Most of us probably best remember Six Degrees of Separation as a film, one which featured accomplished actors like Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland but was most notable for one of Will Smith’s early, star-making performances. Smith played Paul, a skilled young con artist who builds an impressive false identity as a cultured, well-educated student in order to bilk the unsuspecting wealthy elites of New York City out of their money.
That 1993 film was based on a 1990 play by John Guare, a play in which we see Paul largely through the eyes (and stories) of the people he deceived, and that perspective lends a sense of mystery and even a bit of sympathy to Paul’s character, even as he lies to a pair of well-off empty nesters in an attempt to swindle them.
Six Degrees of Separation is a deft, subtle commentary on class, race, and identity that’s both more emotional and funnier than one might expect. And it’s always been a favorite of Kyle Barnette, a veteran Charleston actor and director who’s helming a production of the play for The Footlight Players at the Queen Street Playhouse.
“I’ve been a longtime fan of this script,” Barnette says. “It was one of the plays we studied in my Modern American Drama class in college at Ole Miss in the mid-1990s. I also worked in a video store when the movie came out, and I played it over and over at the store, watching it while I worked. It has a very unique way of telling the story in the script, so to see it translated and told in a different medium was one of the first times I was inspired to want to direct. I love to see how a work of theater translates into film and how the story stays the same, even if it is told with a different approach.”
There’s an interesting, although far less sinister, parallel between Six Degrees of Separation and the company of actors involved in this production. Much like Paul attempts to move from one social class to another, there’s a member of the cast who has moved from behind the scenes of The Footlight Players to the stage for the first time.
“Chip Hester Jr. (who plays Geoffrey, a wealthy acquaintance of the Kittredges) and his wife have been patrons of Footlight and other theaters around town for a few years,” Barnette says. “He read great for the roles he was auditioning for, and after I cast him in the role of Geoffrey, he told me he really had no acting experience to speak of other than a couple of church plays as a kid. This will be his adult stage debut, at the age of 57, and we’re happy to have him.”
Barnette says he enjoyed the play’s pokes at the supposedly intelligent wealthy elite, largely personified in the script by art dealer Flan Kittredge (played in this production by Paul O’Brien) and his wife Louisa (nicknamed “Ouisa” and played by Carolyn K. Graupner).
“It was interesting to see a play that really takes a jab at the uber rich, white Upper East Side liberal set,” he says. “You have these well-meaning, art-collecting socialites who consider themselves so ‘woke,’ who just open their home and hearts to a total stranger simply because he claims to go to school with their kids and has a very famous movie star father. All they see is a black guy who came in, acted white, made them feel safe and comfortable. They aren’t necessarily aware of anything outside of their little rich people bubble.”
The success or failure of a production of Six Degrees of Separation depends almost entirely on who plays Paul, a character who must be cunning yet vulnerable, self-assured yet desperate, and above all else, convincing, both to the other characters and to the audience. And Barnette says that in Deshawn Mason, he found exactly the right person to play the role.
“First and foremost, you need someone who is dynamic and really understands the art of illusion and how to influence and charm and command a room with just their style of talking,” Barnette says. “Deshawn was a perfect choice, because he’s also a stand-up comedian, and he has a real sense of how to get a room on his side and join him on a journey. Paul is a con-artist, but at the heart of him is someone who really wants to be loved. So you need an actor who can show that vulnerability hidden under layers of artifice and showmanship.”
In Barnette’s hands, the Footlight Players’ version of the play is minimally staged, putting the emphasis on Six Degrees of Separation‘s dialogue and, perhaps more importantly, the way it’s spoken.
“This is a fast-paced show,” he says. “It runs 1 hour, 25 minutes with no intermission, and the characters frequently jump between their dialogue to each other by interrupting with asides to the audience and then right back into the scene. They overlap and talk over each other often in rapid fire pace, and the story jumps between real life and flashback storytelling. In order to make all of that work, you need a cast who are all on the same wavelength and rhythm and cadence.”
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