Humanist’s lessons from The Originalist, a play

Humanist’s lessons from The Originalist, a play

Why not ask Antonin Scalia (1936-3016), once the most polarizing figure in American political life? This play, however, is not exclusively about the late Justice Scalia, although excerpts from his dissents and opinions are included here. But it uses the character Scalia to get to the question, what does it take to suppress our fear and distrust, move toward the middle and sit down with the monsters? The answer – courage, a little humility, and an open mind—it is where the hope comes in.” —John Strand, 2017

Two actors, Ed Gero and Jade Wheeler, are opposites in age, one in his well-seasoned prime years; the other, a young adult.

Gero wore sneakers, shorts and a casual jacket, with “The Originalist” emblazoned. Wheeler wore boots with a denim jacket and donned an Afro hairdo. Both are warm, welcoming, and easily connected with this writer.

Heart to heart connections

I interviewed Gero and Wheeler on Wednesday, April 26, at the Pasadena Playhouse’s library, an old world structure, founded by Gilmor Brown. The original 1916 desk that Brown used is still in the library, with wall-to-wall mahogany bookshelves, leather chairs, and ancient rugs.

Brown founded the Playhouse, known as the California State Theater in Pasadena, nicknamed the “Athens of the West” by George Bernard Shaw.

Gero shared how he traced his roots to Cassano Irpino, in Avellino, Campania in Southern Italy. Cassano Irpino means a people descended from the Greeks, a “land populated by wolves all over the hills,” its current population is at 1,014.

His resemblance to the late Justice Scalia was striking, perhaps because Scalia’s parents came from Sicily, while Gero’s great grandparents were from Cassano Irpino in Southern Italy.

He spoke of the first-generation Italians who lost their birth connections when they came to America. Some could not read nor write. They were also forbidden to speak Italian by their parents (to hasten their American assimilation), and their further disconnection was facilitated by World War II and when Italy aligned with Germany’s Nazis and ended up on the wrong side of history.

The second-generation Italians have a memory culture, able to only speak some Italian phrases, interspersed with English, a mixture.

“They want to forget,” Gero said, “while I want to connect.”

Gero, a third generation Italian-American, wants to understand his roots. He said, “I had to learn the language, as language is the culture. To really understand what they value, I had to learn the language. There is a phrase, Tutto Insieme, which means everyone together. They work together, they eat together, they live together, they rest together.”

He shared a very touching back-story of looking for his great grandfather’s grave, which made both of us cry — a beautiful moment of humanity, similar to what I encountered with Wheeler, when she shared her early childhood in the Philippines at 6 years old.

Her father, Lester Wheeler, was in the Navy, assigned to Subic Bay. Months after Mt Pinatubo erupted, they arrived to find folks still wearing masks because of the volcanic ash, and they ​chose to live outside o​f​ the bases, ​and the US Bases would shut down shortly.​

They lived in a house, surrounded by palm trees, overlooking the beach with a dog, and house help.

Wheeler describes herself as a mundivagant actor, one who travels the same world, “travelling with wanderlust, to be in awe, without a sense of place, sort of nomadic,” she said, and “whose art takes her places: France, Spain, London, Boston, Miami, Ireland, Catalonia and now, Los Angeles.​”

“I believe that the arts serve as a sort of diplomacy — a socioeconomic bridge if you will. Each individual’s discipline stands to offer a voice to the oppressed, a sense of unity, and therapy, no matter the platform we choose,” she added.

Her ​father’s family are originally from Cape Verde, a coastal country of 10 islands off West Africa​, as well as Europe, while her mother is from Virginia.​

She grew up overseas, which allowed her to be more open to the influences of languages, and able to communicate with folks. “When someone offers you a word in their language, it is a gift,” she said.

She speaks English, Spanish, ​French, and when young, ​Sicilian dialect, and a little ​Russian and Swedish.

She learned Tagalog phrases of salamat, which means thank you and paalam, meaning goodbye. I taught her a third one, mahal kita, which means, I love you.

She appreciates languages, for example, there might exist one Swedish word to explain something, yet with no comparable English translation.

It makes her want to discover other languages, immerse in them and with her desire to communicate, she discovered that “there is something about bridging gaps and allowing language to bridge those gaps, that even without words, something greater is shared​, which transcends words.”

Could that be a soul-to-soul connection perhaps, wherein a soul-bearing weight of humanity, that rises to one’s body, to one’s heart, then to one’s mind, become​s a shared unity of two strangers?

I asked her about her favorite lines in the play. To which she replied, “One of my favorite lines is when Cat talked about humility, she mentions humility, but I do not want to give away the lines, because even if you are the smartest, the bravest, most beautiful, handsome person, if you do not have humility, it shows a lack of heart and it shows lacking self-examination. One must be humble enough to allow another [perspective], you learn so much more if you do. When Galileo posited that the world might not be flat, people just couldn’t imagine, and look at what happened to him. He ended up being right. Then, they were not quite humble to be wrong. The whole view of the dialectic, the two sides of the issue, it is easy to say win or lose, but what do I go to bat for?”

In Los Angeles, she feels at home. “It is like sitting in a comfortable chair, where I did not need to learn directions but simply fit in with LA’s very open, diverse lifestyle of experiencing different cultures. I got a tour of Little Armenia and Cambodia,” she said, to which I asked, “How about Historic Filipinotown?” She jumped at the idea.

At this point, Gero walked in for his interview portion, but not before Wheeler acknowledged his help to prepare for her role as Cat, the fictional law clerk in the play. Gero had given her the eulogies of the law clerks for Justice Scalia, and from those eulogies, she derived the feelings to reveal the evolution of Cat in the play.

Cat is an amalgamation of several law clerks, based on the imagination of John Strand, an adept playwright, who wrote crisp dialogue lines, a realistic sparring between two smart people that you are hooked to, listening. It did not feel like they were reading a book,​instead, actively engag​ing one another.

It is a respectful exchange, though passionate and with lots of conviction, between Gero (played Scalia) and Wheeler (played Cat)​, allowed themselves to be influenced by one another. A third intern, Brad (played by ​Brett Mack), showed the contrast and their food fight in words, with cutting to the bone language, wounding themselves emotionally to become each other’s monsters.

The fight between Cat and Brad simulates the scathing dissent written by Justice Scalia in Obergefell vs. Hodges, which I read. Scalia criticized his five judicial colleagues’ hubris, who ruled in favor of gay marriage, while his arrogantly written dissent simply mirrored back the hubris he perceived of them.

Life’s lessons from Shakespeare, mentors and dramaturgical team

Gero shared that his humanist bible is Shakespeare, and recited the lines of Edgar in King Lear, “What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure/Their going hence even as their coming hither./Ripeness is all. Come on.”

“It is what it is, accept the realities as they are,” Gero added.

“Shakespeare is about the transformation of the human spirit,” Gero said, “the protagonists come to an understanding of themselves, where in comedies, the eventuality or the outcome is yet to come, while in drama and tragedies, the outcome has already happened.”

Does golf also teach you life lessons as Shakespeare, I asked? To which, Gero said, “yes, golf is a perfect game to learn about personal integrity, tempo, creative visualization.”

Like Scalia, Gero is a textualist, he adheres to the text in teaching three classes: characterization, script analysis, and acting Shakespeare, “90 percent of analysis is definition, what, why and how it happens comes after. We must be able to identify, define and amass evidence of a playwright before interpretation.”

He credits his mentors: Jim Albertson, Dennis McDonald, Jerome Rockwood and Ada Brown Mather for three years of private lessons in the theater. He dug into the classics and did Shakespeare for 15 years. He is an integrated artist, teaching three subjects by day and acting in a play by night.

Gero prepared for this play for a year, reading federalist papers, and listened to the oral arguments of Obergefell vs. Hodges during that day. He attended lunch at Scalia’s chambers that day, and after their meal, he encountered a fortune cookie message, which read: “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes.

That night, Gero was Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in the play, “The Originalist.”

The civil discourses between Justice Scalia and Cat, the law clerk, showed high levels of respect, that it was much more than a display of theatrics.

When the play was first shown on the East Coast in 2015, the New York Times and the Washington Post gave high marks to “The Originalist,” a generous interpretation of Justice Scalia, the character. Bethesda Magazine wrote that 19,000 folks saw the play.

The rapt audience listened to every word, hoping to “read the tea leaves,” and to gain an insight into the Supreme Court’s upcoming judgment.

That year, 2015, Washington was into any conversation about politics, as it was a year before the presidential elections. The play was performed to a “hot room temperature” audience.

Gero refers to this “high art” play as “one that is not purely entertainment, but has a teaching moment, an invitation to reconsider what is true, an invitation for transformation, to suspend our own, to perhaps go outside our own box, to listen. The court is a great Socratic classroom, the best synthesis of arguments on both sides, let me consider this argument, then a counter-argument, and with the thesis and the anti-thesis, the synthesis, resulting in not a “No, but,” instead, “Yes, and. We are more than our belief systems,” Gero emphasized.

The civil discourse and dialogue between Justice Scalia and the law clerk, Cat, in “The Originalist” is a must to see and to enjoy. It invites us all to talk like Scalia and Cat and not talk like Cat and Brad in the play.

The play runs until May 7 with a post-show panel discussion each night. Catch it, as it could demonstrate teaching moments on why we must learn to engage differently, to not simply listen to speak our turn or accuse the other as a monster, but to listen with our hearts, to understand what matters, what the other person values, and in the process, we might all change to become a much better America!

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