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Reading Reagan with BLIND DATE Dramaturg Jonathan Green

Jonathan Green usually works as the Goodman Theatre’s literary manager. For the Chicago company’s production of Blind Date, a play about the tense push-and-pull between President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev during the Cold War, he served as dramaturg. I called Green to talk about sifting through endless troves of Reaganalia.

 

When you’re researching historical figures, I can only assume you have a plethora of information at your disposal. How do you decide which books or articles to reference?

Jonathan Green

Jonathan Green

[Blind Date] playwright Rogelio Martinez had been working on this play for several years. He did an incredible amount of research before he started writing. . . [using] a lot from books, but also [materials] from the Reagan Presidential Library. This play takes place at the Geneva Summit in 1985 between Reagan and Gorbachev. The classified—well, now declassified—White House memoranda for each individual section from that summit—like the first plenary, the first private meeting, the second plenary—those are all available now.

In preparing for the rehearsal process, I did a lot of investigation into these primary sources. There are so many biographies and autobiographies and conflicting biographies of all of the characters. As much as we could, we tried to get two or three perspectives on each character, so that we’re not solely hearing the story from the historical figure’s point of view.

For example, Nancy Reagan. There are a lot of books written about her. She has an autobiography—I think it was ghostwritten—called My Turn. Then there was a book called Nancy by Michael Deaver, who worked very closely with her. Then there’s a book called Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography by Kitty Kelley. It’s a little bit more sensationalized, but we’re interested in getting multiple perspectives because—and actually this is one of the themes of the play—in the end, no biography is entirely correct.

It’s worth noting that so many of these primary sources are available online from the Reagan Library, and there are some declassified documents as well from the now-defunct Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It’s really exciting to pick up a document that was once written for the president’s eyes only in 1985 or 1986. There’s so much available for free online.

 

What approach do director Robert Falls and the actors take to portray real people?

The playwright did so much research; he was able to create his own versions of Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan. The people who remember them from the news will recognize certain ways of speaking. In the end, the overarching question is: Are we trying to present these characters as they existed in the world? Even if we wanted to say yes, absolutely, it’s kind of impossible because there are so many versions, [so] the aim of the production is to present these characters as they are written by Rogelio Martinez.

 

I had a theater professor once say, “Whenever you’re watching a play, you should think of three timelines: when it takes place, when it was written, and why it’s being performed now.” Why do you think Blind Date will resonate with today’s audiences?

Blind Date Cast

Jim Ortlieb (George Shultz), Rob Riley (Ronald Reagan), William Dick (Mikhail Gorbachev), and Steve Pickering (Eduard Shevardnadze) in Blind Date by Rogelio Martinez, directed by Robert Falls at Goodman Theatre (January 20 – February 25, 2018).

That first draft was written before the 2016 election, and we’re watching it after. I think that’s such an interesting divide, even though—in terms of time—those two dates are not that far apart; in the sort of social and cultural life of our country, it feels like a decade.

We’re living in such divisive times, and the play is a story about two countries—but really two leaders who have very, very different views on the world, on humanity, on why we’re all here on Earth. It’s about them coming together and talking, trying to find some common ground, trying to find peace. I think that that is something that we’re all kind of yearning for right now, whether we know it or not.

The playwright was born in Cuba—and it was after Bay of Pigs, after the nuclear crisis in Cuba—but still he came to the U.S. at a fairly young age. He was born into a communist society that taught him these things are right, these things are wrong, then he moved to the U.S. and was taught the exact opposite. That’s something that, as he’s grown older, has really captured his imagination.

Even in a vacuum, it’s a really interesting topic to explore, but in our current moment, it feels even more crucial.

Blind Date plays at the Goodman Theatre through February 25. Readers who want to learn more about this fascinating time in history should check out the titles below that Green reccomends.

 

Dear Mr. President, by Jason Saltoun-Ebin

Dutch, by Edmund Morris

Reagan and Gorbachev, by Jack Matlock

Ronald Reagan, by Ronald Reagan

The Triumph of Improvisation, by James Graham Wilson

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About the Author:

Biz Hyzy works as an editorial assistant for Booklist's Adult Books department, where she pilfers the most appealing ARCs before anyone else gets the chance. Besides reading, she enjoys swing dancing and ninja training (though, in her case, both include a lot of bumbling around).

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