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Anthony Chisholm is in the house at the John Beasley Theater in Omaha

June 13, 2011 10 comments

For a six-seven year period I devoted much time and energy to reporting on Omaha native John Beasley, a respected film, television, and stage actor and the director of his own namesake theater in his hometown. You’ll find on this blog several of the stories I did about John and his theater, including productions mounted there, and various guest artists who performed there. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader,com) is about one of those guest artists, actor Anthony Chisholm.  My reporting about Beasley and his theater came to an abrupt end a few years ago when he took such strong exception to a review I wrote of one of his productions that it spoiled that particular beat for me. For all I know, he’s forgotten about the incident. But the verbal excoriation he gave me was so unsettling that I haven’t had the urge or the guts to contact him again, much less set foot in his theater. I did right by John and his theater for years, and he knows it, and so I do hope we can be friends again in the sense of my covering his work. The ironic thing is that that review was the only review I ever wrote – everything else was a feature or profile, and he never had any problem with those. Can’t we all just get along?

By the way, he’s picked up a recurring part in the HBO drama Treme and he hopes to have his recurring role in the NBC serio-comic series Harry’s Law continue.  He continues to develop a feature film on Marlin Briscoe, the NFL’s first black quarterback.

 

Anthony Chisholm is in the house at the john Beasley Theater in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Actor Anthony Chisholm, a great interpreter of the late August Wilson’s work, is in Omaha for the second time in three years at the invitation of the John Beasley Theater. Chisholm’s originated roles in several Wilson plays about the African-American experience. He was a close friend of the playwright.

Chisholm once played opposite JBT founder John Beasley in a regional theater production of Wilson’s Two Trains Running. A friendship was born. In 2004 Chisholm came here to be part of the ensemble cast for Wilson’s Jitney at the JBT. Now, fresh off a Tony nomination for his featured role in Wilson’s Radio Golf, Chisholm is back at the JBT in Athol Fugard’s Master Harold…and the Boys. The show opens October 26 and runs through November 18.

This marks the first time that Chisholm, a veteran of regional theater, off-Broadway, Broadway, television and film, has worked in a piece by the South African Fugard. Chisholm met Fugard through the late director and drama instructor Lloyd Richards, a key figure in each man’s life. Chisholm studied under Richards, who brought Fugard’s work to the States at the Yale School of Drama and on Broadway.

Chisholm, a resident of Montclair, N.J., was destined to be an actor from the time his mother, an unpublished poet and novelist, encouraged him to recite prose and verse as a child in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. A young Chisholm wowed family, friends and fellow congregants at East Mount Zion Baptist Church with his resonant bass voice and perfect diction.

“I remember my uncle Pete telling me that was my ‘calling.’ He said it in such a deep and placed way that that stuck somewhere back in me,” Chisholm said.

One of Chisholm’s favorite childhood haunts was the Karamu House, a social settlement offering arts and crafts, dance and theater. The Karamu House Theatre, whose notables have included Langston Hughes, Ruby Dee, Brock Peters, Ivan Dixon and Halle Berry, gained fame for its integrated productions.

Intent on an architectural career, Chisholm entered Case Western Reserve University. He waited tables at a posh Washington, D.C. nightclub, the Junkanoo, to earn enough so he could continue his studies. This was the mid-1960s. As the Vietnam War grew hotter and the draft loomed larger, Chisholm’s number came up and he landed in the U.S. Army. His commanding presence found him a drill sergeant — barking orders to a regiment of 1,500 old-timers.

While in uniform he won a dramatic reading contest that earned him a scholarship to Yale. He never used it. On a leave home he visited the Karamu and found himself shanghaied into a reading of Douglas Turner Ward’s A Day of Absence. Cast on the spot, he had to beg off due to his military commitment. But Chisholm recalled the director encouraging him by saying, “’When you get out of the Army you come back here — we’re going to get you started.’ And so it was.”

Not before Chisholm got his orders for Nam. He served as an M-60 gunner on an armored personnel carrier with the 4th Armored Calvary, 1st Infantry Division. He saw his share of firefights. He survived the shit and just six months after returning home he began doing rep at the Karamu. Things happened fast. Paramount Pictures came to Cleveland to shoot a feature, Up Tight!, and he was cast alongside Roscoe Lee Browne and Raymond St. Jacques. Seven more film roles came in short order, including a pair of cult classics — Putney Swope and Where’s Poppa?.

He’s continued to act on the small and big screen, including parts in Beloved and in the new Adam Sandler-Don Cheadle film, Reign Over Me, playing opposite Cicely Tyson. He’s also done many guest shots on episodic TV and played a recurring character, Burr Redding, in the acclaimed HBO series Oz. But he’s mainly a stage actor. As a young man he hooked up with the Negro Ensemble Company, where he studied under Richards in a master class. He’s gone on to act with such leading theaters as the Goodman and Steppenwolf in Chicago, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the Seattle Repertory. Then there’s his association with August Wilson, whom he first met in 1990. He considers himself a disciple of Wilson’s.

“There was something very holy about him. He was a prophet-philosopher. He was just this very unusual individual. If you read his writing so many of the things he says in storyline, as characters speaking, are so philosophical and deep,” Chisholm said. Doing Wilson, he added, “has made me a beter actor without a doubt because working with well-written material brings out the best in you.”

An actor’s journey is all about discovery — about one’s self, one’s craft. It’s very much a life-long, self-taught process. “You teach yourself and you borrow from observation and every now and then you’re informed of something — an eye-opener,” Chisholm said. “So, yes, it’s always continuous.”

Arriving at the truth is the goal. It means being vulnerable and letting go.

“I know my own truth serum,” he said, “and if I don’t believe it, nobody else is going to believe it. Each role, as I move along, gets more truthful. You have to listen. I’ve been working on listening more. I don’t even think when I go out on stage or in front of the camera. I just throw myself out there. That’s a conditioning I’ve got to at this point, where I try to keep my head clear — a blank slate.

“I don’t care if I have a million lines, I don’t think about those words. As I observe and I feel, when it’s time to respond, it vomits out. The words will be there because I know the words back and forth. And that’s the way we are as people. Stuff comes out of us as we bounce things off one another.”

Polishing Gem: Behind the scenes of John Beasley Theater & Workshop’s staging of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean”

May 29, 2011 3 comments

My concept for the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.como) was deceptively simple – embed myself with a community theater group as they rehearsed and mounted a play over the course of several weeks. Practical realities dictated that I be there off and on, for a few hours there or few minutes here, in observing and reporting the experience, but I think I managed a compelling behind the scenes glimpse at some of what goes into the development of a theater production from first table reading to opening night. My theater of choice was the John Beasley Theater & Workshop in Omaha.  The theater’s namesake, John Beasley, is a fine stage, film, and television actor and his small theater is a good showcase for African American-themed stagework, particularly the work of August Wilson. And it was a Wilson play, Gem of the Ocean, that the theater prepared and performed during my time covering the company.  On this blog you’ll find more of my stories about John Beasley and his theater, including many more pieces related to other Omaha theaters and theater figures, as well as authors, artists, musicians, filmmakers.  I am posting lots of of my  theater stories now to coincide with the May 28-June 4 Great Plains Theatre Conference, and you’ll find several of my stories about that event and some of its leading participants.

 

Polishing Gem: Behind the scenes of John Beasley Theater & Workshop’s staging of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean “

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Gem of the Ocean

Gem of the Ocean (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mounting a production has its own dynamic. Discoveries happen incrementally over weeks. This creative process occurs not before a paid house but among a theater family in the privileged moments of readings-rehearsals.

It means late nights, running lines, working scenes. Over and over. Until truth emerges. Developing a play is by turns grueling, moving, satisfying. It’s all about exposing and confronting your fears — in service of emotionally honest expression.

It’s not all inspiration. More like a grind. Adrenalin feeds anxiety. Caffeine fights exhaustion. An edge cuts the air. Making a fool of yourself is a distinct possibility. Doubts creep in. Anticipation awaits resolution. Tension seeks release.

The process unfolds hundreds of times each theater season. In big state-of-the-art facilities, in intimate black box spaces, in church basements. Fully realized performances spring from coaching, encouragement, cajoling, berating, freaking, experimentation, work and prayer.

Over several nights at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop a fly on the wall observed this company developing their production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. The two-act drama is part of Wilson’s 10-play cycle chronicling the African-American experience. The JBT’s produced seven works in the cycle. Set amidst 1904 Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Gem’s a story of redemption.

Like most community theaters the JBT uses largely unpaid, untrained people who fit the work around busy lives-careers. There’s scant time to get things right. Much can go wrong. Chronic tardiness, family crises. Recasting a major part 10 days before opening. As a veteran JBT actor put it, “It seems there’s always something but in the end it all comes together.” Until opening night, the process, not the play, is the thing. In classic show-must-go-on tradition the troupe pulled Gem off. Getting there was heaven and hell.

Jan. 7 – “It’s a lot of work”

The first reading convenes. It’s like Bible study. Actors explore the sacred text — the script — under director Tyrone Beasley’s sober guidance. Hallejuah!

John Beasley, journeyman film-TV-stage character actor, headlines as Solly Two Kings, a loquacious drifter and former underground railroad conductor-turned- pure (dog manure) merchant. John arrives late, brimming with excitement about a new gig — acting in an August Wilson festival at the Kennedy Center in D.C.

Joining him in Gem are three regular JBT ensemble players. Retired electrician Charles Galloway is Eli, gatekeeper for Aunt Ester, a sage and spiritual adviser. Eli, also an ex-freedom fighter, is Solly’s best bud.

Andre McGraw, owner of Red Hot Barbershop, is Citizen Barlow, a fugitive come far to get his soul washed by Ester. Carl Brooks, Union Pacific systems analyst, is Caesar, a big, belligerent cop enforcing the white man’s law. Carl has an excused absence tonight. Ty reads his part.

JBT newcomers fill out the cast. Lovely Lakeisha Cox, grad student, plays Black Mary, Caesar’s sister and Ester’s successor-in-grooming. Tom Pensabene, dean of information technology and e-learning at Metropolitan Community College, debuts as Selig, slave finder-turned-slave runner-turned-peddler. Enigmatic Yvette Coleman is Ester. She’s a no-show. Stage manager Cheryl Bowles reads her part.

Everyone’s seated around a wooden table on the bare stage. The auditorium floor is stripped to the studs, awaiting new carpet-seats. Cast-crew wear street clothes. Introductions are made. When it comes his turn Andre jokes, “I’m born and raised in the John Beasley Theater.” Its namesake discusses the play’s musical language.

“It’s tough at first picking up the rhythm August writes in. I think August gives you enough that you won’t have to try to force it. It’ll be there.”

John commands respect. It’s he, as much as Ty, the ranks look to please.

Ty shares a JBT philosophy:

“We believe acting is behaving truthfully in imaginary circumstances. Being yourself is the first thing we’re looking for. Being in the moment. Being present.”

He suggests the players use personal experiences to make their characters extensions of themselves. “Be as specific as possible.” All to better ground one in the reality of the situation. That’s what “brings a character to life.”

He assigns homework. Actors are to flesh out character objectives, backgrounds and relationships, plus research facets of early Pittsburgh.

Ty impresses upon the cast what’s expected. “It’s a lot of work. It’s important to be here on time. It’s a long play and there’s relatively little time to do it in. If you’re here, you should always be working.”

“Let’s get started.”

The reading, opened scripts in hand, proceeds. Even dry, the drama’s inherent power is felt. In-character John tests Lakeisha by making direct eye contact with her. She rises to the occasion, By reading’s end the energy lags and lines suffer. John officially welcomes newbies Keisha and Tom with hugs and handshakes. He and Ty discuss a Plan B should their Ester prove unreliable.

Jan. 8 – “We’ll turn Omaha on its head”

Before rehearsal John covers a pivotal Act II scene with Andre. Ester puts Citizen in a trance that transports him to the City of Bones. Citizen imagines himself in a boat at sea. John says Andre must visualize it.

 

 

John Beasley

 

 

“You’re going to have to take us to the City of Bones. We see it through your eyes. If you do this right, we’ll turn Omaha on its head –and we’re going to do it right.”

Citizen’s killed a man and the death of another haunts him. He needs to make himself right with the Lord. His inward journey to be justified drives the story.

This night’s about working the prologue, when the agitated Citizen appears at Ester’s house demanding his soul be washed. There’s many takes of a tussle he has with Eli (Charles). The commotion awakens Ester, whose serene bearing calms Citizen. The movements, pacing, blocking require much attention.

“Take it again,” Ty repeats. “Good work,” he says after another.

Our missing Ester’s here. Yvette strains finding the right beat. Ty wants her moving slowly, not feebly. Exuding an aura. He contextualizes Ester in the Wilson canon.

“Aunt Ester is someone that’s talked about in several of August Wilson’s plays. She’s a powerful, spiritual woman and her power comes from her faith. This is the first time she’s seen…People are anticipating her, so when you come out there has to be a powerful, spiritual presence.”

After false starts, Yvette hits her stride.

For the reading actors have underlined or highlighted their lines in their scripts.

Ty demands more from his players. “What I want you guys to do is look each other in the eye as you’re saying your lines. Try to lift the words off the page and really talk to the person…Really communicate. Really work on seeing the images.”

“Let’s take it from the top.”

He looks and listens hard as they work. Cheryl gives stage directions, feeding lines as needed. Ty has comments for everyone. Keisha needs to find Mary’s stubbornness, Charles must avoid indicating his actions, et cetera.

“Good, that’s better, let’s do it again,” Ty says. After a bit he declares, “OK, good, let’s get this on its feet.”

Before walking through the scene he takes Keisha aside, reminding her the words she speaks must be anchored in thoughts-images.

Minimal props are introduced. Blocking addressed. The scene plays disjointed, stilted, lifeless. Ty has actors try different things. “See how that feels,” he says.

 

Jan. 10 – “Let the words do it”

Scene one pits Solly and Mary in a dispute over the pure he peddles. Ty’s been on Keisha to be ornery: “Black Mary has an attitude.” Keisha shoots back, “You want some real attitude? Put some real pure in there.” Laughter.

The action’s fuller, tighter than two nights ago. When Ester enters she asks Mary for the pure. Yvette, realizing what Ester’s supposed to examine, asks, “So that’s what I’m looking at? Is it real dog poop?” She’s teased. “It’s going to be dry. All you gotta do is break it up,” John quips, trading smirks with Ty. They begin again, but Yvette’s still thrown by the doo-doo.

LaKeisha Cox's photo.
LaKeisha Cox

 

 

While not the director per se John freely instructs, careful not to overstep Ty’s bounds. John goes over movements with Charles, who, as Eli, responds to loud knocking at Ester’s door. “The urgency will determine how fast you walk,” John says. He shows him. “Does that make sense?”

“OK, let’s sit at the table,” Ty says. All the principals gather round. They read scene three. It flows well. The intensity builds. The volume so high John gestures for them to tamp it down. Carl’s feeling Caesar. In a long speech his bellowing voice rises in anger. After he’s done John comments, “You don’t really have to be that forceful. You’re a big man. It’s all there in the words. Let the words do it.” Carl says, “Yeah, I don’t have to make him a caricature.”

“OK, top of the scene,” Ty says. They read it again. Carl’s quieter yet still formidable. John can be overpowering, too. It’s why he works hard “to bring everybody up to my level of energy.”

John confers with Andre, who’s concerned about finding the right note for Citizen. “He’s a full man. He’s carrying that burden with him,” John says. “You working it. Don’t be afraid to try anything because Tyrone will pull you back.”

 

Jan. 14 – “Being here, being now”

John helps Keisha modulate her delivery. Her thin voice pitches up to make  statements into questions. “Try it again,” he says. “Down on the inflection. Keep going…One more time…Better.” “I’ll work on it” she promises.

The Gem set, which Tyrone builds by day, is more filled out. It’s basically a kitchen, dining room, parlor and staircase.

Ty and John discuss replacing Yvette. She’s missed rehearsals. She’s late for this one. “If she’s not here tonight,” John says, “then that’s it.”

John puts the cast through warm ups. “Get yourself loose. Focus on the breath. Slowly breath in and slowly breath out. It relaxes you. It keeps you focused in the moment and that’s what we need. Being here, being now.”

“One of the worst enemies of an actor is tension,” Ty says. He works with Keisha on a yoga position. He’s cast her and the others for qualities they share with their characters. Expressing that means letting go. “She has the power of Black Mary, but she’s shy to let it out on stage.”

Yvette finally arrives. She flounders with her lines.

John and Ty work with the actors on their characters’ motivations.

 

Jan. 15 – “It’s gotta be in your voice”                                                                                                                                                        

Yvette and John work one-on-one. He presses her to make it real.

“You don’t believe me?” she asks him. “Talk to me,” he says. “Make me hear it. Make me hear what you have to say. It’s gotta be in your voice because I don’t believe those other voices.” She tries again. “There it is. Did you feel the difference?”

 

Jan. 18 – “I want to get my soul washed”
The set’s now dressed with furniture-fixtures. The stage speckled with paint and sawdust. Ladders lean against walls, electrical cord snakes across the floor.

Per usual Carl’s arrived early to work his lines. He studies at a chair in the lobby. Others find sanctuary in the overstuffed theater tech booth or back stage amid the flats, costumes and props or in the cramped wings. Tonight, Carl and Keisha animatedly share the back stories they’ve concocted.

As actors straggle in, they run lines, scrounge for eats or just kick it. Charles is distracted. His Navy Lt. Commander son has gotten orders for Iraq.

Ty asks Andre why, as Citizen, he’s timid with Ester. “I’m feeling her out. I’m kind of like hesitant because I don’t know her. I’ve got this picture of her that’s she’s a scary looking lady,” he explains. “No, she’s not,” Ty says. “Why are you in her house?” “Because I want to get my soul washed.”

“Just remember you know that she’s the reason you’re there.”

“Lights up.”

Jan. 25  – “Come take the circle”

Nitty-gritty time. The Beasleys grow more direct. Ty announces, “Come take the circle,” a cue for players to form a tight circle in chairs. “Remember the exercise,” he says. Working in close quarters the actors call each other out on whatever rings false. Ty makes sure no one gets away with anything. In this intimate, in-your-face interaction there’s no where to hide. The extreme scrutiny bares all. It’s a living tableaux of pure concentration and naked emotion.

“I don’t believe you,” Ty tells Keisha, who’s plays opposite Carl. “Do you believe her?” he asks Carl, who nods no. “Then why are you letting her go?” “I’m just asking you to believe what you’re saying,” Ty tells all. Keisha goes again, but stops in frustration, saying, “I didn’t feel it.” Ty chastises her for breaking character.

Keisha’s under extra strain these days as her mother and aunt battle illnesses. She says the play provides a needed vehicle to channel her feelings.

Yvette’s AWOL again. And so it goes…

Jan. 29 – “We’ve all got to be in this”

There’s a new Ester. JBT favorite TammyRa Jackson has replaced Yvette with the opening less than two weeks off. A cosmetologist and mother of five, she concedes she’s anxious joining the cast so late but is warmed by how supported she’s made to feel. John won’t push back the run — not with the house sold out opening night. Besides, he’s confident his new Ester will “put the work in.”

“We brought TammyRa in because we felt she was the only that could do this in this short of time. She’s a tremendous talent. As she commits the words she’s bringing a lot of new stuff to the table, which I figured she would.”

 

Cover Photo

 TammyRa Jackson

 

 

Fresh carpet’s been laid down. A noxious chemical smell permeates the auditorium.

With “C’mon y’all” John beckons cast to work the crucial City of Bones scene at the table. The scene’s not jelled. The time’s short, the stakes high, the nerves raw. Music director Leon Adams hovers over the group to consult on song verses.

“We need to find this thing,” John tells the pensive cast, “so I need you to do as much work as you can.”

They begin. “Feel it, feel it,” he says. “See the stars, Andre,” who rocks in Citizen’s trance. TammyRa’s spot-on with the sing-song spell that puts Citizen under. John and Charles take up the chant. When Keisha and Cheryl speak out of character the chant’s broken, making John upset.

“Wait a minute, what’s going on there? Don’t talk during the exercise. You’ve got to stay in this, Keisha. We’ve all got to be in this. This is a very difficult scene. You’ve got to stay focused…This is a chant, and if you focus in on this you can feel a rhythm come up…If you find that, we’ll be half-way home.”

She’s taken aback. He holds her hand to show he’s not mad.

Next he turns to Andre to say he’s unconvinced by Citizen’s born-again epiphany.

“You’re still acting, Andre. You’re not there yet. You gotta go deeper, man. You gotta believe it. Just like in any ritual, any spiritual thing, you gotta be listening and open…in order for it to really take over, and I think you’ll find it in the rhythm. You’ll feel it. You’ll hook up into it.”

They take it again and again. Leo advises more “embellishment” here, more “swung” there. John reminds TammyRa to “keep the contemporary” out of her voice. She asks lots of questions. A good sign. Her young daughter Nadia hangs by her side as she guides Citizen on his way. John’s pleased after another take. “Just paint those beautiful pictures with those beautiful words. That’s nice, nice work.” He wants TammyRa to do more with the title line and cautions Keisha “not to throw away” a strong line about Satan.

A work in progress.

Feb. 6  – “I think we’ll be ready for Friday”                                                                                                                                          

It’s tech week and 48 hours until show time. The stress shows on people’s faces. The tense actors get costumed.

The seats are in. So are Ty’s notes from the staged run through two nights before.

The company lost yesterday to a snowstorm. “I was confident enough to give them that time to study their script and do their work,” John tells a visitor. “They’re finding their characters. We’ve come a long ways. I think we’ll be ready for Friday.”

A key player’s missing, however. Carl’s father died a few days earlier and he’s still in his native St. Louis for the services. Ty’s assumes the role tonight and may open in it Friday. He’s told Carl to take as much time as he needs.

As cast filter in crew clean up the freshly painted set.

“Actors to the stage please,” Ty says. They gather round and he reads aloud their notes — hand-written critiques, refinements. As is his penchant he works from general to specific. He directs packing Caesar’s gun in a waist holster.

“Overall, it was low energy…The audience is not going to be feeling the show. So keep your energy up everybody.”

His individual notes cover stage positions, cues, intonations, intentions. He demonstrates various actions. His most telling comments concern Andre. “If you don’t have that urgency of why you’re there…then it’s a tough show.”

Before the run-through John reiterates “it’s important we keep up the energy. Just keep the story moving along…”

They work late into the night. No preview tomorrow. Another rehearsal. Then it’s on with the show the next night.

Feb. 8 – “It’s finally here”                                                                                                                                                                    

Opening night.

6:30. An hour to curtain and jitters abound. On stage John runs lines with Carl, who got back last night. John presses him to emphasize each subject. Ty, unhappy the way Carl handles a speech to win over Mary, gets up in his face with, “You got to try to get her on your side. That’s what you’re trying to do here.” “Let me start over,” Carl says. He nails it. “Good, good,” John says.

 

 

 

 

Carl, hours removed from his dad’s funeral, never considered not performing. He says the play’s “a pretty good distraction.” He frets having “missed some valuable time” but is risking it anyway. “Something’s going to happen — stick around.”

John, wife Judy, Ty, Cheryl and production staff scurry to place props. Tom and Charles, already costumed, work lines backstage. The other actors get made up and change in the dressing room.

Past 7 the lobby fills with patrons. “We’re getting ready to open the house,” John announces. “Hold on, man, I need two minutes,” says Mark O’Leary, who hangs a picture and touches up a faucet. “You got it.”

Andre runs over lines to himself in the wings, pacing in a circle. He and Keisha share a tender moment. “A lot of different emotions,” Keisha says. “It’s finally here, so no matter what you’ve just got to go out there and have fun at this point.”

As insurance, TammyRa’s wearing an earpiece that Cheryl will feed lines into.

The house opens and folks stream in, unaware of the activity on set moments before and the beehive backstage.

Cast members squeeze into the small dressing room. They flit in and out. John, bandana wrapped around his head and big ass walking stick held in his hand, offers final notes to Charles and Keisha. There’s the usual “break-a-leg” well-wishes.

“What’s our time like?” Charles asks. “Not much — like five minutes,” says John, who asks Cheryl to round up the others. All the players cram inside. They clasp hands as Cheryl leads a fervent prayer. She refers to how “we’ve come up against everything” on this show. “We thank you God for this time we’ve been able to work together and join hearts and become friends and even family. We thank you for John Beasley and all of his hard work…He struggles to keep this going…but he hangs in there because he believes in us. He could walk away, but he doesn’t.”

“We pray you God that you will give us victory. Amen.”

A chorus of Amens goes up. John cracks, “Anybody got a collection plate here?”

The full house gets their money’s worth. The rich, naturalistic performances the JBT’s noted for are evident. TammyRa’s imbued with Aunt Ester’s old soul spirit. Keisha’s found Black Mary’s stubborn streak. Andre’s got Citizen’s raw yearning down pat. Carl strikes the right balance as Caesar. John shines as Solly. Charles and Tom believably inhabit their parts. Aside from a few awkward pauses, it’s fine theater. Few glitches or flubs. All the hard work’s paid off.

“I was proud of them.” Ty says afterwards.

Just another opening, another show.

Gem continues through March 2.

Get your jitney on: August Wilson play “Jitney” at the John Beasley Theater resonates with cast and crew

June 18, 2010 1 comment

jitney

Image by macwagen via Flickr

I am drawn to stories with multiple layers and textures, and the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is a good example, as it resonates on social, cultural, historical, and artistic levels, among others.  The piece uses the production of the August Wilson play Jitney to look at the gypsy cab phenomenon that is the context for the drama and to look at the theater company that put on this production and its founder-director, John Beasley.  When I found out that Beasley himself had driven a jitney in his hometown of Omaha, the symmetrey was complete.  Beasley has a distinguished track record acting in Wilson plays in regional theater and he is personally responsible for introducing Wilson’s work to Omaha.  His company, the John Beasley Theater & Workshop, has performed virtually the entire cycle of Wilson plays and is considered a fine interpreter of the late playwright’s work. Beasley  knew Wilson and for the production of Jitney I wrote about here he brought to Omaha two more veterans of Wilson plays in the actors Anthony Chisolm and Willis Burks.

 

Get your jitney on: August Wilson play “Jitney” at the John Beasley Theater resonates with cast and crew

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Gypsy cabbies are at the heart of a milestone event in Omaha theatrical history unfolding this month at the John Beasley Theatre & Workshop, located in the South Omaha YMCA at 3010 Q Street.

For its current production of celebrated American playwright August Wilson’s drama Jitney, the JBT’s assembled some of the leading interpreters of the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner’s work. Its director, Claude Purdy, is perhaps the dramatist’s foremost collaborator outside famed director Lloyd Richards. Adding luster and weight to the ensemble cast are award-winning regional theatre and Broadway actors Anthony Chisholm and Willis Burks, members of Wilson’s stock company. The actors are joined on-stage by the theatre’s namesake, John Beasley, a Wilson regular who’s worked with Chisholm. In a first, Beasley appears in Jitney with each of his sons, Tyrone and Michael, both of whom he shares intense scenes with.

Boasting four artists closely associated with his signature plays, there’s even talk Wilson may visit Omaha to catch Jitney during its JBT run. Like his Broadway-produced Seven GuitarsTwo Trains Running, The Piano Lesson (Pulitzer-winner for best drama), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Fences (Pulitzer and Tony Award-winner for best drama) and Ma Rainey’s Black BottomJitney’s set in Pittsburgh, Pa.’s black Hill District. The Wilson “canon,” as Chisholm calls it, is richly evocative of the monumental struggles and triumphs of the African-American experience, from slavery till today, as filtered through the rise and fall of one neighborhood Wilson knew as a child and rediscovered as an adult. It’s the place that nurtured him as an artist and that he’s chosen as a prism for telling The Black American Story.

Wilson has said his Hill plays are about “the unique particulars of black culture…I wanted to place this culture onstage in all its richness and fullness and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us…through profound moments in our history in which the larger society has thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves.”

 

 

August Wilson

Jitney is one chapter in this epic story. The circa-1970s drama takes place in a storefront gypsy cab stand amid a decayed inner city landscape reeling from urban renewal. Off-the-books earnings of jitney drivers figure in an underground economy where numbers running, drug dealing and loan sharking go on. Unlike these more unsavory pursuits, jitneys provide a community service — public transportation — that’s lacking or lagging. When events conspire to threaten the livelihood of Jitney’s men, they are angry, then resigned and, finally, moved to take action.

In telling the story, the JBT’s gathered an unusual confluence of talent that president/artistic director John Beasley sees as a step towards his vision of making the two-year-old facility a regional theatre. It’s his hope the JBT continues being a magnet attracting top talent from around the country as well as a training ground and launching pad for local actors, directors, playwrights in pursuing their craft.

Nothing quite like this has happened on the Omaha theatre scene. Touring troupes from the Royal Shakespeare Company and Guthrie Theatre have done residencies. An occasional New York director or actor has come through. But Omaha hasn’t had this many artists of this caliber work in a locally produced play, unless you count opera, since 1955. That’s when two Hollywood-Broadway icons at the peak of their powers, native Nebraskans Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, returned to perform in an Omaha Community Playhouse benefit production of The Country Girl. Henry’s ingenue daughter, Jane, made her debut in that same show.

Now, half-a-century later, the JBT is stamping itself as an important regional presenter of a living master playwright’s work. The New Yorker’s John Lahr has said of Wilson, “No one except perhaps Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams has aimed so high and achieved so much in the American theater.”

Although set in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh, the action reverberates with the wider black experience. For example, John Beasley drove a jitney out of two Omaha stands — Chappie’s Corner and Speedy Delivery – in the late 1960s. “Yeah, those were the days, man,” he said. “We’d go into the jitney stand in the morning and give the owner something like a $6 fee. It’d say ‘Pickup and Delivery’ on the window of the store, but everybody knew what it was. And then when the calls came in you took ‘em in order. Some of us had regular customers. They’d call in and ask for certain guys. ‘You got a car? Yeah, where you going?’ A dollar would carry you most places. You used your own car. Unmarked. I had a little raggedy Ford at the time. I think the farthest west we went was the Crossroads.”

Unregulated cabs have long been a fixture on Omaha’s Near Northside, where they serve a gap left by city sanctioned and state licensed cab companies reluctant to serve residents there. Since the displacement of homes and businesses by the riots and North Freeway construction of the late ‘60s, north Omaha’s high crime rep has made regular cabbies even more leery of taking calls or cruising for fares there. “There’s still jitneys today. Cabs don’t want to come to the north side. It provides a service to people who maybe don’t have cars or don’t have licenses. And as high as gas is going, a lot of poor people can’t afford to drive,” Beasley said.

Jitneys are officially banned, but authorities look the other way because they do fill a need. As Beasley put it, “What are they going to do? Nobody else is serving the neighborhood.” Anyone in north Omaha can tell you where to find one. Postings for their services adorn public bulletin boards. Former University of Nebraska at Omaha public administration professor Peter Suzuki drove a jitney in Omaha in the early ‘70s to research a series of published papers he wrote on the subject. He said drivers of that era were typically young men — as Beasley was then — or retirees looking to make ends meet. Jitney stands, bookie joints and after-hours spots were vital parts of the black community. “That’s why the story resonates with me so much,” Beasley said. “It’s a black experience. A personal experience.”

Partly based on the denizens of a Pittsburgh jitney operation, the play gives voice to a working-class segment of black American culture. Anthony Chisholm said, “It shows how this cab station contributed to the service of the community. It was a lifeblood of the Hill. It gives you a peak into a certain category of lives there that made up the mosaic of the whole. It shows black men in the throes of survival.”

 

PENNSYLVANIA l August Wilson House in the hill district of Pittsburgh. The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.:
A building in Pittsburgh’s Hill District

 

 

Amid their patter, invective and humor is revealed an authentic, vital vignette of inner city street life rarely glimpsed by non-black audiences. But the real power of the words and ideas is they are culturally specific yet universal. Chisholm suggests that with only minor changes the play would work equally well with “white working class” characters. Their lives are similar. “The soul and humanity in these words are in every human being on this planet,” he said. “There’s a lot of humanity in Jitney.”

Guest director Claude Purdy said that above all, he loves “the language” of Wilson. “He’s a poet.” Purdy’s strong ties with Wilson put him on intimate terms with the icon. Their friendship goes back to when they were emerging artists in their shared hometown of Pittsburgh, whose Hill District is the inspiration for the writer’s projected ten-play cycle chronicling 20th century African-American life. It was Purdy who suggested Wilson turn his Black Bart poems into a play and leave Pittsburgh for St. Paul, Minn.’s lively theater scene. Purdy preceded him there to direct at the Penumbra Theatre Company, a black regional theater. It was, indeed, in St. Paul where the largely self-educated Wilson turned playwright. He only found his voice, however, after returning to Pittsburgh and steeping himself in its culture.

Among the venues where Purdy’s mounted Wilson’s work is the American Conservatory Theatre, the L.A. Theatre Center, the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, the Penumbra and the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. He’s also directed regional-national tours of various Wilson works. Guest actors Anthony Chisholm (Burr Redding on HBO’s Oz, the film Beloved) and Willis Burks (CBS’ Law & Order, the film Sunday) have worked extensively in Wilson plays. They workshopped Jitney with him. They and castmates of the original 2000 New York production won Drama Desk/Obie Awards for best ensemble performance. Jitney won the Drama Critics Circle Award as best play of the year, one of seven Wilson works so honored. Chisholm appears in Wilson’s new play, Gem of the Ocean, opening on Broadway in the fall. Each man considers it “a privilege” to speak Wilson’s words.

“He’s a philosopher and a poet along with being a great storyteller,” Chisholm said. “He writes really deep stuff. His passages are food for thought for everyone. I always recommend anyone take the time to read his plays. If you read O’Neill or Tennessee Williams or Shakespeare or Chekhov, or you’re just in the habit of reading, then his work is a must.”

John Beasley claims his own Wilson connection. The owner of major props in film (RudyThe Apostle) and TV (Everwood), the Omahan first came to prominence in Wilson plays on Minneapolis, Chicago and Atlanta regional theatre stages.

Under Beasley’s guidance, the JBT is fast becoming an August Wilson showcase. Housed in the site of the defunct Center Stage Theatre, where Beasley honed his own acting chops, the JBT grew out of a kind of rescue mission. In 2002, he reopened the abandoned Center Stage by mounting Wilson’s Tony Award-winning drama Fences, which he directed and starred in. Its success led the Omaha Housing Authority, which oversees the La Fern Williams Center the theatre is part of, to rename the Center Stage in Beasley’s honor. That’s when he and son Tyrone, himself a regional theatre veteran, began taking ownership of the JBT.

Since Fences, the JBT’s presented Ain’t Misbehavin and the Wilson plays Joe Turner’s and Two Trains and Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. It’s no accident Jitney is the fourth Wilson play among the JBT’s six offerings to date. “August Wilson is arguably America’s greatest living playwright,” Beasley said. “His work is always well-received. But I still don’t see theaters around here taking on his plays. I think it’s essential, especially in Omaha where we really don’t have a minority media voice, to have this arena,”.

In Beasley’s eyes, Wilson reveals a story often withheld or obscured. “Basically, he deals with every decade of the 20th century…with blacks migrating from the south to Pittsburgh and what they faced once they got there,” he said. “His characters talk about what happened back down south and touch on some of the reasons they came north. It’s always their stories. The plays deal with the era of urban renewal, when a lot of black businesses and neighborhoods were being boarded-up and blight set in and how, once redevelopment came in, blacks were being forced out. You can see the same pattern here in Omaha. He’s really telling the black American story, but the thing about August’s work is it’s not just the black experience, it’s the human experience, and that’s why I love August.”

Beasley’s elicited the same strong identification from white audiences playing Troy Maxson in Fences as he has playing Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman. “Both are tragic figures who had a dream dashed,” he said. Each craves recognition, affirmation. As Loman says, “attention must be paid.”

 

Image result for anthony chisholm

Anthony Chisholm

 

The men in Jitney share similar regrets and rants. They comprise an independent, disparate breed of urban entrepreneurs threatened by encroaching “progress.” Representing a variety of ages and life experiences, they must all hustle to get by. There’s Becker, the weary cab stand owner whose heart has grown cold over the terrible mistake his son Booster made. In his stage debut, KETV photojournalist and Kaleidoscope host/producer Ben Gray plays Becker. Tyrone Beasley essays the estranged Booster. As Turnbo, the resident gossip always messing in other people’s business, John Beasley assumes a role he’s performed many times before. In the part of Youngblood, the upwardly mobile Vietnam vet desperate to escape The Life, is Michael Beasley. The former pro basketball player made his JBT debut last year in Two Trains under the direction of his brother Tyrone.

As Fielding, a former tailor who drinks too much pining for his ex-wife, Anthony Chisholm recreates one of the roles he’s become identified with. Playing Doub, the sardonic Korean War vet, is Omaha actor Vince Alston. Shealy, the good-natured numbers runner, is recreated by Willis Burks. Familiar Omaha actor Kevin Williams appears as Philmore, a frequent customer and the stand’s drunk comic relief. The only female character, Rena, is the distressed wife of Youngblood. She’s played by Iris Perez, a Hot 107.7 FM on-air personality and just one of many talented local actresses the JBT’s developed in its ongoing acting workshops.

 

 

Willis Burks

 

 

Tensions and jokes abound among the men of Jitney. Personal baggage weighs them down. Their lively exchanges and monologues ring with the authentic African-American vernacular, idiom, patios and sensibility that Wilson could only get from careful observation and listening, something he did haunting the Hill District’s juke joints, bars, diners, clubs, hotels, whore houses, jitney stands and bookie parlors.

Chisholm and Burks have walked with Wilson through those same streets, going to some of those very places and meeting the colorful figures he’s based characters on. They’ve heard the laughter and despair. Wilson is known to write listening to the strains of Bessie Smith and other great black music stylists and his spoken words do echo the plaintive tone, lyrical jive and lift-up-thy-voice testimony of gospel, soul, jazz and the blues. “All of his work has that really nice rhythm about it,” said Beasley. “It’s jazz. That’s how his plays sound to me. I compare him to Shakespeare. It wasn’t until I learned the music of his writing that it really flowed for me. Every word is well chosen for a certain rhythm…for a certain effect.”

The words are often quite funny, too. Burks said he and Chisholm were part of an early tour of Jitney on “the chitlin circuit,” where they played to audiences in broad comic strokes. “It can go in that direction,” he said. “The laughs are there.” It was later brought back to its dramatic roots. The actors also witnessed Wilson expand the play by more than an hour. “It was a different play then from what it is now,” Burks said, adding that whole characters were dropped and others made over. Burks character Shealy became “less fly” and more “respectable.” Chisholm’s Fielding was “rounded out” and given a “back story” drawn from the actor’s tailor-father. Booster was made less “gangsta” and more “educated.”

When the Jitney men learn the surrounding neighborhood is slated for demolition, their cab stand becomes a kind of metaphorical last stand for all they hold dear. In the end, each stands alone, yet together. “What is it about is a tough question to answer because it’s such an ensemble piece. Every character has his own story,” said JBT associate artistic director Tyrone Beasley. “It’s like a slice of life that comes into focus at this critical moment in their lives.”

“That’s what Jitney is, it’s a slice of life,” John Beasley said. “The interesting thing to me is the relationships between each of these individuals and how they eventually pull together for a common goal. Even Turnbo, who’s a pain in the ass. They’ve got a business to save. Like one of ‘em says, ‘Where else can you make $40  a day?’ That was pretty good money in the black community in those days. It was a decent enough way to make a living. It was a necessary business, too.”

What Beasley’s doing with Jitney is part of a stated mission to move his theatre to the next level. “I want to do things not being done by other theatres in town, which is basically plays by and about minorities. I want this to be a regional theatre where established artists can come and work with local artists. What I’m finding is,  it’s taking on a life of its own,” he said.

Jitney’s guest artists say they’re down for return engagements and support the JBT’s aim of joining America’s handful of black regional theatres. “In regional theater it’s all about putting it together and making a good ensemble piece. It’s working with people who respect the writer and respect the process. And from what I’ve seen, it’s the same thing here,” said Burks. Chisholm added, “It’s a great opportunity to work your chops.”

 

John Beasley: Making his stand

June 6, 2010 2 comments

HeyYallYo Historic home of August Wilson in Pi...

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It has been my privilege to write about actor-director John Beasley and his John Beasley Theater & Workshop a number of times.  This is the first and most extensive piece I have done on him. Most of the other articles have been about productions at his theater, usually August Wilson plays.  Look for me to post future Beasley pieces.  John has been an actor and storyteller from an early age, but he did not enter professional acting until well into middle-age.  He was too busy making a living the ways he knew how and raising his family. He’s like many of those old Hollywood stars and directors who lived rich, full lives before ever stepping foot in Hollywood. It shows in his work on screen and on the stage.  If his name is not familiar, his face is. You’ve likely seen him in a film or TV series or two.  The theater he was just starting up when this article appeared in the Omaha Weekly has become something of an institution by now. That paper was not so lucky — it no longer exists. John is sure to give us many more fine performances.

This blog also features stories about a Beasley Theater production of August Wilson’s Jitney, with more Beasley related stories to follow.

 

John Beasley: Making his stand

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

Noted film and television character actor John Beasley of Omaha brings a reality and gravity to his roles that is more than an expression of his considerable craft, but also a product of the rich life he lived before ever becoming a fixture on the big and small screen.

For years, the solidly-built Beasley studied acting while working at just about anything to support his family. He served a hitch in the Army. He swung a hook as a longshoreman on the Philadelphia waterfront. He bluffed his way into a producing job at a Philly TV station and, later, finagled his way into a news director’s slot at now defunct Omaha radio station, KOWH.

He tried the entrepreneurial thing when he and his brother opened a Philly cheese steak sandwich shop. After finding success in Omaha theater circles in the 1980s, he continued laboring as a clerk and janitor at Union Pacific Railroad and as a machine operator at the now closed Vickers hydraulic manufacturing plant. He viewed it all as a means to an end — an actor’s life. Even though he was 45 by the time he got his first paying acting gig, he did not look upon himself or his situation as a failure, but rather as a-work-in-progress.

“I was content, even when I was a janitor, because I was doing what it is I love to do — the theater,” he said. “There were people who looked down on me and I always said to myself, ‘Well, just wait. I know who I am, and pretty soon you will know who I am.’ I’ve just always felt I could do whatever it is I wanted to do. A lot of times I would do things just to prove to myself I could do them and then, after doing that, I would move on because it didn’t matter anymore.”

Now, only a decade removed from his days as a nameless, blue-collar shift worker, the 58-year-old is a bankable property. Between his role as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the summer blockbuster The Sum of All Fears and his recurring role as the narrator in the new WB series, Everwood, which debuts this fall, Beasley has done the improbable — nearing the “A” list of Hollywood supporting players while living in Omaha, where he was born and raised and has resided virtually his entire life. In addition to his film and TV work, he has established a non-profit foundation that looks to revive the old Center Stage Theater in south Omaha. The actor hopes the newly renamed John Beasley Theater at the Center Stage, located in the LaFern Williams Center, opens its inaugural season in the fall.

It is all quite a leap for a man who, not long ago, cleaned toilets while nurturing his fledgling acting career. Those unfamiliar with Beasley’s background may see his recent prominence as an overnight success story when it is actually the result of a long journey that has given him a reservoir of experiences to draw on for his work. Instead of regretting his relatively late entry into the big leagues of acting, he views his gradual rise up through the ranks as a plus.

“There’s that life experience I have,” he said. “I’ve paid my dues, and I know that. The foundation was already set. I’ve always been content and confident that I could have made it as an actor years ago. But I wasn’t ready at that time to do what it would take. I mean, I had a young family that I was raising, and I love my family. I love the time I spent with them. And if I had started this (career) earlier I would have lost all of that. I have no regrets.”

While making a living always came first, Beasley built a solid base for his stagecraft. A life on stage was almost a birthright for Beasley, who grew up on the near northside immersed in the vivid stories told by his high-achieving family (His father was an electrician and his grandfather an entrepreneur who held interests in a movie theater, taxi stand and restaurant.).

 

 

 

Image result for john beasley

John Beasley

 

“I’m from a family of storytellers. My uncle Pal (David Triplett) was a great storyteller. He’s a preacher and he would make up stories with characters out of the Bible. He had a character named Nicodemus McDooglesprout. He told stories about his dog Fritz. Kids came from blocks around to hear him. He’d put us in the stories, and if he put one of us in a bad light we’d start crying. As a little kid I always wanted to entertain…acting, singing songs. It’s just a passion. I really enjoy sharing my passion with other people. Sharing emotional moments. Making people cry. Making them laugh. Being able to emote is just a gift God has given me. I guess that’s just part of who I am.”

At Technical High School, the budding athlete came under the influence of drama and speech coach Kenneth Roy, winning awards for his oral interpretation of prose literature and performing in school plays. After three years in the service, he returned to Omaha and enrolled at then-Omaha University, where his focus was more on football (He was a two-way star as a freshman on a squad featuring future NFL great Marlin Briscoe.) than academics. Before dropping out of school, he participated in a couple stage projects there — Readers Theater and the play In White America.

His formal theater training came a few years later when, after living and working in Philadelphia (where he heeded the itch to act again at the Germantown Theater), he came back home and resumed his studies at UNO. He has high praise for the training he received from the dramatic arts staff there, particularly one William Smith, a former UNO instructor whom he is still in contact with today. “Bill taught me how to be an actor. He taught me movement and voice and things I still rely on when I go tackle a role. He got me to the next level.”

It was at a UNO theater workshop conducted by members of the visiting Royal Shakespeare Company that Beasley further honed his skills and gained added affirmation of his talent.

“I wanted to learn more, and the people from the Royal Shakespeare Company took to me. A lady instructor really kind of singled me out. She was having us do poetry readings. Then it was my turn, and so I read my thing and she whispered in my ear, ‘John, black people have soul…I want you to read that again and I want you to read it from here,’ and she put her hand on my stomach. I read it, and the class was just in silence. When I finished, everybody applauded. Right there, I learned to get out of my head and to get into my gut. That was a big learning point for me.” Another instructor was David Suchet (who played the title role in the A&E series Poirot). Suchet also saw something in Beasley and worked with him. “David Suchet taught me what it is to be a professional at what I do. During the workshop he cast me in A Streetcar Named Desire in the role of Mitch, the love interest of Blanche. I was the only black in the cast.”

Beasley said the color-blind casting he found at UNO was an exception for that era of Omaha theater.

“The script didn’t have to say, ‘a black actor,’ for UNO to cast me in a role. David Suchet said, ‘I don’t see why a black couldn’t play anything.’

An emboldened Beasley began auditioning at area community theaters, breaking down some color barriers along the way. He was cast by director Charles Jones as Horatio in an Omaha Community Playhouse production of Hamlet. Then, he and black Omaha actress Margaret Bates began testing the waters together, auditioning for the leads in On Golden Pond — which they did not get — and Come Back Little Sheba — which they did get and for which they received local theater guild nominations for Best Actor (he lost) and Best Actress (she won) in a dramatic play.

He went on to win many traditionally white roles in Omaha-area theater productions, including Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman at the Center Stage, Midge in I’m Not a Rappaport at the Chanticleer Theater in Council Bluffs and Big Julie in Guys and Dolls at the Firehouse Dinner Theater. Other venues were not so accommodating. “A lot of theaters and directors didn’t have the courage to do that,” he said. “Some directors felt if the script didn’t say ‘black,’ they weren’t going to look at you.” As far as opportunities for black actors in Omaha today, he said, “they’re not really great, and never have been to tell you the truth. I will say this for the theater community. If you show the talent, they will accept it and appreciate it, but they’re not going to go out looking for black actors.”

He believes many minority artists eliminate themselves from the running by not trying for non-ethnic specific parts when, in reality, directors may be open to casting minorities.

“A lot of times blacks won’t audition because they think, ‘Well, OK, there’s nothing for me,’ where, with me, I see the parts I want to do, like a Willie Loman or a Horatio, and I go after them.” Because racial stereotypes persist, Beasley makes it a point to infuse his characters with pride. It is something he learned from watching Sidney Poitier’s film performances. “Sidney Poitier brought dignity to everything he played. What that’s meant for me in my acting career is that I have never played a character that did not have dignity. That’s very important to me and I think that’s why I get the roles I do — because I bring a certain amount of dignity to a character.”

His goal for the Beasley Theater is to make it a showcase for minority drama. “I want to get up a production of Blood Knot (the Athol Fugard play about two brothers’ response to South African apartheid), and then do some August Wilson (the American playwright who chronicles black life) and then try to reach out to the large Hispanic community in south Omaha and see what it is they would like done. I don’t think of it as being just ‘a black theater.’ I want to involve the community. I want to do things not being done by other theaters in town, which is basically plays by and about minorities. August Wilson is arguably America’s greatest living playwright. His work is always well-received. But I still don’t see theaters around here taking on his plays. I think it’s essential, especially in Omaha where we really don’t have a minority media voice, to have this arena.”

 

 

Race aside, Beasley made a name for himself on various Omaha stages in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Still, it was not until 1990 he abandoned the 9-to-5 routine and pursued acting as his livelihood. It was a daring thing to do for a middle-aged man with a family and mortgage, but he made the leap anyway. He figured the time was right. His youngest son was in college. He and his wife Judy, a medical secretary at UNMC, had a comfortable life. It was now or never.

“I was very dissatisfied (with the Vickers job), so I quit. I convinced my wife to let me try making it as an actor. She’d been fighting me all along. She didn’t want any part of being married to an actor. I didn’t do it earlier becaue I didn’t want her to suffer being married to a struggling actor,” he said. “But I finally told her, ‘I’m going to Minneapolis, and if I don’t make it in three weeks I’ll be back and I’ll get a normal job.’ She said, ‘OK.’ So, I went out there and within two-and-a-half weeks I was turning down plays.”

After taking the vibrant Minneapolis theater scene by storm, performing at the Mixed Blood Theater, he found success at major Equity theaters in Chicago (the Goodman) and Atlanta (the Alliance). Besides playing great roles in classic works, including Othello, he has shared the stage with notables Roscoe Lee Browne, Eric La Salle and Don Cheadle. As he made his presence known on the regional theater circuit, he helped pay the bills acting in commercials and corporate films.

He was so intent on making it he often undertook grueling road trips that found him driving from Omaha to Chicago to Minneapolis and back home again in a single 24-hour span. In the process, he became a much-in-demand interpreter of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson’s (Troy Maxson in Fences, Mr. West in Two Trains Running, Turnbo in Jitney) characters. Beasley adores the work of Wilson, whom he’s met, and even selected Wilson’s Fences, a story about a bitter father and his estranged son, as the play he reopened the Center Stage Theater with last summer. Beasley both starred-in and directed the production.

“I love August Wilson. Basically, he deals with every decade of the 20th century… with blacks migrating from the south to Pittsburgh (where Wilson is from) and what they faced once they got there. His characters talk about what happened back down south and touch on some of the reasons they came north. It’s always their stories. The plays deal with the era of urban renewal, when a lot of black businesses and neighborhoods were being boarded-up and blight set in and how, once redevelopment came in, blacks were being forced out. You can see the same pattern here in Omaha.

 

John Beasley.jpg

John Beasley as Troy Maxson in Fences

 

 

“He’s really telling the black American story, but the thing about August’s work is it’s not just the black experience, it’s the human experience, and that’s why I love August. When I’ve done Fences I’ve had white men and women come up to me after the play with tears in their eyes and say, ‘That was my father.’ I mean, to me, Troy Maxson (the protagonist) is Willie Loman. Both of them are tragic figures who had a dream that was dashed. Troy could never let go of the fact he never got a chance to play major league baseball. That but for the color of his skin he could have been greater than any of them.”

While TV and film commitments limit the stage work he does these days, Beasley said he would still stop drop everything if a juicy part in a Wilson play opened up. For him. Wilson’s work is not only inspirational but instructive.

“August talks about relationships which, when I’m teaching acting workshops, is all I talk about. How we relate to each other. How we deal with each other from the heart. How we overcome obstacles. Because that’s what you have to bring to the table as an actor — that inner feeling. If you know what it feels like inside, then it’s going to come out.” Feelings tapped by a play sometimes cannot be contained within the boundaries of the stage. “I remember doing Willie Loman and how after each performance I’d just break down and cry because, emotionally, it’s such a draining experience. I found myself doing that every night. The same with Troy Maxson — I’d just have to breakdown. I had to get that release.”

He next made waves in episodic TV, including a 1990 role in Oprah Winfrey’s short-lived but much-talked-about series Brewster Place. Soon thereafter he landed his first feature film roles and became a regular TV guest star. He hasn’t stopped working in film and TV since.

He became a known commodity among moviegoers with small but convincing portrayals in the hits The Mighty Ducks and Rudy. He first caught the attention of critics with his strong supporting performance as a retired Southern preacher in Oscar-winner Robert Duvall’s 1998 critically-acclaimed film The Apostle.

He has appeared in other high-profile Hollywood pics (Losing Isaiah, The General’s Daughter) along with indie films (Journeyman). His TV appearances have included spots on MillenniumThe PretenderC.S.I. and Judging Amy and the TNT movie Freedom Song. He has worked with everyone from Duvall and Poitier (on a cable movie remake of To Sir With Love) to John Travolta, Melanie Griffith, Morgan Freeman and Della Reese.

His standing in the industry is such that he turned down a coveted lead role opposite Angela Bassett in John Sayles’ new film Gold Coast for a smaller but bigger-paying turn in The Sum of All Fears. While he rues having given up a lead, something he’s worked hard for, he feels the buzz around Sum, combined with his work on the well-reviewed Everwood, starring Treat Williams, have put him in line for more choice roles. He feels well-served to date by his keen eye for material. “I’ve been very picky about the things I’ve done on stage and I think that’s carried over into films.” He has also been promised a chance to direct episodes of Everwood and hopes to do more directing down the road.

With his career in high gear now, he is weighing buying a house in L.A. for those Tinseltown trips he makes every year. He insists, however, his lifestyle has not changed much from when he was just another middle-class Everyman. “I was never that interested in money, per se. My life has been full without money for a long time and now that I’m earning a little money, I’m not impressed with it still.”

He stays hungry and humble remembering where he came from and how far he has gone to reach his destination. His advice to aspiring actors: “Don’t be afraid to try and to leave your comfort zone.” He offers himself up as proof of how, with enough preparation and poise, an Omaha actor really can conquer Hollywood.

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