Guest Blog: How to Enact Democracy?

This essay was written by Sarah Ruffling Robbins, PhD of TCU. As holder of the Lorraine Sherley Chair in Literature at TCU, Sarah teaches courses in American culture and writing studies for graduate and undergraduate students.  She approached Executive Producer Dana Schultes mid summer about submitting a paper on the play JQA to an academic journal called Scripting the Past in the Present: Early America and Contemporary Culture. In the meantime, while waiting on word about that, she had such a great time at the play she decided to write a review for general audiences as well. Be sure to read the piece on her site to see accompanying photos.

How to Enact Democracy?

Sarah Ruffing Robbins: Moving from Archive to Action | OCT 11, 2021

JQA at Stage West Deftly Asks This Question about The Past and Today

In March of 2019, Aaron Posner directed the first production of his own 90-minute play about John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), the “other” Adams to serve as US President, like his father John Adams for only one term. That premiere at the Arena Stage In Washington, DC, pointedly drew on ways that then-President Trump and the divisions he was stoking resonated with trends evident in the early Republic. Another production of Posner’s play in 2020 in San Diego showed up only via a filmed version in the fall 2020 election season, when theatre companies were seeking ways to reach their audiences during some of the scariest days of the COVID pandemic. While acknowledging the limitations of streaming versus in-person staging, reviews of that production, like the original show commissioned for DC, reiterated ways that Trump’s presidency seemed both to recall prior conflicts and exacerbate persistent challenges to our democracy—including race relations and politicians’ reluctance to compromise.

The regional premiere of JQA at Stage West in Fort Worth extends these patterns from the earlier productions. Key lines in the dialogue seem tied as closely to current politics as to particular moments in Adams’s intriguing life. And the lingering questions about how the arts can thrive during a pandemic hover over the production in the form of a mask requirement for the audience, repeated testing of the four cast members each week, and new processes for such formerly mundane steps as securing and showing tickets.

But this well-wrought production also benefits from the passage of time since previous ones. The live audience—many attending an arts event for the first time in over a year—generates a welcome, palpable energy. The intimate, yet safe-feeling environment of its roomy in-the-round seating (in one of two theatres at Stage West) provides an ideal arrangement for JQA, with its multiple sketches set in small spaces like Congressional offices and home studies.

Also, JQA becomes all the more complex in its historical echoing through a time that is both post-Trump and still-Trump: the play’s recurring questions about how to preserve the experiment of democratic governance are perhaps even more high-stakes now, having expanded beyond worry over an individual personality to concerns about what the rise and lingering draw of that personality say about our national capacity for good governance.

Under the capable direction of Emily Scott Banks–supported by Stage West’s appealing cast, skilled costuming, and creative set design–this JQA shines as a thought-provoking drama of ideas linked to, yet reaching beyond, our present time.

What is “Good Government”?

Posner’s script, with its call for a diverse cast of “four actors of various ages, gender and ethnicities” clearly nods to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton juggernaut via a shared vision of a a diverse national community stretching across centuries. But if Hamilton derived much of its impact from high-energy song and dance with a contemporary rap-and-jazz beat, JQA seeks a far more reflective tone. Stage West’s production aptly encourages the audience to adopt that contemplative stance by having two actors model careful listening during every scene. Perched in various positions just at the edge of the raised center stage, they watch and listen intently as, in sketch after sketch, two different actors from the rotating team pairings take turns re-visiting Adams in action, but more so in dialogic thought.

Whether JQA is hearing from his mother that “To be good, and to do Good, is the whole duty of man,” or an equally circumspect Adams is being pressed by Frederick Douglass to “do more” to oppose slavery, whichever two actors hold the conversation, the other two implicitly ask the audience to pay attention. And, their modeling suggests, when we do pay attention, we make better-informed use of a history that blends imaginative re-engagement with pragmatic ongoing choices such as the Henry Clay character’s call to “compromise” when necessary.

Taken all together, the brief scenes tell two stories, personal and social. JQA revisits key moments from the life of its title character’s learning to govern—both himself and the nation. Each scene involves a pivotal dialogue between Adams and one other figure important to his characterization and also to our national story. The first occurs around the dawn of the Republic, when John Adams the elder calls his young son to task for a mischievous lack of self-control. The last locates JQA at the end of his career, in 1847, shortly before his death, and long after his single-term presidency, as he continued his public service through many years in Congress. In between, Adams (played by each of the four compelling actors at various stages) has lively exchanges with historical figures ranging from Founding Father George Washington to scary-populist Andrew Jackson, to an up-and-coming young Congressman, Abraham Lincoln.

A headnote on Posner’s script describes these scenes as “Fictitious Encounters” with “Sundry Family Members & Political Associates On the subjects of Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of a More Rational Relationship with Government.” The playwright has his four actors emphasize the fictive nature of the scenes when they first appear on stage, setting out costumes and arranging furniture. In overlapping voices, they explain that the dialogues “never happened” exactly as shown. They offer no claim “to be historically accurate.” Instead, they say, “This is not historical fiction… but fictional history.” So, the prelude suggests, and language throughout the sketches reemphasize, what we have here is historical examination of persistent themes: still-unresolved questions about our democracy’s capabilities and our own responsibilities for safeguarding it.

Discouraging AND Aspirational

Stage West’s production acknowledges how difficult good governance can be, whatever specific era we live in. One time-jolting scene has George Washington deftly convincing a young John Quincy Adams to accept an appointment as a US government representative to the Netherlands. On the edge of that conversation, actors J. R. Bradford and Randy Pearlman don dark glasses, wear headphones, and adopt body stances evocative of Secret Service protection for presidents today. The personal danger individuals take on in doing high-profile public service initially seems anachronistic as deployed through these current-day markers. But these details simultaneously remind the audience that Washington (here a Biden-esque Nancy Sherrard) was a vulnerable person, not just a cardboard figure who knew the way conflicts he was facing would turn out.  

Similarly, when Bradford as JQA announces to his wife Louisa (Shyama Nithiananda) that he’s accepting a diplomatic post to Russia, her determined push for him to consider the high cost to their private life, and especially to their children, their scene poignantly emphasizes that big national issues have domestic consequences. Political families, in particular, make personal choices and face struggles only partially visible, if at all, to the public who benefit from their service.

If the play holds many such warnings in its tight 90-minute structure, it also offers hope. The same actor (Nithiananda) who embodies a boyish JQA, full of energy and uncertain his own leadership capacity, also takes on a youthful pre-presidential Lincoln toward the close. Perhaps we can grow to a more mature wisdom, if not always to monumental greatness. The same actor (Bradford) who spouts unnerving propagandistic slogans as Andrew Jackson reappears later as a moral touchstone in Frederick Douglass. Perhaps we, as a nation embodied in our leaders, can learn, change, find a better moral compass.

In the wrong hands, spoken with less calibrated voices, the play’s individual scenes and overall thrust could be too preachy, too oversimplified. This production, however, captures an appealing balance. Stage West’s JQA is aspirational and affirming for America, on multiple levels.

When the actors pack up costumes and rearrange props prior to exiting at the play’s end, the audience has some confidence that our United States may indeed “Do right” in the long run. Yet, as the four players who have given such nuance to our national character leave their theatre’s in-the-round staging and the lights come up, the spectators can’t avoid seeing each other in the seats surrounding the set. Even in our masks, we must confront the future in interpersonal terms. We ourselves must decide how to use this dramatic history lesson—or not, as in JQA’s words near the end: “We will have to choose what kind of a nation we want to be.”