Photo: Gary W. Sweetman
Photo: Gary W. Sweetman

Talking Controversy with The Originalist’s Jade Wheeler

Enemies of division, rejoice. Award-winning political drama The Originalist is returning to Arena Stage tonight. The provocative play tells the story of a liberal law clerk, Cat (Jade Wheeler), who is hired by the late Justice Antonin Scalia (Edward Gero.) At a time of little political middle ground, their relationship turns into one of fierce political sparring and admiration.

Wheeler, lead actress and former DC local, told us her thoughts on today’s political division, how she prepped for a legalese-heavy, explosive drama and how her own politics affect her role as Cat. Her resume includes local performances in venues like the Kennedy Center, Woolly Mammoth and Shakespeare Theatre Company. And when it came to talking controversy – which the play, like its late subject, embraces – Wheeler didn’t shy away.

On Tap: Antonin Scalia ruffled a lot of feathers, to put it mildly. Why should people come see a play about him? What do we gain from dramatizing the life of such a controversial figure?
Jade Wheeler: There have been many plays written about controversial figures, so I hope the subject won’t deter people. [Playwright] John Strand was aware of the tense sociopolitical climate when he wrote this play. He begs the question, “How can we listen to, and not demonize, someone we disagree with?” He added, “There’s a lot of humanity that gets overlooked.”

OT: Why should people on the left come see this? And people on the right?
JW: People should come see this. Period. The divisiveness is poisonous and steering us away from progress. Strand employs the characters Scalia and Cat to broach the wider issue of how we engage in a dialectic – especially with someone who doesn’t share the same point of view.

OT: How do your personal politics come into play as you prepare for the role?
JW: Overall, I try to keep my beliefs out of it. If I have opinions that align with Cat’s and feed the truth of the moment, cool. But if something doesn’t serve her journey, then I leave it at the door.

OT: What do you hope the audience will take from this performance? In a politically fraught time, what should this play do for people?
JW: Nowadays, we are so quick to unfriend, unfollow or block people for thinking differently from us. There’s a hypocrisy that needs to be addressed because, at the end of the day, most of us are seeking truth. Percy Shelley wrote, “I always find the bottom of the well, and they say truth lies there.”

OT: Tell me a little about your creative process. How are you prepping for this role?
JW: My initial prep included a lot of index cards – there was so much to research. Finding Cat’s voice and her physical life was a priority. But the craftwork and relationships get deeper when working with castmates Edward Gero and Brett Mack. This is our third time performing this piece together; I am extremely humbled and honored.

OT: What’s the role of performance art in politics, and vice versa?
JW: The arts and politics have a long and complicated history. My short answer is that performance art is often used to bring awareness to the masses. Politics and economics, however, do have a major role regarding issues such as censorship and funding of the arts.

OT: And finally, slightly unrelated to the play but as a fellow George Mason Patriot alum, I have to ask: where do you stand on the highly-protested renaming of Mason’s law school after Scalia?
JW: I think I’d have to defer to the students and faculty of the law school on this one. I will say that our country has more than a few institutions with names on them that could or should be reconsidered.

Whether you appreciated Scalia’s legal aptitude or loathed his influence, The Originalist tells a humanizing story about breaching political divides with a can’t-miss cast. Catch The Originalist at Arena Stage from July 7 to July 30. Tickets are $40-$90 and can be purchased from www.arenastage.org.

Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC; 202-554-9066; www.arenastage.org

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Reem Nadeem

Reem is a Cairo-DC transplant, teacher and journalist. She has a B.A. in English from George Mason University. If she isn’t writing, teaching or staring longingly into the cat shelter next to On Tap’s office, she probably has her nose in a book.