The Crucible’s Jenny Jules on working with Saoirse Ronan, connecting with her character Tituba, and Donald Trump’s Witch Hunt

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by Celeste Montaño

Ivo van Hove’s much-anticipated revival of The Crucible is finally on Broadway. The return of the Arthur Miller classic prompted considerable buzz in the months before previews, and has been receiving rave reviews since starting previews on March 1st.

Stage Door Dish recently had a chance to speak with Jenny Jules, who makes her Broadway debut playing the ill-fated Tituba. Perhaps most familiar to New York audiences for her roles in all-female productions of Julius Caesar and Henry IV, the English actress spoke to us about the responsibility of playing a historical figure and why The Crucible is just as relevant now as it was 60 years ago.

How have rehearsals and previews gone so far?

They’ve gone really well. They’ve been received really well by the audience. It’s very exciting. Nothing major went wrong, which is always fantastic. 

Any big memorable moments?

The first preview. You never know what’s going to happen because you’ve never been in front of an audience before. You never know. When you get in front of the audience, they’re always a character that you have not met yet in your play. They influence how the evening goes. They were terrific, they were amazing, they were really attentive. For the first twenty minutes, they were silent. Then one particular character comes out and arrives on stage, says his first line, and they all burst out laughing. It kind of throws everyone for a loop. Everyone goes ‘Yeah, of course, we’ve got a full house!’ And then we get to the end; it is The Crucible, it is such a beautifully tragic play. We get to the end and the audience rose to their feet and gave us a standing ovation, and that was really terrific. It was fantastic to see. As my Broadway debut, it made me very proud and happy.

How are you feeling about your Broadway debut?

It’s intense. I’m really really proud and excited to be in this production of The Crucible.

Did you read The Crucible growing up?

It’s a different experience for us. I think in America, everyone reads it in high school, because it’s such a brilliant part of American history and it embodies an American story. It’s got the American psyche in it because things keep repeating in The Crucible and then they repeat in life in the States. The witch hunt in Salem became the witch hunt in the 50s during the McCarthy era. We can compare it to now. It’s not quite a witch hunt but there are people who are going to be scapegoated if a certain person gets into power and I think people have a real fear of that. I think for us in the UK, we read it in drama school if you’re interested in theatre, and that’s when you’re introduced to it. It’s not our story in the UK, so we have a different relationship to it, but I’m very mindful of how connected the American community is with this play by Arthur Miller.

So you first encountered it in drama school?

Yeah, when I was training. I just thought, ‘Oh wow, it’s really depressing.’  I thought, ‘How can this happen?’ But doing it, I feel like it’s really Shakespearean. It’s perfected, and it’s just a warning of human beings and human behavior. Listen, be mindful, be aware. Don’t just jump in and accuse and start a mob. It’s such a fantastic story. Every night, listening to it, I hear new things and I hear new warnings for humans. It’s just such an amazing play. What a fantastic writer is Arthur Miller. I didn’t appreciate how brilliant he was. I knew his work– A View From the Bridge is fantastic, and so is Death of a Salesman.  There’s one line that’s hysterical and then one line that just cuts you in half with pain.

That’s intense to put on every night.

Yes. And our leads are just tremendous. They go for it, they’ve been going for it since the first day of rehearsal.

Can you tell me about your character, Tituba?

She’s a slave that has been brought over from Barbados by Samuel Parris [played by Jason Butler Harner]. Samuel Parris is a reverend of Salem, and in his house the young women are afflicted with whatever it is they’re afflicted with; being bewitched if you believe. Tituba is this kind of gentle woman who’s in servitude, and she serves the family and takes care of these young women and this reverend. She’s accused by Abigail Williams [played by Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan], who is the 17-year-old niece of Parrish, of being a witch and making her drink blood and making her do things. It’s easy to blame somebody like her, because she’s new in the community, she’s different, she sounds different, and her skin is dark. It’s very easy to blame others for the ills in one’s community. Not to mention she’s been told to confess, and she’s threatened with hanging and beating, of course. She names people because she’s heard their names called out already. Then she’s shut in prison and forgotten about– not pardoned, not forgiven, not brought back to God or anything like that. It’s heartbreaking what happens to this woman. And in real life, she was in prison and then released back into slavery to pay off the debts of her incarceration.

How do you find something to relate to a character who’s leading such an intense life?

I look at their humanity because that is what we have in common. I try to have some understanding of why they would make choices, or in her case, she has no choice. I kind of see if there’s a moment in my life that relates to that; whether it’s elation, or devastation, whatever it is that’s helping me root the character in truth. I’ll think about maybe leaving somebody, because that would be the most devastating feeling I’ve ever had, or not getting something I thought was mine, or other times where I haven’t been able to do something or go somewhere or nobody listened to me. I just try and conjure up those experiences and then think about how they made me feel, and try to put them in my body. And then I use my technique, and go out and control what I’m doing, within the boundaries and context of the play, the set, and everyone else on stage, and offer that from a truthful place. But it’s nowhere near as devastating as what her experience has been.

Since this is such an intense play, what do you do to make sure you leave all of that suffering at the theatre and not take it with you in your daily life?

My roommates are Tina Benko and and Brenda Wehle, and we laugh our arses off in that room every night when we’re not on stage. We just makes jokes and cheer each other up, and encourage each other cheer each other on. I have to say that the whole company is absolutely tremendous. What a beautiful group of people. Every single actor is just wonderful. I’ve had such a gorgeous time because all of the crew and everyone in the theatre is just lovely. Everyone wants to tell the story every night. Nobody is slacking off. There is not one person in that building who is not involved in telling that story. It’s so fantastic. That’s the thing that lifts my heart every single night when I’m going to the theatre. We all want to tell the story of this play, we all want to be here. It really is awesome. I’ve never felt it on such a level. I’ve worked in some amazing places, where everyone is on board, but people are distracted by doing other things. But in this theatre, it is just about getting this play on. Everyone is like ‘Let’s get this play on. What do we need? What are we doing?’ It’s just lovely.

The Crucible is considered an allegory for the political climate of the 1950s. Why is it still an important story to tell now?

I think it maintains its relevance because we don’t really evolve as human beings. We’re still the same people that we were in the 50s and anything can happen at any time. Right now in America, the political climate is such a hot potato. There is a very wealthy man who is in the running to be the president of the United States. I don’t know him personally, I don’t think I’ll ever meet him. But what I hear and what I see are not good. When I’m in the UK, people are like ‘That’s gotta be a joke, right?’ I thought it was a joke, and a lot of my friends in New York thought it was a joke. But now it’s getting serious, because he will be a candidate for the Republican party. He is not preaching togetherness, he is not preaching ‘We’re all a bunch of mongrels who landed on this rock and we’re all getting on with things.’ He’s preaching ‘You are separate from me because you are the problem that I see in the world, and I’m going to let you know that you’re the problem.’ And that speaks to me of The Crucible. Will there be a witch hunt? Will people be scapegoated and accused of things that happen, because they might be Muslim or their surname is Mohamed? That is a real fear because of what he’s been talking about. Will somebody who happens to be Mexican who’s working in a bar be accused of being someone who doesn’t have a green card and need to be chucked over a wall that may or may not exist on the border of the US and Mexico? We should have moved beyond that kind of language already. People shouldn’t have to have passports; we should be allowed to be in the world and roam freely and make connections. We’re all connected anyway on the Internet. We have to open up, not shut down. It’s ridiculous. It’s like ‘There’s the enemy, those people aren’t on my side, those people are different.’ It makes me kind of scared and I think there’s relevance in that. The Sandra Bland story of the woman in Texas who was arrested for something minor– a traffic incident– and she was found dead the next day. ‘Oh, she hung herself.’ Did she? These are contemporary American associations. It’s the 1600s coming through to today. We are still the same beings that we’ve always been. Our instincts, our fears, our worries, and our greed are the same. It sounds terrifying but there’s also good. There are people who are full of light, and there are people who are brilliant, and there are people who are shouting like they are in The Crucible; ‘No, no, this is wrong. Look for something else, look away. These people are not to blame.’ There are always those people, and I just hope that they are always louder than the people who are causing people to be separated.

The Crucible is produced over and over again, all over the country and in schools. What makes this particular production unique?

This particular production is being directed by Ivo van Hove. He is particularly unique. It’s been the most unique experience in rehearsal I’ve ever had. The way he looks at the story and deconstructs the play is really special. He’s surrounded by creatives who all have this vision and share it with him. You see things in a different way, you hear things you’ve never heard before. He’s working on all kinds of levels because he knows how to tell stories. That’s rather remarkable.

What are the advantages or disadvantages of doing a play that’s so iconic?

The advantage is that people will come see it because they know it. One hopes that the box office will not lose money because everyone knows and loves this story. The American people own this story. When Miller wrote this, he was the American Shakespeare. It will always be done until we change our nature. The disadvantage is that every black actress knows about Tituba and either wants to play her or doesn’t want to play her. Therefore, she’s been been represented so many times, and you just think ‘How can I approach this fresh for people?’ And then one has to tap into one’s experience and and listen to what the director is instructing you to do, and then go into the story and look at the language, and try to offer the best thing I can find.

Since Tituba was a real person, and you’re discussing historical events, what has the research process been like for the show? Do you feel a responsibility to portray these things truthfully?

I think we have huge responsibility to be mindful of how the community will receive this story. My fear, and I’m going to be very honest here, is that there are a lot of European people telling the story of American people. Sometimes that’s incredible, because you shed light on a corner that people didn’t see, because their collective experience or cultural reference is all going in one direction and then someone turns you and you go ‘oh, I didn’t see that!’ But my fear is that we miss a beat, and people go ‘they didn’t really get us.’ We have huge responsibility. I’m sure these people’s descendants still exist, and Salem isn’t very far away from here. It’s so well known, that one has to be mindful and respectful of Arthur Miller and not do a disservice.

We have done research. We were instructed to buy the book Witches by Stacy Schiff, so that’s been really helpful. I’m also reading another book that a girlfriend gave me. This girlfriend of mine, her name is Maureen Hibbert, was Tituba in Dublin about 15 years ago. She gave me a book called I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, which is a fictional narrative of where she came from, what happened to her in Salem, and what happened to her after. It’s just beautiful because the writer, Maryse Condé, did a lot of research and she imagined all of these extra things and built this woman up on the skeleton of the research she did. I’ve been online and looked at her transcripts from the trial. I’ve been reading cliff notes and analyses from professors of the actual play. We know that the play and the real events were different. Arthur Miller dramatized it. The real Abigail was 11, and he made her 17 so this lust can be at the center of the story instead of an unknown. Maybe it was this wheat or this rye that was infected that made them have all these fits.There are all these theories about what possessed these kids. I’ve been doing lots of reading, looking at some ‘witchy’ films, and looking at some footage on YouTube of the un-American activities and looking at that committee and how they’re asking people questions. That was quite terrifying. I say I’m going to school when I’m in rehearsal.

How has it been working with Saoirse Ronan and and Ben Whishaw?

I’m in heaven. I would say I’m a pig in shit, but that’s not very polite. I love them with a capital L-O-V-E. First, I can’t even begin to tell you how amazing Saoirse is. From the first moment I met her, she spoke to me for 15 minutes. We had a break and she came over and started chatting with me, and she showed me a video she made in secret of her mum doing my lines. We were giggling while she was going over her lines with her mum. She was with me for the whole of the tea break, then we went back to our reading. Nobody else existed, nobody else was in the room; she was just with me for that time.She just makes you feel so special because she is so special. She’s so intelligent, she’s got such a beautiful nature, she’s so confident, and she’s a natural on the stage. It’s such a delight and I’m always so happy when younger actors arrive, and they’re ready, and they’re confident, and they know what they’re doing and what they’re talking about, and they’re ready to be brave and try things and humiliate themselves. This girl has been nominated for every major award for film you can be nominated for. She came into rehearsal, and she’s nominated for an Oscar, and a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA, all of it, and she’s just like ‘Hey! Hi! Okay, show me what to do.’ 

And I could take Ben home every night. What a consummate professional. He’s so brilliant. He’s an extraordinary actor, and going so deep into John Proctor is actually quite scary. You think ‘Oh my God, is he lost?’ And then he walks off stage and says ‘Hey, are you alright?’ I love him. We all get on. Every single person in the company relates to everybody else. We’re a really loving company. I’m very humbled. I didn’t know what it would be like. I thought it would be separate, and that people would be starry, and I would be separate and it would be weird. It’s not that at all, it’s just been all of us together. Everyone. Wardrobe, hair and makeup, we’re all mates, and we all talk.

Have you noticed any difference between audiences in the US and Europe?

I’ve done a few plays here now, and the audience is much more responsive in New York than in London. That’s not always, that’s just my experience. I’ve been doing all-female Shakespeare plays. We did Julius Caesar in 2013 and Henry IV. The audience is just up for it, and they’re vocal and laughing and they respond intelligently, and they get everything we’re doing. In London, it was brilliant and packed, and you could see the faces of young women who were so happy to see women playing Marc Antony and Caesar and Brutus, but at the same time everyone was sort of muted. I could feel the energy of people going ‘I don’t agree with this, gender-bending it into all women.’ You could feel the little grumble. I’ve done some fantastic work in the UK, and depending on what it is, people are up for it. And depending on the theatre – the Tricycle, the Almeida – people are just like ‘Yeah, come on.’ But there are times when you do a play and everyone is just sitting there politely, not making a sound, and then at the end standing up for cheering really loudly, and you’re like ‘Really?! We thought you were dead.’ 

How has it been to be part of a show that’s so hotly anticipated?

It’s always scary because you don’t know how people are going to receive it. You don’t want them to reject it. Because it’s been done so many times, you don’t want them to compare it to something they liked better. You don’t want them to say so-and-so was smarter. By the same token, you just want them to hear the same messages. For me as an actress, it’s a collaborative work, and I want the audience to get the same messages out of the play. And maybe see something different and go, ‘oh, I didn’t know that was in there. I didn’t know that was connected to that.’ I want it to be relevant to their lives now. The other important thing to me is that it’s still got ramifications and it’s still vibrating into your world. What happened back then is still happening now. Let’s look at these stories, let’s learn from these stories, let’s not make the same mistakes. Instead of ‘you were the best one I ever saw,’ I’d rather them say, ‘That’s the most incredible play. That is the human condition for the 21st century. This will stand up forever.’

What’s something that people would be surprised to learn about you?

What has surprised some people is that I’m British. They didn’t know, since the first play I did was American. Then they came to see Henry IV and were like ‘Wait, where are you from?’ I’m from London, but then I did some play readings and people again thought I was American. I’m an interloper.

What would your dream role on Broadway be?

Cleopatra, Amanda in Private Lives, a guy in Shakespeare. There are probably a few dream roles. I’d love to do Tennessee Williams. I think his writing transcends race; you could put anyone in any of those roles and just get on with it because we’re all human beings. There’s lots of other stuff. Lynn Nottage is one of my favorite writers of this century, so I’d love to do all of her plays. Actually, my dream role would be to play Mama Nadi in Ruined on Broadway.

Finish the sentence: ‘If I wasn’t an actress, I would be…’

An archaeologist. I’d be in some square of dirt, gently chipping away and dusting off some piece of bone or stone or flint or whatever. In some quiet corner of the world, collecting fossils and looking for stories from centuries ago. I would always be a storyteller in some way.

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