Brian Stokes Mitchell has a new wife. Or rather, that's the nickname he has given to the script of August Wilson's King Hedley II, the play which has consumed his life since he was suddenly cast in the title role in January. The role came along just Mitchell was concluding his long run in the Broadway revival of Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate—the actor's second major musical in a row, after Ragtime—leaving him with little (in fact, no) rest time between the two projects, but with an opportunity to show the theatre community what he can do with a straight dramatic role. Mitchell spoke to Playbill On-Line before the April 10 first Broadway preview of King Hedley II.
Playbill On-Line: Your casting in King Hedley II came rather suddenly. Could you explain how you came to star in this show?
Brian Stokes Mitchell: I was still doing Kiss Me Kate and looking forward to having six or seven months off. I also had a film to do after Kiss Me Kate. I got a call from my agent about a week or two before my last performance in Kate and he said, "I have good news and bad news for you." I said, "What is it?" He said, "Well, the good news is you've been offered the lead role in August Wilson's new play. The bad news is you're not going to have any time off." I thought, oh, man, because I was really looking forward to having time off. I was getting pretty exhausted. I had an album to do. I wanted to go skiing, visit family. So I said, "Well, send my the script." I wanted to make sure it was something I had an affinity for.
PBOL: So, they offered you the role without your having auditioned for it.
BSM: Yes. I read the script and thought, oh, man, I love this script, I love this role. So I said, "Well, let me speak to the director." Marion McClinton was directing it and we really hadn't met. I thought maybe he and I won't get along and that'll be an excuse not to do it. [Laughs] Just in case! I talked to Marion and it was like talking to one of my very best friends, we hit it off immediately. So, I said, "Well, I guess this is what I'm supposed to do." So, I said yes to that. Then, I finished up Kiss Me Kate and got on an airplane to L.A. to start shooting this movie, "Call Me Claus," with Whoopi Goldberg. Worked on that pretty much every day for two and one half weeks. [The crew of King Hedley II] was just waiting for me to finish, because they wanted to do a full four-week rehearsal period. My schedule didn't allow for that. I was already committed to the film. The day the film ended, I got on the red-eye, got in about 7 AM and went to the first read-through of the play and started blocking it. We had about nine days to rehearse it before we came to D.C.; a very quick rehearsal period to do a show of this size. Also, we didn't get the final script until the first day of rehearsal.
PBOL: After Ragtime and Kiss Me Kate, most theatregoers know you as a musical star. Are you excited about the chance to show people what you can do in a drama?
BSM: That's funny, because I said to myself that the next thing I wanted to do was a drama. But I had no idea it would come up so quickly or that it would be August Wilson or such a great role. That was a nice surprise. You know what they say—be careful what you ask for, because you might get it. I guess I should have been more specific about the vacation time.
PBOL: Perhaps you'll get a vacation in 2002.
BSM: Yeah, I guess so. Because this bumps right up against Kiss Me Kate in London...which will be about a week after I finish this show. PBOL: How long are you contracted to King Hedley II?
BSM: To Sept. 2, I think.
PBOL: Hedley seems to possess some of the seething anger of Coalhouse Walker, Jr., your character in Ragtime. Do you see any relation?
BSM: Oh, absolutely. I think they're very much of the same spirit, but in different bodies and at different times. It's a royal spirit, a kingly spirit, somebody who knows who he is, but he's not living in a society that allows him to reach his full fruition and realize all that he knows he's capable of being—and the frustration and the anger and the rage that results from that combination. Both of them are similar that way.
PBOL: The play is a history play, but it's a time most of us lived through. Does the dramatic landscape resonate for you at all?
BSM: Yeah, unfortunately, because not that much has changed. It's not so much about remembering a time as about still recognizing those things. He chose the 1980's 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.
PBOL: What are some of the other challenges you're finding in doing this big dramatic role?
BSM: It's mostly just getting the material in my body. It's a massive amount of material and the time was so short to do it. I'm learning the lines, I'm learning the blocking. I'm working with a company that—thankfully—most of them have done the show before. I can kind of go off their rhythms. They know the style, they know the piece. But, it's been very much like skating on thin ice. The first day that we were in the Kennedy Center, we basically had a two-day tech on this show. All of a sudden, I'm thrust on the set for the very first time! And we're teching the show. We hadn't worked on [the set], we hadn't played on it, we hadn't done anything on it. [Laughs] And the crew's asking me, "OK, where do you come off here?" And I say, "I don't know!" That's been the hardest part—taking on this massive amount of material. My nickname for the script is "my wife." I go to bed with it, I wake up with it, I eat with it, it's with me all the time!
—By Robert Simonson