John Douglas Thompson used to work for Unisys Corporation, a Fortune 500 company that later became Burroughs. He was an account executive in his twenties, and dating around.
“My history with August Wilson is quite interesting,” he explains. “I went on a date—not a blind date, but a date—to see an August Wilson play. My date never showed up, so I went by myself, and I saw this production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone … I watched this play, and I was so incredibly moved by it, I knew right then and there as I was sitting watching the play that I wanted to do that—I wanted to become an actor.”
After seeing the show, and around the time Unisys transitioned to Burroughs, Thompson explains, the company started laying off employees—and he found his career on the chopping block.
“I had enough of a severance package and unemployment to exist for 18 months, and I said, ‘Now I need to pursue the dream of becoming an actor. I have the time. I have some money, so I can actually try to pursue that,’ and that’s what I did,” he says. “The first thing for me was to try and get into a play.”
He searched the papers for audition notices, and it just so happened that that the Providence Phoenix was advertising a local play. After getting cast, he networked his way to a commercial audition and met a casting director who led him to Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, RI. Thompson was 29 when he made the transition and began the school’s two-year drama program 20 years ago.
“My experience with August Wilson is pretty deep,” he continues. “It’s part of my own personal mythology, if you will. Twenty-five years after that moment in time that I saw his play, which was in the ’90s, I got to be in my first August Wilson [play], which was Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, playing the role of Herald Loomis, the role in the play that had affected me so powerfully. I can honestly say that if it wasn’t for August Wilson, I wouldn’t be an actor.”
Though he’s been on Broadway before, in Julius Caesar, Cyrano de Bergerac, and A Time to Kill, his ride on the Jitney marks his first Wilson work on the Main Stem. He plays Becker, who runs the jitney station, in the last of Wilson’s American Century Cycle to play Broadway.
“To get on Broadway with August Wilson,” he says, is “like the crown jewel.” As for acting, he added that there’s no turning back, unless of course he got laid off again, “which,” he laughs, “I hope is not gonna happen.”
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.