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Sep 1, 2017 12:56 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Harris Yulin Directs All-Star Cast In Concert Reading Of 'Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been' On September 9

James Earl Jones  CHRISTIAN OTH
Sep 5, 2017 1:07 PM

Harris Yulin made a decision—his annual theatrical contribution at Guild Hall in East Hampton would be Eric Bentley’s “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been”—and so he hopped on his computer to look it up.

Much to his surprise, he saw he had already done it: In Los Angeles, and with James Earl Jones. It is one of the only audio recordings of the play that still exists, he said.

“I had even forgotten we were in that together,” Mr. Yulin said on a recent Thursday afternoon over the telephone. “But Jimmy and I first worked together in 1963, and then I think we did three plays together, and I think we did a few movies together. We’ve worked together six or seven times over the years.

“When I asked him to do this at Guild Hall, he said he would think about it, and he thought about it, and now he can’t wait,” he continued. “I can’t wait to hear him do it. It will be beautiful.”

Sourced directly from transcripts, the dialogue heard in the drama is almost exactly as it sounded during the infamous trials held by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. The chairmen subpoenaed major names in the entertainment world to testify before the committee, swear their loyalty to the United States and encouraged them to name anyone who was, or was suspected of being, a communist.

“What it gets into is people put in a position where they have to choose between following the dictates of a government committee and their own honor and integrity, and how they negotiate this balance, how we always are positioning ourselves,” Mr. Yulin said. “Fortunately for a lot of us, we don’t have to make these choices very often, even if at all. But we have to make them in some way or another, all through our lives.

“What they’re talking about—words like ‘loyalty,’ ‘honesty,’ ‘integrity’ and what it means to be a citizen of the United States—is quite important, and pretty much of the moment. Or, at least, so it seems to me.”

The roll call of witnesses is substantial, with words spoken by the likes of Lionel Stander, Abe Burrows, Lillian Hellman, Larry Parks, Elia Kazan, Jerome Robbins and Arthur Miller—and Mr. Yulin is still trying to figure out which character he fits, outside of directing the play.

“I’m kind of wandering around part-less. I think I’ll do a part, but I’m not exactly sure what one. There are 28 actors, so it’s a bit like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. It is a larger job than seems wise,” he said. “It’s unnerving. It’s difficult because, essentially, I have Friday afternoon and Saturday afternoon to put this piece together. That’s a lot to put together, but this is what we have. I have some marvelous people doing this with me.”

For now, appearing alongside Mr. Jones—who wrote of starring as singer, actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, “I can’t wait,” in an email—are Matthew Broderick, Richard Kind, Peter Riegert, Bill Camp, Barry Scheck and Mercedes Ruehl, who will narrate.

“She’s the only woman,” Mr. Yulin said of Ms. Ruehl. “That’s the downside of the material. It’s only men and, except for Jimmy, only white men. It’s really kind of a drag, but there you are. That’s the way it was.”

That fact is not lost on Ms. Ruehl, who will also read a powerful letter by Ms. Hellman, a Hollywood and Broadway screenwriter who was blacklisted following her appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee. She was held in contempt because she said she did not want to come and would not name names, the actor said.

“To read it feels the way it feels to hear it: awe for that human being and for her courage, and for her articulateness, and for the current of warmth and love of her fellow man, and a love of the principals of our country. She’s not grandstanding, she’s not calling attention to herself as a heroine,” Ms. Ruehl said. “The hearings themselves were very theatrical, so they lend themselves to a re-creation of their own theatricality, which is pretty interesting. They had antagonists and protagonists. There were conflicts of the highest order, which got resolved either honorably or dishonorably. This goes back to Greek theater, those hearings.”

Both the arts and history are circular, Ms. Ruehl said, and in reading the script, she has come to realize that the time to revisit this play is now.

“Just yesterday, the president said he would close down the government if the money to build a wall along the border with Mexico was not granted to him. That is so outrageous,” she said. “That is the executive branch acting in a way that is so anti-American, so despicable. There couldn’t be a better time to invoke this really unfortunate chapter in American history because we’re going through another one.”

When asked why his gut reaction was to choose this play, Mr. Yulin laughed. “I honestly don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know. It seemed necessary somehow.”

He paused.

“It’s an entertainment, you understand, but along with that entertainment, you’re getting a real piece of American history. It wants to be heard. Because times change, but the same forces always exist, I think, in society and the political world.”

“Are You Now or Have You Ever Been” will stage on Saturday, September 9, at 8 p.m. at Guild Hall in East Hampton. Tickets range from $30 to $50, or $28 to $48 for members. For more information, call 631-324-4050, or visit guildhall.org.

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