The plot of David Harrower’s play Blackbird is meant to make viewers uncomfortable. Nearly 15 years ago, the protagonist, Ray, had an affair and attempted to run away with his 12-year-old neighbor, Una. Now, as a 50-something, he lives as Peter, a manager at a dental equipment manufacturer, and has an age-appropriate girlfriend. The past and present collide when Una shows up at his workplace to confront him. As much as Ray has tried to move on after serving a three-year prison sentence, Una has not been able to move on at all. She still lives in the same house in the same neighborhood, stuck on the day when they ran away together, and reliving that embarrassing court trial. Hoping for resolution, Una tries to push Ray for answers, but instead they both come up with more questions.
Blackbird will run at the Robert Mello Studio in Doraville from August 3-19. Jayson Warner Smith, best known for his roles as death row inmate Wendall Jelks on Rectify and villainous Savior Gavin on The Walking Dead, will take on the role of Ray. The production is helmed by longtime Atlanta theater director Marc Gowan and also stars actress Heather Rule as Una. Blackbird was originally produced at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2007, starring Oscar winner Jeff Daniels. Daniels revived the role in the Tony Award-nominated Broadway production in 2016, which also starred Michelle Williams, and the show has been adapted into a film, Una, starring Rooney Mara.
Smith, an Atlanta native, was drawn to the script after hearing Daniels talk about the revival on NPR. He wanted to produce the show then, but locally, an independent producer already had a production in the works at 7 Stages. Though Smith is best known for his television roles, he sees this staging as an opportunity to return to his theatrical roots. He started acting when he was nine with the Cobb Children’s Theatre, then majored in theater at Georgia State University, worked at Agatha’s A Taste of Mystery dinner theater downtown, and has performed at Actor’s Express, Essential Theatre, Pinch ‘N’ Ouch, and Aurora Theatre.
“I play a lot of goofy guys and villains, but Ray is a romantic character and I never get to play romantic characters,” Smith says. “He’s an effed-up romantic character, but the fact is that he made an awful mistake one time in his life and wounded another person to the core forever, paid a price to society, but he’s still living with that. Having her thrown back into his life is a whirlwind, and he doesn’t know what to do.”
Smith taught acting workshop at the Robert Mello Studio last year, where he had his students perform scenes from Blackbird as a teaching exercise. His students inspired him to revisit the idea of staging the show, so he started an Indiegogo campaign in May and raised $9,200 in 32 days for this production. Rule, one of his students, was his natural choice to play Una.
“I think our society encourages people to swallow [their feelings], but we’re approaching a time where it’s okay to make a move that might be uncomfortable, but is ultimately helpful to you,” she says. “I wouldn’t say Una confronting Ray is exactly like the #MeToo movement [against sexual harassment and abuse], but it’s similar in that Una has the courage to confront this thing that happened and will hopefully gain some kind of insight that will help her move forward. That’s what I think the #MeToo movement is kind of about—confronting things that are uncomfortable and difficult, that people might want you to swallow but you can’t.”
The play raises a lot of questions about the nature of intention and consent that may feel more confounding today than they did when the play premiered, in light of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Can 12-year-old girls entice grown men? How much is the parents’ responsibility? Is forgiveness available to child molesters? In the case of Ray and Una, Ray committed a terrible crime and went to prison, but neither character was fully able to move past the sexual abuse.
Gowan, the former artistic director of Onstage Atlanta, looks forward to seeing the audience wrestle with these tough questions.
“As a director, I want the audience to leave not having all of the answers, and this show does that well,” Gowan says. “It’s about two people trying to find a connection. There are humorous moments, moments when you want to throw something, moments when you want to cry—that’s the emotional rollercoaster of Blackbird.”
See the show: Performances will be held at the Robert Mello Studio Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased here.
Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously reported that Blackbird is actress Heather Rule’s first onstage performance in Atlanta in eight years. The story has been updated to amend this error.