From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works. I’m Josephine Reed.
In March of 2020, actor Joy Jones was beginning rehearsals for Arena Stage’s production of August Wilson’s play Seven Guitars directed by Tazewell Thompson. It was part of Arena’s August Wilson Festival. And then the pandemic struck theaters like Arena Stage closed around the country. A long-time grantee of the National Endowment for the Arts, Arena Stage is a pioneer of the Regional Theater Movement and the largest company in the country dedicated to American plays and playwrights. In addition to developing the work of new playwrights, the company also mounts the work of giants in American theater like August Wilson. Happily, theaters are reopening and in December 2021 Arena Stage presented a rousing production of Seven Guitars with Joy Jones and much of the original cast returning and Tazewell Thompson at the helm.. Seven Guitars focuses on seven characters with the action taking place in the backyard of a boarding house and represents the 1940s entry in Wilson's Century Cycle a decade-by-decade anthology of African-American life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during the twentieth century. Tragic, funny at times and filled with music, Seven Guitars contain knockout performances by all the actors--including Joy Jones who plays the character of Vera. I had seen Jones in other productions at Arena Stage also directed by Thompson and was eager to speak with her. We talked in late December during the run; here’s our conversation…
Joy, first of all, thank you for giving me your time. I know you're appearing in Seven Guitars, which is a three-hour show, and I can only imagine the amount of energy it requires, so thank you.
Joy Jones:My pleasure, happy to be here.
Jo Reed: The character you play is Vera. Tell me a bit about her.
Joy Jones: Okay. So for folks who are celeb watchers, the play was on Broadway originally in 1995, and Viola Davis, wonderful actress of stage and screen originated the role of Vera Dotson, but Vera is a woman in her late 20s or early 30s who's come to Pittsburgh from the South as have most of the characters in the play, certainly this particular play and many of the others are as much about the African American Great Migration as anything else, but she is making her way in Pittsburgh, and living in a rooming house with several other folks, and has friend relationships and romantic relationships, and at least one of the relationships we see is her sort of on again off again will she won't you relationship with the protagonist, with the lead character Floyd Martin who's a talented blues musician who's come back into Pittsburgh after some time away.
Jo Reed: Vera-- and you as Vera-- you play this extraordinary combination of serenity and intensity, you let us see her doubts, but you also let us see her love, and there's such a quietude that you have on the stage that just draws the eye.
Joy Jones: Wow. So first of all Josephine, you're making me choked up. I hope that's good for podcasting. I'm so moved, thank you by that. Yes, I'll share a number of things. August Wilson said that in earlier drafts of this play the characters were all male, and I should say August Wilson likes his male centered dramas, and Seven Guitars is distinguished because it is the one that has three female characters. And so August Wilson said that earlier he had these male characters interacting with one another, and then one night Vera sort of spoke to him in his mind's eye, in his writer's head, and said, "Well what about me or what about the women?" Dramaturgically I've also read that Vera might be inspired by August Wilson's own mother who had a strength but was also a homebody. So I try to embody those, and I'll say particularly as an African American woman, I think we all as human beings strive to be resilient. I think the adjective of “strong” is something that gets <laughs> put on African American women, and I will take it, and I think it's a complicated thing. But yes, Vera is trying to survive and make her way, but also has fell deeply in love with Floyd and then was devastated when he left. And so she is trying to navigate this desire for love and adventure and a mate with surviving from a hurt and keeping yourself together and the reason I'm so moved is because there are some other <laughs> female characters on stage, and they really bring a va-va-va-voom, and an earthiness to them, and that's not who Vera was written out as, it's not necessarily what I tend to bring into the room as a person. So I just tried to trust in the language and trust in the aspects of myself that I can bring, and I would say being vulnerable but navigating life with the vulnerability is both something that I would say as Joy and as Vera that I tried to share so, as I said, so moved.
Jo Reed: Oh, no, really. I am so drawn to performers who by their stillness, your eye is just riveted to them, and to me you're one of those performers.
Joy Jones: <laughs> I love it, thank you.
Jo Reed: No, you're welcome, I mean I've seen you in three plays at Arena Stage, I mean this isn't my first encounter with you, and before we talk about those can you open up a bit about the rehearsal process? I mean August Wilson is a giant, yes, but you have to live in those words.
Joy Jones: Absolutely. So first off I'll start by saying, and obviously we are recording in December 2021, we actually started rehearsal for Seven Guitars in the spring of 2020. So we were two weeks into rehearsal, and we're based in Washington D.C. for folks who are listening across the country and across the world, Mayor Bowser, our current mayor, shut down public facilities in March of 2020, this is actually sort of a take two as it will of that rehearsal process. But I'll tell you honestly that my experience with August Wilson has been a bit like doing Shakespeare, and I'll tell you a couple of things, first with the character of Vera, there are August Wilson monologue contests, and I know young actors who use some of the speeches that I do in this play for auditions, etcetera, and I also saw the archival taping of Viola Davis' Vera from the original Broadway production <laughs>. So there were times when I would rehearse a speech or rehearse a scene, and I would hear a sort of echo of the Veras before, and it's reminded me of what some actors who've tackled the Hamlet or Othello you sort of hear those words and they're familiar, but they haven't necessarily become yours yet, so it's sort of like an echo in your head, and then you sort of have to pause and say, okay, I know because this play has been produced that it works on a level, so then what is my experience with this director, with these actors, what do I bring as a person, and so then you settle into what does my character want, how is she feeling, what time of day is it, what do I need from this person, and then you get into the practicalities and can become much more grounded in your specific experience. So that's one thing about August Wilson and Shakespeare, the other is that I've done a lot of Shakespeare, and grew up in D.C., and I actually had a wonderful Shakespeare teacher in junior high, etcetera. I've done quite a bit of classical theater, using those skills of classical acting so, you know, which words to emphasize, or setting up antithesis, you putting one word against the other, and those have helped me in addition to sort of who my Vera is, etcetera, those sort of practical techniques have helped just really crack it open, and listening to songs that I thought echoed a state that Vera was in or gathering sonnets, again to the Shakespeare/August Wilson sort of twinning of it. Yeah, just those set of tools, I also very briefly watched a couple of films from this era that featured African Americans, and I'll say for anyone there's a great site called the Black Film Archive, and it goes through decades of films, I think it stops around 1970, and the films, most of them from the 40s, are in a broader style than certainly our naturalistic acting now. B ut there's one called Dirty Gertie from Harlem about a nightclub singer, and seeing folks, African American actors sort of make their way and perform music but also have some sort of romantic drama was also a treat, also seeing how people moved in their clothing was helpful as well. So I know that's a long answer to a short question, <laughs> but all of that came into play and comes into play.
Jo Reed: Well it actually touches on a number of questions, and one of them is playing as an ensemble, and I know this is a really hard thing to talk about, but that alchemy that happens when things are working among performers on a stage, is it possible to give voice to that and how that influences the character that you're creating?
Joy Jones: Absolutely. So, and again in this particular process, many of the actors, so I would say five of the seven actors who were part of the 2020 process came back for this 2021 opportunity, so we had a certain grounding, you know, we hadn't absolutely owned our characters, but we already had a working relationship from that previous process. Two actors were not able to join us which one might expect with that sort of separation in time. So those of us who came back were delighted to have the opportunity to finish the process, and I'll tell you during the shutdown I had a moment of true despair about <laughs> theater, sort of like oh, well I have two degrees in dramatic acting, maybe this is it for theater, and again to the Shakespeare of it all at times in his career the theaters would just be closed for years. So those of us from the 2020 process came with some knowledge and maybe some simmering into those roles or the possibility of those rules, and the two wonderful new actors, new as it were, 2021 folks who completed our ensemble, Eden Maryshow and Roderick Lawrence, came in with a sense of delight, maybe a sense of I don't want to say making up for lost time but perhaps that they might be coming into something that was settled, but with such a hunger and openness. So I think those combined dynamics were sort of the bedrock, we were also happy to be working together and making theater together, and Tazewell Thompson our director cast really, really well, and we laughed a lot in rehearsal, we laugh a lot in the making of our play, and we trust each other. So folks are trying new things on stage or experimenting with how they say a particular line, and not in such a technical way but really trying to get to the truth of it. So it's the bedrock of gratitude for doing a play in our COVID era, and then a wonderful cast and then a sort of a trust and a joy, and so the play is built but it is almost like a scene study class or dance where you're so attuned to this person or these people and you can go with them, and I'll give you a very small example that I have a speech when essentially I'm talking to Roderick as Floyd when he's come back and has asked me to come back to him, and I tell him about the devastation that I experienced. Well in the speech I talk about remembering his touch, his physical touch as my lover, and at some point in our performances I was-- might been thinking in like a technical way but just as a person what might be an intimate touch that isn't particularly sexual, and so I showed him the inside of my arms because I say that he kissed me here, that might be a delicate place, on the wrist or on the inside of your elbow, etcetera, and so then in subsequent scenes when Roderick as Floyd is continuing to attempt to woo me or showing me affection, several days ago he started kissing me on the inside of my arm as his character, and I thought wow, what a wonderful, aware actor to have gotten something that occurred to me and then to respond in kind to sort of help tell that story that sort of call back, and that doesn't only happen with Roderick, but it happens with the other actors <laughs> and not just around kissing of course, but those sorts of details in storytelling happen all around, and sorry, I just realized I haven't said the names of my other five castmates, so Roz White plays Louise, Michael Anthony William plays Canewell, David Emerson Toney plays Headley, Dane Figueroa Edidi plays Ruby and then I've already mentioned Eden and Roderick, great, and then of course myself, so I just wanted to make sure I got everyone's names in.
Jo Reed: A true ensemble actor. Now this is the fourth time you've worked with Tazewell Thompson at Arena Stage. How would you describe him as a director?
Joy Jones: Wow. He is a combination of specific and really generous, and I'll start with the generosity first. He assumes that the actors in his plays can do everything, which is both such a gift and also such a challenge. I would say I'm an actor who sings, and I'm an actor who moves and can do choreography, but in any of those plays if there's a dance or a piece of physical movement he'll be like “and then you'll do such and such,” and then I'll be like, “so Tazewell is there going to be a choreographer or?” and then he would say something like “oh no, you know, you can just come up with something, and then when we do our one on one rehearsals you can show me what you're thinking of,” <laughs> and that is just really, really generous, and I would say that once one has taken on the challenge of oh, I see, there's not going to be an expert consultant holding my hand in that moment necessarily, all right, I guess I will refresh my knowledge of swing dance. So those sorts of things. So he has a generosity and an expectation that actors will do their work and bring what they need to bring, but then also specificity, he's also not shy about saying I think we've really found something in that scene, could you keep it more or less in that direction. So yeah, that combination and a rehearsal room with a lot of laughs, he really models I would say and sets the tone of how work is to be made.
Jo Reed: I wonder what guidance he gave all of you for Seven Guitars, like when you arrive and there you are book in hand.
Joy Jones: Well so one of the things, I'll say a technical thing is that in Seven Guitars as might not be surprising from the title he asked us to observe all of the numbers. So if I were to say the title, he might actually tell me to say Seven Guitars, so that there are lots of numbers in the play, and in the sort of again, the versed speaking or the elocution of it all, the numbers are all important, and wanted us to stress them, even his opening night gift was a number related gift as it happened. But beyond that he wanted us to connect to each other, to speak to each other, and to listen to each other. So again, I think that was part of the reason I was moved by your comments about my work earlier that he wanted us to really connect with one another on stage. The last thing I think I'll say about that is this particular production leans into the humor of the play or sort of the joy that these characters are having in leading their lives and doing the best that they can, and several people who actually have seen other productions, said that this one was funnier and had more music, and the music is in part because Roderick Lawrence as Floyd, he's a guitarist, he's a musician, he's a singer as well as an actor, so that is perfect casting. But we lean into the humor, and to give you another Shakespeare reference ad nauseum, Seven Guitars is not Romeo and Juliet, but it always occurs to me that Romeo and Juliet the play is really fun until bad things start happening. I mean, aside from the servants' brawl at the beginning, Juliet and Romeo meet at a party and fall in love and there's a certain amount of jubilation until complications ensue, and that's true for Seven Guitars as well that folks are trying to be together, trying to make their way, and I think, or some audience members have said that if we can laugh with the characters then when there are some more somber or poignant parts that contrast may be effective or may be touching because we've had these lighter moments. So I think those are some of the things that Tazewell definitely built.
Jo Reed: That makes sense because when you're laughing with some of the characters you're naturally just opening your heart to them there, so it's with an open heart that you see the rest, and music is integrated into this play, my goodness, and I mean most of it acapella, it's extraordinary, as is dancing -- was this at all choreographed or was this just you guys?
Joy Jones: This was us <laughs> and in our particular rehearsal process, yes, we didn't quite have time, and Tazewell didn't feel that we needed a choreographer. So I grew up taking ballet and some jazz dance in college, and my father is an avid amateur ballroom dancer, so definitely, and I attend his galas and as I may have said I've taken my own ballroom dance classes so come in with knowing how to keep a dance phrase and to be in partner dance, and then the characters are all listening to a boxing match and then having a party afterwards, all of that dancing was Tazewell saying okay, come up with something, or here's the music now show me something. Yes, that's all of us.
Jo Reed: That was extraordinary. Bravo. And you mentioned when you saw the films of earlier Black films in the 40s you looked at it and looked at the clothing, because the costumes for this show were knockouts, and I wonder how the costumes help you find your characters.
Joy Jones: They do very practically, and so again in giving credit, Harry Nadal is the costume designer of Seven Guitars, and he did a wonderful job, I'll concur with you. We all looked great, and Harry did a lot of historical research himself, and actually his research was so wonderful I asked for the archival photos of people, of African Americans in the 1940s from couples to friends to family groups, and you see details not only of the clothes but you see guys with their hats cocked at a rakish angle or how a woman might cross her legs or what have you, and then of course the movies that I watched. The costumes really tell a story in a number of ways. I'll say the costumes tell the body what to do to a degree, with these wonderful dresses I sort of automatically start smoothing the back of my dress to sit down in a chair for example or dance moves or how you walk up steps, etcetera, the clothes do start to tell you how you might move in addition to that historical work.
Jo Reed: You know, acting is such a nomadic career, and I wonder what it means for you to have been able to develop a working relationship with a director like Tazewell over four plays, I mean and at the same theater, in Arena Stage?
Joy Jones: It's really magical, yes, as you said nomadic, peripatetic, all those lovely words. For most theater actors and I would say on-camera actors as well we're going from job to job, which is the gift and the challenge, right? Variety is the gift and challenge of this life, that's for sure. So yes, to have an artistic home particularly with Tazewell, particularly in the city where I was born and raised is powerful, it is affirming, it means I know my way around the building, but it also means that there is a level of trust that's really special, and I keep in touch with Tazewell between projects not in any sort of campaigning way but because after four projects together we l like and enjoy each other's company as well.
Jo Reed: You were in Mary T. and Lizzy K., and it was the world premiere, and that was a play Tazewell not only directed but that he wrote, and I'm so curious about rehearsing a play when the playwright is in the room, and it's never been seen before.
Joy Jones: That's true with Jubilee as well where Tazewell was both the director and playwright. In those cases, my role as an actor is slightly different from a more established play like A Raisin in the Sun or a Seven Guitars because we know that those plays work, you know, because they've been done for years and now decades in both of those play's cases. With a new play, part of it is helping to bring the play to fruition, so there's a level of I would say exploration, they're also depending on the sort of room or process that the director has set up, there's also can be opportunity for an actor to ask questions and not to usurp the dramaturg's responsibility or the feedback from other directors, but it's to within our actor's lane of being responsible for our character to suggest or offer or ask questions, so is it possible that when this character does this thing or could I show you a version where da-da-da-da-da, and sometimes those questions or suggestions make it into the final version, and again I want to care to say it's not that one is helping to write the play but that within it one is trying to bring the play to fruition
Jo Reed: It's the creative adventure.
Joy Jones: Absolutely. Yes.
Jo Reed: How did you come to acting?
Joy Jones: I came to acting I would say accidentally through wonderful parents who wanted their kids to be culturally aware but not necessarily to be professional artists. So I took ballet lessons from I don't know maybe 7 to 14 or so, so I was a D.C. kid for anyone who's listening to this or knows the D.C. area, at the St. Mark's Church on Capitol Hill, then I also was part of the D.C. Youth Orchestra as a young violinist until actually through high school, from 7 to about 17 or 18, and then I'm one of those kids who, or generation of artists I would say who explored our art during the summer through Marion Barry’s Summer Youth Employment Program, and actually there's several generations of folks who are now either professional or amateur artists because of opportunities they got through that program. So it was D.C. Youth Ensemble, and we wrote our own plays and then we performed them around the city. I would say that level of engagement of you're creating a story, you're performing a story, you're sharing that story with others was something that was absolutely captivating for me just to use so many I'd say gifts and skills and capabilities was something that I have and do really enjoy.
Jo Reed: You work mostly on stage, but you also do screen work, you have a number of television credits. How would you describe the difference between acting on the stage and acting for the camera?
Joy Jones: That's a great question. I would say the skills are mostly the same as far as listening and responding to other people. To a degree it's about scale, so when one is doing on-camera work, the camera and the microphones are so much closer, physically closer, than the audience may be certainly in a space as large as the Fichandler, which is the largest of the three spaces that Arena has, I think it seats around 500 people or so. So it's really about scale, so if I can give a gross sort of analogy to your listeners it's the difference between talking with a friend at a table over lunch in a restaurant and calling to a friend down the street, I mean that's a really gross exaggeration but both your gestures, the amount of physical activation you're using to project vary. So I would say it's an adjustment of scale, and what I've also found is watching film and T.V. folks who've done a lot of film and T.V. and come back to do theater their acting is 100 percent authentic but for a theater audience member it looks a little small, and I know the reverse is true, so then theater acting can be a little big, a little large, and not inauthentic but just the cameras are so much-- the listeners and the viewers are so much closer so calibrating from one place to the other.
Jo Reed: Okay. Let me complicate this some more then because you also did some voice work in Vagrant Queen, and you played the Queen, Elida, and so there you are, you're in a booth and it's only your voice, your disembodied voice, no physicality to create a character. Did that take getting used to?
Joy Jones: It did. With on-camera acting and also with also with voiceover acting you are responding as if you are this character, but you're also with another part of your brain making sure that you're close enough but not too far away from the microphone or in the case of on-camera acting that you're not projecting too much but also that you're in the physical limits and movements of where the camera is set up so that it can see you, etcetera, but it's similar enough in that you're making pretend, and I don't mean to dismiss my own work, but it's a delight, and I also happen to love sci-fi and fantasy, actually during the pandemic very briefly in my sort of moment of despair which like a true actor I said oh this is despair, I should remember this in case I need this for a character, which is just like such an actor thing to do. Once I got out of my despair at the way of the world I said well if I ever get to act again is there anything that I want to do that I haven't done yet was be in a sci-film so I'm writing my own sci-fi film. My dad is a retired engineer from NASA, and I had just had the experience doing the voiceover for Elida in Vagrant Queen.
Jo Reed: I was going to ask you because the performing arts work it's so hard by the pandemic, first to close, last to open, and I was going to ask how you coped, and clearly in a mixed way as we all did.
Joy Jones: Absolutely. So writing my short film which is called Dream Flight, and also teaching voice and speech on Zoom, and doing some Zoom theater, and I'm a project person, have a lot of energy, at least a lot of creative energy. So it was finding those things and trying to be in the world but also rest when I needed to as I told a friend who's part of Arena's costume design team, I said that I wasn't at my best but doing my best. So for me it was being active but also noting what things might be delayed and what things or even people unfortunately might be lost in this time and find recentered and healthy as much as possible.
Jo Reed: And when you finally actually could be in a room with other actor4s and then on a stage in front of an audience, that must have been extraordinary.
Joy Jones: Yes! So the first couple of days of any rehearsal process I'm usually giddy anyway, like to the point where I’m like Joy, these people might thing that you're silly, but because I'm so delighted to be there because of course for many performing artists we work less in our chosen field than we would like to, so there's an absolute delight, but then you add on in this era of COVID being able to be in person and there's a bit of that to like even more, and not that I can speak for the audience, I think there might be some of that too. So thus far throughout the run many audiences have clapped after each scene which is as you may know as a theater goer which is not typical, and some friends came to see the show and they said well Joy, I think the clapping, the applause is not only for the show but also because people are delighted to be present. So we're experiencing that as well.
Jo Reed: What are you doing after Seven Guitars? Are you on to the next project or are you taking a little time to yourself?
Joy Jones: So Jo, in the new year, of course once I have some downtime, and even some morning time from the end of our Seven Guitars 2021 journey I will prepare for more projects in the spring, hopefully more T.V. and film projects to come including my own short film Dream Flight. So we'll see what 2022 has in store.
Jo Reed: That's great. Joy, thank you so much, thank you again for giving me your time, and for just the wonderful performances I've seen you in at Arena Stage. Thank you.
Joy Jones: Yay. Thank you, thank you, thank you, it's great to be able to share a little bit long form, and I've been diving into the archives of your podcast, so I'm also honored to join my colleagues in sharing the arts and culture journey.
Jo Reed: Oh, it's fun on my end too, let me tell you.
That was actor Joy Jones—we were talking about her recent role as Vera in August Wilson’s play Seven Guitars. Keep up with her projects at Thejoyjones.com. And checkout everything Arena Stage has to offer at arenastage.org.
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts
I’m Josephine Reed stay safe and thanks for listening.
In March 2020, Joy Jones was rehearsing the part of Vera in the Arena Stage production of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars directed by Tazewell Thompson. It’s not a surprise that Arena Stage would be mounting Seven Guitars. A long-time grantee of the National Endowment for the Arts, Arena Stage is a pioneer of the Regional Theater Movement and the largest company in the country dedicated to American plays and playwrights. The surprise came with the pandemic that closed theaters and brought the country to a halt or at least a pause. It took over a year and a half, but Seven Guitars finally opened at Arena Stage in late November 2021 with cast and audience equally jubilant. In this podcast, Joy Jones talks about the role of Vera, playing August Wilson, working with Tazewell Thompson, re-entering the rehearsal room and the stage after the shut down, and learning to love the arts as a kid in Washington DC.
(You can find my 2015 interview with Tazewell Thompson here).