Dramaturg and Howard University lecturer Otis Ramsey-Zöe launches his new series The Art of the Actor in conversation with Joy Jones and Maduka Steady as they delve into the rehearsal process for Belleville, running at Studio Theatre through October 12.
According to the Studio Theatre’s website, Amy Herzog’s Belleville “unmasks the seemingly perfect marriage and Parisian life of expats Abby and Zack... and the terrifying, profound unknowability of our closest relationships.” Running parallel to that journey are neighbors Alioune and Amina, a French couple of Senegalese ancestry. I caught up with Maduka Steady (Alioune) and Joy Jones (Amina) during tech rehearsals to discuss their work.
OTIS: How did you prepare to take on your roles?
Joy: Prior to the start of rehearsal is definitely the part of the process that feels most like sculpture, where I'm beginning to carve out the rough shape of a person. As with most other roles, I began with a careful role-centered reading of the play: What does Amina say? What does she say about herself? What do other characters say about her? What are the larger given circumstances: time of year, time of day, location, etc.? I made myself a cheat-sheet with this info and any big, unanswered questions.
Next, I turned to the internet and found treasures like images of the Miss Black France beauty pageant, a graduate thesis on Senegalese immigrants and the concept of "Frenchness," and the meaning of my character's name. Amina, a shortened version of Aminata means "of good character, honest, and trustworthy." It's a popular name for Muslims; Aminata was the mother of the prophet Muhammad... Last but not least, I let it all simmer—so that I wouldn't become attached to any one piece of information, lest I jam up the rehearsal process.
Maduka: Most of the time, I have to prepare for non-American characters by studying people's voices from movies, TV, or the internet, but Studio Theatre connected me with Dr. Sow, a French teacher in D.C., who’s originally from Senegal. He helped me with my Senegalese dialect and French dialogue. In addition, he shared many personal stories about his experiences growing up in West Africa and about moving away from home to start a new life overseas. Nothing is more effective than studying a real person from the same country as my character. I immediately felt closer to the reality of the story.
OTIS: Describe a major discovery or shift that occurred in the process.
Joy: Ask me in a week! Seriously, discoveries are ongoing. That said, one specific discovery was Amina's distinct emotional states in each of my three scenes. My part is small; so, I don't have many lines to express her thoughts and feelings, and it's been helpful to chart where she is in each of those scenes.
OTIS: Have you ever visited or lived in Paris?
Maduka: I studied French in middle and high school. My sister speaks fluent French and has lived and worked in Europe for many years. She told me about the different areas in and around Paris, so that I could get a sense of Alioune's neighborhood.
Joy: I spent a week in Paris a few years ago, after finishing a classical acting course in the UK. Until I got connected with friends-of-friends, I spent two incredibly solitary and lonely days there. After that the rest of my stay was wonderful. But the most valuable recollection was that Paris is a real place beyond the monuments, with real people living real lives.
OTIS: Alioune and Amina are rather young. So, on a scale of one to ten, how challenging is the situation with Zack and Abbey for them?
Maduka: For Alioune, at rise, I think the situation starts at an eight and escalates to an eleven by the end. Living under the same roof with Abby and Zack is perhaps their greatest professional challenge, because it’s Alioune and Amina's first time as managers of their apartment building in Belleville. Alioune and Amina are anxious to prove to Alioune's uncle, who owns the building, that they are ready for this new responsibility.
OTIS: When creating Amina, did you invest anything personal of yourself?
Joy: Investing myself in a character seems inevitable, but I try to abide by something one of my UNC-Chapel Hill graduate professors, Craig Turner, said: "Love the character, and in doing so, bring yourself to the character, don't bring the character to you."
OTIS: How has the process of playing Alioune changed you as an actor, individual, or citizen?
Maduka: Working on Belleville reminds me of the old saying, "The harder you work, the luckier you get." It has taken a lot of effort to bring this play to life, and the dedication and excitement of the cast and crew at Studio Theatre supports and inspires me every day.