CMS: James, what is the thing that first drove you to When Herod Came to Georgia? Was it the idea, time and place, a character?
JM: I knew I wanted to write a play about race and class. The Civil War has always fascinated me in part because of the way wealthy Southern planters were able to use race, not only to start the war, but to get poor whites to fight it. Southern slaveholders were exempted from service in the war, ostensibly to ensure that their slaves did not form a fifth column for the Union behind their lines. Not all planters took advantage of it, but many did. Despite this obvious source of resentment, non-slaveholding whites flocked to the rebel banners. Today, we see similar examples of poorer people doing the bidding of the wealthy, for example, Donald Trump or the last 50 years of Republican dog whistle strategies in general. Those strategies predate the Civil War by two centuries, but there are few starker examples of them and I wanted to explore that.
So that was the general area that I wanted to build a play in. But what triggered the play initially was a footnote that I read while researching a different Civil War play. That footnote told the story of a slave woman who had been forced to help her master hide his gold from Sherman’s Army. Fearful that she would tell a Yankee foraging party where it was located and then escape with them, he sent her child 30 miles away, out of Sherman’s line of march, to a relative’s house to be held as ransom. The footnote reveals no more; whether the woman was ever reunited with her child is a mystery as far as I know. But that story provided the seed from which the rest of the play grew.
The second catalyst to the play was when I discovered in my research that a different sort of underground railroad, operated mostly by slaves, was operating at this time. Initially it was designed to help Union escapees from Confederate prisons make their way back to Union lines. But what surprised me was that, as the war dragged on, this system began to help rebel soldiers desert and return home. That is, people who were enslaved aided the men who, until shortly before, had been fighting to keep them that way. There is a lot to unpack there.
And so I took all of those ingredients and tried to make a play that takes place inside a cramped slave cabin in which a woman, Lula, fearing for her child held hostage; a wealthy Union officer, Brock, who treats the war as his personal lark; and a very political, poor, as-much-Union-as-rebel soldier from the North Carolina mountains, Cobb, are trapped. While the guns of war literally roar outside, they have nothing to do but learn about, challenge, and get on the nerves of each other, all the while trying to survive for themselves and their families.
CMS: There are a few secrets in this play – how did you find writing the reveals? When to hold back and when to let them fly?
JM: This play probably has the most tightly constructed plot of any play I’ve written. Reveals are always tricky. First you have to set them up just right: just enough clues so that the reveal feels natural and earned, but not so many that the audience figures any of them out and gets ahead of you. That’s very challenging. I recently saw a ten-minute play where just one extra word in the second minute prompted me to guess the ending. I’m terrified of an audience getting ahead of me like that, forced to wait for the play and me to catch up to them.
“This play probably has the most tightly constructed plot of any play I’ve written. Reveals are always tricky. First you have to set them up just right: just enough clues so that the reveal feels natural and earned, but not so many that the audience figures any of them out and gets ahead of you.”
Once the clues are in place, the next question is when in the plotting is the right moment for the revelation. In this play, there are several reveals and I’ve spent some time moving them around to get the timing just right. I’ve also cut one or two. Too many reveals at the end of the play can begin to feel almost like a farce (which also would terrify me), so I spent a fair amount of time deciding what number was right and what was too many.
CMS: People always bug me that I write a lot of men, you wrote two really strong women in Herod, can you tell me about that?
JM: I’ve always found woman more interesting to write than men, and strong women most of all. Plays are best when they surprise, and, while strong women were not uncommon during the Civil War or any era, I think women as unabashedly empowered as Lula’s mistress Rebekah probably were. Rebekah has become the anti-Southern belle as the play has developed, which makes her a lot of fun to write. She has rejected all the expectations of her time in a variety of ways. Marriage may be a necessity that she cannot avoid, but she makes the best of it. A self-described plain but rich woman, she has her choice of suitors. From this group, she selected a weak husband whom she would be able to control and, in effect, run the plantation through when her ailing father dies. By replacing the master of the original story with her, the story becomes more complex and to me more interesting because Rebekah is always confronted with the need to outmaneuver the men in her life to run things. And she is more than up to the task.
CMS: I can totally see that in this play. Rebekah knows what she wants and how to get it!
Lula, too, but I feel we see a different side of female strength through her.
JM: Lula’s strength necessarily has to be expressed differently. Within the strictures of her condition as a slave, through intelligence, personality, and an ability to conceal what she needs to conceal, she is able to exert a lot of agency in her world. The difference between Rebekah and her is stark, however. If Rebekah is caught in the ways she uses to disrupt the established order, she can expect an unpleasant interview and a reprimand. If Lula is caught doing what she does, a whipping or, for some actions, a hanging is the likely outcome.
That’s what makes these women fun to write, I think. The stakes are high and they have to overcome more than would men in the same position to get done what they need to get done. As the saying goes, they have to do everything a man would in the same situation, only backwards and in heels.
CMS: Talk about the recurring image of the pine trees in the piece: the garland in the cabin, Cobb’s memories of the pine woods in his native North Carolina.
JM: The play is set in the days before Christmas, 1864. Lula has fashioned some garland from the pine trees in the nearby woods because it is her daughter’s favorite part of Christmas, “the woods brought indoors.” The smell instantly reminds Cobb of his home. The image for me evokes Christmas, which of course is a time for family and home. And family and home are what drives both Cobb and Lula to do what they do: Lula to bring her hostage daughter home and Cobb to return to his home and save his family. They have so much in common, but it is this commonality that ironically ends up pitting each against each other.
Christmas trees also are part of ancient pagan ritual, venerated as the only green in the forest left to sustain us until spring. As such, they bear the promise of renewal and salvation. Christmas, which mostly supplanted but never extinguished the pagan ritual, is also ultimately about salvation for believers. Both Lula and Cobb have much to save in this play: their families and their own lives. The pine tree imagery is meant to suggest all of that.
JM: I love that your play is set in a very distinct–some would say idiosyncratic–locale, not to mention near where I live. What made you decide to set your play in Amherst? What were the challenges and advantages of that choice?
CMS: Oh yes, Northampton! What a fun place! Back when I was doing summer stock in the Berkshires we used to go on days off to Northampton and I just thought it was such a cool and artsy place. Then my sister-in-law moved there and we started to spend our High Holidays there with her, and I was just totally moved by the Jewish life out there. The synagogue in particular we go to for the holidays is all about singing and open-mindedness, and I love the semi-rural to rural nature of it. It seemed like a great place to build a tree-house, and for such a hands-on guy like West to grow up. It did lend itself to more research than I originally planned, but that wasn’t too difficult, like in the course of our workshops when you mentioned old stores on Main Street trying to stay alive around all the newer hipster shops.
J: Your play has some secrets as well, but there’s one difference: in the last draft I saw, the main character’s secret is known to us the audience, but not to his family. Why did you make that choice and does it drive the structure of the play? Or does it?
CMS: Well, actually, in the most recent draft, his secret is a secret from the audience too, until the top of Act 2. I originally wanted to let the audience in on the secret so that they understood why West was so brutish and closed off, I wanted to audience to understand him and have that level of dramatic irony where they say, “Hey, West’s family, leave him alone, he’s sick!” But something I learned through the writing process is that I’d rather have the audience curious and leaning forward as they too try to figure it out. It pays off better that way, and ultimately gives me further to go with the storytelling, especially in Act 2, where I still haven’t settled on an ending! On a side note, I love plays with secrets, and I think all of my full-lengths have big secrets. I think as people we are so good at living our lives on the surface without the outside world knowing what is burning under the skin, the struggle that lives within that is very interesting to me. When and what makes us finally break?
“I love plays with secrets, and I think all of my full-lengths have big secrets. I think as people we are so good at living our lives on the surface without the outside world knowing what is burning under the skin, the struggle that lives within that is very interesting to me. When and what makes us finally break?”
J: I can’t wait to see the new version then. Dysfunctional families like the one you portray are always fun, if no other reason than they make one feel better about one’s own. Why did you choose to write about this one and what do you want audiences to take away from it?
CMS: Oh man, l love me some dysfunctional families, I think it’s another trope in my work. I have a bunch of plays that deal with siblings like Eyes Shut. Door Open. and From the Deep delves a bit into father-son relationships, but with this play I really wanted to focus on the women who have shaped West. I have a few friends who are young men raised by either single moms, or women, and I was interested in playing with that. I also think that despite who we are we all came into this world the same way, through a woman’s body, and by that a mother is something that we can universally connect with. Yet, like many of us, West has a difficult relationship to the person that made him a person. You know? That’s interesting to explore, especially with a mother character who doesn’t express her support for her son as openly as maybe she should.
I think I want people to connect to this family, and also to relate to West and feeling like there are deep things you can’t share with the woman who bore you. What does it mean to disappoint a mother? How does that manifest?
If I hope the audience can take one lesson from West, it’s to live your dreams now. This might seem super pat or cliché, but I think that really lends to the core of this play, Dream House, is at its heart a play about following your bliss, and not letting life slip by with nothing to say for it. If a handful of people left my play and went and quit their day jobs, I’d feel like I did something right.
JM: What’s going on with the chorus in this play? And what’s it like to write choral scenes?
CMS: The chorus in Dream House serves a few functions in the play. I came to the idea of writing a chorus when I started to read up about seizures and hallucinations that come along with brain cancer. Then I thought how can I make that theatrical and show it onstage without the use of projections or other tech elements. The other thing I wanted to do was to take the voices in West’s life, the voices he is having a hard time communicating with, and giving them a chance to speak to him. Through the chorus I can also explore voices that aren’t part of the present story, like the voice of his long lost father, the voice of his RISD mentors, the voice of doctors and technicians who have ushered him through this time of turmoil. You know what? Turmoil is really the main reason for the chorus. To get us inside the internal turmoil for West and what is going on in his mind, things that he can’t voice. As the play goes on, the chorus begins to speak for West when he loses his language. That’s been one of the coolest things I have been able to experiment with in this play.
False Flag by Walt McGough – Saturday June 4 at 3pm
Jesus Girls by Lila Rose Kaplan – Saturday June 4 at 7pm
When Herod Came to Georgia by James McLindon – Sunday June 5 at 3pm
Dream House by Cassie M. Seinuk – Sunday June 5 at 7pm