Background Characters in Docudrama

When creating a docudrama (a piece of art that recreates events that transpired in the past), it is imperative that the individuals onstage are portrayed as realistic characters and that the historical events are depicted as they truly happened—with as little bias or judgement as possible. This desire to remain objective has given birth to the subgenre of verbatim theatre, wherein the characters represented onstage speak the exact same words of their real-life counterparts. Playwrights Anna Deavere Smith of her series On the Road: The Search for American Character and Moisés Kaufman of the Tectonic Theater Project have come to embody this fact-finding philosophy with grace and efficacy. Their plays Fires in the Mirror and The Laramie Project seek to represent the events of the past and, if unable to uncover the truth of the events, aim to at least showcase the perspectives of the people involved in their respective crises.

One of the most important choices an artist needs to make in creating a piece of investigative theatre is what portion of the material is included in the final product—and in what order. In the performing arts, this sequence of decisions typically consists of arriving at a location, interviewing witnesses, gathering literary sources, and compiling the total information into theatrical scenes and acts to be performed for an audience. In this case, the material chosen to be included in the final script must be related to the main events of the story (the real-life incident the play depicts) as well as thematically relevant to the overarching message.

This might appear to be an obvious goal: only include characters who know what they’re talking about and are closely related to the narrative. In these two plays, however, what’s remarkable is how the authors use seemingly irrelevant characters and monologues as exposition or between the “main” roles. To achieve their goal of documenting real-life events in a theatrical format, both Smith and Kaufman supplement the firsthand accounts of those individuals closely linked to the inciting incident with scenes featuring characters more distantly connected to the main story. This is done for the audience’s benefit in order to provide important context, reinforce the theme, and construct a thorough representation of real-world events and locations.

The 1993 play Fires of the Mirror tells the story of the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, New York. Interviewed, written, and performed by the same person, Anna Deavere Smith puts on a production of the cultural conflict featuring viewpoints from both the Jewish and African American citizens. Following the goal of verbatim theatre, this play consists of word-for-word transcriptions and recitations of real interviews—each scene of the play, therefore, consists of a several-page monologue delivered from the voice of the person being interviewed.

One of the earlier monologues speaks to the notion of hidden value. On the phone with an anonymous Lubavitcher woman, Smith gets told a story which later she dubs “Static.” This monologue recounts an anecdote of a Jewish woman whose infant child inadvertently turns on a loud radio, and she is unable to turn it off because of religious taboo during the holiday. “We can’t turn off, we can’t turn off electrical, you know electricity, on Shabbas,” she says (Smith 7). Later, she realizes that it won’t be against the Torah to ask someone indirectly to turn off the radio, so she finds a non-Jewish resident to help her:

“So I went outside and I saw a little boy in the neighborhood who I didn’t know and didn’t know me—not Jewish, he was black and he wasn’t wearing a yarmulke because you can’t—so I went up to him and I said to him that my radio is on really loud and I can’t turn it off, could he help me, so he looked at me a little crazy like, Well? And I said I don’t know what to do, so he said okay, so he followed me into the house and he hears this music on so loud and so un pleasant and so he goes over to the stereo and he says ‘You see this little button here that says on and off? Push that in and that turns it off.’ And I just sort of stood there looking kind of dumb” (8).

This monologue and its content might seemingly be out of place in a play that documents the violent riots and cultural conflict that left two people dead and many injured; in a strictly plot- and character-oriented way of thinking, the anonymous Lubavitcher woman should not be present in this story. In terms of setting the stage for the main events of the play and introducing important context, however, this monologue is rife with effectiveness.

The woman’s tale synchronizes extremely well with the composition of the play and the four phases of social drama as defined by Richard Schechner. This takes place before the breach of norm—as evidenced by the woman’s lack of hesitance to interact with a black boy—and goes about establishing who the Jewish people are and what tenets they value. In terms of dramatic structure, the monologue fulfills the role of exposition; if the play began with the heightened and emotionally intense monologues found at the end of our version, there would be no chance to introduce many of the lifestyles and values that “Static” presents.

Another early monologue that may seem out of place is “Mirrors and Distortions,” as narrated by Aaron M. Bernstein. He is a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his interview with Smith consists of explaining how mirrors and telescopes work from a scientific standpoint.

“It’s a big subject, distortions. . . . And then there’s always something called the circle of confusion. So if ya don’t make the thing perfectly spherical or parabolic then, then, uh, if there are errors in the construction which you can see, it’s easy, if it’s huge, then you’re gonna have a circle of confusion, you see?” (14).

Of course, this might seem superfluous in a play about violent riots, but once again, it’s the thematic relevant that matters. It’s no accident Smith decides to title this piece “Mirrors and Distortions.” The information Bernstein shares does not relate to the story directly, but the word choice and metaphors used (however inadvertent they may have been at the time) are used by Smith to reinforce the overarching theme of distortion, confusion, and broken mirrors—a concept that the playwright wants to settle in the audience’s mind before the intensity begins.

In 1998 outside the town of Laramie, Wyoming, university student Matthew Shepard was strapped to a fence, tortured, and left for dead—suffering catastrophic injuries and dying six days later in emergency care. The murder became a media frenzy, and a nationwide discussion about homophobia and acceptance began. The next month, members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie to conduct interviews in the hopes of creating a piece of theatre about the event. As they did with all their productions, they had two goals: “(1) to examine the subject matter at hand, and (2) to explore theatrical language and form” (Kaufman VI).

This play is structured a little differently than the previous one; rather than a sequence of monologues, the play consists of dialogue and scenes, performed by several actors playing over two dozen roles. The character in this production who is seemingly in the background yet nonetheless provides important thematic context appears in the form of Jedadiah Schulz. His first appearance is his only direct connection to the events of the play—he mentions how Laramie is “defined by a crime” and how it will take some time to “get rid of that” (9). A few pages later, he has the longest monologue yet, which tells the story of how, as an acting student, he prepared for a competition using a scene from Angels in America—which he performed against his parents’ wishes due to its depiction of homosexuality. After claiming first place and a scholarship to the university, he admitted it was the best moment of his life (12).

Like the anonymous woman and Dr. Bernstein from Fires in the Mirror, Jedidiah’s character is not directly connected to the main events of the crisis—in this play’s case, the murder of Matthew Shepard and the subsequent court hearings. He was not close to Matthew, but he is used in the play on several occasions, scattered through the three acts. He has no direct plot connections, but his effectiveness as a character comes from his close thematic significance.

The acting student makes his second-to-last appearance in Act III, and arguably his most memorable moment comes when he describes the discussion with his parents about auditioning for a role in Angels in America once it’s performed by the University of Wyoming:

“We got into this huge argument . . . and my best, the best thing that I knew I had them on is it was just after they had seen me in a performance of Macbeth, and onstage like I murdered like a little kid, and Lady Macduff and these two other guys and like she goes, ‘Well, you know homosexuality is a sin’—she kept saying that—and I go, ‘Mom, I just played a murderer tonight. And you didn’t seem to have a problem with that . . .'” (85).

Like with Smith’s inclusion of background characters, Kaufman includes Schulz’s monologues with careful intention. What better way to showcase the apparent hypocrisy and intolerance of the people of Laramie, Wyoming than with parents who cherry-pick the sins they can tolerate seeing their son perform onstage? This isolated moment in the play is used as a representation of the entire town of Laramie and, to an extent, the nation as a whole. Jedadiah’s nameless parents symbolize the country’s lingering resentment towards homosexual people and, although it has no impact on the story, his monologues signify a strong reinforcement of thematic story elements.

Jedadiah only makes an appearance a few select times, but his character arc is evenly distributed across the play and, when he comes back at the end and reflects on his past statements, he is able to change just like some of the other characters. It is characters like the anonymous Lubavitcher woman, Dr. Bernstein, and Jedadiah Schulz that enhance the thematic energy of a piece of documentary theatre and help the playwrights carry out their goal of exploring what it means to be human in a world full of conflict.

Works Cited

Kaufman, Moisés. The Laramie Project. Vintage Books, 2001.

Smith, Anna Deavere. Fires in the Mirror. Anchor Books, 1993.

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