Theater & dance

‘Oleanna’ takes on a renewed topicality at New Rep

Johnny Lee Davenport and Obehi Janice during rehearsal of “Oleanna,” a two-actor play, at New Rep Theatre in Watertown.
Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
Johnny Lee Davenport and Obehi Janice during rehearsal of “Oleanna,” a two-actor play, at New Rep Theatre in Watertown.

WATERTOWN — Johnny Lee Davenport has a way of speaking in a commanding tone even when his character is fumbling for words. It’s one way to push through the dense text of David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” which Davenport and scene partner Obehi Janice are rehearsing on a recent evening upstairs at the Mosesian Center for the Arts. New Repertory Theatre’s production of the play begins performances there on Saturday.

As they work through the scene, in which a college student confronts her professor with a charge of sexual harassment, the two actors slowly circle the professor’s desk, eventually reversing their original positions. She stands behind his chair; he sits meekly in front of her.

Earlier this evening, when director Elaine Vaan Hogue went over notes with Davenport and Janice, they talked about how the simple act of moving around the space helped put a physical stamp on the shifting power relations between the two characters, who are identified only as John and Carol. It’s just one element of the tug of war the two engage in across the play’s three, increasingly heated, scenes.

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“What surprised me when I read it again was how one moment I would be on John’s side and another moment I would be on Carol’s side. I was flip-flopping back and forth, and that really surprised me. I found that was my hook into the play,” Vaan Hogue says, seated with Davenport for an interview after rehearsal. “There’s nothing easy. Nothing is spelled out so that we can easily resolve [the dispute].”

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One source of appeal for this production is the pairing of onstage talent. Davenport, a reliably great presence on Boston stages for many years, appeared at New Rep last year in the solo show “Thurgood.” Janice is a fast-rising up-and-comer, whose performances in her own solo show “FUFU & OREOS” (Bridge Repertory Theater) and “We’re All Gonna Die” (Company One, in conjunction with Oberon) have drawn considerable praise. Memorable performances helmed by Vaan Hogue in recent years include “Baltimore” and “Imagining Madoff,” at New Rep, and “A Disappearing Number,” at Central Square Theater.

“Oleanna” premiered in Cambridge as the first work by Mamet’s new Back Bay Theater Company, in a co-production with the American Repertory Theater in 1992. It was a year after the Senate confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas pushed the issue of workplace sexual harassment into the national conversation. Mamet said at the time that he’d begun the play earlier but was moved to finish and produce it after the controversy caused by Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment against Thomas.

As it happens, this New Rep production will open about a week after a pair of published exposes detailed years’ worth of work-related sexual-harassment accusations levied against Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein. (It’s also just over a year since the surfacing of the infamous “Access Hollywood” raw footage in which then-GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump referred to techniques he said he’s used to get away with groping women.)

In an e-mail interview, Janice says she has childhood memories of the adults around her talking about Thomas and Hill, and the episode provides a frame of reference for her work on this play. “The Thomas/Hill hearings in ’91 help me place myself,” she says, “as a Black woman, in this discussion. Black women, historically, have been silenced and made to feel worthless and invisible when it comes to sex and power. I think Anita Hill was very brave to speak up and stand out. Her example inspires my interpretation of Carol.”

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Though both characters in this two-hander are depicted as flawed, some audience members have heard the play not as an examination of how power and privilege are wielded in relationships between influential men and vulnerable women, but as simply an indictment of nebulous claims of victimhood. A writer for the conservative website The Federalist concluded without ambiguity in 2014 that the play “savagely disembowels the absurdity of political correctness in higher education.”

Vaan Hogue and Davenport say they are untroubled by the prospect of different audience members taking away their own, very different lessons from “Oleanna.” It’s a “dangerous” play, the director says approvingly.

Indeed, reports from previous productions of “Oleanna” indicate divided audience reactions, ranging from cheers to mid-scene boos. Reviewing a 1992 off-Broadway production in The New York Times, Frank Rich took care to note that “the audience seemed to be squirming and hyperventilating en masse” during a quick break between scenes.

“Look at the world today: We’ve got people that have opinions about things that are right in front of them and they will deny them. If you want to say global warming [as an example] you can,” Davenport says of the multitude of possible audience reactions. “I don’t see what’s wrong with an audience member coming out and saying ‘Bah, humbug’ about it, or another audience member coming out saying ‘I don’t know who to believe.’

“I say: freedom of thought, baby.”

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremyd
goodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.