by Ellen Rossow
Identity. Individuality. Nonconformity. These ideas have been found throughout history as humans have struggled to find the answer to the age old question, “Who am I?”
This week, the Tin Roof Theatre Company aims to address this question through the examination of the life and thoughts of Henry David Thoreau as they prepare to share “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.”
Written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, the production dives deep into the mind of the famous thinker after he was thrown in jail for refusing to pay taxes in support of the Mexican/American War. Thoreau’s refusal to pay taxes is one of many ways he proved nonconformist at that time —something unthinkable for a man of the 1840s.
According to director and MSUM alumna Karla Underdahl, the production ties into the company’s fall show, “Judgement at Nuremburg,” which discussed social justice and a sense of self as well. Their fall show discussed these things in relationship to the Holocaust.
“The Holocaust happened 100 years after this, but Henry Thoreau is actually speaking volumes about going against society, standing up for what you feel is right, and speaking out against a government that may be doing something that could be bad for others,” she explained.
This historically accurate production discusses his thoughts on these things through flashbacks as well as conversation in his cell.
Though it takes place in the 1840s, the production’s key ideas stand the test of time, Underdahl said.
“Today, what he says is so relevant,” she said. “A lot of youth, I think, catch on and attach to Thoreau because he was such an individual, and a lot of youth today are like that.”
Historically, Thoreau was one of the first thinkers to speak out for the environment.
“Deforestation of Massachusetts at that time was pretty prevalent,” she explained. “Thoreau was one of the first people to say we need to be careful. If we keep going the way that we are, this planet isn’t going to last.”
While today it’s common to strive to be unique and show beliefs regarding social issues, Underdahl explained this was unheard of in Thoreau’s society.
“His main thing is that no one ever listened to him,” she said. “In reality, what he was saying was far beyond their comprehension. They didn’t follow what he was saying.”
According to Underdahl, Thoreau’s uniqueness will be hard to miss.
“Thoreau is such a unique individual, and it shines in this show,” she said. “He is such an oddball. He is such a fun character.”
MSUM almunus Reid Strand plays Thoreau’s cellmate in the production.
“My character offers a great juxtiposition,” Strand said. “He’s not very educated and not very worldly. Thoreau recognizes that he is an impressionable mind to mold, even though they only have one night together.”
According to Strand, his character, like many in the production, is based on a real person referenced in Thoreau’s writing “Civil Disobedence.”
Another character found in both Thoreau’s writing and the production is played by MSUM alumnus Ibukun “IB” Awoskia.
“IB plays the runaway slave Henry Williams,” Underdahl said. “Thoreau was an avid abolishionist, so seeing that is really nice to have, even though it is a small piece of the show.”
According to both Strand and Underdahl, the production covers a lot of serious ground, but has humor to offer as well.
“‘Judgement at Nurembourg’ was a really heavy-thinking piece,” Strand said. “This one has a lot of thought too, but it also has so much life.”
“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “Everyone has a good time. You have a lot of serious moments that really grab at you, but then there are funny moments in there to really connect you even more to what is going on.”
The Tin Roof Theatre Company is currently celebrating its 10th season and prides itself in creating worthwhile theater with a range of talent from the Fargo-Moorhead area.
“The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” runs Mar. 13 – 16 and 19 – 22 at the Stage at Island Park. For more information, visit Tin Roof Theatre’s Facebook page or thestageatislandpark.org.