John Beasley, Actor – Journeyman Discusses Life in Film-Television-Theater and Striving for In-the-Moment Believability
I have spun a lot of words about actor John Beasley and I expect I will be spinning many more as time goes by. He’s one of those actors whose face if not his name you recognize from his numerous television and film roles. He’s a steady presence on screen but he’s made an equally indelible impression on stage. The following short profile for Metro Magazine mentions two projects close to his heart that have had new developments since going to press. A new Cedric the Entertainer sitcom entitled Have Faith has been picked up by TV Land and Beasley, who appeared in the pilot, has a co-starring role as Cedric’s father. The series begins airing in June. A feature film about the NFL’s first black quarterback, Marlin Briscoe, is one that Beasley has been trying to get off the ground for some years. It’s now inched closer to getting made with a name Hollwyood producer recently signing on to the project. In the coming weeks or months look for a story I’m preparing on one of John’s sons, Michael Beasley, whose film-TV acting career is breaking big in 2012.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in the January 2012 issue of Metro Magazine
Journeyman John Beasley has made a nice living for himself as a supporting character actor in film-television-theater, and he’s done it all without ever having to move from his hometown of Omaha. He admits being an in-demand actor without ever having to relocate is nothing short of “amazing,” adding, “I’ve just been blessed.”
Making his mark
After making his mark in regional theater, he became part of an acting brotherhood so identified with the canon of playwright August Wilson its members are dubbed Wilsonian Warriors. “Oh, yeah, I’m definitely that,” he says.
Beasley, who got to know the late Wilson, has made his John Beasley Theater & Workshop a showcase for Wilson’s exploration of the American black experience. A production of Radio Golf last fall completed the theater’s staging of the entire 10-play cycle Wilson set in his native Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
“I owe so much to August Wilson. He’s been a big part of my career,” says Beasley. “I credit August with getting me into Chicago theater and into that circle, because it is a nice fraternity.”
Theater led Beasley to his first screen roles: opposite Oprah Winfrey in TV’s, Brewster’s Place; co-starring with Olympia Dukakis and Amy Madigan in the TV movie Lucky Day; supporting characters in a string of sports movies, most notably Rudy.
A big break came when Robert Duvall cast him in the prestigious art film, The Apostle. That “life changer” project led to more film parts (The General’s Daughter, The Sum of All Fears) and TV guest roles (CSI, Judging Amy). Then came his recurring role in Everwood.
He’s gone on to appear in dramas, comedies, horror films, even a western. He’s played ministers, detectives, coaches, fathers, grandfathers and heavies. He’s often played older than his years, and now that his age has caught up with those senior parts he figures he should be busy all the time.
Foundations and directions
His journey of late has ranged from acclaimed performances in August Wilson’s 20th Century cycle at the Kennedy Center in 2008 to raising the roof at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company in 2009 to TV guest starring gigs, in 2011 alone, in the highly praised Treme and in Harry’s Law, CSI: Miami and Detroit 1-8-7.
Now comes the pilot for a new TVLand series starring Cedric the Entertainer that Beasley terms “a great opportunity.” Beasley plays a retired preacher whose once wayward son, played by Cedric, has left a secular music career behind to minister at his father’s church. The son can never quite please his old man.
The untitled new show marks Beasley’s first foray into sit-coms. “It was a pretty interesting process. We rehearsed for about five days and then shot before a live audience. About 300 people,” he says. “The writers and producers were there and the network was there. We did several passes over some scenes and intermixed those together with prerecorded scenes. If we shot a take and they didn’t get the response or the laughs they wanted the writers would go back, huddle up and bring new lines, and we’d do it again.”
There was also location shooting at a church.
He says during a break TVLand president Larry W. Jones sought him out to compliment his comedic work. Beasley feels everything’s in place for a hit. “It’s a very funny show. The writing’s good. The cast is pretty solid. The acting is believable, not over the top. It turned out to be a really great experience. The audience loved the show. The producers are really excited about it.”
If anything’s made Beasley a go-to working actor it’s his rigor.
“I had some really good teachers who taught me to always go inside for my characters. I always try to be in the moment. Being in the moment — that’s when you find things. I’m always trying to get my actors to be believable and play in the moment, and when I catch them acting, I’ll tell them, ‘Get rid of the acting,’ and they know what that means.”
Along the way Beasley’s “worked with some of the best people in the business” and found he can not not only hang with them but bring something uniquely his.
He lived a full life before ever pursuing acting full-time — as athlete, gypsy cabbie, longshoreman, family man. “I’ve seen the rough side of life, too, where I thought maybe I might not make it out alive, but I always did, it always turned out, but you’ve got to stay the course…” He says his life experience works to his advantage as an actor: “All of it, every last bit of it.”
“Believability is what I’ve always searched for. People say, ‘You gotta be bigger on stage.’ I don’t buy that, and so far I’ve proven myself right because when I did Fences at the Huntington director Kenny Lyon saw what I was doing as something really brilliant and had the rest of the cast follow me — pick up the part of the song I knew. I just have a feeling for the rhythm. I know where the notes should be, I know where this song should be sung, I know where the pitch is.
“I worked with the great Lloyd Richards, in Two Trains Running at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The company had just come off Broadway. Even guys like Roscoe Lee Brown Lloyd still had to give direction. One day Roscoe asked me, ‘How does it feel to be the only one Lloyd doesn’t give directions to?’ Because I do my homework.”
Ripened with age
He feels if anything he’s improved with age.
“My concentration’s gotten even better. I’m even more aware of my presence on stage and I look more and more for the subtle, little things that make my characters more human, more interesting. It’s the same thing on camera. For me the excitement of doing a piece is finding things that maybe the writer wrote in-between the lines.”
Ultimately, he says, the theater is his foundation. “It’s still where I sharpen my craft.”
His own theater recently weathered hard times to launch its 12th season. He’s planning a new North Omaha theater. In March he joins Everwood star Treat Williams for a staged reading of a new Athol Fugard play at the University of North Carolina. And he still has faith his long-in-development Marlin Briscoe feature film project will happen.
Completely comfortable in his own skin, Beasley doesn’t wear success like a trophy. He prefers jeans and older model cars. “My work speaks for itself and I don’t have to impress anybody,” he says. His bucket list includes acting on Broadway. Whether he does or not, he says, “it’s been a really interesting journey.”
Follow the JBT at http://www.johnbeasleytheater.org.
- Vincent Alston’s Indie Film Debut, ‘For Love of Amy,’ is Black and White and Love All Over (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- TV Land Picks Up New Series “Have Faith” Starring Cedric “The Entertainer” and Niecy Nash to Premiere June 2012 (prnewswire.com)
- John Beasley Has it All Going On with a New TV Series, a Feature in Development, Plans for a New Theater and a Possible New York Stage Debut in the Works; He Co-stars with Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash in TVLand’s ‘The Soul Man’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- If you’re a return visitor to this blog, then you may recognize that the subject of this next story, the John Beasley Theater & Workshop in Omaha, is one I’ve written about a number of times. If not the theater itself, then I’ve written about its productions, and if not productions then I’ve written about founder and president John Beasley. This time around I write about some recent financial woes the theater’s been experiencing and how with the help of friends and strangers the organization now has what it needs to go on with the 2011-2012 season, which was in jeapordy until John Beasley went public with the need. As a niche theater that largely but not exclusively produces work by African-American playwrights – with its current production of Radio Golf the theater’s now staged the entire 10-play cycle of African-American life that August Wilson wrote – the JBT presents a slate of work that otherwise might not be produced in Omaha. The theater is a labor of love for Beasley, a stage-film-television actor who views his enterprise as a way to bridge cultural differences and as a forum for black actors to learn their chops in a white majority city that has traditionally not embraced its black community and not provided many theater opportunities for aspiring, emerging or even established black theater artists.
Tired of Being Tired Leads to a New Start at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
John Beasley got tired of being tired.
By now, you’ve likely learned the John Beasley Theater & Workshop’s urgent appeal for funds to relieve its financial distress has been answered and the once endangered 2011-2012 season saved. But you probably don’t know the back story of its troubles or why founding namesake and president, John Beasley, is putting himself out there to share these travails and to make the case for the theater’s continued existence.
Ever since launching the theater in 2000 the stage-film-television actor has largely bankrolled the nonprofit himself. Year after year, with no real administrative staff and fronting a board short on resources and contacts, the theater’s only barely scraped by. This despite strongly reviewed work, some outright smash hits, including shows held over for extended runs. Its niche producing African-American plays, most notably the August Wilson repertoire, has distinguished it but not always helped it either.
The kindness of strangers, an occasional grant, meager season-ticket sales and box office receipts from a 100-seat house only go so far. It’s left Beasley holding the bag, writing personal checks to make-up the shortfall.
“I’ve underwritten most everything we’ve done, but it’s been at the point for a long time now that I thought the theater should be self-sustaining rather than to just keep going in my pocket,” he says. “I’m not getting anything financially out of the theater.”
There have been times, even quite recently, when there wasn’t enough in the theater’s coffers to pay his son, artistic director Tyrone Beasley, or directors’ fees, much less vendors. So he paid Tyrone and creditors himself.
“We were going through a period there where the oral contract we had with OHA (the Omaha Housing Authority agency that owned the building before the YMCA acquired it) had expired. Without that space being donated we wouldn’t have made it,” says Beasley “That was a big consideration at the end of that contract. It was up for renewal and the YMCA was saying, ‘What can you pay?’ and I told them we’re really in a situation where we can’t pay anything, They worked out a really nice arrangement for us and I’m really grateful to the YMCA for the use of that space.
“Without that, I think we would have closed.”
He acknowledges that in some ways he’s ill-prepared to run a theater, but he’s stuck it out because by his reckoning the whole venture is a calling.
“I didn’t set out to open a theater. I thought it was put on me for a reason. I believe things happen for a reason, so I’ve always talked to God in this way: ‘If you want me to be here, you’re going to have to provide the way.’”
Divine providence was necessary, he says, “because we came in here without any grants. OHA gave us the space but they didn’t give us any money to go with it, and not ever having a board that would raise funds for me, it’s been a struggle. The fact we’ve managed to stay here as long we have is a miracle in itself given I never had any experience in theater administration.
“But, you know, God has been good and has allowed us to be here 11 years and I don’t think He’s brought us this far to say, Ok, it’s over now. We haven’t completed our mission and we still have a ways to go, and I still have a vision for the theater.”
That vision, which encompasses a second theater he wants to build from the ground up in North Omaha as a regional attraction, has often seemed far off.
Rendering of the revitalized North 24th and Lake St. corridor where Beasley wants to build a new theater
“It’s always been a day to day thing. You can’t imagine what it’s like getting up every morning with this on your mind, wondering — how are we going to take care of this? how are we going pay these people?”
The recession hasn’t helped matters.
“Revenues have been flat and our expenses keep mounting. The box office only pays a little bit of the expenses. Our small house is not a big revenue source. It will pay some bills, but then you’re scrambling where you’re going to get the money for this and that. Attendance numbers are down because of the recession. These are entertainment dollars and with discretionary spending theater might not be at the top of the list.”
In noting that other theaters have dropped prices, he says, “we’ve looked at doing the same thing,” hastening to add, “But it wont necessarily guarantee our attendance will go up, and I’ve always felt that if people think it’s too cheap, they’ll assume its probably not worth it.” He’s heard grumbling in the black community his theater’s too pricey, an opinion he disputes. “We weren’t overcharging,” he says, noting that people don’t think twice about plopping down considerably more money to see touring gospel plays.
“Our work might not be as glitzy but the quality is as good as any that comes through as far as the acting is concerned, because I see what comes through and I don’t think there’s a lot of talent sometimes.”
The theater’s woes extended to marketing and publicity, which have been largely limited to post cards and print ads, leading Beasley to doubt it was even reaching its audience in this online social media age.
Approaching the start of the 2011-2012 season, kicking off with August Wilson’s Radio Golf, Beasley decided he’d had enough.
“I told the board that going into this season I needed $20,000 for the first show and I wouldn’t greenlight it until I received $10,000. And I asked the board, ‘Who’s going to lead this?’ I didn’t have any volunteers because my board is more of a working board. They’re willing to put in the work but they’re just not fundraisers, and that’s just the way it is. So out of frustration I said, ‘Well, alright, I’ll do it,’ and so I stepped out. I didn’t know how I was going to do it but I believe when you step out in faith good things happen, they just happen. God or whatever provides a way.”
He laid out the precarious situation to friends of the theater with, “This is a crossroads for us. If this doesn’t happen I can’t just go along with this kind of pressure anymore…”
Then he went public Sept. 1, posting a Facebook appeal that spelled out in dire terms the make-or-break scenario confronting his South Omaha theater. His message stated flat out the JBT would close unless $10,000 was obtained. KETV, the Omaha World-Herald and other media picked up the story.
By mid-September $30,000 was either donated or pledged, meaning the season was on and the theater’s future, at least for now, secured. For Beasley, whose fierce demeanor and brickhouse physique belie a soft heart, the outpouring has taken him aback and given his theater mission a new lease on life.
“The best thing about going public is to receive the love from Omaha we received from people we didn’t know. When I found out all you had to do was ask and people would respond…” he says, his voice trailing off in wonder.
“It’s put us in a place where I’m really optimistic about not only the season but about the future of the theater. This has given some breathing room we have never had before. It’s given us a budget, and that budget will take care of a lot of things. It will also help us pay off the vendors we owe.”
He says the community’s embrace has come from both long-time theater supporters and individuals with no connection to the organization. Support has come in amounts as small as $20 and as much as $5,000. The Myth bar in the Old Market threw a fund-raising party Sept. 20 that raised about $1,400.
Beyond the money collected, there’s new blood cultivated. As a result, he says the JBT now has a circle of volunteers with the skills to build a stable enterprise.
“I’ve put together a committee of people I’ve never had in place before,” says Beasley. “These people know what it’s all about.”
Development professional Jeff Leanna is the new executive director. He, along with management communications specialist Wendy Moore and her real estate executive husband Scott Moore are heading up marketing, solicitation, subscription campaigns and beefing up its online presence. Beasley’s in the process of “weeding out” some inactive board members and replacing them with energetic new members. Taken together, he says, the JBT has people in place to “take care of the administrative things and business part of it, and that’s such a relief. We’ve been really lacking in that end of it. My son and I are creative people.”
He expects fund-raisers, grant applications, membership programs and marketing-development campaigns to happen year-round. “That’s part of the plan,” he says. “We’re even reaching out to Oprah now,” he says, and hints that overtures may be made to actor-director Robert Duvall, whom he acted alongside in the The Apostle.
Now that the JBT is on more solid ground, he says, “I’m glad I went public with it. People now are aware of the need of the theater.” He says telling the theater’s story has also laid to rest some myths — like the city was funding the venue. “There was a misconception that we had everything we needed,” he says, and that he had limitless deep pockets.
“I think we had to hit bottom before we could have this turning point. I think this really was the catalyst to take us to that next level.”
For a proud man like Beasley airing his plight is not easy. But he sees it as the only way to explain why the theater is worth fighting for in the first place.
“At first I had some reservations, because you don’t want people to think you’re struggling or failing, but then I came to the realization we serve a purpose. Who else is going to do August Wilson or Suzan-Lori Parks or Eugene Lee or even Ted Lange? And where are the opportunities for up and coming black actors?
“Through the years we’ve touched a lot of lives. We’ve changed lives. We’ve got some good people we’ve brought along. Andre McGraw first came on the stage in our theater — now he’s going to school to study theater at UNO. TammyRa (Jackson) is an outstanding talent I’m going to lose soon — she’s talented enough to work out of town. I’m just so proud of her. Dayton Rogers is another fine actor coming up. Phyllis Mitchell-Butler is in a production at the Playhouse now. Where else would they have gotten this opportunity?”
The JBT’s also offered a window into the black experience that’s given white Omaha a perspective sorely lacking outside that prism.
“I guess I’m most proud of the exposure to black culture we’ve given Omaha,” he says, adding that “75 percent of our patrons come from West Omaha.”
Fear or loathing of other cultures, he says, is less likely when there’s communication and knowledge.
“The more you learn about something, the more you understand something — then you can’t hate it. I think we’re bridging gaps.”
He says the divides that stymie America plague the city as well, and the arts and theater, perhaps his theater especially, can serve to heal.
“The country can’t move forward because of politics and ideologies. Nobody’s trying to understand the other side, there’s no compromise. If you can understand the other side then you can create a dialogue. If you have a dialogue then things can happen. That’s true nationally and it’s true in this city. The disparity between blacks and whites in this city is the worst than any place in this country.”
Among the reasons he’s hung his theater on the back of August Wilson’s body of work is the playwright’s cycle of 10 plays revealing the arc of African-American life in the 20th century as seen through the eyes of Pittsburgh’s Hill District denizens.
August Wilson visiting Pittsburgh’s Hill District
“I love August Wilson’s work because it’s a true reflection,” says Beasley, whose extensive credits include productions of Wilson plays in major regional theaters. “I know these people. One of the goals when I opened the theater was to introduce Omaha to August Wilson, because he’s such an important part to my whole career and has created work that will keep middle aged black men working forever. I can do Wilson till I’m ready to die. It’s just a rich legacy he’s left black actors and the world for that matter. His stuff crosses all lines.
“You’ve known people like Troy Maxon (Fences). I’ve had people come up to me wherever I’ve done this and say, ‘That was my dad’ or ‘I knew that guy.’ You know these people and these situations, the relationships between sons and fathers. Life has passed them by and they haven’t dealt with it very well.”
With Radio Golf, the last in the cycle, the JBT’s now performed each of the 10 Wilson plays, including some (Fences, Two Trains Running, Jitney) staged multiple times. Radio Golf’s look at gentrification efforts in a historical black neighborhood has particular resonance for Beasley and the new North Omaha theater he envisions. Leo A Daly is nearing final designs for the unfunded project, which would not replace the existing site, but rather complement it. It’s a project personal to Beasley on several levels.
“We’d like to put it between 25th and 24th Streets in that Lake Street corridor. It would be right off the Interstate. If you build up it, they’ll come. That would be my field of dreams. We want to be a destination and an anchor to the cultural revitalization of this district. I grew up in this neighborhood, it’s my neighborhood. I was here when they tore it down and burnt it down. I remember giving a little speech here to rioters — ‘Why you tearing down your own neighborhood? If you’re that angry, go downtown.’ It was opportunistic hoodlums that did that stuff and then you have that mob mentality.
“I just want to be a part of rebuilding the neighborhood. It’s changed. Regentrification is happening.”
Should the new theater come to pass, it would be another piece in the resurgent arts-culture district slated for the area, where the Loves Jazz & Arts Center and Great Plains Black History Museum already operate and where Brigitte McQueen’s Union for Contemporary Art is due to locate.
None of it means the JBT is out of the woods.
“I don’t want people to think we’re OK, we’re not OK,” says Beasley. The influx of funds, he says, “is a start, but I’m looking for a $200,000 budget for this season. We appreciate any donations.” As a thank you to the community the theater offered free admission for its season-opening, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, weekend.
Visit www.johnbeasleytheater.org for donation and season ticket info.
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John Beasley, the patriarch of Omaha’s First Family of Thespians, and his John Beasley Theater & Workshop, have been the subjects of many stories by me, all of which can be found on this blog. This particular story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) looks at how Beasley’s two sons, Tyrone and Michael, haven’t fallen far from their father’s solid acting tree. John is an acclaimed television, film, and theater actor. Tyrone is a respected actor and director. Michael is emerging as a character actor force in television and in studio and independent films.
John Beasley and Sons Make Acting a Family Thing at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop and Beyond
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
As time goes by, it’s clear acting is a birthright with the Beasleys, that talented clan of thespians fast-evolving into the first family of Omaha theater.
John Beasley long ago made his mark on the Omaha theater scene, scoring dramatic triumphs in the 1970s and ‘80s at the Center Stage, the Chanticleer, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, the Nebraska Repertory Theatre, the Firehouse Dinner Theatre and the Omaha Community Playhouse, among other venues. Now, having done the regional theater circuit and built a nice screen acting career, he’s returned to the local dramatic arts fraternity with his own John Beasley Theater & Workshop. Sharing space with the South Omaha YMCA in the La Fern Williams Center at 3010 Q Street, the theater’s become a showcase for African-American plays and emerging talent, including Beasley’s sons, Tyrone and Michael, who’ve shown serious acting chops themselves. Tyrone comes from a professional theater background and Michael is transitioning back to acting after a long layoff.
In a June production of August Wilson’s Jitney, the proud papa and his progeny led a rich ensemble cast on the theater’s small stage. John, as the hot-headed Turnbo, inhabited his part with his usual veracity and found all the music in Wilson’s jazz-tinged words. Tyrone, as the emotionally-scarred Booster, hit just the right notes as a man desperate to salvage his misspent life. Michael, as the decent Youngblood, brought an unaffected gravity to his character.
In a reunion of sorts, Beasley recruited Broadway actor Anthony Chisholm, with whom he’d done Jitney at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, for the JBT show. The Alliance is one of many regional black theaters Beasley honed his skills in and serves as a model for what he’s trying to create in Omaha.
Jitney broke all box-office records in the short history of Beasley’s theater and now he and his sons are poised to build on that success. They’re opening the 2004-2005 season with a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed A Raisin in the Sun, whose revival on Broadway last season earned kudos. Raisin, which Tyrone will produce and play a small part in, runs September 17 through October 10.
Tyrone and John Beasley
A Shared Craft and Passion
Although Jitney was the first time all three Beasleys acted together, John and Tyrone collaborated as producer and director on the JBT’s rendering of Wilson’s Two Trains Running in 2003. Tyrone co-starred with Michael in Two Trains. Years earlier, Michael portrayed Biff opposite his father’s Willie Loman in a Center Stage mounting of Death of a Salesman. The trio’s eager to work together more, but it’s not easy making their busy schedules jive, much less finding pieces with the right parts. While taking vastly different paths to the craft they now share, each articulates a similar passion for acting and its sense of discovery.
For John, who comes from a family of storytellers, it’s all about expressing and exploring himself through drama. His working process is direct. “The first thing I try to do is commit the words to my memory so that I can make them mine,” he said. “I like to do that early on, especially in the rehearsal process. I prefer to jump right into the character and to find the energy, the emotional nuances and the relationships. As an actor, you have to be willing to give and receive with your fellow actors. That way, if we’re playing opposite each other, we have something to react to and build off of.” Character development, he said, never really stops. “Even by the end of the run, you’ll never really fully realize the potential of your character. You just continue to look for things and to look for ways to grow.”
For an extrovert like John, to “come in blasting away and still have a lot” left over is one method. Another, is the more studied method used by the more reserved Tyrone. “I have a slower process,” Tyrone said, “where I first have to work on the words until they’re really embedded. Then, once I know what’s happening in the scene, I start to explore. So, it takes me awhile to get the little nuances.” Once he’s up to speed, however, Tyrone likes to “play,” by which he means improvise.
“That’s when Tyrone gets up there and looks for something new every night,” John said of his son’s ability to riff, which is something Beasley prides himself in as well.
Tyrone loved the experience of working with professional actors in Jitney. “You feel a lot freer when you have people up there who really know what they’re doing and are really seasoned at it. People that you can play with and play off of, and not distract them. It’s fun to bring something new and different and exciting every night. It was a real enjoyable experience in that way,” he said.
Spontaneity in acting, John said, is sometimes misinterpreted by the uninitiated as discarding the script and just winging it. But that’s not the case. He said in early rehearsals for the JBT’s production ofFor Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow’s Enuf, the mostly newcomer cast “came in with a lot of wild stuff. They were even making up lines and things, and I’m like, No, that’s not what I’m talking about. Within the words on the page you can find a new and exciting reason every night for your performance.”
Making It Your Own
For someone as accomplished as John, tweaking his craft is, as Tyrone puts it, “a lot more subtle, because he’s been doing it so long. When you get to a certain level, there’s only so much that you can do as far as the technique of acting. But with each character it’s different, and you have to approach each character differently and hopefully learn about yourself and see the world from someone else’s point of view. That’s what we, as actors, are basically trying to do — to show this character’s point of view, which may not be the same point of view you have. So, growth on a certain level comes from that, and he does that all the time.”
It’s dredging your inner self to find the right emotional pitch to fit the character and the dynamics of the scene. “We’re all trying to find the character within our own reality,” John said, “to make it an honest presentation as opposed to just acting.” “To make it our own,” Tyrone added.
“You have to think about it and feel it first before you can express the truth about it. You don’t just rattle lines off. Method actors call it being in the moment. And this is what we instill in our people,” John said, referring to the JBT workshops he and Tyrone lead that train its many first-time actors. “The first thing we tell them is, Get out of your head. Get away from — I did it this way last night and the audience really loved me, so I’m going to repeat the same thing tonight. Then, you never grow. If you want to do that head thing, you can go someplace else because we’re trying to set a certain standard here with believability.”
Tyrone said the goal is to achieve the kind of unadorned truth his father finds in everything from a classic soliloquy to a modern rant. “We’re trying to make it seem conversational, so that as the audience you’re like eavesdropping in on people just talking, not acting. That’s what we’re trying to get to.” John added, “It doesn’t matter what the script is. It can be Shakespeare or whatever, but you still bring that honesty to it. Another thing we teach is to try to find the music and the rhythm of a piece. It wasn’t until I learned the music of Shakespeare’s writing that it really flowed for me.” A key to August Wilson’s work, he said, is its jazz quality.
For Tyrone, the appeal of drama is “storytelling and trying to portray stories truthfully. Drama’s like holding a mirror up to life. I like paying attention to the details and colors of life. My job is to explore that and, using my imagination, to take it to the fullest.”
No two actors work the same. Even widely varying styles can mesh. John recalls working with the great Roscoe Lee Browne. “You know, he’s got this great voice and he uses the voice as opposed to finding an emotional base. The way I normally work is, I’ll come in and listen and then I’ll give my line as a reaction to what I hear that night. One night, Roscoe and I were working on Two Trains in Chicago. We had this thing where we’d almost compete. I had this great speech and then he had a great speech after it. And if I was OK, he’d step up his game, you know, and the voice would get deeper and the audience would be like, Wow. Well, one night we were both really great and Roscoe came off stage and said, ‘I know that was wonderful, but I know you’re going to fuck around and change it.’ And I said, ‘That’s what I do, man.’ So, we all do different things.”
An acting novice compared to his father and brother, Michael Beasley sounds as if he’s been paying attention to them, when he says of his own approach, “I’m still learning the process, but I try to get the words down as quick as possible, so that in the rehearsal process I can play with it and try to find the character. Each night, I’m still searching for my character and looking to grow my character.”
Tyrone saw Michael’s growth in Jitney. “Something I noticed with this performance is when he moved, he really seemed like he belonged in the space of the jitney stand. It felt like he wasn’t on stage as an actor, but there as that character.” John agreed, saying, “Oh, yeah, he’s come a long way since Two Trains. He’s learning. He does his homework. That’s the most important thing.”
Like Father, Like Sons
As the sons follow in the shadow of their father, they’re treading some of the very ground he once trod. Like his father before him, Tyrone’s performed at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. And Michael’s been signed to his first film by the same producer and casting agent, Ruben Cannon, who inked John Beasley to his first national acting jobs — the ABC movie Amerika and the ABC-TV series Brewster Place. Michael has a speaking part in the indie project, Trust, now shooting in Atlanta, where he resides. In another Atlanta project, The Diary of a Mad Black Woman, he’s doubling gospel playwright, actor and director phenom Tyler Perry, who co-stars as Madea in this film adaptation of Perry’s smash stage show.
John, a veteran of the boards and the bright lights, is the mentor and role model whose strong, centered, accessible presence is something each of his sons, or for that matter, any actor, aspires to. Despite some formal training, he’s largely a self-taught actor. He draws on rich life experiences — he’s been everything from a jock and jitney driver to a radio-TV host to a longshoreman and janitor — to inform his real-as-rain portrayals. He is, as the saying goes, a natural.
It’s been 20 years since this family patriarch made the leap from acting on community and regional theater stages to character parts on television and in feature films. His film roles include small but telling turns in the feel-good Rudy and the intense The Apostle. Even with such successes, the realities of screen acting dictate being an itinerant artist — going wherever the next gig takes you. That is, until he landed the recurring role of Irv Turner on the WB series, Everwood. Now that he has “a regular job,” he’s devoting much of his time away from the Everwood set to the south Omaha theater that not only bears his name, but stirs fond memories and renews old ties. The theater is the site of the old Center Stage where Beasley first flexed his acting muscles. Just as it celebrated diversity in plays by and about minorities, the JBT is all about alternative voices and faces.
In addition to occasionally acting there, John serves as JBT executive director and artistic director, and has directed shows, most notably its inaugural production of August Wilson’s Fences (in which Beasley starred as Troy Maxson). He and Tyrone also teach the workshops that are part of the JBT’s mission of developing a pool of trained actors the theater can draw on for future shows. That pool is growing.
For Jitney, Beasley brought in ringers in the figures of professional actors Anthony Chisholm and Willis Burks, but the rest of the cast was local. An indication of the talent here, Beasley said, is something Chisholm told him. “He thought this was a better cast than we had in Atlanta, and in many instances he’s right. I thought with the people we put together, we could have played that show anywhere.”
According to John and Tyrone, an ever expanding base of minority talent is being identified and groomed through the JBT workshop program. “I see young people coming in who are going to do very well. When they come out of my theater, I want them to have that confidence they can work anywhere.” “That’s exactly why we have the workshop — to give them the confidence,” Tyrone said. One JBT “graduate,” Robinlyn Sayers, is pursuing regional theater opportunities in Houston.
An Omaha Benson High School grad, Tyrone earned an art degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He did some modeling. Then, after getting hooked on acting at the Center Stage, he took private drama lessons in Chicago. Following in the footsteps of his father, Tyrone scored a coup when cast by the legendary theater director Peter Sellars in The Merchant of Venice at the Goodman Theatre. Blissfully ignorant of Sellars’ world-class reputation as an enfant terrible genius, Tyrone found himself acting with future heavyweight Philip Seymour Hoffman in a production that eventually toured Europe. “I don’t know how my audition would have went if I knew who he (Sellars) was. I might have been more nervous.” After Chicago, he attended California State University, Long Beach, where he acted with the California Repertory Company. “I also worked out of Los Angeles doing readings and worked behind the scenes as a film production assistant. That was a great experience.” After his father launched the JBT, he was enlisted in 2003 to help get the fledgling theater on “a solid foundation.”
Aside from that one time on stage with his dad in Death of a Salesman, Michael Beasley was hell-bent on a career in athletics, not dramatics. After making all-state his senior season at Omaha Central, he earned Juco hoops honors at McCook Community College before playing for the University of Texas-Arlington. He played more than 10 years of pro ball in the States and abroad, mostly in Latin America. Off-seasons, he lived in Atlanta, where he still makes his home with his wife and kids. Then, the acting bug bit again. His first post-hoops gig came as a last minute replacement — not unlike getting called off the bench in a crucial game situation.
“The way that went down is I was deciding to get back into acting when some people fell out of the Two Trains cast and Tyrone called and said, ‘Can you come up here and do this play tomorrow?’ So, I came up, and it was a great experience. It whet my appetite to pursue it further,” Michael said.
He admits to some trepidation acting with his father in Jitney, in which their antagonist characters wage a fist fight. “Everybody said, ‘You better bring your ‘A’ game.’ But it was great,” Michael said. “I try to absorb everything like a sponge and feed off the the stuff my father does to prepare. I’ve been able to draw on the experience I had in the play and bring it to the film projects I’m in now.”
John found it “real enjoyable” working with Mike. “He knew what I expected,” John said. “We had real good eye contact and we were able to play off each other really well, which became really important when we had to replace our Becker, Ben Gray, especially in the fight scene, which moves along pretty fast.”
So, was a life in acting inevitable for his sons? “I feel like I was definitely influenced because my father did it, but I feel like it’s chosen me more than anything. It’s a calling,” Tyrone said. “Of course, my father was an influence,” Michael said. “A lot of people think I’m in acting now because my father’s really successful at it, but our father never pushed us. It’s just something I chose. When I said I wanted to do it, he said, ‘Are you sure about that?’ It fills a void after basketball. I can’t play anymore at a high level, but with acting — the sky’s the limit. It’s something else to be passionate about. Besides, I’m not a nine-to-five guy. And I love the challenge.”
In John Beasley’s opinion, no one chooses acting. “It chooses you,” he said. And how much acting shop talk is there when the Beasleys get together? “We talk about it a lot. It’s part of our lives,” he said.
Looking to build on the momentum of Jitney, John Beasley’s commissioned noted UNO Theatre director Doug Paterson to direct Raisin. Paterson and company will workshop the play six weeks before it opens. Beasley’s also working with his agent to help round out the cast with name actors. “That’s a really good connection to have for putting some really nice ensembles together,” Beasley said. “We have a lot of talent in Omaha, but sometimes it helps to bring in some professionals. I think it’s good for the theater, good for the audiences and good for our actors here.”
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