By D. Kevin McNeir
The world premiere of “JQA,” a fictitious tale written and directed by Aaron Posner about the life of the eighth secretary of state and the sixth president of the U.S., John Quincy Adams, presents a challenging perspective on American history that continues to affect the nation some 150 years after his death.
The play continues at the Arena Stage through April 14 and while Posner succeeds in his goal to help us “look at today through the lens of yesterday,” one has to wonder why he felt compelled to tackle the life of a privileged son of a former president whose intellectual prowess failed him in his role as a father, husband and as a leader who could have done so much more to promote and secure the abolition of slavery.
History may have little positive to say about Adams (1767-1848) but Posner’s energetic dialogue, presented with great aplomb by a talented, four-member cast, maintains the action from start to finish, the result being a production well worth the price of admission.
In addition, Posner, following a casting decision recently-employed within today’s theatrical world, allows each of the four actors, Jacqueline Correa, Eric Hissom, Phyllis Kay and Joshua David Robinson, to portray Adams, race and gender notwithstanding — later changing their roles in the portrayal of historical figures of great significance each of whom lived during his lifetime including his wife, Louisa, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson and Frederick Douglass.
Native Washingtonian Joshua David Robinson, stellar in his roles as Jackson and the heralded abolitionist Douglass, said his desire to become an actor developed during his youth due to tremendous experiences, opportunities and resources provided by the District and his encouraging family.
“DC is a rich environment and a fertile ground for creativity and debate that has long allowed its youth to take advantage of its resources — from summer camp at the Smithsonian to seeing actors on stage presenting the classics of Shakespeare to musicals like ‘Phantom of the Opera’ which blew my mind when I first saw it as a child at the Kennedy Center,” he said. “Those experiences opened my eyes and my mind in ways that I’m still discovering today.”
“The theater is a place for community — a gathering point where people go to voluntarily have a shared and often emotional experience with strangers. I’ve found this fact to be truly awesome. If actors do their job effectively, the community leaves the theater differently from the way they entered. In ‘JQA,’ the cast is given the opportunity to step into the soul of a white man who profoundly affected this country which each of us call home.”
“I learned a great deal about Adams while preparing for the show. JQA was a fascinating guy and a member of a political dynasty in an era where votes for office were more often argued for than bought. What struck me most about him though was his spirit. He was a man of unimpeachable, unyielding and unforgiving integrity — a quality that allowed him to achieve great heights but also doomed him to a life of little happiness.”
“By changing roles as a cast member, I discovered once again that representation is powerful — in this play it helps claim our shared history. I believe audiences will leave the theatre with a sense that everyone can make a difference in this country and the world and that significance isn’t reserved for only a select few. It’s for all of us.”
Robinson, now living in Brooklyn, said he could have never anticipated being cast as Andrew Jackson, but loved the chance.
“It may not be my dream role, that is, if such a role has even been written — one that I may have to write myself one day — but it was a real pleasure and joy,” he said. “Who would have thought that I’d have the opportunity to explore someone who’s vastly different from me? It was really exciting.”
As for youth who hope to cut their teeth one day as professional thespians, Robinson, who completed studies at NYU in the MFA graduate program, says one has to “love being an actor.”
“There’s no formula for success,” he said. “The truth is you have to understand that being an actor has no guarantees. I have found it to be exhilarating and challenging. But I really can’t express in words how much being an actor means to me, particularly as it has given me the chance to serve as a vehicle for social change. But it’s a sacrifice, not only for the actor but for those who love and care about you. That’s why I am deliberate in the projects I choose. I want to always honor the sacrifices my loved ones and I have made that allowed me to perfect my craft and to pursue my dreams.”
“JQA” continues through April 14 at Arena Stage in Southwest. For tickets, call 202-488-3300 or go to www.arenastage.org.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Informer.