In his autobiography, Malcolm X noted that when he was a young, wayward street hustler, he often interacted with underworld figures whose intellectual acumen could have been put to good use in science, math or the humanities, if given a chance.
Sally Wingert sees a bit of Malcolm in Paul, the young, black gay hustler who pretends to be Sidney Poitier’s son and cons a wealthy white family in the drama “Six Degrees of Separation.” Charismatic and charming, he quickly learns the codes of upper-crust white society — something that shows he has promise despite his actions, Wingert said: “He has brilliant potential but isn’t born into the right circumstances to realize his gifts.”
The veteran actress plays wealthy Upper East Side hostess Ouisa in a Theater Latté Da production of “Six Degrees” that opens Saturday in Minneapolis.
Wingert has a deep connection to John Guare’s 1990 one-act, having been part of a memorable 2003 production at the Guthrie Theater. That production took a cue from the art-world characters and played with perspective. This staging will realize similar things, said Wingert.
“It’s about the illusions, and illusory worlds, we create for ourselves,” she said. “The same way that Paul has to tell lies, Ouisa and Flan do as well. They’re living on a higher plateau, clearly, but they are one painting-sale away from having their illusion blown. Everything with them appears perfect until we find out they’re on very thin ice.”
‘Six Degrees’ history
The 1990 one-act reunites Wingert with Mark Benninghofen, who also was her partner in Latté Da’s recent “Sweeney Todd.”
Their director in both shows, theater founder Peter Rothstein, has a connection to the playwright. In the summer of 1991, while on break from graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Rothstein visited his roommate in Manhattan.
“He lived in the same building as John Guare, and his parents were kind enough to set up a coffee with him,” said Rothstein. “I spent two hours with [Guare] in his apartment, which was stacked floor to ceiling with books. You couldn’t see a wall.”
When it debuted, “Six Degrees” was a brave work to stage, said Rothstein. “You have to remember that we were still in the grip of the AIDS crisis, which demonized gays, and that Jeffrey Dahmer had just been arrested for murdering and dismembering gay men. It was a scary time, and then to have this bold, black gay character onstage.”
Coincidentally, the play is getting a Broadway revival that opens next month. Its original 14-month run on Broadway led to a Pulitzer Prize nomination and a movie starring Will Smith — the superstar’s first major film role — while Stockard Channing’s portrayal of Ouisa scored an Oscar nomination as best actress.
Latté Da is known for doing musicals, or music-infused work. As Rothstein approached the script, he said he asked himself, “What would make this a Latté Da show?”
His answer: “Music. So we have live musicians onstage.”
The cast of 10 includes four who play instruments, underscoring the action.
That’s not all. The action is set in a home owned by art-world people with a keen sense of taste who like art that plays with perspective. The Latté Da design team includes clever set designer Kate Sutton Johnson.
Parallels to the past
Paul is played by young actor JuCoby Johnson, who is two years out of the Guthrie/University of Minnesota BFA program. Wingert recently directed Johnson in her highly regarded production of “The Whipping Man” at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.
“I don’t want to speak for JuCoby, but in that show he played a slave for whom learning to read was an illegal, illicit activity,” said Wingert. “Paul is in a similar situation. His quick learning and intelligence says that he belongs to an educated class. He just hasn’t the opportunities to develop his gifts.”
Johnson, the first of three children born in Jacksonville, Fla., to a retired military man and a nurse, said he sees young men with Paul’s potential when he travels to downtown Minneapolis.
“When I’m on the light rail, I see these kids with such light, such energy, such joy,” he said. “And then when their friends get off and they’re alone, they kind of close up. I look at them and think, they have some of Paul’s energy in them.”
All the members of the team believe that “Six Degrees” holds up well after a quarter-century.
“It not only ties in with race issues, but with questions around fear and immigration,” said Benninghofen. “It’s about how we place people in categories where we think they belong. This kid doesn’t belong in our rarefied air. But he learns the language and earns our trust by flattery — and looks like he could be a better kid for us than our own children, who are ashamed of us. Who can’t relate to that?”