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Finding Home Wherever You Are :: McKinley Belcher III on Ken Urban's New Play

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Oct 5, 2017

Two men -- coincidentally, both Boston natives -- meet for the first time in Amsterdam. It turns out they have more in common than their hometown; Both Teddy (played by McKinley Belcher III) and Jeremy (Samuel H. Levine) have tough chapters in their lives that they now need to sort through. Maybe they can help each other out.

Boston-based playwright Ken Urban's ("Sense of an Ending," "A Future Perfect," "The Happy Sad") new two-man play "A Guide for the Homesick" unfolds partly in flashback and gives its pair of actors a chance to stretch themselves. Each of them plays two different roles. For Belcher -- who has previously appeared in acclaimed Huntington Theatre productions "Invisible Man" and "Smart People" -- the second role is that of a Ugandan man named Nicholas. Just what happened between Teddy and Nicholas (played by Samuel H. Levine), and how Teddy's acquaintance with Jeremy relates back to it, is one of the big questions about the play, which is receiving its world premiere in this production.

Belcher's substantial theater resume boasts a number of other world premieres, including his previous Huntington Theatre roles; "Rear Window" at Hartford Stage; and Long Wharf Theatre's production of "Macbeth 1969."

As a film and television actor, McKinley will be familiar to viewers from his roles on the Netflix crime drama "Ozark," where he had an ongoing recurring role. For two seasons Belcher also appeared in the Civil War-era medical drama "Mercy Street" and an HBO miniseries written by David Simon, "Show Me A Hero."

Belcher is also active on the big screen, working with John Sayles on the acclaimed director's feature "Go for Sisters." Belcher also has a role in Ondi Timoner's upcoming biopic "Mapplethorpe," about the groundbreaking American photographer. Moreover, Belcher has been cast in the supporting role of death row inmate Poncho Wilkerson in "Trial By Fire," an upcoming film based on the notorious death penalty case in Texas that resulted in the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man some believe was railroaded. The story has generated ongoing controversy, with charges of evidence suppression and political interference by then-governor Rick Perry.

EDGE had the pleasure of chatting with McKinley Belcher III about the new play, and attempted, with Belcher's help, to parse the structure and cast of Urban's latest work.

EDGE: Let me start by asking how you came to be cast in "A Guide for the Homesick." Did they remember you from your earlier work at the Huntington, "Smart People" and "The Invisible Man?"

McKinley Belcher: It was a fairly normal process. My agent sent me the script and sides... I remember being excited and intrigued by what the play was chasing. It felt like a worthy challenge. I was working on another play at the time in DC, so after my first audition in New York we Skyped in lieu of having a callback session, and I found out that day or the next that I'd gotten the part. And I'm sure my having worked at the Huntington twice before made the casting choice easier.

EDGE: There's not a lot about this play out there since it's brand new...

McKinley Belcher: It is! Which is exciting. We get to really artistically birth something. I'm fortunate that every play I've done here [at the Huntington] has been a new play.

EDGE: How does it feel to be originating roles? Does it feel like a particular honor - or a particular responsibility, for that matter?

McKinley Belcher: I definitely think it's an honor. I love working on new work. I would like to think that all art is some form of creation and expression, but a new play - I feel like you're encouraged to be daring and take special creative license and color outside the lines. I'm not doing my job well if I don't make a bold choice and fully commit. It's a unique opportunity because there's no well-trodden path for you to follow along. Everything on the page has lived in the playwright's imagination, but has not yet been actualized. I get to be the beating heart, the sweat, the tears, the joy, the spit, the rage and the laughter that makes those words life for the very first time. In process, the play starts to shape around you and that's a really gratifying experience, to be in concert with the playwright and the play in that way.

EDGE: So are you getting a lot of notes now from the playwright, Ken Urban?

McKinley Belcher: Oh, we are. Ken's been in rehearsal just about every day, so he's been able to write based on the dynamic in the room. I think he's constantly gaging what worked, what felt good, what doesn't land properly, or what seems to impede our ability to live through a character's emotional journey. Some of it is troubleshooting, but we also stumble into ideas or a gem of a moment that changes how a character is perceived or how scenes land next to one another. In an ideal world our discoveries in the rehearsal room inspire him and help move the play forward.

EDGE: So is Mr. Urban open to your suggestions - like, if something doesn't work for you, he'll hear your concerns and suggestions?

McKinley Belcher: Yeah. I feel like he's really receptive to hearing our thoughts. I try not to be prescriptive if I'm having a problem with something, but it's really important to be transparent about how the journey feels inside the character. Him hearing that I emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually hitch every time I get to a certain part of a scene can be illuminating. Open dialogue has been encouraged throughout our rehearsal process. I can ask him questions, and we can talk about what feels good and what doesn't and why. We all want the play and it's rendering on stage to be as close to the truth as we can get. And I really believe the story we're telling demands that kind of honesty.

EDGE: Let me ask you to describe what it's about in your own words.

McKinley Belcher: I think this play is a powerful story about two men... really, four men... that asks us to reconsider what home is. A lot of people think of home as something that's anchored to four walls or a structure, or a finite location. What if home isn't necessarily a location, but people - like, how people make you feel? Maybe sometimes you find home in another person. And in this story we meet two guys who are from Boston, and we find out that they both have recently failed people who were close to them. They are trying to cope with that failure and what that means for who they are and how they move forward in life. So much of that failure is linked to these characters' inability to see themselves truly and accept what it is that they see. The play unpacks masculinity and what it is to be a gay man in today's world, both in a western sense and in places like Uganda. It raises so many salient questions. What is it to be truly seen? Can you truly love if you haven't found a way to love yourself? What makes up a home? If "home" stops loving you, is it still home?

The play is structured in a non-linear fashion where we get to watch this chance encounter between two men, and then there are flashbacks where we see the people who they've failed. Each actor plays two characters.

EDGE: I was going to ask about that. You play Teddy, and you also play Nicholas. You're starring opposite Samuel H. Levine, who plays Jeremy and also plays Ed.

McKinley Belcher: The two characters I'm playing complement one another. They're the yin and yang to one another. One guy, Nicholas, is from Uganda, and he's a gay man in an environment where that is not accepted. He's living in an environment, a home, that is inherently inhospitable to who he is, where his love is regarded as an act of perversion or even treason. Despite that, he's courageous in living his truth and tries to live in love. I feel inspired by him because he's so comfortable with who he is. Internally, he is at peace; his conflict is because of external forces and their inability to accept him.

On the opposite side of that I play Teddy, who was born and raised in Boston but lives in New York. He's come to Amsterdam to, I guess, in some way find out whether his best friend can reciprocate his love. He wants to be honest with himself about his feelings for his best friend, but his feelings render him emotionally blind to what is actually happening to his friend. It's something he wrestles with internally.

EDGE: So you have a duality in that you're each playing two different characters, but you also have a duality - at least for Teddy - in that he's not really sure what's going on inside himself.

McKinley Belcher: Absolutely, and I really love how you'll see a character acting a certain way and you'll have questions about why is he doing that? Then Ken unpacks whatever baggage the character is carrying by allowing us to see their past trauma play out before us. And now, even if you don't agree with their behavior, you at least understand it. There's a poetic beauty to the juxtaposition of certain scenes and moments. It's really the best use of non-linear storytelling that I've ever seen. It allows us to toy with perception. Characters can project an ideal version of themselves or present a version of the truth, only to have it shattered a couple scenes later when the audience sees what actually happened in all its ugliness and its beauty. Watching all the characters bump into each other feels messy, like life.

EDGE: In effect, this is a two-hander is kind of a four-hander. So, how do these four people relate to each other? You have two guys meeting in Amsterdam, so do they then flashback to others characters from their past and dialogue with those characters? Or are there more cross-connections that take place, with the other two characters knowing each other also? Will all four characters relate to each other in some way?

McKinley Belcher: I think Jeremy and Teddy are drawn to one another by way of a certain surrogacy. They see echoes of the two other men they've failed in one another. Sometimes it's a gesture, sometimes a worldview or just a feeling. I think they also recognize a need to be seen in one another. And, of course, the attraction is also animal, rooted in a desire to be touched. We spend a good deal of the play with these two. But we also get to see Teddy relate to his best friend Eddie in flashback. And Jeremy on his journey with Nicholas in Kampala, Uganda.

EDGE: Tell me a little about working with your costar, Samuel H. Levine, when you're both playing double roles. Do you have any trouble keeping track of, Who am I right now? Who is he right now?

McKinley Belcher: That's definitely a process we've gone through in rehearsal, to be clear about who we are, and how and when. Especially since some of the transitions are so short, we literally must transform before the audience's eyes without the aid of a costume change. So the change must really be on a cellular or even spiritual level. It's a beautiful challenge to have.

One of the reasons I really wanted to do this job is when you're in a two-hander, you really have to trust that other person, because you're leaning on them for the entirety of the show. This play demands an emotional vulnerability that you can really only give if you trust the person you're playing opposite. Sam's really approached the work and me with a generosity of spirit. He's been a real ally in this process, and I think we complement each other well. And it doesn't hurt that he's a fantastic actor!

EDGE And you've got to have a different chemistry with the other actor, depending on what's going on with your roles from moment to moment.

McKinley Belcher: Absolutely, the alchemy in the room is very different depending on which pair of our characters are present. And yet there are parallels and echoes that link them all. With every transition the energy in the room shifts sometimes subtly and other times dramatically.

EDGE: Did you find that you clicked well with Samuel H. Levine? Did you work well together off the bat or have you had to home in on exactly how each nuance and beat will play out?

McKinley Belcher: At first when you come into a situation like this, where it's just two people, as an actor you just have to come in with an open heart and be willing to jump into the deep end with the other person. I think in this situation, because both of us came with that energy, the synergy happened pretty quickly. I also think that since the play asks us to go to some deep places, each and every day we're learning to trust each other more and more, and that allows you to go even deeper, which is exciting and sometimes uncomfortable.

EDGE: Is it rare in your acting experience to get a role where you have that chance to go to those deeper places with another actor, either in terms of the characters you are playing or in terms of your real self>

McKinley Belcher: In some ways, that's the goal with every project I take. To see how deep I can dig and how much I can blur the lines to create something that feels like life. But the well feels so much deeper journeying through this particular play. Some of that has to do with the range of the material and that there are only two bodies on stage for the duration of the play. But I also think that's the nature of the play Ken has written. It demands that you be a little more fearless, a little more open, and it absolutely demands a real partnership with your fellow actor. The play simply doesn't work if we're not vibing in a certain kind of way. We're really forging both an artistic and platonic relationship. I guess in some ways the fiction mirrors reality, which is interesting.

EDGE: But at the same time, there are others in the room... what's it like working with director Colman Domingo?

McKinley Belcher: Colman is a true hyphenate. He's written plays, he's directed plays, he's acted in plays, and obviously done a good deal of work in TV and film. I'm really inspired by him. And that's a really good place to start. Because he's also an actor, he understands the process of what we have to do in and out of the rehearsal room more intimately than the average director, so he's better equipped to set us up at bat.

I guess I'm saying I feel way more held as an actor than I have been in some other situations, because he knows more intimately what it costs and what's required to get to where we need to go. He's also really perceptive, so he knows how far we can go, and he's pushing us to that limit and sometimes past it. That challenge to go deeper is exciting and scary if I'm being honest. That demand for excellence and full commitment has allowed me to grow as an artist and as a man. And, I mean, I can't really ask for more than that.

"A Guide for the Homesick" plays Oct. 6 - Nov. 4 at the Boston Center for the Arts in Boston's South End. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2017-2018/a-guide-for-the-homesick

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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