Why is Trinity Rep producing A Christmas Carol for the 45th consecutive time this year? Yes, it is a longstanding Rhode Island tradition, but beyond that, what makes the show relevant in 2021?
That’s what director and resident company member Joe Wilson, Jr. considered when preparing for this year’s production. Having been in multiple Trinity Rep stagings of the show (including as Scrooge in last year’s virtual production), the holiday classic is a personal favorite of his. Joe told us this is because its themes withstand the test
of time – and that they are just as relevant now as they were when Charles Dickens first penned the original novella.
Scrooge’s isolation from his community, physically and emotionally, is a part of his character that’s often overlooked, Joe said. Joe feels this will especially resonate with many folks during a global pandemic.
“I think this production will reflect what we’ve been through in terms of the isolation and trauma we’ve all felt, and how we enter the world again after being isolated for so long,” Joe explained. “That is in essence what the journey of Scrooge is. This is a man who is self-isolated because of a given set of circumstances that have influenced his life, the traumas in his life, so he’s chosen this path for himself. The process of him finding a way, the capacity, the strength, the courage, to re-enter a world again – that’s what A Christmas Carol is about.”
Beyond Scrooge’s personal journey connecting to the personal experiences so many of us experienced over the past year and a half, A Christmas Carol features social commentary on poverty and class relations. Dickens saw firsthand
how London’s upper class treated the poor, and he had no respect for those who turned a blind eye on poverty. Growing up as a child laborer in a factory also shaped Dickens’ views of class throughout his life. Scrooge realizing the importance of charity reflected Dickens’ economic views of the time, but is also relevant in the 21st century when income inequality is a national and global issue.
“If you read about the history of this novel, you’ll see that this piece, in its original form is, in essence, a piece of political writing,” Joe told us. “Charles Dickens was making a statement about the way that we treat the poor, and specifically the criminalization of the poor in the time period that this particular story is set. Even now we’re having lots of discussions around our obligations to those who don’t live in as much abundance as others, so in that way I think the story is timely.”
Joe made sure to feature a multiracial, multigenerational cast. Trinity Rep has cast performers of color in almost every role in A Christmas Carol at some point, but in previous years this was usually done in a “colorblind” manner, meaning the performer’s race wasn’t a factor used for casting. But Joe told us that this year he purposefully cast actors of color in certain roles to illustrate power dynamics of the era that are still present in certain ways today. Joe cited period shows with diverse casts such as Netflix’s Bridgerton as inspiration.
For example, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley and Rodney Witherspoon II, both Black men, are portraying Jacob Marley and Bob Cratchit, respectively, while Tim Crowe’s Scrooge is White. Without changing a single word in the script, the casting of these characters and how they are presented onstage completely transforms our interpretation of their relationships.
Regarding the scene where Marley’s ghost, carrying his own chains, comes to warn Scrooge that he’s damned unless he changes his ways, Joe explained, “The opportunity for what it would mean to have those two men have that conversation was exciting to me, thrilling to me. It’s like the diversity and the inclusion that I was trying to create in this world actually wasn’t a limitation, but it presented more opportunity. The intentionality of the casting presented, far more opportunity, and also gave me a chance to really continue to have that answer that question, why [do this show] now, why today?”
Despite some heavy themes, A Christmas Carol has optimistic messages of redemption and giving. The coexistence of holiday joy and social commentary brings out the best aspects of both. Joe hopes that audiences will find the production “cathartic” overall.
“I couldn’t be more honored to facilitate a conversation around this play with my designers and with my cast and with everyone in this great theater to create what I hope will be a truly extraordinary A Christmas Carol,” Joe said.