Breaking Down Hatred

In David Gow’s Cherry Docs,  Mike, a neo-Nazi skinhead, is charged with a racially motivated murder and Legal Aid assigns him a Jewish lawyer, Danny. Over the course of developing a defense for Mike, Danny is forced to examine the limits of his own liberalism and its underlying demons. This drama is an unblinking exploration of the roots of hatred, and how its growth can be stopped. In FST’s production of Cherry Docs, Tom Patterson plays Michael Downey (aka Mike), a young man imprisoned for kicking a South Asian man to death.

We met with Tom about how he prepared to play the role of Mike, the play’s relevancy, and the supportive creative team of Cherry Docs.

Cherry Docs plays in FST’s Bowne’s Lab Theatre through March 17. For tickets and more information, click here.

In Cherry Docs, you play a neo-Nazi skinhead named Mike in an emotionally raw role. What was your process like preparing for this challenging role?

When I first get an assignment, I start taking on the circumstances of the play and owning them, which wasn’t all that much fun for Cherry Docs. I had a teacher in the grad acting program at UCSD who would run through our work by just interviewing us in character. It was a constant stream of questions to see the limits of our imaginations.

So that was how I started. I started thinking about the kind of person Mike is, what his background was like, how he first engaged with the neo-Nazi movement, etc. I also had to imagine what the crime he committed was like – that was truly, truly horrible. Honestly, he’s not someone I wanted to spend a lot of time with, and that, more than anything, made my preparation pretty fraught.

Then it was figuring out where that life kinda landed on me physically – how I had to move and hold myself to be this new person.

As a company, we went to the Sarasota County jail, which gave me some sense of the environment in which Mike currently finds himself. Going through the jail, I found myself wanting to avoid eye contact with the people imprisoned there. I didn’t want them to feel like we were treating them as animals to be observed, and it made me wonder how difficult it might be to hold on in a situation where you get depersonalized.

Do you have any pre-show rituals to help you get in the right mindset or headspace to play Mike?

I don’t think I need anything more than a few moments of quiet. I think about the play, put on the costume, then go on stage, and trust that the work is there.

I do have a process coming out of the show. Remove the tattoos – that’s very important to me. I’ve endowed those tattoos with meaning, Mike’s meaning, and I don’t want that makeup on my body after I’ve finished the show. To me, they are symbols of hate. So they must go away. While I do this, I listen to music that I like that is more in-line with my world-view – AJJ, Los Campesinos!, Childish Gambino, The Decemberists, The Hold Steady, Joel Plaskett, Chvrches – stuff like that.

Tom Patterson in FST’s Cherry Docs. Photo by Matthew Holler.

Describe what the rehearsal process was like for Cherry Docs…

Well, I was in rehearsal for Cherry Docs while performing Hand to God at FST. Mostly, I was really tired.

There were elements to it that were like any other rehearsal process – read the play, discuss the scenes, figure out your physical life. Then there was the dramaturgical process. We spoke to a public defender, a rabbi, watched talks about the roots of hatred and about the process of human beings being institutionalized. I was lucky because I had worked with Director Kate Alexander before, and my cast mate, Drew Hirshfield, is really, really great to act with. Plus I really trusted Jynelly Rosario, our Stage Manager, from my experience with Hand to God, so some of the nastiness inherent in doing a play like this was alleviated by having a kind room.

Cherry Docs delves into the roots of hatred. What do you think drove Mike to the ideology he holds at the start of the play?

I really can’t say for certain, but as an actor, I can only make a guess and then go with that as my best instinct. I think there’s a confluence of things – an unstable home life, a feeling of powerlessness, an unwillingness to think critically in his youth, a need for connection with someone, anger issues…it’s not any one thing. I think that’s partly what the play is asking.

I’m also aware that Cherry Docs is asking you to look at Mike and see him as a human being and that is a big ask. It is an awfully big ask, considering where we are, socially and politically, right now. I really hope people see the play and at least start to wonder where hatred comes from and why it keeps festering in our culture.

Over the course of the play, Mike and Danny begin to rub off on one another. How does your character Mike affect Danny?

I think Danny probably learns something about himself through his contact with Mike, and he starts to examine his own privilege and explicit biases throughout the play. He learns that his own anger is a potent and sometimes dangerous thing.

What is the most difficult moment in the play for you?

There’s a section where I have a long rant about things that are completely antithetical to my worldview and it leads up to a massive emotional moment. Saying things that feel like ash on the tongue and then particularizing a moment of deep, deep fear and grief and regret makes me…I mean, it’s not digging a ditch, but it’s not exactly fun, if you follow me.


Cherry Docs plays in FST’s Bowne’s Lab Theatre through March 17. For tickets and more information, click here.