In 1985, after a call to his dance professor to explain that he couldn’t afford to return the following semester, Blair Underwood found himself driving to New York City for a meeting with an agent, set up by his professor, Tony-nominated choreographer Billy Wilson.
“I was young and naive and excited. I didn’t know enough to be scared,” says Underwood. His fearlessness paid off that first trip when he immediately booked a guest spot on The Cosby Show, prompting a very impressed agent to sign him.
Underwood cites that trip as the catalyst for the rest of his career. He may be most recognizable from his screenwork, including Sex and the City and his Golden Globe–nominated turns in L.A. Law and In Treatment, but he considers himself a theatre kid at heart. “My first love, my first passion, my roots are in the theatre.”
Last on Broadway in the 2012 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, Underwood is back in Roundabout Theater Company’s Broadway premiere of A Soldier’s Play, directed by Tony winner Kenny Leon and co-starring three-time Tony nominee David Alan Grier. Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize–winning drama premiered Off-Broadway in 1981, tracking the aftermath of a black Army officer’s murder at Louisiana’s Fort Neal in 1944. For Underwood, the milieu feels like home. “My dad is a retired Army Colonel of 28 years in the United States Army,” he says. “I grew up around the Army specifically.”
A Soldier’s Play also offers Underwood the chance to tackle topics not frequently seen on Broadway, with the play examining colorism and respectability politics within the black community. “You get to see black humanity from many different multiple perspectives,” he says. “You have self-love, self-pride, self-hatred, which is real deep in this play. And just to watch all of this be unpacked [in the script], that’s powerful.”
These notions stood out when Underwood read the script, feeling particularly charged to explore them in a space as significant as a Broadway stage. With his impressive 35-year career, Underwood welcomes the opportunity to “explore and mine my culture. Many of my earlier roles, I was one of a few black [actors on shows with predominately white casts], and that was kind of the norm in the 1980s. It’s a different day now.”
The theatrical and cultural landscapes have changed quite a bit since Underwood took that first trip to New York City, but one thing has remained the same: “I’ll always live in the theatre,” he says. “I’ll always come back to the theatre every chance I get. It’s an adrenaline rush!”