Music of the Soul: Actors Talk About Inhabiting an August Wilson Role

Special Features   Music of the Soul: Actors Talk About Inhabiting an August Wilson Role
For two decades, a part in a new August Wilson play offered one of the best opportunities to be afforded an African-American actor in the theatre.
August Wilson
August Wilson Photo by David Cooper

Ribald humor, poetic soliloquies and passages of searing anger and hurt were all components of such a choice assignment. As a result, his dramas attracted talents like James Earl Jones, Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, Phylicia Rashad, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Charles S. Dutton and Roscoe Lee Browne. Over the years, a number of Wilson players spoke with about the experience of doing a Wilson play. Their comments are below:

Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Seven Guitars and Gem of the Ocean on Broadway): "I come to blow the doors down. It feels great. Anytime you get a chance to put August Wilson's words in your mouth, it's a great feeling as an actor because his poetry, his language, his rhythms are so beautiful. When you get that opportunity, you take it."

Anthony Chisholm (Two Trains Running and Gem of the Ocean on Broadway): "I've done five of his nine plays, three of them in New York. Every night, with this, it's different. It's bizarre music—music of the soul, the exchange of energies between us. I believe in having fun in your work, to give you a cushion. August gives me that."

Brian Stokes Mitchell (Kind Hedley II on Broadway): "He chose the 1980s for this play, because it's his observation that a lot of breakdown started happening in the community then. For instance, drive-by shooting started in the '80s. There came this kind of disregard for humanity and human life. There's a line in the show, my character says, 'Used to be you'd get killed over something. Now you get killed over nothing.' It's very recent history and we're still living much of what's introduced in this play."

Phylicia Rashad (Gem of the Ocean on Broadway): "He conveys the poetry, the natural rhythms, of his characters' speech. Everything — emotion, movement, thought, intention — is inherent in that rhythm. Actors sometimes like to dissect, to analyze, to do all those things actors are taught to do. But those things don't put me closer to this work's heart. I have to surrender all that. It's like going to a lake or a swimming pool. You just have to dive in, to immerse yourself. Working in his plays requires a different kind of skill. It's as if you would become a talking drum."

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