BWW Interview: Actor-turned-Playwright Jay O. Sanders

After acting in dozens of shows, including all four of Richard Nelson's Apple Family plays last year, Jay O. Sanders is letting others do the acting in a play that he has written. Unexplored Interior, Sanders' play revolving around the 1994 Rwandan genocide, will have a free public reading this Sunday in New York, with Michael McKean, Fritz Weaver, Arthur French and Sharon Washington heading a cast of 15.

BWW Interview: Actor-turned-Playwright Jay O. Sanders
Jay O. Sanders

The reading will be held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park and will be webcast live. An audience at Rwanda's Kigali Memorial Centre will watch the play online and then hold a talkback with the company in New York, all via Google+ Hangout On Air. People around the world can watch the live stream of the reading and then use social media or Google+ Hangout On Air's Q&A app to participate in the postshow discussion. The event, which marks a landmark artistic and technological partnership between the United States and Africa, commemorates the 20th anniversary of the genocide.

More than two-thirds of the Tutsi citizens of Rwanda were killed in 1994 during the civil war between the Tutsi and Hutu. Unexplored Interior, according to its press material, "is a tale about the universality of grief" that weaves together storylines involving a multitude of characters "who experience the genocide from many different perspectives and ultimately come together to move forward into the uncertain future, reaching for hope."

The oft-employed Sanders portrayed Richard Apple in That Hopey Changey Thing, Sweet and Sad, Sorry and Regular Singing, the Richard Nelson plays that were performed in repertory last fall at the Public Theater. Sanders' wife, Maryann Plunkett, costarred in all four plays--and along with the rest of the cast, they received a special ensemble Drama Desk Award in 2012. He's been in several of the Public's Shakespeare plays and many other New York stage productions, including Roundabout's 2007 revival of Pygmalion. Sanders' TV credits range from After M*A*S*H to Person of Interest, and he's appeared in such films as The Day After Tomorrow, Revolutionary Road, Glory, Tumbleweeds and Green Lantern.

In an interview over coffee last week, Sanders spoke at length about his busy career, how he spent 10 years developing a play about the Rwandan genocide and the Google+ connection that will air it worldwide.

BWW Interview: Actor-turned-Playwright Jay O. SandersWhere'd you get the idea for the live feed and videoconference talkback with people in Rwanda?
Richard Nelson, who's a dear friend. I said, "Rich, I have to do something to connect this to the 20-year commemoration," and he just popped out with "Have you thought of live streaming it to Rwanda?" I credit him fully. Just genius. The last four months have been me taking that idea and running with it, doing it with producer friends Daniel Neiden, Carol Ostrow, Paula Gil, who has worked with Google+ before. Daniel introduced me to her, and she's overseeing our on-air hangout.

But this will extend beyond the two countries.
Once we're on with the hangout, people can click in from anywhere, so now we've started getting groups gathered all around the world. We have a group in Abu Dhabi that's watching; we have a group in Sweden; we have a group in Belgium; I'm talking to people on the West Coast; the guy in Iceland has too many people to fit in his cafe, so he's looking to a local school or theater. I'm trying to organize a network of people around the world who are watching, and I want to read down a list of the people that I know are watching, as a callout to them but also as a way of bringing them in--'cause they can't talk to us. They can tweet and email and text; they can be in touch through the whole thing, and we will have people to handle that. At the end we will take comments and questions, and answer them. And I will bring a group of people from various genocides around the world on the stage to face the cameras and the people in Rwanda to say, "We're all here, we all care." Now it's 20 times larger than my play.

What got you interested in this subject in the first place?
Twenty years ago, March 1st, our first and only child was born. Five weeks later, on April 7th--actually, the night of April 6th--[Rwandan] President Juvénal Habyarimana's plane was shot down. We were at that time cloistered in our apartment with our son, but completely engaged for the first time in our lives as two professional actors who've always cared about people but never had someone we were directly responsible for in terms of being the guardians of a life. It goes to the existential question of: What is your point here? What am I responsible for? It's the question you ask yourself in an entirely different way when you have a child. It went from the totally personal, deep commitment and instinctual desire to do everything you can for your kid to watching on the news--watching far more than I would have otherwise, because we were inside all the time--watching these tales of horrific inhumanity, that nobody's getting involved with.

What do you remember hearing about the tragedy as it unfolded?
It was reported on the news: The plane had been shot down and the people had started to kill each other. At night they were going from house to house and killing their own neighbors. The news coincided with reports of the peacekeeping commander calling for reinforcements, but no one was being sent. They would say: This is something tribal, beyond our understanding. None of it added up. I just thought, How could it be that it's impossible to understand if it's happening in our world? It may be distant, it may be culturally unusual, but we have sent someone there to represent the world and he's saying I need help now, and we're saying we can't do that. So it grabbed me. My initial instinct--because I go to the most personal way I have of relating to this, which is as an actor--I thought, I want to play that man.

BWW Interview: Actor-turned-Playwright Jay O. Sanders
Roméo Dallaire

"That man" is Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian lieutenant general who headed the U.N. mission in Rwanda, and has consequently suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder.
I arrived in Canada the day after he attempted suicide. When I went up to do this miniseries in Toronto, on the way they handed me a copy of the Globe and Mail and it says on the front page about this man found under a park bench in of our most highly decorated and respected military men, Roméo Dallaire. It got me closer and closer: I was already trying to look, but I couldn't find information. He represented security and an international conscience, which is why he was brought in [to Rwanda] to begin with. They wanted something after Somalia that was fail-safe; this man was going to get it right. And he got in and said, "This isn't what you told me it is. We need to do something. I see arms caches." [The response was] "No, no, no, don't get involved, just tell everybody what's going on," which meant telling the people who had the arms caches--which meant giving up any advantage of intelligence that existed, so nothing could be done. He was there on chapter VI of the peacekeeping [charter], which is the old Cold War status of holding two parties apart and disarming them while you initiate a peaceful transfer of power. He needed the ability to apply power.

When did you decide to write a play about it?
I was totally overwhelmed at the theater one night watching a one-person show about the Holocaust with Kathleen Chalfant [The Last Letter], realizing I had to do this--I thought I had food poisoning because I was sweating and shaking. I told Kathleen after the performance, and she grabbed my hand and said, "Oh, Jay, you must write this play." I met Dallaire in Rwanda, and I spent time with him in Quebec City, where he lives. I wrote a one-man play for myself as Dallaire, looked at it and realized that's not it. It's bigger. It's not one white guy. I ended up putting that down, continuing to research and think about it for two more years. I collected all these pieces. I was ignorant as you can be. I cared deeply--I didn't even know what I was caring about. I went back and collected everything I could and I put them together. I read a book called Machete Season, which is interviews with guys who had killed. They've already been indicted, and they all agreed to be interviewed; otherwise, none of them would agree that they had done anything. Ten years in, when I was going to do this one-man play about Roméo Dallaire, I called Stephen Segaller, my producer [on Wide Angle, a PBS documentary series Sanders narrated], and said, "I've got this idea..." and he said, "You know The Last Just Man, of course?" [It was] the first piece that had been done specifically on Dallaire. He said, "You know the director because you narrated his documentary on Gujarat and you hung out in the studio and became really friendly." So it was just connection, connection, connection, connection. I read and I read and I dreamed and I thought. And when I thought I was ready, I sat down in front of the computer and I just let all these characters come out--including any number of characters who are no longer in the play. Dian Fossey used to come crashing out of the jungle; I had the white fathers, who brought the written word to Rwanda--the Swiss and Belgian priests who taught reading and writing, so people could read the Bible.

But the play still has a wide-ranging cast of characters, real and fictional, from different time periods.
It's a broad mix. Some of my favorite characters in the piece are completely out of my head. The first person you hear is an old Tutsi storyteller, carrying the stories of hundreds of years with him. He begins to tell the story of Rwanda and his people, and he continues throughout the play. His grandson, who he introduces soon after, wants to be a filmmaker. A documentary filmmaker who's making a film about the gorillas, which he helped translate for, has invited him to a scholarship at NYU. He goes to New York; during the second year that he's here, the genocide happens and 44 members of his family are slaughtered. He comes back and collects everyone's story. The one he can't find is his grandfather, but he continues to hear his voice--so we hear it too.
That is intertwined with the story of Roméo Dallaire, who is on the verge of attempting suicide yet again and is visited by the ghost of Mark Twain, who wrote about the Belgian Congo a hundred years earlier. He [Twain] was trying to get people's attention on it. He did it with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass--all these greats who were saying, "For god's sake, look what they're doing!" We're talking maybe a million people killed in Rwanda in a hundred days. Belgian Congo, you're talking 10 to 15 million. So that comes back to Dallaire, conjures him as a traveling companion.
The third major story that's intertwined I got from the blog of what turned out to be the equivalent of finding Göring's diaries. It lasted on the Internet for a few months; can't find it anywhere since. It was published by the Inner City Press, it was written by a guy who's one of the first people ever to be indicted by the World Court for inciting genocide through the media. He was the founder of RTLM, hate radio, and the guy who ran Kangura, which was a rag that had very off-color political cartoons inciting people against the Tutsi. This man wrote an apologia in which he said: Listen, I never actually killed anyone. If I'm guilty of anything, it's of two-timing my wife. And he talks about the love of his life, who was a Tutsi woman--who he was in bed with when he was supposed to be on the plane with the president that was shot down. We interweave those three stories, in which you meet a lot of other people.

BWW Interview: Actor-turned-Playwright Jay O. Sanders
Michael McKean (left) with Bryan Cranston
in All the Way

But you won't be playing Dallaire?
Michael McKean's playing him. He keeps insisting that he's just keeping my part warm for me; I keep insisting that it's enough to be the writer. He almost couldn't do it, because there were complications with time: He's doing All the Way and has to get up to the show. I'd play the role [if McKean couldn't make it]. As luck would have it, Bryan Cranston is promoting a film that day--they have no show.

Did you ever go to Rwanda?
An associate producer was about to fly to Rwanda to set up a documentary for Wide Angle that I would be narrating. The 10-year commemoration was coming up, so I showed up. I spent a week in Rwanda and a week in Arusha, Tanzania, which is where the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda is. I was adopted by the CNN team, because they recognized me as an actor, which meant that I was front and center for every official gathering the whole week. I was there when the Kigali genocide memorial opened. I was there at 4:30 in the morning and got a personal tour with Raymond Kalisa, who was the translator--he is now one of the central figures in my play--and we were there to watch the lighting of the eternal flame by President Paul Kagame, who had been general of the rebel force that came in and stopped the genocide.

Will this be the first time the play's had a reading?
No, I think it's number seven. [Previous readings were at] the Cherry Lane Theatre, the Public Theater, the Lark. The Flea--they've been hugely, hugely supportive of this process. They gave me a special workshop with their Bats, their younger actors, one of whom is still with me as the stage directions reader who read a lead role at one time. I did another one for the Public but we did it at the Acorn Theater, two nights running. And then last year at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, for the 19-year commemoration. This year I was hoping we'd have a full production and maybe take it some places, but I was spending the last six months doing the Apple Family plays.
In the meantime, I've gone back and done rewrite work on my play that's the best I've done in 10 years. I could not be more excited. I would take that play to anybody as it is. I have the same director, James Glossman, who's been with me from the first moment I decided to write this, as well as every single actor who was in it last year. Every single one of them cleared the way to come back this year, including four of them who are flying themselves in--three from L.A. and one from Minneapolis.

BWW Interview: Actor-turned-Playwright Jay O. Sanders
Jay O. Sanders and Maryann Plunkett in Sorry (with Laila Robins
in background)

You and your wife have acted together many times. Has she also been your collaborator as a playwright?
It's difficult being the wife of somebody who's obsessed with anything. I have a director who's as obsessive as I am who really gets me, but doesn't live with me. There were nights when she would say, "I'm getting a little jealous of you and Jim, these late-night conversations and whispering to each other." But ultimately she and Jim are my best guides, my best editors, my best reflectors, and I am beyond blessed to have her as my partner through all this, to give me insights from a woman.

Have you been involved with other sociopolitical issues and causes?
Let me tell you something about my background. My parents were international peace missionaries. I was raised Quaker. My father was a conscientious objector during World War II, served in CPS [civilian public service] camps. My father also worked very hard for civil rights, as did my mother, who was the eldest daughter of five in a family of Methodist missionaries in Argentina. She was bilingual, bicultural, had a master's in religion. They [his parents] traveled as Quakers and lived every day according to what they believed, which was often in opposition to society at the time. They were the ones who were breaking the rules and breaking the lines and letting blacks in the front door, standing on corners when people would be harassed. During Vietnam my father was a draft counselor, helping people find alternative service. My parents started, with two other couples, the first interracial day-care center in Austin, Texas. Dad worked with the Peace Corps, the American Friends Service Committee, the United States committee for UNICEF, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and at the end of his life was the editor for the Friends journal. And in the midst of all that ran an integrated theater--a community center with two active theaters that were the center of black theater in the United States--in Cleveland, Ohio, called Karamu House, which still exists. I started acting at 10 years old in Karamu.

And what about the next generation in your family? Tell us about your son, Jamie.
He's finishing his second year at Emerson College. He's there as a television production major. He's just done a video of a spoken word poetry that went viral--about 35,000 hits in about 2½ weeks. It got picked up by Upworthy. He has Tourette's and has been living with that since he was in second grade, that's what the piece is anthem of acceptance. So now he's getting calls from every Tourette's association in the world.
Very smart, a strong performer, probably going to be a much better actor than I'm ever going to be. He's acting, but he's also doing slam poetry, he's also doing stand-up comedy, he's also started designing special-effects makeup for student horror films. He hosts a television show about the latest films. He's just been nominated for an EVVY--the Emerson awards--as a host for that. He had a radio show. The kid is incredible and sensitive and smart, and fortunately has Maryann's looks and my height.

You've been on so many TV shows and in a bunch of movies. Do you get recognized often?
About 50 to 100 times a day. Sometimes it's somebody coming up and going "Hey, man!" and they know me. Then there's "Hey, man, you're here all the time," "No, I've never been here before." Then there's "You look really familiar..." Then there's people who stop and drop what they're doing when we pass each other--I don't know what they know, except that I'm familiar. There's the occasion when somebody walks over and says, "I really love your work," and they know my name. I was recently on True Detective, and as soon as the final episode played, people were, "Aren't you the guy...?" I took the train up to Boston, and somebody looked up and said, "Hey! Are you the Yellow King?" It sort of builds to a frenzy with the celebrity of a given moment, and then it all goes away. I have to say, it's the best form of fame possible. I'm able to go anywhere and feel that I'm simply a recognized member of society and not a bothered one.

What's coming up for you after this reading?
I'm doing a workshop with Maryann at the Public of Macbeth. Working with Michael Sexton, who I did Titus Andronicus with a couple of years ago. In the summer I've been asked to do John Lithgow's King Lear. Dan Sullivan's directing in the park. Next spring we're talking seriously about reviving the Apples for a tour.

Click here for information about the May 11 reading of Unexplored Interior.

All the Way photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

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