Indiana State University Newsroom

“Miss Julie” tackles race in battle-of-the-sexes play March 5-8

February 25, 2015

The rhythmic pulses of African drumming are heard in the distance, as the warmth of a roaring fire on a cold Christmastime night, with flickering candlelight, beckons the audience to a powerful psychological drama around forbidden love.

While this description may seem like the scene from a romance novel, it's the setting for the Indiana State University theater department's production of "Miss Julie."

The story is an inevitable affair that is strictly forbidden: It's 1799 on a plantation in Virginia, and the lovers are a white mistress and the head domestic slave.

The classic naturalistic play by Sweden's August Strindberg -- originally written in 1888 about a relationship between a man and a woman from different social classes -- inspired generations of American 20th century playwrights including Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, Edward Albee and now Arthur Feinsod, professor of theater at Indiana State.

"I've always loved the play. I enjoyed teaching it. And I always thought, if I ever did it, it should take place in America and involve race," he said.

More than just adding the race issue, Feinsod adapted the original with this new time and place, adding every imaginable layer of tension. It's set just before the turn of a new century, one that holds hope for the enslaved. It's set in a time just prior to the first American slave rebellions and just before Christmas.

"Christmas was a time when, according to my research, rebellious feelings among slaves were stirred up. More escape attempts, more rebellion attempts occurred around Christmastime than any other time during the year," he said.

In accordance with naturalist theory, all factors make the affair in the play inevitable, including the fact the plantation owner is away meeting with tobacco buyers in Richmond. But other factors contribute to the affair: the light in the room, the celebratory atmosphere on the plantation, the sound of African drumming and the strong attraction between a man who sees himself on the rise and a woman who sees herself as falling.

"It becomes a complex and interesting situation -- both the attraction to the other, the attraction to someone who has either more power or less power than you and how that enters into relationships. Once the line's been crossed, there's no turning back for the couple. While their futures are now intertwined, their skin is metaphorically peeled away to expose the nerve endings," Feinsod said.

"Julie feels ashamed, she feels the consequences -- there might be a pregnancy. Jean knows he will be whipped, perhaps even hung. They want to run away so Jean can realize his dream of being a free man in Philadelphia, but how can a black fugitive slave and a white woman run away together in Virginia in 1799? The stakes are literally life and death."

Kristin, the plantation's cook and Jean's fellow-slave girlfriend, finds out and disapproves and will do anything to stop it.

"Strindberg creates on stage an electric field of tensions, looks, what later would be called subtext -- the actor thinking about something other than what he's saying," Feinsod said. "It's a palpable minefield on stage. For an audience, it's mesmerizing. You don't know what to expect next; you're caught off guard by all the switches."

Despite the challenging material, the cast -- sophomore Nicole Hill as Miss Julie, senior Rashad Ellis as Jean and freshman Ally Miles as Kristin -- is doing a great job, said Feinsod, who is also the director.

"It's hugely challenging for the actors to play," he said. "At one moment, you're attracted to somebody so much so you want to sleep with them, then the next, you hate them and just want to say the thing that's most painful and damaging to them."

Strindberg was married three times and experienced his own tumultuous relationships. He understood human relationships and had the guts to investigate them through his plays, Feinsod said.

"For Jean and Julie, it's all these layers of conflict -- of attraction, of hatred," he said. "It's about love-hate relations; you're attracted to someone who will destroy you. And you're attracted partly because they can destroy you, a concept Freud would make great sense of in the next century."

This adaptation calls for dancers and drummers, slaves in Virginia who are close enough to their African roots to want to play the music of their motherland while the forbidding master is away. This element of the production is made possible by a close collaboration with the Community School of the Arts and the Center for Global Engagement.

Played without an intermission, "Miss Julie" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. March 5-7 and 4 p.m. March 8 at Indiana State's Dreiser Theater. Tickets are $10 (or free with a valid student ID) and are on sale noon-4:30 p.m. March 2-6 in the New Theater lobby, 536 S. 7th St.

-30- -- Sophomore Nicole Hill and senior Rashad Ellis portray lovers who are faced with battling attraction, race and gender roles in Indiana State University's production of "Miss Julie," playing Dreiser Theater March 5-8. -- Indiana State University sophomore Nicole Hill portrays Julie, the daughter of a plantation owner who has an affair with a slave in the adaptation of the classic naturalistic play "Miss Julie," March 5-8. -- Indiana State University senior Rashad Ellis portrays Jean in the adaptation of the classic naturalistic play "Miss Julie." -- Indiana State University freshman Ally Miles portrays Kristin, the plantation's cook and Jean's fellow-slave girlfriend, in the adaptation of "Miss Julie," March 5-8.

Contact: David Valdez, instructor, department of theater at Indiana State University, or 812-237-3337.

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or