A few months ago, Professor Storer encouraged us to develop our characters. We were all encouraged to find the underlying narrative, the story behind the character. We’ve sought out the motivating factors behind the actions of our characters. What is happening to us off -stage, and how is it influencing our on-stage behavior? I’ve been trying to search through this character, Coalhouse Walker Jr., and uncover what makes him tick. What makes him vulnerable? What can I evoke well within this character, and what traits should I try to hone? I’ll say that when I first took on this role, I wanted something different from what I thought was the typical depiction of this character. I wanted him to be more like me (partially from a certain type of empathy I had with Coalhouse). I resonate with his confidence, his tenderness, and his innate connection to music. I feel his angst as he finally plays for Sarah to come down stairs to him (that first D and C on the piano always gets me). Yet, there are moments of struggle that I feel when I perform in the role. We have a different confidence and outlook on life. In viewing this man, I recognize my own tendency to mitigate the chance of the worst instead of hoping for the best in some aspects of life. I’m not a usually grouchy person. I don’t sulk, and I remain optimistic. However, I can’t help but look to this character Coalhouse and say “you are a fool. Your optimism blinds you, your pride is the cause of your suffering (as well as those around you), and despite your talents and accolades, you fail to view life in technicolor. In short, you’re simple.” But it is this haunting simplicity that entices me to perform at my best every night. His pure and untainted nature allows him to walk wherever he likes with his chest out and a grin on his face. Despite the racial prejudice that permeates his surrounding environments, he has a confidence that lights the way for those who have given up hope, and he has an indefatigable energy that he brings to every situation. He has not become jaded in the least by life. This simplicity of character has not only made him into a character of reverence, but is also what ultimately brings about his downfall. What does he love more, between his car and the love of his life? Does he realize that he has sacrificed his love for the sake of pride? Although I am, and although I know that I must be him, I cannot help but judge him. But does that not mean that I judge myself? It is my cause for confusion in Act II. Each night, I fluctuate between self hatred, hatred towards the world that wronged me, despair at the loss of everything I have cared for (as I have in some senses forgotten about my son), and a desire for vengeance. I look forward to discovering new emotions on a given night.
If I understand nothing else about myself as Coalhouse Walker Jr., I understand that I am a man broken with my own contradictions, striving to be rebuilt. Yet, even in this, I wonder when I am broken. I wonder if I have internal pain and angst, and if it at times overpowers me. I wonder if I love too much, or not enough. Will tomorrow be the night in which I imply that I’ve experienced racism in St. Louis? Will I have flashbacks to the painful experiences in my life once I encounter the racist Willie Conklin? Or will my first breakdown occur within the narrative of story as opposed to outside of it? Will I redeem myself? If so, when? In my attempts to focus on my actions instead of emotions, I don’t plan out how I will feel, act, or even interpret some of my lines at times.
It is in this way that I am prepared for these performances. I have prepared myself to become surprised each night. I have worked hard to understand my lines and the meaning behind them. Yet, in this understanding, I have become curious about Coalhouse, not as a character, but as a man. In case you couldn’t tell by the random assertions in this post, the character (in spite of his simplicity, and even sometimes predictable transformation), intrigues me, and I look forward to discovering his not-so-simple nature each night.