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Actor Jade Wheeler shies away from political debate. But that’s offstage. As Cat, a liberal Harvard Law grad clerking for conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in John Strand’s drama “The Originalist” now at Arena Stage, it’s different. Cat is the mouthpiece for liberal politics in imagined conversations between her and the Justice as the Supreme Court prepares to hear the landmark same-sex marriage case United States v. Windsor.
“Cat is a self-defined liberal but she goes ahead and clerks for Justice Scalia even though it costs her — she loses her girlfriend and friends who can’t understand her decision,” Wheeler says. “Even though Cat disagrees with the Justice’s maddening ideology with every fiber of her being, she is impressed with his intelligence and wants to understand decisions from all vantage points.”
Young, African-American and gay, Cat chooses not to reveal her sexuality to Scalia who once famously said that he suspected he had gay friends but none who ever came out to him.
“Cat doesn’t want her colleagues to think she will be biased on Windsor and other cases related to gay rights so at work she doesn’t wear her sexuality on her sleeve,” Wheeler says. “But outside work she dates women and you might run into her at a chick bar. She has a lot of self-restraint and is sort of a chameleon in a way.”
“The Originalist” is named for Justice Scalia (here played by four-time Helen Hayes Award-winner Edward Gero) who believed the U.S. Constitution should be applied as the framers intended; it premiered at Arena Stage in 2015. Wheeler joined the cast on Election Day 2016 in Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota and then travelled with the company to Pasadena Playhouse before the production came back to Washington. Since the play opened two years ago, Scalia died, Trump was elected and the country has become further divided. Some changes have been made to the script.
“Working at Arena means fulfilling a longtime goal for me,” Wheeler says. She adds it’s been very exciting for her to work with the play’s director and Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith and to act opposite the esteemed Gero who was her theater professor at George Mason University.
This isn’t the first time Wheeler has played a lesbian.
“There was an indie film I did in Miami where I played a lesbian,” she says. “And in life I get hit on a lot by women. I’m not gay, but I am aware of the LGBT struggle and it’s important that it’s not downplayed or forgotten.”
The playwright supplied some backstory for Cat. Still Wheeler delved deep in doing her own character development through research and asking gay friends about their lives. Then she imagined Cat’s life.
“I thought about what she’s been through at 26. How she didn’t come out to her mother who died when she was 12. How she probably came out to her father. How when she was in Cambridge studying at Harvard she probably felt it was safer to come out.”
Though maddeningly right wing, Justice Scalia was known to hire liberal clerks in real life. Strand’s script is strictly historical fiction.
“Things are simplified a little,” Wheeler says. “The characters are likable. Justice Scalia and Cat develop a mutual respect. She learns a lot from him.”
Among entries in Wheeler’s eclectic vitae is “Who is Eartha Mae?” her one-woman show about Eartha Kitt that played Off-Broadway at the 2016 United Solo Fest and won for Best Cabaret. While Kitt is mostly remembered for her sexy gold-digger nightclub persona, Wheeler opted to explore Kitt’s hardscrabble childhood in the South and her role as an activist.
“I was flabbergasted to learn that Kitt was blacklisted for protesting the Vietnam War. Her contemporaries were saying similar things but they weren’t blacklisted. She was a black woman and her voice was shutdown. After 10 years away working in Europe she was welcomed home by President Carter and her career in America reignited.”
Growing up, Wheeler lived the nomadic life of military offspring. Today the affable actor still isn’t based in any one spot but rather follows the work. She doesn’t reveal her age, because it might limit casting opportunities, and says about herself, “I, like many Americans, especially of the diaspora are mixed in some way or another. I do; however, honor my Cape Verdean heritage.”
For the record, Wheeler is an independent. Those who know her say she aligns with the left, and that’s fine with her.
“This play has taught me to argue the point but not destroy the person in front of us. Let’s talk about gun violence or privatizing jails or fracking. Let’s talk about the issue. Opposing points of view are valid. They come from life experience or an education. So I say let the facts decide the outcome rather than who can yell the loudest.”