Imagine all the people
Forgiving John Lennon explores genuineness and the human connection
Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 21:02
If William Missouri Downs had been a bit older and more familiar with New York City, he probably would not have gotten lost on that fateful night 33 years ago. But he was young and learning, and upon returning from one of his first playwriting lessons, he took the wrong train home and found himself meandering down Central Park West by himself.
When he reached the famous Dakota apartment building, his eyes lingered on the ambulances and crowds of crying people, but it took him several blocks to realize he had just walked through the assassination of John Lennon.
Starting tonight and continuing through March 7, UB’s Department of Theatre and Dance will be presenting Downs’ play Forgiving John Lennon, a comedic drama about political correctness, genuine understanding and the situations that occur when the two don’t necessarily coincide.
The play revolves around married professors Joseph and Katie, played by sophomore theater performance major Michael Dempsey and sophomore chemical engineering and theater performance major Ashley Wurtz, respectively. Both professors carry themselves with a sense of pride – they believe themselves to be open-minded, freethinking souls who can do no wrong.
The couple works at a small liberal arts college, and in an attempt to impress their superiors, they invite Somalian poet Asma to read poetry and give a keynote speech – “for the students’ benefit.” But upon entering their house, Asma, played by freshman theater performance major Catherine Espinal, can immediately tell their sense of cultural understanding is skewed.
The conversation that ensues between the couple and Asma reveals to the characters and the audience that the professors’ motives in hosting Asma may not have been as altruistic as expected, and they’re more naive than they’d like to think.
Though Forgiving John Lennon doesn’t have much to do with the actual Beatle himself, the title is influenced from the Pope’s absolution of Lennon after his infamous statement that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus,” according to Downs.
According to Downs, people have molded Lennon’s ideas and lyrics – such as those of “Imagine,” which are discussed in the play – for their own benefit, detracting their meaning in the process. The element of fake understanding versus genuine understanding is one of the biggest themes of the play.
“We operate sometimes that all cultures, all ideas are equal and should be given the same amount of respect and the same amount of consideration,” Downs said. “For example, college professors often have to give both sides of the argument, and that’s not always a good idea because sometimes one of the sides is wrong.”
The couple’s clumsily desperate attempts to appease Asma reflect a common pattern in society in which people try to appear learned in an attempt to appear respectful, even though these attempts might actually fail.
“I think it’s really about how there’s such a dichotomy that exists within today’s society of trying so hard to be politically correct and pleasing everyone … and really missing the level of human understanding,” Wurtz said. “It’s not really about religion. It’s not really about politics. It’s about human connection and I think sometimes we lose that. I think this play’s a good reminder.”
Renowned actor and director Stephen McKinley Henderson (Lincoln) is directing Forgiving John Lennon, a fact that many of the students were excited about during the casting process. This is his first time directing the show, although he himself took part in a reading of the play years ago, where he originally met Downs.
Henderson is confident the students acting in Forgiving John Lennon, but he acknowledges the challenges that a drama of this nature presents.
“It’s a very challenging play because it’s people in a room talking about things that matter to them,” Henderson said. “There’s not a lot of action. There’s not any kind of risqué sexual stuff or anything like that, or any wild costumes. It’s really a drama. I’m really glad to have been a part of this because I see these young people who are taking on some really challenging roles are giving it 100 percent.”
To add pressure to the actors, unlike in many other productions that are put on by the Department of Theatre and Dance, the playwright will actually be in the audience on opening night. However, Henderson isn’t concerned, as Downs is a professor himself and Henderson believes his students are sufficiently prepared.
Junior theater performance major Giancarlo Gioia, who plays the delivery man, attributes his sense of preparation to the help he’s received from his director and the research he’s done for his part.
“Working with Steve, first of all, was just breathtaking, and to know that [Downs] will be here on Wednesday made it a lot more pressing that we did know all the facts,” Gioia said. “I feel like I’m coming out of this experience with a greater understanding of what the craft really is and how to utilize every bit of the script for the purposes of the play.”
Gioia isn’t the only one who put in time researching in order to nail his part. Much of the subject matter in the play deals with being Muslim and people’s differing views on the traditions and practices of Islam. Espinal isn’t Muslim herself, so she sought the help of the Muslim Student Association in order to ensure she portrayed Asma accurately and respectfully.