“JQA,” Aaron Posner’s play about our sixth president, depicts John Quincy Adams as a scholarly mind, a dedicated public servant and, paradoxically, a man who proved ill-fitted for the White House. For all of Adams’ ideals and intellect, the play suggests that he was hampered by hubris and a reluctance to work with others. It’s with a dash of irony, then, that collaboration is baked into the constitution of “JQA,” as Jacqueline Correa, Joshua David Robinson, Eric Hissom and Phyllis Kay share the title role in each performance of Arena Stage’s world-premiere production. In a round-table talk ahead of Friday’s debut performance, the actors discussed how they’re collectively shedding light on one of U.S. history’s lesser-known chief executives.
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW; Fri. through April 14, $40-$95.
‘A conversation starter’
Written and directed by Posner, a staple of D.C. theater, “JQA” is a work of historical fiction composed of nine two-character scenes. Through those vignettes, Adams engages in conversations with myriad historical figures, including George Washington, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and several members of his own family — all of whom are also played by the four principal actors.
Correa: In reading the script, I was really excited because it was approaching the subject matter in a very nontraditional play structure. It felt more like the beginnings of dialogues between the characters and the audience, or the audience amongst themselves.
Kay: And Aaron sees the big picture. He knows the story that he wants to tell. Like Jacqueline said, he really wants this play to be a conversation starter for people politically. As it turns out, there are so many elements that he’s touched on in what we’ve built now — it also deals with family and relationships — and all those things are brought to bear via a political landscape.
‘Any of us … can be these great people’
Posner took a color- and gender-blind approach to casting. Correa plays Adams as a child and young man before Robinson takes over when the character is in his 20s. Hissom then steps in as Adams in middle age, after which Kay plays the oldest version of the protagonist. To give the audience a visual cue, the actor playing Adams in each scene wears a distinctive coat.
Hissom: It’s equally fascinating and also just completely matter-of-fact that women are playing him and people of different races are playing him. It seems like that barrier has really been shattered in the American theater.
Robinson: People would ask me, “Who are you playing?” And I’d be like, “John Quincy Adams.” I’m an African-American man, and it was actually such a treat to see people deal with that in real time — the initial reactions of, “Oh,” but then the secondary reaction of, “Of course you’re playing John Quincy Adams, because why wouldn’t you?”
Kay: It’s about how any of us, men or women, can be these great people. That is what makes it human and hopefully identifiable. The people in the audience will be able to recognize themselves and people that they know, and that hopefully will be a way into the story.
Robinson: I also play Andrew Jackson at some point, and who knew that that was going to be a dream role of mine? But it sure is. If you have something to say — even if I violently disagree with you, as is the case with Jackson — he was a man of convictions, and worth taking a deep look at.
‘All actors steal, right?’
In dividing the titular role, the actors collaborated throughout rehearsals to give Adams a sense of continuity — focusing on his dialect and body language — while also each delivering their own take on the character. Although giving another actor feedback is a cardinal sin in the theater world, such communication is common behind the scenes of “JQA.”
Correa: We’re trusting that when the audience shows up, the storytelling is strong enough that they’re going to go on the ride with us, that we don’t have to be mimics of one another in order to tell this story. We’re just looking for a few things to pin for the audience.
Hissom: We’re working with a vocal coach and with Aaron and with each other in terms of, “How can [Adams] have a unified personality?”
Robinson: There’s a lack of preciousness about it. We’re all here to make this guy the biggest, most full, most truthful version of that he can be. It’s not like, “I got to get my moment here.”
Correa: Right — the focus is on the play and the character and how to be in service of that.
Robinson: And all actors steal, right? Whenever you go and see something that you like, you say, “I’m going to put that in my pocket and use it later.” It’s actually kind of wonderful to have that be the actual job. “That thing that Phyllis did? Yeah, I’m going to take that. Sorry my scene comes first and [the audience] is going to think it’s my idea ….”
‘What is this American experiment?’
Before serving in the White House from 1825 to 1829, Adams was a diplomat, a senator, a secretary of state and, of course, the son of the second president. After his presidency, Adams went on to serve as a congressman from Massachusetts for nearly 17 years. It was this life in public service — largely spent advocating for big government and opposing slavery — that the cast sees as a profound prism through which to meditate on modern politics.
Hissom: He’s a good figure to look at in terms of, “What is this American government? What is this American experiment?” We have a debate these days: A lot of people want smaller government, and there’s people that think government can help. That’s thoroughly discussed in this play.
Kay: Our government was fairly new at this point. Aaron has showcased the fact that there are points where the form of government maybe started to mutate into something unhelpful. Suddenly it’s these career politicians trying to get things accomplished for their own ends and not necessarily for the ends of the people that they’re representing. That’s something that I think will provoke quite a bit of lively discussion here.
Robinson: I go to the theater pretty regularly, and a lot of times I’ll leave the theater being like, “Why did they make that choice to do that play in this climate?” And I don’t think anyone is going to walk out of this play with that question.