J.T. Rogers on Madagascar | Interview
The author of Blood and Gifts and The Overwhelming talks about his play Madagascar, opening in a new production at Evanston’s Next Theatre Company.
Director Kimberly Senior and Next Theatre Company scored a success in 2009 with playwright J.T. Rogers’s gripping Rwanda saga, The Overwhelming. Next and Senior return to the writer’s work with a production of his 2004 play Madagascar, an interlocking set of monologues that explores the disappearance of a young American; it opens Monday 24. Rogers called from his Brooklyn home to talk about the play and his career.
Why did you choose a monologue structure for Madagascar?
The interesting thing about Madagascar is that when it’s played, it doesn’t seem like a monologue play at all. There are three actors, and because the other two are always onstage and, more importantly, play characters, including themselves as remembered by the other people onstage, at times even contradicting what they say when they’re in their story, it’s much more fluid and, for lack of a better phrase, playlike, than, say, a traditional Irish monologue play.
With its divergent perspectives, the play reminds me of Kurosawa’s Rashomon.
I didn’t have it in mind, but, you know, everything you see ends up influencing you—I saw Rashomon God knows how many years ago. But I was really interested in the nature of memory; I’m fascinated in how my wife and I can have crystal-clear memories about something that happened between the two of us ten years ago, but if we start talking about it, the particulars are very different. It’s human nature: On the one hand we define ourselves by our memories, but what if our memories aren’t correct?
Much of your work involves significant research. Was that the case here?
Yes. I was delighted when Kimberly told me that the person playing Nathan, who’s an economist, has a degree in economics from the University of Chicago, the citadel of American economic training. I thought, Great! Someone who can appreciate all the inside jokes. Through a dear friend, who’s an economist, I got an intro to Econ 101, read lots and lots of stuff. But I always hope that the audience doesn’t focus on that, because the challenge is to make the story the point. Not, gee, let me tell you, audience, how clever I am and all these things I’ve learned, because that’s really boring.
Your writing ranges over some out-of-the-way settings. Where are you from?
I grew up in Columbia, Missouri; my father taught political science at the university. He specialized in Southeast Asian studies, so I lived as a child for a few years in different villages in Malaysia and Indonesia when he was on sabbatical. This was in 1977 and 1980. It was life-altering, going from the Midwest at age nine to a village where you didn’t know the language and had chickens running through your house. It set me on the road to be interested in the other, not just myself.