Last March, the Indiana Repertory Theatre stunned audiences with the flagship production of a new play: The Gospel According to James. The brutal tale shared imagined events surrounding the last two lynchings to occur in Indiana. After its run at the IRT, the Gospel According to James played Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago.
And now Central Indiana-based actor Diane Kondrat has been nominated for the Jeff Awards for Outstanding Actress in a Supporting Role. The annual ceremony recognizes equity theater professionals in Chicago for outstanding work in production, performance, direction and design.
She discovered her nomination little more than a week ago. "[Director] Chuck Smith sent me an email," Kondrat explained. "I guess they don't tell you. They just release it, and they wait for you to find out. One of the things associated with the website for the Jeff Awards says if you're a nominee get in touch with us and send us your contact information so we can get in touch with you. I'm waiting for whatever it is their going to send me."
As Bea, the mother of a young girl whose inter-racial relationship led to the lynchings, Kondrat gives a compelling performance. And as the wife of an abusive husband, Bea is representative of the deep-set oppression of women that occurred alongside racial tension in the small '30s-era Indiana town. But it wasn't until the show arrived in Chicago that Kondrat was given the chance to explore her instinct for the part.
"The director changed a lot between the run at IRT and the run at Victory Gardens. He let me be nicer to my daughter. He didn't let me be very nice to her at IRT. And I kind of accepted that that's how he wanted it to be. But he let me love her more at Victory Gardens."
That love manifested itself on stage in the form of higher stakes for Kondrat and a more emotionally affective arc for Bea. "Since I loved her even more, everything hurt more," says Kondrat. "When I gave her the getaway, the key to the car, it was a lot more of a conscious decision. He [Smith] let me see the key, understand [that] she could get away, and give it to her in a real conscious way that I wasn't able to do at IRT. That moment was crisper and a little more shocking for the audience, because [they didn't see] it coming. They discovered it with her, with Bea."
To prepare for the part Kondrat employed the use of the Sanford Meisner Technique. "The Mesiner technique differs from method acting with the idea that you construct your circumstance that precedes the scene from your imagination not from real life," Kondrat said. "I don't place any limitations on the imaginative circumstances that get me ready to go on stage. It's the gas that fuels my tank before I go on."
In Gospel, Kondrat constructed circumstances surrounding her daughter's misbehavior. "I had her know where the daughter's hide out was with the boys. I very concretely envisioned this place under a tree with some Chicago Defenders newspapers. There were also some bottles of illegal liquor. It was not a nice place. I had to go look for her there before I would go on stage."
But more than using her imagination, Kondrat utilized her past experience working with abused women. "I was the boss of an interactive theater company for 15 years. We did interactive theatre in prisons and schools, and we did a lot of HIV/AIDS education. [Often] women are afraid to ask their partners to use condoms because in some situations you get punched in the face. So I had done a lot of research on abused women. I was so honored to play that part."
On stage that research came in handy during scenes with Bea's husband, Hoot. "I would get dizzy in my scenes with him, and I realized I was so afraid I was not breathing," Kondrat said.
If, on Nov. 7 at the Jeff Awards, Kondrat hears her name called she's got a plan. "I'm going to try not to look too goofy. That is often a problem for me. So I'll try to look smart," she said. "I was thinking about people who have to thank people. You know that list of names, it's so important to the person who is talking and in most instances doesn't mean anything to anyone who's listening. So I'll keep it short and talk about how much of an honor it is to be recognized in Chicago, which I consider the city of great actors in America."
In addition to making an appearance at the Jeff Awards on Nov. 7, Kondrat will also appear on Bloomington's Cardinal Theater stage in the one woman show Red Hot Patriot. After that, Indianapolis audiences can see her in the Phoenix Theatre's August: Osage County. Plus, this Indianapolis Arts Council Creative Renewal Fellow will head to the Shakespeare and Company month long intensive in Lenox, Mass., this Winter.
Kondrat's Jeff Awards nod isn't the only success for Gospel According to James. Other members of the cast and creative team have been honored with nominations from the Black Theater Alliance Awards. Director Chuck Smith, playwright Charles Smith, leading actor Andre De'Shields and featured actor Tyler Jacob Rollinson will all attend the BTAA awards on Oct. 10.