What if there is no hell? As a Christian, how would that revelation shake the foundation of your faith?
In The Christians, the pastor of a megachurch delivers a sermon that stuns his congregation and leads to much soul searching among his followers. “I don’t believe in hell so I was very much in alignment with that,” said Caroline Stefanie Clay, who plays the pastor’s wife, Elizabeth, a woman shaken by her husband’s pronouncement. “For the 90 minutes that this play exists, I have to believe in Elizabeth and in her belief system. And it’s a pleasure. That’s why we become actors, to inhabit experiences close to our own and completely foreign from what we know.”
Although the playwright, Lucas Hnath, grew up in an evangelical church, he has refrained from talking about his own beliefs, leaving it up to the audiences to carry on those discussions. The play had its New York premiere last fall at Playwrights Horizon. The Washington, D.C. premiere, directed by Gregg Henry, will be presented at Theater J from November 16 through December 11. The production includes a gospel chorus, and through the efforts of Artistic Director Adam Immwewahr, top choirs from the D.C. area will participate. “I love what Adam’s doing,” said Caroline. “I can’t think of a better way of engaging the community than by bringing in a new choir for every performance.”
Caroline, who was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, grew up in Washington, D.C., “a proud product of the D.C. public school system.” She attended Lafayette Elementary, Alice Deal Middle School, and in tenth grade auditioned for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where she now teaches as an artist in residence. After high school, she went to the University of the Arts In Philadelphia. “Philly is a great theater town,” she said, describing the city as “faster than D.C., but not quite as fast as New York, a great in between place. That’s really where I got my professional feet wet.” She appeared in a production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, alongside several New York-based actors, who encouraged her to move to the Big Apple. “That’s where I would make my artistic home for the next 20 years,” she said.
In 2010, her mother became ill and Caroline made the decision to move back to D.C. “The healing powers of the returning child,” she said, with a laugh. “My mother is now doing much, much better.” While Caroline was prepared to put her career on hold, determined to place her mother first, she didn’t have to make a choice. “My agent said that family is first so do whatever you have to do and know that you’re not risking losing representation, which is often very real for actors,” she said. “I’ve had so many examples of this in my life, in people believing and seeing things In me that I have not even seen for myself. That in so many ways is the definition of grace.”
Caroline was accepted into an MFA program at the University of Maryland. “They were looking for people who literally had had a professional career and were now at a transition where they wanted to consider something new,” she said. “Up to that point I had done what most actors do. My agent calls me, I go and audition, I book the gig. That’s where I was able to build my resume, my technique, all of those kinds of things. But as I became older, I became more conscious, not just as an artist, but as an artist of color, about not seeing my voice represented in ways that I would do it. I had to really take agency and say, `wait a minute! I’ve got to be that voice that I am not hearing.’ I have no problem identifying the void. What am I doing to fill it?”
Once she began writing her own work, Caroline found that a whole new world opened up to her. “I knew that my life as an artist was not based on my agent calling,” she said. “I could create my own work. In many ways I am still working within an institutional system of artistic directors, managing directors, and producers, but the more that I could generate for myself, the more that I would never be sitting there waiting for the phone to ring. That was so freeing as an artist and it’s really been fostered in this area in a way, that I really have to say, it wasn’t fostered in New York, because in New York I simply didn’t have the time.”
So far, Caroline has created two one-woman shows. “I pride myself that when I write my pieces, the subject matter is usually what I call `unsung heroes,’ the people that you haven’t heard of,” she said. Sepia Sculptress – The Life and Times of Edmonia Lewis is about a 19th century African American and Native America sculptor, who was born on a Canadian reservation, went to Oberlin College, and lived mostly abroad, including many years in Rome. “She has left behind amazing sculptures of abolitionist, historical figures, and she was amazing,” Caroline said. “But you don’t see a coffee table book with her work.”
Caroline in Sense and Sensibility at Folger Shakespeare Theatre
Another such person is Florynce Kennedy, an attorney, activist, civil rights advocate, lecturer, and feminist. Caroline was watching an HBO documentary about Gloria Steinem when the camera caught security guards battling with a woman who was saying, “get your hands off me.” That woman was Florynce, and Caroline’s interest was piqued. “I was captivated,” she said. “I had to know everything about her.” The piece, Let it Flo! The Life and Times of Flo Kennedy, Radicalism’s Rudest Mouth, became Caroline’s dissertation. Steinem has seen the show and, according to Caroline, has been “an amazing advocate and patron of the work.” Caroline will premiere the show on February 17 in New York.
Caroline, who was an understudy for the Broadway production of Doubt, won the Helen Hayes Award, Best Supporting Actress, for her performance at the National Theatre. Right now, her plate is very full. Until November 13, she’s appearing in Sense and Sensibility at Folger Shakespeare Theater. Performances for The Christians will begin on November 16 and when we spoke, the cast was beginning rehearsals. She’s excited about the opportunity to work with Gregg Henry. “I’m so glad that Theater J has taken on [The Christians],” she said. “What I love is that Greg and the artistic team made no assumptions about any of our own spiritual proclivities.” Caroline said she will be listening to a podcast about a pastor who actually had the revelation that there is no hell and paid a dear price for that belief. “He questioned the nature of the dogma that they have been taught,” she said. “That is the essence of great drama. Talk about conflict!”
Written by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Gregg Henry
The Edlavitch DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater
1529 16th Street, NW
Top Photo: Courtesy of Theater J
The Christians – Illustration by Donald Ely
Sense and Sensibility photo by Teresa Wood