BWW Interview: Arena's JQA Explores the Complicated Legacy of a Complicated American
Few cities better understand the complexities of history and politics better than Washington. And even fewer politicians have as multifaceted a legacy as America's sixth president John Quincy Adams. Lamented as an ineffectual president, and later celebrated by then-Senator John F. Kennedy as a legislative statesman in his landmark book Profiles in Courage, Adams' legacy will get a long overdue reexamination thanks to Arena Stage and their world-premiere production of Aaron Posner's new play JQA.
"The play is a series of two-person scenes all featuring the titular JQA [John Quincy Adams] and other historical figures, ranging from members of the Adams' clan to JQA's political rivals. A four-person ensemble passes off the title role as Adams matures from a mischievous boy of nine and a quarter to the famed 'old man eloquent' who would serve nine consecutive terms in Congress fighting for what he believed in with a militant spirit and unstained integrity," says Joshua David Robinson who plays John Quincy Adams along with Frederick Douglass and Adams' rival Andrew Jackson.
It seems fitting that it takes a four-person ensemble to portray John Quincy Adams. His life was the sheer definition of epic. He was mentored by Thomas Jefferson, advised Presidents James Madison and James Monroe, and even served briefly with Abraham Lincoln in the 30th Congress. That doesn't even begin to take into account the fact that his parents were John and Abigail Adams.
Phyllis Kay portrays Abigail Adams, in addition to John Quincy Adams, Louisa Adams (his wife), and George Washington. She says that it is these relationships, which will draw you into Adams' world and hopefully get the audience thinking.
"Our playwright/director [Aaron Posner] has already talked about hoping that JQA is a 'conversation starter.' Whether or not you know anything about America's sixth president, and I didn't know much, ideally, our play will draw you into this world of ideas, strongly held convictions, and passionate family relationships," says Kay.
Robinson adds, "What I think Aaron [Posner] has done beautifully in this script is that he has chosen to dramatize moments in the life of JQA that are pivotal both politically and personally. The audience gets to follow the parallel arcs of JQA and our country at large in four stages."
Having actors share a role is not unusual. The new Broadway musical The Cher Show has three actresses playing the famous diva. With JQA, there is the added layer that each actor not only shares the title role, but has to portray some of the country's most legendary figures. So where do they start?
"Sharing the role actually makes it easier! We have four times as many ideas, and watching another actor interpret the character provides inspiration," says Kay.
"In playing a diverse array of historical figures, I am sometimes advocating positions that are in keeping with my own ideas and ideals, and sometimes ones that are quite different," says Robinson. "The task is then to really own those positions equally and unequivocally. I'm sure it will come as no surprise that I disagree with Aaron's version of Andrew Jackson on a variety of issues, but he is not a 'villain.' He is not 'evil,' and in a number of instances he is not 'wrong.'"
Adams would lose his reelection campaign to Jackson in 1828 after only serving one term as president. Despite the election having taken place close to two centuries ago, comparisons have been made between the rise of Jackson and the rise of Donald Trump - both were populist outsiders who defeated the establishment-era politicians of their times. Knowing that too is part of Adams' legacy, how does JQA plan to address the historical parallels?
"My ardent hope is that JQA audiences will be able to use the distance provided by setting this piece in an underappreciated era and centering it around a lesser known president, to reignite their capacities for listening and their motivations to incite change. I hope that people are able to recognize that disagreement is not a cause for calls for havoc and scorched earth campaigns, that compromise is not a sign of weakness, and that conflict is in fact a part of working together towards a shared goal," says Robinson.
"Well, strictly speaking, a play cannot always be interested in perfect historical accuracy. Alternative facts aside, I hope everyone realizes that history is most likely just 'one guy's version' of what took place," adds Kay. "We're offering a version of what the characters may have thought, and what they may have talked about behind closed doors."
JQA marks Robinson and Kay's Arena Stage debuts. For Robinson, the theatre has always been a vehicle for societal conversation and change, a belief John Quincy Adams would have certainly welcomed.
"The cast of JQA is composed of two men and two women including two people of color, myself among them. Each of us is given the opportunity to step into the soul of a man who had a profound and unheralded effect on this country we call ours. That choice alone is powerful. It claims our shared history for all of us. I hope folks will leave the theatre with a sense that everyone can make a difference, that significance isn't reserved for a select few. It is for us all," says Robinson.
There seems to be a long, theatrical tug of war over the Adams' legacy. Musicals like Hamilton and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson have long disparaged the Adams family, while Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone's brilliant musical 1776 celebrates the elder Adams' role in the founding of America. With JQA though, the younger Adams, finally, seems to be getting his due.
Photo: (L to R) Joshua David Robinson (JQA/Frederick Douglass/Andrew Jackson), Phyllis Kay (JQA/George Washington/Abigail Adams/John C. Calhoun), Jacqueline Correa (JQA/Abraham Lincoln/Louisa Adams) and Eric Hissom (JQA/John Adams/Henry Clay) in JQA. Credit: Tony Powell.