Actor Breon Arzell presents Pegasus Theatre's Rutherford's Travels playing the title character, Rutherford Calhoun. It is the tale of Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave who travels to New Orleans and winds up on a slave ship headed to Africa.
After moving to Chicago three years ago from Detroit, Arzell has appeared at as Steppenwolf, Bailiwick and Raven theaters.
The busy man sat down to discuss Rutherford's Travels before running to choreograph Cinderella at the Theater of Potatoes for The Hypocrites Theatre.
Windy City Times: How long have you practiced on Rutherford's Travels?
Breon Arzell: A month and a half, if that.
WCT: Is the language tough?
BA: Yes, and also the dialect. I think the most difficult thing is the perspective, the switching back and forth from storytelling…
WCT: Some of the actors have multiple characters to portray so luckily you just have your one main character. Tell our readers about this character.
BA: Rutherford is like a male Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz when I first started reading it. He is wanting something better where the grass is greener. He wants adventure but everything was right in front of him. He had to go through all of the woes to really see it.
He thought he was so slick and so suave in the beginning. He thought he knew how to run the world. His world was a bubble but then he went outside of it. The realization of his lack of history and ancestry made him wake up. He was a rascal that learns through life's lessons really quick reality. He takes in life and allows it to change him.
WCT: So a good lesson for everyone?
BA: Exactly. What you think life is is not necessarily it!
WCT: Can you describe the plot of Rutherford's Travels?
BA: The whole story starts because of a traumatic event with him losing his father. Since he thinks his father ran away to pursue adventure he thinks it's his destiny to do the same.
In the beginning he thinks his father is out living the best life in the world. Rutherford decides to do that, too.
Although he is older it is a coming of age story. He has the mind of a teenager. He lives in the moment instead of planning for the future.
It is really a show and story about discovery. It is about learning about yourself in larger than life experiences. At heart it is a seafaring tale. It is mixture of Moby Dick, Treasure Island, and Amistad. It is a weird mix. You want to root for him but he is trying to figure out his place and there are slaves involved. Although he was enslaved he was never really treated as a slave. He never lived like a slave.
All the life he thought he had control over he actually didn't, but he had it a lot better than he thought he did. It is about those life lessons and figuring out your place in the world.
WCT: What can audiences get from this period piece?
BA: It is still the same old thing. Even though it is set in a different time period we can all identify with wanting something else. Someone might have a plan in their head for their life but the universe actually has a different plan. You have to be open for change.
In the beginning he thought he would into women, gambling, and running the streets all of his life because that is what he had fun doing. When he met other people and saw what life really was like he went to seek adventure in places he could grow.
Especially for modern audiences and for Black Americans, finding truth in your history, ancestry, and traditions is important. So many people don't tap into that. Sometimes they think being Black and American that they don't have anything to do with Africa, but there is knowledge and strength in knowing where you come from.
One of the most beautiful things I find in the show is when it turns for Rutherford. The reason he is ripping and running is because he has nothing to cling to. There is nothing solid to lay claim to. When he finds that relationship it is something for him to tap into. People today need something to tap into. I think that grounds people a lot more.
People see the god in the show as a horrible demon, but it is very internal. That god was put there for him to learn the lesson of tapping into who he is. He already had it. He just needs to embrace it. Everyone is scared of the god but for him it's a moment of clarity opposed to fear.
WCT: How was working with this theater troupe?
BA: It was great, collaborative and playful. You never want someone fighting your choices!
WCT: Can you speak on being an out actor?
BA: Even though I am out, I always play straight guys. It hasn't really affected me in a way. I want to play a gay character but I never do. Well, one time I did with All Our Tragic with The Hypocrites Theatre. My character Achilles was gay but it one aspect of the character and not a big deal. There was a beautiful moment between him and his lover, but that was it.
One thing about me is I want to be an actor first. I don't want to be gay, or Black. I just want to be an actor. Let me play. That is what I do and my job. Those aren't the only roles I can play.
I hate when I only get called in for Black roles. If it is not in the script then anyone can play it.
I have never really seen it as an identifier as me as an actor, but it is nothing I am ashamed of.
For me, it is natural and no big whoop.
WCT: Are you excited about being in The Wiz for Kokandy Productions next year?
BA: It is very exciting. I am choreographing it and in it as well. It is one of my dream shows to choreograph.
WCT: What role are you playing?
BA: I am part of the ensemble. I can't steal the show! I am understudying the Cowardly Lion. I do go on one weekend because the actor who plays him is going into tech for another show.
I was also just cast at the Goodman Theatre for Objects in the Mirror. It will be my Goodman debut. I will be on the main stage and working with Chuck Smith. I will believe it once we get into rehearsals!
Rutherford's Travels plays Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave., now through Dec. 4. Tickets and more information can be found at PegasusTheatreChicago.org .