still exist in 2019?

Illustration by Eric Drooker

I think so. Since the ’80s, we’ve seen Enron, we’ve seen big banks fail, we’ve seen the housing market crash, we’ve seen predatory lending. Clearly, these masters of the universe of financing can set their own rules unless they are checked. Without someone watching them, the incentive will always be there to push society’s boundaries. As long as man’s basic quest is to make money and not to worry about what the repercussions will be when a system doesn’t help people find homes or health care, people will worship money.

Junk has a large cast. But it almost seems that director Jackie Maxwell had a choreographer to work with because the movement onstage is so fluid.

It’s a wonderful opportunity to work with Jackie. The way that she worked with such a large group was a wonderful thing. After the first week, we were up on our feet and had a concrete understanding of the world that we were operating in. She had an ability to walk us through the nuances of this financial world, so we could communicate them without making them sound like a lot of jargon. It says much about her and how she can orchestrate plays.

Any final thoughts on Junk?

This is a play that’s really about building things and relationships. It’s about what being an American is and what it means to contribute to society in a generational way and also as an individual. It deals with people striking out and making anything possible. But at the same time, it’s a play that you will find a lot more exhilarating than you would think a play about finance would be!

[Read John Stoltenberg’s review of Junk.]

Running Time: Two hours, with no intermission.

Junk plays through May 5, 2019, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300 or go online.