Monday , May 27 2024
Steven Skybell, Firdous Bamji, and Joshua David Robinson in 'The Lehman Trilogy' (Credit: Nile Hawver)

Theater Interview: Kadahj Bennett on Understudying in ‘The Lehman Trilogy’

The Lehman Trilogy, the 2022 Tony Award-winning Best Play by Stefano Massini, is coming to The Huntington Theatre in Boston from June 13 through July 16. With a performance length of nearly three and a half hours, this is the first production of the play to originate in the United States and to be directed by an American director. Adapted into English by Ben Power, the play covers the rise and fall of the Lehman brothers from the early 1840s to the 2000s.

To learn more about this story of family, ambition, and risk, I spoke with Elliot Norton Award-winner Kadahj Bennett, who understudies for the role of Emanuel Lehman (Joshua David Robinson) in this production. Here are the highlights of the interview.

On Kadahj Bennett

How did it feel when you won the Elliot Norton Award?

I did Passover with SpeakEasy Stage, a remix of Waiting for Godot with Black Lives Matter. It was awesome to get an award for putting together a character that felt like an amalgam of different people I knew growing up. It was awesome and weird though because it was at the same time [as] when the world was shutting down. So it felt like a fever dream.

What’s essential to keep in mind as an actor?

I love storytelling. That could be a song, a performance, writing, teaching. I try to tell a story and figure out how to tap into somebody’s emotions. Joseph Campbell already talked about the idea of the modern myth and that all stories are very similar, which means they’re all relatable. We all know heartbreak. It doesn’t matter who the vessel is; these are human experiences. It doesn’t matter what the language is. 

On New Opportunities in the Theater Industry

What changes have you noticed in theater in the last three years?

The Huntington is trying to make their work accessible. Tickets start at lower prices. There are streaming options. Behind the scenes, the equity, diversity, and inclusion talk was one of the smoothest ones I’ve witnessed.

They seem invested with the consent and intimacy work. Work days are not as long or grueling anymore, and tech has been compacted. Instead of always a focus on “the show must go on,” it’s been more of taking care of everyone while we’re putting the show together. 

Being able to enjoy this process is important. I want to see more of that. I also love the way we tell stories. We can make the experiences more intimate. We can talk to audiences in new ways; it’s not always going to be framed in the proscenium. I love new conventions and new ways to tell stories.

Photo of Khadahj Bennett smiling
Kadahj Bennett (Courtesy of The Huntington)

On The Lehman Trilogy Rehearsals

What can you tease for us about The Lehman Trilogy?

I love new work. I think that’s an awesome challenge to be one of the few people who get to touch this epic. We get to create and put our own spin on it [for] the American version. The story is such an American story: America is so much about myth-making and being able to tell your story.

It’s a family story and about how money can make family turn on family. People used to be religious and then they lost those ties. As this family loses those ties, they lose their morals. [Then] money is the religion. All of that is really fun and interesting to tell, particularly in the times that we’re in.

As an understudy, how are you immersed in this world spanning the 1840s to 2000s?

Our dramaturg [Julie Felise Dubiner] put together a wonderful packet to build the world for us. We have Misha [Shields] doing the physical work with us to see where the center of each character is. She’s amazing and she won an award for K-I-S-S-I-N-G. I got to work with her before on Hype Man. Lee [Nishri-Howitt] is doing vocal work with us. I appreciate the fact that the understudies spend one-on-one time with those people. 

Our director Carey is also a machine in the room. She knows the aesthetics and the vibe. She has the original version of the play and the draft that we’re using. [She has] her dialect person and an assistant to look up things as we go through. It’s like a masterclass to watch. I’m a teaching artist myself—to see her tools and passion in her directing—I’m definitely stealing those. 

On Emanuel Lehman

What is Emanuel like to portray?

Emanuel’s track is a little more sturdy, but within that, he is the most physical of the brothers. There is a lot of running and moving things, getting his temper. Going back to the greed, Emanuel is the one saying, “Let’s take it to New York.”

Then Emanuel is big on the stocks. His energy is very important. And he is the first one to have a nightmare of the family crumbling from the decisions they’ve made.

In rehearsals, Joshua is switching through the physicalities. When the stock markets crash, he plays maybe 21 different individuals dealing with the repercussions. Watching him work is so awesome. It’s a different process than when I’ve done understudy work [before]. We are a little more immersed in it. For [other shows], we weren’t brought into the room this early, sometimes not until tech time. 

On Bringing the Show to Boston

How do you feel about bringing the first American production of The Lehman Trilogy to Boston?

It’s a big piece with three people. With the physical work, the show is a marathon!

Back in the day, Boston used to be a jumping off point for art before it went to Broadway. This show already premiered on Broadway, but for Boston to have the first American version of the piece is astounding and beautiful. I’m excited to be a part of this process.

Visit The Huntington’s website for schedule and tickets.

About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros is Pop Culture Editor for Blogcritics Magazine. She frequently covers TV, film and theater. Her portfolio includes interviews with Ndaba Mandela and actors Juliette Binoche, Fran Drescher, Derek Jacobi and Brent Spiner. She's also spoken with notable voice actors Petrea Burchard, Garry Chalk, Peter Cullen and Brian Drummond.

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