Break a Leg!
Actor Jarred Tettey is all about the truth.
by Donalevan Maines
Visiting Ghana, his father’s homeland, is as close as Jarred Tettey has come to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the war-torn setting of Ruined, which plays through March 22 at Obsidian Art Space.
But Tettey says he approaches his role as Fortune in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage the same as he did last year as Bernard, the gay black man in The Boys in the Band. “I feel the same way about all the people I play,” says Tettey. “They’re all living their lives and I make myself available to their truth.
“It’s always a process,” he explains. “I seek out what is similar to me and what is different from them. I love playing other people because I go onstage and don’t have to think about people judging me, because I’m presenting their character, not me.”
Ruined is set in a canteen that also functions as a brothel deep in the tropical Ituri rain forest. Among the women who find refuge there is Salima, a teen mother forsaken by her husband, Fortune, and shunned by her village after being raped, or “ruined,” by scavenging soldiers. “He [Fortune] called me a filthy dog, and said I tempted them,” says Salima. “Why else would it happen? Five months in the bush, passed between the soldiers like a wash rag. Used. I was made poison by their fingers—that is what he said. He had no choice but to turn away from me, because I dishonored him.”
Tettey knew little to nothing about Congolese rebel soldiers using the women of the country as sex objects until he was cast in Ruined and watched a film documentary about the situation. “The soldiers were interviewed and they would say, ‘That’s just how it is,’” he explains. “But the same soldiers would be asked how they would feel if it was their sister being raped, and they would say, ‘I would kill a man who did it to my sister.’ That hypocrisy is seen in Fortune, too.”
Regarding Salima, Tettey says, “She is ‘ruined,’ according to beliefs that are widely held in their village, so he feels no choice but to run her out with a stick. He is put under a lot of pressure to uphold the standards of his tribe.”
However, when we meet Fortune, he
has arrived at the brothel and is searching for Salima. “He is desperate to get his wife back by any means,” says Tettey. “Fortune is a sad man.”
Tettey grew up in Sugar Land, where he attended Kempner High School before earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in acting from Texas State University in San Marcos in 2010.
His mother grew up in Houston and met her future husband in a class at the University of Houston in the early 1970s. “My father came from Ghana in west Africa, so being gay is not something that was okay in their culture,” says Tettey. “I also grew up in a Christian home, so coming out was a long, drawn-out process. I came out more than once, because the first time they didn’t take me seriously. They thought it was a phase. They prayed to lift it off of me. But I felt I had to tell my parents. They asked, ‘How do you know?’ I said, ‘I know.’”
At age 15, Tettey also confided in a fellow student. “Andy was the only gay guy who was out at school,” explains Tettey. “In fact, I met him in middle school. He was the guy who was taking all the brunt at school about being gay—the taunts, and there were some physical things that happened with him. Andy helped me get through that time,” says Tettey. “We would talk about boys we thought were cute.”
In The Boys in the Band last year at Country Playhouse, Tettey played Bernard, an “African queen” who fell in love with the rich white boy whose family Bernard and his mother worked for in Detroit. “I think I’ve loved him all my life,” says Bernard. “But he never knew I was alive. Besides, he’s straight.”
The landmark gay play is set at an otherwise all-white birthday party in an Upper East Side apartment in New York City in the late 1960s. In a game of “gotcha” during the party, Bernard nervously calls the boy, now grown up and divorced, only to reach his mother, who explains that her son is out on a date—with a woman. Later, a distraught Bernard tells the other gay men, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t called.”
In addition to The Boys in the Band, Tettey has performed a number of coveted roles in classic theatrical pieces while also working in restaurants as a waiter. “It’s pretty cliché,” he says, “but it actually happens.” But unlike in New York City, where aspiring actors work as waiters while hoping to land a role on stage, in Houston Tettey waits tables and gets to act.
Among his local credits are A Wrinkle in Time at Main Street Theater; Hamlet, The Comedy of Errors, and Much Ado about Nothing at the Houston Shakespeare Festival; and The Barber of Seville, The Italian Girl in Algiers, and Dead Man Walking at Houston Grand Opera.
Tettey also performed in the reading of 8 by Dustin Lance Black at the Alley Theatre. The courtroom drama centering on Proposition 8 and same-sex marriage is based on actual transcripts, first-hand observations, and interviews with plaintiffs in the federal case that began as Perry v. Schwarzenegger.
For more about Tettey: jarredtettey.com.
When: through March 22
Where: Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak Drive
Info: tickets are $20 (students and seniors $10) and can be purchased at obsidianartspace.org.
Donalevan Maines also writes about TUTS’s The Wizard of Oz in this issue of OutSmart.