Last week, LCT's Open Stages program brought high-school students from eight New York City public schools to two matinee performances of J. T. Rogers' acclaimed play, "Blood and Gifts." When I showed up at the cast dressing room a couple of days later, the actors were eager to talk about the teenagers' response. "Lively, raucous, energizing," said Michael Aronov, who plays the KGB operative Dmitri. "A bright, attentive group," said John Procaccino, who plays the CIA official Walter Barnes. Pej Vahdat, who plays the Afghan fighter Saeed, was especially moved by a story I mentioned to him - a story brought to my attention by Kati Koerner, who is LCT's Director of Education and on whom I have heavily relied for her assessment of the student audiences.
The story: "During Wednesday's show," Koerner said, "a student from the High School of Health Professions sat behind me and spoke the prayer in Arabic that Saeed recites for his father. The actor onstage in character and the kid observing from the audience, both reciting the same prayer - there was some kind of poetry in that conflation of time, space, fiction, and reality."
As for the talkbacks that the actors held with the students after each performance, Koerner mentioned that, at Thursday's discussion, a student from Pace High School asked if the actors felt there was ever truly trust between the Afghan rebels and the Americans. Bernard White, who plays the Afghan warlord Abdullah Khan, answered "Yes, I think so. I think there was this soul-level recognition between my character and Jim" [the American CIA agent played by Jeremy Davidson].
Jefferson Mays, who portrays the British MI-6 agent called Simon Craig, added, "In this play, there are so many different kinds of trust. In some sense, the trusts fight against each other. The characters are figuring out which idea of trust to cling to." For his part, Davidson said, "It's an American thing to trust what's in front of you. The difficulty for my character is in figuring out what trust means in cultures different from his own." White continued: "The bigger the trust, the bigger the betrayal."
A student from MLK Jr, HS of Law, Advocacy & Community Justice asked the actors if it is more difficult to act in a historical drama than a fictional one. Mays answered that "acting in a historical drama ups the stakes because you want to get the story right. It makes doing research that much more important. It challenges you to extend beyond yourself." He added that, ironically, to prepare for his role he read a great deal of fiction, especially by John LeCarré and Graham Greene. Another student asked if the characters are based on actual historical figures or are inventions of the playwright. Michael Aronov said that he read a lot of the same historical source materials as had the playwright, J.T. Rogers. This offered him valuable insight into how real-life KGB operatives spoke and acted in the field.
A final note: Students at both matinees laughed loudly at a speech made by Khan about how a father should regularly beat his children. At most performances of "Blood and Gifts," audience members find that moment dark and upsetting. But, to be fair, the students' laughter was, in the language of the play, less "ha-ha" than "stick-in-the-eye."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.