Sure, he won the 1999 Lucille Lortel award for Outstanding Director, but Derek Anson Jones, the person most responsible for getting Wit onto the New York stage, hasn’t received much attention—well, compared to playwright Margaret Edson, who was given the Pulitzer, and Kathleen Chalfant, who swept up five major acting awards.
Jones—who’s now directing MCC Theater’s latest production, Lorena Gale’s Angelique—had been a close friend of Edson’s since junior high. He’d recited lead character Vivian Bearing’s lines in an early reading the playwright’s friends did of Wit in 1991. “I was the most theatrical of our circle,” says the elegantly thin director with an ironic smile. In 1995, Edson sent him the script that had been produced that year at South Coast Rep. “I took it everywhere with me,” Jones says, “carrying it in my backpack for two years, but no one was interested in doing it. There were many theaters in town—which shall remain nameless—that didn’t bite.”
In 1996, when Jones was assistant-directing Henry V in Central Park, he decided star Kathleen Chalfant would be perfect as Vivian Bearing, and he gave her the play. She loved it. He also showed the script to Long Wharf artistic director Doug Hughes, who finally let the persistent Jones direct it. The show opened in New Haven in October of 1997, then moved to MCC last fall.
Jones’s contribution to Wit was “invaluable and total,” Chalfant raves, noting his “doggedness” in pursuing his own vision. “He was the new kid who had to prove himself,” she says. “His rhythms are flawless—he insisted on them until he got them.”
“Dogged” might also describe the 38-year-old director’s pursuit of his career. Articulate and precise, Jones directed and assistant-directed for years, slowly learning his craft. Then he went back to school, earning an MFA in directing from the Yale School of Drama in 1995.
“I’m not an auteur like Martha Clarke or Robert Wilson,” he says, almost abashedly. “Some directors are more interested in the visual idea and less interested in story, but I love a good story, and I’m interested in how the
visual idea highlights narrative.” He laughs self-deprecatingly. “Sometimes it makes me feel like an old fogy: this
isn’t necessarily a strong suit of the avant-garde or modernism.”
Robert LuPone, MCC’s artistic director, resists typecasting Jones, however. “I’d give him a play of fierce intelligence that needed a strong point of view,” he says. “I wouldn’t limit him to a style of theater yet.”
Since Wit, lots of scripts are coming Jones’s way. “I’m drawn to plays that make us think as well as feel,” the director says, noting his recent productions of Wendy Wasserstein’s American Daughter at the Long Wharf and Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs at SUNY-Purchase. MCC’s Angelique is the tale of an African slave woman in 1730s Montreal. Jones calls it “an examination of the racial and sexual dynamics of that world”—in 40 scenes.
“Talk about postmodernism,” Jones observes playfully. “We’ll have people in both modern and period costume onstage at the same time. The subtext is one of the stage
directions: ‘Now is then, then is now.”‘ The set features both a rough-timbered platform and a genteel 18th-century parlor, with scrim walls displaying historical texts. Lisa Gay Hamilton plays the lead.
By the time Jones takes on Much Ado About Nothing this fall at the Long Wharf—staged as “a Harlem Renaissance of the imagination” with period costume and music by Duke Ellington—he’ll have done his fifth play in six months.
“I hate my answering machine,” Jones says, then hastens to add, “but I’m not complaining.”