Jefferson Mays Shares His Gifts
Tony Award-winning actor Jefferson Mays is currently starring Off-Broadway in Lincoln Center Theater’s production of J.T. Roger’s Blood and Gifts, at the Mitzi Newhouse, directed by Bartlett Sher. The epic play covers ten years (1981-1991) in the cold war as it manifested itself in Afghanistan with the C.I.A. arming Afghan Mujahideen to fight the Soviet army. Mays plays an MI5 agent working with the C.I.A. and Pakistani officials in Islamabad to smuggle weapons to the Mujahideen. TheaterMania recently spoke with Mays about preparing for the role, the rehearsal process, and his relationship with playwright Rogers.
THEATERMANIA: How did you get involved in Blood and Gifts?
JEFFERSON MAYS: Well, I’d been a friend of J.T’s for a number of years. I first met him when I auditioned for a play of his called White People about 12 years ago. I fell in love with his writing and had a great time in the audition, and then they cast some unknown actor, Robert Sean Leonard, in the role instead of me, but I’ve since forgiven him. We were always talking about doing something together, and then this came up. I did a workshop of it three years ago at New Dramatists, and I remember at the time thinking, “oh, you poor bastard. Everything’s going to be resolved in Afghanistan by the time this gets produced.” And of course, you know…
TM: With everything that’s still going on, the current war in Afghanistan feels like an unspoken character. How did you prepare for your role?
JM: I think I can speak for the entire company when I say this: everyone has really steeped themselves in the political and cultural history of the region. One of the actors, Bernie White, who plays Abdullah Khan, showed up the first day of rehearsal in full Afghan regalia. He wore it around every day on errands and on the subway as he was learning Pashto, the language of his character’s part of Afghanistan. They’re such a serious and curious group of actors. It’s been a thrill to work with them.
TM: It’s surprising given the subject matter that there are really no heroes and villains in the play.
JM: Yeah, that’s a great observation, and another thing I always admired about J.T. as a writer. He certainly doesn’t write with any sort of agenda. He writes to discover things. A lot of people say to write what you know, and he quite deliberately and courageously writes what he doesn’t know. If something irritates or confounds him, he will investigate that through his writing as he did with his play, The Overwhelming, about Rwanda and he certainly does it with this. I think when you’re writing to discover something, there are no heroes and villains; and it certainly isn’t tidy.
TM: And yet, your character, the C.I.A. agent, and the Soviet agent all seem to be driven by this moral force.
JM: Yes, they’re all doing the best they can.
TM: Did you discuss this in rehearsal?
JM: We talked about it with Bart. I think its probably a general rule for all acting, whether you’re playing Richard III or Iago, you’re making a bunch of right decisions. You’re acting in your own self-interest sometimes, but you’re always doing the right thing.
TM: Nobody thinks they’re the bad guy.
JM: Right, nobody’s twiddling their mustaches, wringing their hands and cackling fiendishly. I think that’s an interesting way to approach a role.
TM: What surprised you most about the rehearsal process?
JM: I think it’s the way it took shape and Bart’s vision. When I read the play, I thought there’d be scene changes and mud huts in Afghanistan and the busy streets of Islamabad, and that it’d be moving around cinematically from scene to scene. From what I understand, I think the London production may have been that way as they had a much larger space, and a cast of thousands. Bart, though, directed this like it was almost a Shakespearean history play; he’s made it truly theatrical, with those wonderful low Afghan benches that [set designer] Michael Yeargan came up with around the mosaic tile floor and having characters who are not in the scene but are spoken of sitting there, so you as the character can refer to them. I think that helps the audience keep all their ducks in a row, and it’s great for an actor having this physical presence watching you. Someone you can turn to, scream at and point to as the case may be.
TM: The way the scenes bleed into each other, so characters who never meet each other still lock eyes as they pass by on the stage, gives the play a feeling of interconnectedness.
JM: Exactly, all these little dynamic, interstitial scenes help add texture and propel the play forward. It has to constantly escalate.