La Shawn Banks on American Players Theatre's "The Island"
APT connects the apartheid-era play to America’s history of racial violence.
American Players Theatre is revisiting the 1970 South African play The Island, running through September 26 in the indoor Touchstone Theatre, with an eye for the play's brutal intimacy. As the audience comes into the theater, actors La Shawn Banks (as John) and Chiké Johnson (as Winston) are already onstage, moving heavy sandbags back and forth from one location to another—one of many absurd tortures they endure as apathetid-era political prisoners on South Africa’s infamous Robben Island. Director Derrick Sanders uses the Touchstone's small size and an austere set to emphasize the isolation John and Winston's experience in prison, their desperation to maintain even the most illusory and tenuous connection to the outside world, and the touching, bickery, old-married-couple bond John and Winston have formed as cellmates. For the audience, the prisoners’ sweat and pain are inescapable—those sandbags are real, and the guards (Nick Ehlinger and Alistair Sewell) often force John and Winston to run around in circles while handcuffed together. At the play’s climax, the prisoners are allowed to stage an abridged production of the Greek tragedy Antigone, with John/Banks as an imperious, preening King Creon and Winston/Johnson as a fiercely defiant Antigone. Banks talked with me recently about the play’s enduring relevance in light of American violence against black people, the physical demands of the play and how The Island interprets Antigone.
Tone Madison: What's been the most challenging part of doing this show for you?
La Shawn Banks: Really, all of it. Every component is a lovely challenge. The play itself, though it is an older play, a little over 40 years old now, it's so relevant and timely right now to be doing the piece, and to be doing it at APT, for sure. I think it's one of the right pieces to be doing at this time, for sure. The challenges for me are language and the poetry of the piece. It's a mountain, every time, to climb, physically of course. We do a bit of physical work in it, definitely. I sweat the entire first few scenes of the play before I leave the stage in just a puddle of sweat. It's intense on a physical level, for sure, and a language level, definitely, and to uphold the piece and to make sure the arguments are clear so that people are sort of onto what we're doing and why we're doing it, that's definitely a challenge and a great gift.
Tone Madison: The director's notes for the play talk a lot about how it reflects racial issues and police violence in America today. Was there a lot of conversation about that when you began reading and rehearsing for the show, and how you wanted to make that come through?
La Shawn Banks: For sure. When we started rehearsal, it had been a few weeks after so much had happened in Baltimore and South Carolina hadn't happened yet. I think we were in the middle of tech when Baltimore happened. So, yeah, there was a lot of conversation. I mean, ironically, the last scene in the play, to me, is the way court cases happen right now in this country, and we're talking about Greek tragedies, a trial in a Greek play, but also 1972 and apartheid South Africa. You'd think we're far removed, but as we peel away these layers and really have conversations about what's happening in the world and what's happening in our country, you realize that while our bodies are no longer enslaved, there's so much that this country particularly just ravaged by the ghosts of slavery. It just is. A lot of that definitely came up while we were discovering the piece again.
Tone Madison: And there's a theme running through the play of the struggle to express yourself under those circumstances, and all that's pitted against you just in trying to express that in art or in a public protest.
La Shawn Banks: My struggles are different struggles, for sure, so one has to really open oneself to imagination and bravery and really sort of digging, digging in the piece and getting under it. Our director really pushed for that, fought for that. He didn't want anyone to feel that they could just—I mean, you can enjoy a night in the theater, but he didn't want people to sit back and go, "Ah, yes, this I know."
Tone Madison: When the audience comes in, before the actual performance starts, you and Chiké Johnson are carrying out this absurd task of moving sandbags back and forth from one place to another. It creates this air of suffering right away.
La Shawn Banks: The sweat is real, for sure. Yeah, they're definitely weighted for us, and it's a realistic weight. After many, many minutes of doing it, there you are—and for the actual characters, many hours of doing it. We've been doing it for hours, a whole day. He wanted full immersion in the piece from the time you enter the space until the time you leave it. And the Touchstone is crazy like that, because the way the doors close in the Touchstone, have you noticed them ever? They slide and it's like you're sealed in. I kind of love our show with that. It's very dramatic, it's like, "And now, you are in here with us for the next hour and 15 minutes."
Tone Madison: And not to spoil the end of the show, but in the final scene, is that meant to convey a feeling of futility, or is it something else? The way the show leaves you is a bit ambiguous.
La Shawn Banks: I don't want to tell you how to feel. I mean, you felt a futility?
Tone Madison: There's a note of futility but also a note of endurance, I guess.
La Shawn Banks: I guess I'm learning about it, because I'm still finding my way into the end of the play, if that makes any sense. I'm still discovering so much about the piece every time we do it. Luckily, we get several times. Yes, that futility is absolutely in there, along with—to me, it's representative of everyone in the struggle, and this is every human being, because every human being has a struggle, no matter what the color of your skin is. To judge someone based simply on the color of their skin negates their entire story. So I believe any snap judgment we make negates someone's entire story, or someone's entire truth.... That futility is in there, that hope is in there, that resilience is in there, that endurance is in there, the oppression is still there, it's all present, and I think that's what that is.
Tone Madison: Another really important component to the show is the intimacy between John and Winston—that's where all the warmth and humor in the play comes from. Did you put a lot of work into sort of creating that sense of intimacy in the midst of this very bleak situation?
La Shawn Banks: Yeah, I think the circumstances of the play certainly give you the opportunity to bond, if you're not complete and total jackasses and have open hearts and minds and good spirits. We really all lucked out with Chiké Johnson. I mean, he's a wonderful, beautiful human being and a fantastic actor and artist and so giving and so gracious. It wasn't hard to create that. Though I perform publicly, I'm very much an introvert, but there's never been a single day, from the moment we began, where I didn't really feel comfortable with him. He just really inspires that. And thank god for that, because it is so what is required. It'd be very difficult to do this with a person that I didn't like, [laughs] or that I didn't work well with, I should say. It really helps that he's a really stand-up guy and an amazing person and an amazing father, and all the things he brings to the truth of what he's doing. I've learned so much, and we laughed during this process, a lot, and we continue to laugh. It's been a joy with him, absolutely.
Tone Madison: How did working on this show change the way that you look at Antigone and other works of Greek theater?
La Shawn Banks: With the Antigone portion of it, I think the Greeks were onto something. They understood the absurdity of the emotions, or how these emotions of pride and jealousy and a need and desire for power, how it derails our humanity. The Greeks understood that, so they wrote these great plays about how, if you're not careful, this is what happens. And obviously [the play’s authors] Athol Fugard and John Kani and Winston Ntshona, they were onto that, that the Greeks had something to say. And that's the beautiful irony of oppression of any kind. All these truths are already out there about how we should treat each other. We already know exactly what to do, and we just don't do it. Or we do it in our own corner of the world, or in small pockets, which is how it starts, absolutely. The Antigone portion of it is so relevant to me now. That's exactly why we still do those plays. What The Island makes me want to do is be a better human being, a better artist, a better soldier in my own humanity, in my own fight—not to be radical and burn things down, but to be radical and burn things down in my work. I just watched the new documentary about Nina Simone on Netflix, it's called What Happened, Miss Simone?, which was actually a question from Maya Angelou, that's where the title of the documentary came from. And you watch that and you just realize that if you're an artist and you are not using your platform—and not to make speeches or talk down or to condescend—but if you're not using your artistry to force change, why are you doing it? That's what it's for. In a world like the world we're living in right now, in 2015, you have to do art that inspires conversation, if nothing else. People went home talking about The Island the other night, whether they liked it or hated it. They were home talking about it, I promise you. That's what it's about. Even in Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, you go home talking about what happened. That's what it's supposed to be about. You talk about the disenfranchised in that group of people. Every play has one. So if we're not finding the radical spirit of all the work that we do, we're doing it completely wrong.
Tone Madison: Nina Simone's an interesting reference point. I still haven't gotten to see that new documentary—
La Shawn Banks: You should absolutely watch it. If you want to understand the boundaries of your freedom even more, you should definitely watch that. It's quite inspiring.
Tone Madison: The whole play-within-a-play thing gives your character, John, an interesting arc, because you go from being humiliated to being this pompous king. Creon always comes off as not just unsympathetic, but a bit weak in his way. Do you find that there are some interesting layers there in terms of masculinity and power?
La Shawn Banks: Why don't you tell me what you thought. I'm not sure that I thought of it that way. You mean the arc of John into Creon?
Tone Madison: Right, the way that John plays Creon. He seems to make a lot of interesting choices in that portrayal. How did you think this character interprets the role of Creon?
La Shawn Banks: There was a lot of discussion about him physically, for sure. Whenever we worked on that scene, we talked about just the amount of space, his size, because the language is so big and the ideas are so big, and then you're doing Greek tragedy played in South Africa. We as John and Winston have to imagine the audience of prisoners, a room full of incarcerated black men. That's who the end of the play is for, though the irony and layering of it is that in actuality it's a room full of white people. In our world, there's only a few white people in that room and they represent guards and the warden and the people who are in charge of the prison. It's such a weird juxtaposition theatrically, anyway. It just requires a delivery that you cannot be small. It doesn't work. We tried it. And trying to find size in the Touchstone is very interesting, because it does ring as something that is really big in there. It's kind of like doing a play on a film set, being in there. So yeah, there was a lot of discussion about him physically and I worked to make sure his physical life is as large as the life as his words, you know. One has to, I think, find that size—and he's a king, which is a lot of fun to play. Our director, Derrick Sanders, at one point in rehearsal had spoken about when he was in school, and when he did the play before as an actor, someone had told him that when imagining yourself as someone this size, imagine there are six people in front of you and on either side of you and in back of you, and that's how large you have to be. I think it's called the doppleganger exercise—you just imagine you have 24 dopplegangers, 24 other yous, and that's the size of you. When others drop in imagery that like that, I devour that, because it just fuels my work. That was kind of the discussion that was how we arrived at, and how we still are arrived at, what Creon is, and what Creon is in comparison to Antigone.