Actors Seek Answers in “The Good Person of Szechwan”


Amanda Brooklyn, FCLC ’13, and David Jackson, FCLC ’11, in costume, star in the upcoming Fordham Mainstage production of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Person of Szechwan.” (Sara Azoulay/The Observer)

Published: March 30, 2011

As Fordham’s students search their pockets for that last dollar of Burrito Box money, its actors search the annals of Bertolt Brecht for economic morality. “The Good Person of Szechwan,” originally written in German during the playwright’s exile in the United States and set in China, now takes the guise of Great Depression-era New York, a change of setting that should click with recession-weary undergrads.

“Even though none of us were alive during the Great Depression, it’s something more relatable,” said Amanda Brooklyn, FCLC ’13, the production’s lead actress. “Depression, recession; it’s all the same.” Brooklyn plays Shen Te, the increasingly pressured and immoral “good person” in “Szechwan.”

“She’s a whore with a heart of gold,” Brooklyn and costar David Jackson, FCLC ’11, joked. “She tries to do good things, and all these freeloaders just swarm her,” Jackson explained.

Jackson plays Wang, a small-time swindler just trying to get by. “It’s not explicit in the text what our relationship is, but we decided we’re pretty good friends. I don’t think it ever really becomes more than that, even though Wang may have a little thing for her,” he joked.

Jackson, a fan of Brecht, was drawn to the production for its true-to-life moral implications. “We make spur-of-the-moment decisions based on economic necessity—and then it all kind of gets carried away and makes things really complicated,” Jackson explained, considering Shen Te’s moral dilemma. “Situations come up in New York all the time—value judgments like that, where you think about what you want versus what they want, long term versus short term…There are so many judgments like that to consider and Brecht kind of questions that.”

The play scrutinizes both the small decisions and the significant ones, Brooklyn said. “No one person can fix what’s wrong with the whole world, even in the smallest situations, like when you’re in line at a grocery store with this huge cart of food and the person behind you only has a carton of milk and a box of cereal. You think, ‘I should let this person go ahead of me.’ But then you think, ‘No way, I have class in a half hour.’ But that isn’t really you; it’s this thing you put on for survival.”

Shen Te and her alter-ego, Shui Ta, embody these two motivations. Shen Te is good-willed and charitable where Shui Ta is uncompassionate and stern, a dichotomy that anyone faced with these day-to-day decisions should be familiar with, but that often goes unanalyzed.

“Brecht has his own imagining of what the theatre should be,” Jackson said. “He wants his audience to be distanced from the stage so that they can evaluate it more objectively. He doesn’t want you to get lost in it; he wants you to be thinking about it.”

The actors have been giving these questions a good deal of consideration as well; their director, Elizabeth Margid, uses discussion and interpretation among her actors as an integral part of the production. “It’s been more of a Socratic rehearsal process,” Brooklyn said of Margid’s methods. “It’s less ‘I’m the director and here’s what you’re going to do,’ and  it’s more ‘Let’s figure out together how this scene is going to work, or what the story is going to be.’ It’s refreshing to be able to bring our own thoughts to the process.” (Of her actors, Margid’s sole response was “Wonderful.”)

The actors’ involvement in the directorial process is a testament to the play’s relevance among students. Jackson hopes the play will encourage discussion among its viewers. “I’m hoping people’ll walk away from it thinking, well, what do we do, how do we fix it? How can you be a good person if everything has a price? It’s a play that doesn’t give you an answer. It’s a play that asks questions and wants to make the audience think and engage in a dialogue. We’re used to a story that says one person will fix everything for you, while this is a play that says, well, here we are. We’re still in a recession, still grappling with the economy on a daily basis… So what do we do?”