August Wilson was regarded as one of America’s greatest playwrights, known for his series of ten plays titled the American Century Cycle, chronicling the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century. As Jitney readies to complete the series on Broadway (it’s the only play of the ten that has yet to grace the Great White Way), one of its actors takes his first Main Stem bow. But, Harvy Blanks is no stranger to Wilson’s work—he’s already done the American Century Cycle in its entirety.
“I was turned on when I was doing Hamlet in Chicago, and I was at the Goodman Theatre rehearsing, and we were offered tickets to go see Fences with James Earl Jones and Mary Alice,” says Blanks. “It changed my life, really. I walked out of that theatre after that performance, and I must have walked five miles kind of in a daze—and I’m not kidding. I’ll never forget that moment.
“That’s when I was introduced to him, and after that, I actively pursued [doing] August Wilson. Finally, I got an opportunity to do it.”
He got the opportunity a few times, actually, including a previous time aboard the Jitney. Most of his Wilson credits are from the Denver Center Theatre Company, where he worked with late director Israel Hicks, who directed the complete cycle over the course of 20 years at the theatre company. (According to his obituary in the New York Times, it is thought that Hicks became the first person to direct all ten plays of the Wilson cycle at the same theatre.)
In order of each decade in the cycle, Blanks has played Eli in Gem of the Ocean (Denver Center Theatre Company), Loomis in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (Denver Center Theatre Company), Slow Drag in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Two River Theater), Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson (Denver Center Theatre Company), Canewell in Seven Guitars (Denver Center Theatre Company), Gabe in Fences (Denver Center Theatre Company), West in Two Trains Running (Two River Theater), Turnbo—and, soon, Shealy—in Jitney (Denver Center Theatre Company/Broadway), Stool Pigeon in King Hedley II (Denver Center Theatre Company), and Sterling Johnson in Radio Golf (Denver Center Theatre Company).
Performing the cycle has been “incredible,” he says. “It gave me an opportunity, along with the directors, to take my personal experiences, my cultural experiences, and put them onstage and communicate with the audience. I do try to do my homework, and a lot of my homework is listening to how phrases are put together, how the words are spoken. It’s been a joyous experience. Sometimes, I [pull character choices from] my mother’s side, sometimes I use my granddaddy’s, but it’s wonderful that I can take my personal experiences and use them.”
As for his Shealy, a “numbers guy” in Broadway’s Jitney, he says, “I’m the guy that services the neighborhood—[others] service the neighborhood with cabs and transportation, and I service them with hope because I come in with the latest [gambling] offerings of the day, and I take the numbers. There’s hope whenever I appear.”
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Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.