It’s hard to stay in the room.
Seven words concisely describe the heart of “Walls: An American Story,” a new play conceived by JMU alumnus Paul Holland and written by Ingrid De Sanctis, JMU associate professor of theatre. Through a night in the life of a soon-to-be-married interracial couple trying to write their vows, De Sanctis and her cast deal with race, identity, America’s bloody history and how to talk about it all in the public forum of theater.
De Sanctis said her basis for the play came from an idea offered up by Holland in 2016. He took a genealogy test with his brother, De Sanctis said, and the two discovered they contained a small bit of African DNA. From there, Holland came up with the idea of a story told in two separate narratives tied together by a central core of identity and its significance, De Sanctis said.
“[Holland] had this idea,” De Sanctis said. “A wall is down the middle of the stage, and on one side is the story of that immigrant coming from England, and on the other side is the story of coming from Africa, and then, through history, these different scenes that finally meet in, like, the 1940s.”
It’s from that jumping-off point that De Sanctis developed the characters Abigail and Carver, an African American woman and a white man working through the intricacies of being in an interracial relationship. De Sanctis said that through her writing process, she sought to ask questions about the complexity of race relations in present-day America and how they’re talked about, which she described as “not easy.”
“We’re all obsessed with this DNA and where we come from, and we also have to accept in our American story — the history is very painful,” De Sanctis said. “I’m … interested in how do we stay in the room and figure out how do we negotiate [that] that did happen. Is there a way to move forward?”
Answering those questions required research that took several forms, De Sanctis said, including interviews with interracial couples and a visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice — a memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, “dedicated to the victims of American white supremacy,” according to the New York Times. And much of that complexity she faced during the development of “Walls,” De Sanctis said, focused around authenticity in the storytelling process.
“As a white woman, white playwright, particularly in the sensitivities of our day, I had to be prepared to write voices of African American women,” De Sanctis said. “I think, in this day and age, we ask this idea of, like, as an artist can I tell that story if it’s not my story … You have to be able to say, ‘I don’t know, and how do I bridge that gap?’”
When producing a new work, especially one centered around a subject that requires careful consideration, De Sanctis said collaboration is necessary to successfully create what she described as a “new, living, breathing object that moves and changes and shifts” — a sentiment echoed by senior theatre major Sierra Orr, who plays Abigail.
“[There was] something very different about it being a new work, and also specifically with the subject matter,” Orr said. “It was more of a collaboration between actors and actresses, the playwright, the design team, all of us, kind of, working together to create a fully realized and special, honoring, exciting play.”
When Carver suggests to Abigail that they take genealogy tests and she refuses, the ensuing conversation forces both characters to confront the reality of African American history in the U.S. For her, Orr said, “telling the story that this play is meant to tell” required a readiness to dive headfirst into the intimate details of a painful past, a process that meant avoiding tendencies to shy away from the show’s harder moments.
“Sierra — the person, not the actress, Sierra — is used to trying to be less intimidating, used to trying to take up less space,” Orr said. “And so, Ingrid [De Sanctis] was not afraid to be like, ‘OK, you need to speak with your natural voice, and it’s OK that you take up this space. We invite you into this brave space, into this opportunity to work with this, to chew on these moments.’”
Learning to lean into those uncomfortable and unknown moments was a process that started in September, De Sanctis said. Design meetings in August, re-workings of the scripts through September and October, and rehearsals throughout November, December and January — including a complete rewrite of the ending in December — De Sanctis said, have all seen the play adapt and evolve to tell the story in the best way it can.
For the cast, that translated to around six months of working through the script — sometimes running emotionally draining scenes over and over just to get one piece of the production right — and attempting to find their place not only in the story told in “Walls,” but in the larger context of identity in America, Orr said.
Junior musical theatre major Carter Crosby, who plays Carver, said that for him, embracing the character of Carver and using it and the nuances that come with the role to tell the story took reconciling his identity as a white male with the role of whiteness in American race relations, saying that “as a white man, you’re not, like, aware of your skin color often,” and “you’re not walking the streets thinking, ‘I’m white.’”
“It’s hard, like, to put into words, like, the white side of it ’cause it really is, like, confusing,” Crosby said. “It’s difficult to talk about that openly in the climate that today is in … One of the nicer things about it [Walls] is it’s allowed me to grapple with it, and it’s, kind of, taking things that I’ve thought and putting it on paper, and, like, I get to deal with it every night.”
While the play discusses race and its history in America in a realistic and honest way, including scenes in the historical flashbacks that unflinchingly visualize slavery and racial discrimination, Orr said, “the purpose of it isn’t to villainize the white community.” Instead, she said it has the potential to inspire introspection in its attendees, something Orr said she also experienced throughout the show’s production.
“I continue to pick apart internalized racism, internalized prejudice against myself or against, like, these associations I have with blackness,” Orr said. “And so the same processes I’ve had to go through with discovering myself, discovering the beauty in blackness, other people, regardless of their racial identity, have to find that journey on their own with their own skin and with different skin colors.”
It’s this grapple with identity that De Sanctis said is her main interest in staging “Walls,” what she calls “staying in the room” and what Abigail and Carver spend 75 minutes figuring out as the play moves through its story.
“It’s hard to stay in the room with each other,” De Sanctis said. “It’s hard whether it’s because we are on different political spectrums, because we have different ideas about the world, because you hurt me, and I can’t get over it. So, that idea of watching two people figure out how to stay in the room is really compelling to me.”
For Orr and Crosby, that meant learning how to “emotionally stay in the room with each other” as their respective characters, Orr said. Though their discussions are heated on both sides, the two play a soon-to-be-married couple in love that has to navigate through complex issues, Orr said.
“If I’m in it, and he’s not, then all of a sudden, it changes the narrative completely, and it’s about an angry black woman and, like, ‘Why is this guy still with her? She’s so mean to him,’” Orr said. “But, if he meets my energy, if he meets the intensity of the scene, it’s, ‘Man, these people really love each other, and they’re just trying to find their way.’”
That central message — the ability to “stay in the room” — runs through the entire show. As Abigail and Carver discuss the genealogy test and all of its implications, they wade through what it means to be “colorblind,” what it means to see color and what it means to “see” each other.
“It’s about how can we do this because this is a reality we’re facing,” Orr said. “Race is becoming more and more confusing and a spectrum, and with more and more interracial couples, there’s not this clear black and white reality that everyone pretends there is.”
Orr said she hopes audiences understand that while the on-stage discourse between Abigail and Carver is intensely emotional, the show is framed inside the context of writing marriage vows. The two are in love, she said, and the conversation is one of understanding and communication.
“It’s not out of anger, you know,” Orr said. “And, I feel like a lot of times, people don’t hear when these race discussions happen because a lot of times, it is out of anger, or it’s assumed that it’s gonna be an angry conversation, but [Abigail] is saying, like, ‘I love you.’”
Having those hard conversations, working through them and loving the other person regardless of differences is what the show is all about, De Sanctis said, a sentiment Orr and Crosby said they agreed with.
“If the door is open, the door is open. Just talk to people, and listen,” Crosby said. “I’m going to try as hard as I can to understand. I don’t think that’ll ever happen, but it’s worth a shot to try, I think is the whole point.”
Contact Jake Conley at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.