March 2, 2018 Interview with Gabriel Jason Dean, reprinted with permission from the author, John Soltes at HollywoodSoapbox.com
Gabriel Jason Dean (center) with cast members
Terminus, the topical new play from Gabriel Jason Dean, is currently being staged as part of the Next Door initiative at the New York Theatre Workshop in Downtown Manhattan. Starring Deirdre O’Connell, the drama looks at Eller, a white woman facing the realities of her violent past amidst the racism of the segregated South. As she journeys along in the play, the woman’s mixed-race grandson, Jaybo, faces a dilemma himself on how to look after his grandmother, a woman he’s no longer recognizing.
Terminus, set in Georgia and directed by Lucie Tiberghien, continues through March 10 at the NYTW venue.
Recently, Hollywood Soapbox exchanged emails with Dean about the new play, which is part of a larger collection of shows called The Attapulgus Elegies, which depicts the dramatic events in an American mill town. Questions and answers have been slightly edited for style.
How does the play fit into The Attapulgus Elegies?
The play is the second of (hopefully) seven plays that I’ve been working on since 2008. The plays are meant to be able to stand alone, but can be performed all at once … if anyone’s ever brave enough to do that! They start in 1990 and chronicle the slow decline of the small, fictional mill town of Attapulgus, based on my hometown of Chatsworth, Georgia.
Each play peeks into a different family within the small town and Terminus looks at the unconventional Freeman household — a family on the outside — and sets into motion a discussion of race that carries into the other plays. Bones and Jaybo both appear in later plays, the sixth and seventh plays, respectively. Like poems, they are meant to meditate on a theme as well as being character-driven, dramatic narrative.
What inspired you to specifically write Terminus?
Deirdre O’Connell as Eller and Reynaldo Piniella as her grandson, Jaybo. [Credit: Maria Baranova-Suzuki]
The play is based on the life of my maternal grandmother. The character of Eller is very much like her, with some exceptions. I don’t want to say what those are for fear of spoiling things. Suffice it to say that I dedicate the play to ‘my nameless kin’ because the revelation at the end of the play is a story that my grandmother told me as a child. However, my grandmother wasn’t the culprit (as far as I know). I’ve spent my life being haunted by this (as was she), and Terminus is a way to grapple with that familial sin.
And ultimately I see the play as a metaphor for excavating the confession of the great sin which existed since the beginning of our country … the sin of slavery and the capitalist oppression of black people … and the subsequent dismantling of the social construct of whiteness that would come as result of the admission— the true true — of this sin.
What comes first to you, the plot or the main character?
Character, theme … and eventually plot. Characters tell me what the play is about, and then that tends to give me a road map of where to go. Plot, in my opinion, is the least interesting. I mean, I dig [Anton] Chekhov, if that tells you anything.
Deirdre O’Connell as Eller, and Jessie Dean as Leafy
What do you hope is in the mind of the audience as they leave the play? What do you hope is learned?
I hope their thoughts and feelings about Eller are complicated and ultimately that the play makes white-identifying audiences ask themselves questions about their own complicity in the oppression of black people. I hope they feel compelled to seek the true true in their own lives and confront the ghosts of their own past.
Deirdre O’Connell as Eller
When can audiences expect chapter three? Are they mapped out far in advance?
The third play is a three-hander called D’Angelico, and it’s set in a consult room in a prison. It’s a story of two brothers, one that stayed behind and is now serving time and one that left and who has become a corporate tax attorney. When their musician father dies, the two estranged siblings are reunited as they search for their father’s guitar. It’s also based on truth. I’ve got a brother currently serving time in Georgia. I’ve actually adapted that script into a screenplay as well. I’ve currently got drafts of #2, #3, #5 and #6. I just need to write the beginning, middle and end of the collection.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
The original interview may be found here.
Gabriel Jason Dean
Gabriel Jason Dean is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter from Atlanta, GA who currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. His plays include IN BLOOM, QUALITIES OF STARLIGHT, TERMINUS, HEARTLAND, THE TRANSITION OF DOODLE PEQUEÑO and others. He is on faculty for Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing Program. Visit Gabriel’s website, here.