By Brian Robin
Without a Word, Isaac Person Steps Into Big Shoes
The first thing that hits you when you talk to Isaac Person is his intelligence. You remind yourself you’re talking to an 11-year-old who just broke down Appropriateby Branden Jacobs-Jenkins for you artfully, succinctly and better than some adults could.
“When I was reading the script, I was just kind of thinking ‘This show was really interesting, but I feel bad for everyone involved,’” Person said. “Most people who just watch the show would see Toni (Lafayette) as the main bad guy, but there are no bad guys and no good guys. They’re all terrible people. They’re all bad people, but they all have redeeming qualities. There’s no ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’ and I’ve never been in that many shows where there is no good and bad.
“When I first read it, I thought ‘Toni’s not that nice, but she does have some redeeming things.’ Then, I was thinking about Bo (Lafayette). What does Bo fit into? I couldn’t think of anything he really fits into. Bo is just this normal dude who at the end of the play, is probably my least-favorite character. He starts so calm, then just goes crazy. His motivation is money, which is probably why I don’t like him that much.”
Again, Person—who plays Bo Lafayette’s son, Ainsley—in the Obie Award-winning play is 11. This precocious nature partially illustrates why director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg cast him in the non-speaking role. And Person made it a point to understand exactly what Turner Sonnenberg was looking for down to the letter.
“He asks great questions in rehearsal that inform the whole process,” Turner Sonnenberg said.
Kristina Leach, Person’s mother and an actor and playwright who teaches in the SCR Conservatory, said Person asked questions during the audition process that took even her by surprise. While Person doesn’t speak a line in the play, he does have one of the climactic scene-stealing moments toward the end that literally leaves audiences with their jaws on the floor.
“We talked a lot about the script; I read it first and then we went over it with a fine-tooth comb,” Leach said. “We talked a lot about that moment because of what it means and what he has to do. When we went over the scene, he went ‘Ugh,’ then he paused and said, ‘That’s a really great moment.’ We had a lot of conversation about what the playwright meant there, because the script calls for him to cry out confused and scared.
“When he auditioned, he asked the director in this moment, what kind of wail she was looking for. Did she want a confused wail? Was he supposed to be scared, because his father was getting hit? He’s asking the question about what a director wants here. I was so proud of him.”
Person came in with a strong understanding of Appropriate’s racial undertones before he picked up the script, courtesy of recent studies of the Civil War and Reconstruction during fifth-grade social studies. When Person is not acting in four performances a week for Appropriate and beginning rehearsals for the Junior Players’ upcoming production of The Little Prince, he’s your typical, video-game-loving, Lego-building fifth-grader at Pearson Online Academy, down to using a day off to finish a science project.
Well… not quite typical. How many fifth-graders have done seven-minute stand-up routines at the Hollywood Improv? How many are stealing scenes in main-stage productions at a regional theatre? And traveling from Los Angeles to Costa Mesa five or six days a week?
And the kicker? How many 11-year-olds are pulling straight-As along the way?
“I’m able to balance it, but it feels so stressful, even when it’s not,” he said. “Even when I’ve done all my schoolwork and I have a show, I feel like I forgot something. When I was doing A ChristmasCarol (as Boy Scrooge), I would go to school in the morning, then go off to rehearsal and think, ‘Did I forget to do one of my subjects?’ The other day, I had a meeting for our science fair at 11 a.m. and I had an interview to do at the same time. I completely forgot about the meeting and had to reschedule the interview.
“It’s hard with Junior Players and Appropriate, but it’s convenient because they’re in the same place. If one of them was at a different place, I’d have to drop one.”
Person is thankful for that convenience because it puts him on a stage where he builds on the lessons learned in the SCR Conservatory by watching the acting wizardry of veterans Shannon Cochran, Jamison Jones, Tessa Auberjonois, Lea Coco and Jess Andrews. During A Christmas Carol, it’s where he learned from the talented likes of Richard Doyle, Michael Manuel, Richard Soto and Jennifer Parsons.
Every night is a masterclass in doing what makes Person happy, what gives him purpose. He said the hectic schedule provides a bridge for him to accomplish things beyond the stage. He’s mature enough to trust the process will hold up from all the demanding weight put on it. On Saturdays, Person will finish a three-hour Junior Players rehearsal, get dinner, then return for that evening’s performance of Appropriate—if it’s the evening production.
Person understands the process. From the moment he auditioned for a musical in the first grade, he loved the process, even if his mother went out of her way to not push Person into the family business.
“I wasn’t in the room when he auditioned in front of his directors in first grade. He walked in and owned the place,” Leach remembered. “Maybe it’s in the blood, maybe it was taking him to the theatre with me when he was old enough. But he had a bit of a spark to begin with. … ”
“He’s a kid who’s been through the pandemic, going to school online and having everything shut down on him like everyone else. Him coming out of this to have these opportunities at SCR with an amazing director, I’ve never seen him so excited and ready to go. I don’t have to beg and plead for him to get ready. This is stuff he loves doing. This is his happy place.”