Can the life of a figure out of early American history make for an unforgettable night of theater?
Oh, wait — that question already has been definitively asked and answered. (Thank you, Lin-Manuel Miranda.) So, in the case of “JQA,” the new play about the sixth U.S. president, John Quincy Adams, receiving its world premiere at Arena Stage in March, the query ought to be: Can post-Revolutionary-era lightning strike twice on the contemporary stage?
Mind you, Aaron Posner’s drama — in which four actors will take turns portraying Adams, as well as assaying a gamut of others, from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln — has no aspiration to being “Hamilton II.” No one raps an inaugural address or anything close to that in the nonmusical “JQA.” Still, the Washington-based Posner, author of more than 20 plays, including the popular “Stupid F---ing Bird,” insists that his examination of the career and times of John Quincy Adams is not a history lesson. Rather, he says, it’s another way of looking at our time.
“While it uses the life of JQA, it’s a work of historical fiction,” says Posner, a director with a long list of Washington credits who will direct this production, as well. “If anyone is looking for factual history, they are going to be disappointed. They’re remarkable people I have thrown into this play, but I’m really writing about what’s going on today.”
Posner says he’s using Adams’s politics and presidency as a way of considering larger questions about the role of government, and the ways in which Americans engage in the civic life of the country — or don’t. “It’s certainly the most daunting thing I’ve ever done,” he says.
As much as the subject of “JQA” would seem a natural for Washington theatergoers — and Arena Stage an apt partner, with its long-term Power Plays initiative, commissioning issue- and politically oriented dramas — it’s risky new terrain for Posner. That’s one of the reasons the project seems so enticing. A new play by a dramatist who lives and works here, on a topic of homegrown resonance, is a venture worth going out of one’s way to encourage. The very idea of taking as its central subject a president remembered mostly for being the son of a more famous one (John Adams) feels full of dramatic possibility: The consignment to obscurity can have its tragic dimension. And if JQA is to be an eternal footnote, one wonders how small a chapter, by comparison, will be filled by the politicians of today?
This is the first time Posner has written a play that’s not an adaptation of a play or a novel by another writer. “Stupid F---ing Bird” was his modernist take on Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” and one of several he has remodeled out of the Russian playwright’s canon. Posner staged his adaptation of Chaim Potok’s novel “The Chosen” under the auspices of Theater J when it was in residence at Arena, and, for Folger Theater, he wrote and directed a version of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” reset during the Civil War and retitled “District Merchants.”
He got the idea for “JQA” after Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith invited him to pitch her for the Power Plays program. And he credited a 2015 column by The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne, in which Dionne said that Adams was his “favorite unsung president” and praised him for prophetically advocating that the government could be an instrument for “the progressive improvement of the condition of the governed.”
“Once I looked into him, what I found was really intriguing,” Posner says. “I defy anyone to tell me whether he was a conservative or a liberal. He was for big government, he was pro-education, deeply interested in science and art, deeply religious. You can’t put him on any of the timelines of political values. He was a man of true integrity.”
The play consists, Posner says, of 10 scenes episodically tracing Adams’s life from his childhood until his death in 1848 at age 80. Along the way, there are encounters the playwright dramatizes with the likes of Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Frederick Douglass and others.
Eric Hissom, one of four actors cast as JQA, has worked with Posner on about a dozen plays. (The other cast members are Jacqueline Correa, Phyllis Kay and Joshua David Robinson.) He says that what draws him into the rehearsal room with the playwright-director again and again is Posner’s ever-expanding embrace of theatrical possibility.
“Part of it is his devotion to the medium,” Hissom says. “He tries to express that in his plays, but it’s sort of innate in what he’s doing. What is this medium and how do you bring life to it and bring your ideas to it and have it resonate?”
As rehearsals begin for “JQA” and Posner continues to hone the text, he’s grappling with the challenges Hissom articulates. “I feel scared,” he says. “But it’s fun to feel scared.”
JQA March 1 to April 14 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. arenastage.org.