Almost 30 years ago, John Douglas Thompson made a date to see August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Yale Rep. The date stood him up. He went to the play anyway and as he sat in that theater amazed, he asked God to make him an actor. “Give me the power to do what I’m watching,” he prayed. “That’s my life. That’s my life’s purpose.”
Those prayers were answered. After leaving a lucrative career in sales, he studied theater at Trinity Rep and at 52 has become, according to the New York Times, “one of the most compelling classical stage actors of his generation.” An actor of intelligence force, he brings a shattering emotional intensity to his roles.
Though he made his bones with Shakespeare tragedies and other canonical works, he has recently turned to more contemporary texts, like a recent revival of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and a pivotal role in the Goodman Theater’s The Iceman Cometh. Now, in the Broadway premiere of Wilson’s 1979 drama, Jitney, he plays Becker, the boss of an unlicensed car service who has a fraught relationship with his newly paroled son.
After an evening’s performance, he reclined on the floor of the theater’s mezzanine and spoke to the Village Voice about coming home to August Wilson, failing his father, and the part he still longs to play.
Village Voice: Tell me about Becker.
John Douglas Thompson: I perceive him as a man in the throes of an existential crisis. He’s trying to tally up, he’s trying to take some sort of account of his life, and the accounting doesn’t make sense. He’s a fair person. He plays by the rules. He’s respectful. The crisis puts him in a place where it’s almost like he has a cloud over his head. And he doesn’t even know why.
So many of your characters fall on a continuum of weakness and strength. How is Becker weak and how is he strong?
He starts off weak; he’s been weakened by life. I think he finds strength later on in the play as he decides to take accountability for himself. I tend to think that most characters that I play are a combination of both. What’s more interesting for me to play is the vulnerabilities.
In terms of becoming an actor, you had your road to Damascus moment at an August Wilson play, right?
Oh yeah. It was Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, it was at Yale Rep. And I knew at that moment, as I was watching and leaning more and more forward, that I was there for a reason. That I needed to see that. I was a corporate salesperson. I had a Mercedes Benz, I had a nice apartment. I made good money. But when I saw that play I knew that I wasn’t going to be doing this computer stuff for too long.
You often play roles typically cast with white actors—Macbeth, Tamburlaine—or ones in which you’re the only character of color in the script—Emperor Jones, Othello. What is it like to finally appear in a major work about black characters, cast with black actors?
I feel like I’m coming home. There’s something about the power of August Wilson’s writing. You know that he wrote this specifically for you. This is the gift that August is giving. There’s an emotional, and an intellectual power in standing on that stage and saying these words and being these characters. In some other plays—let’s say A Doll’s House—this writer didn’t write it for me. I’m thankful I get to play those roles and I studied and trained to be a classical actor so that I could handle the breadth of the work.
But when I encounter August Wilson, I’m assured he’s saying, “I wrote this specifically for you. These words will fit you. This character will fit you. These are members of your community.” What’s so amazing is the nobility—he made heroes out of just average Joes. He took my life and made it heroic.
What do you have to do to get inside Becker and the language he uses?
Well, I’m still working on the language. I’m a very, very slow, methodical actor who takes a lot of time to arrive. I’m trying to work on his countenance, his comportment, the way he moves through life. I tend to think of my father a great deal. When I decided to become an actor my father was disappointed. He put in a lot of work into me. He sent me to a Jesuit high school, a Jesuit college and when I decided to become an actor that was a huge betrayal.
There’s an emotional intensity to your performance that is remarkable, at the close of the first act especially. What is it like to feel so much?
When I walk off after that scene it’s just not over. It takes me into a portion of the intermission to move out of that. I mourn what happened. It just makes me really sad and I’m also excitable. As I get off, I go get some green tea and I start sipping the green tea and I kinda look at myself in the mirror and just let it melt out of me.
When you’re looking at yourself in the mirror are you seeing—
I don’t see John. That’s what’s so great about acting. It’s like, oh wow I can put myself in this situation and it’s real. That’s the love/hate relationship with acting. I hate sometimes the exposing the feelings but also I love the difficulty is getting to that place.
Why do you think you were cast exclusively in classical roles for so long?
Well I think part of it was my own fault. I find the work breathtaking and so inclusive—there’s such humanity. I loved doing Tamburlaine. Loved doing Othello. Loved doing Richard. Loved doing Shylock. When I started doing lots of the classics, part of it was political. I wanted to have people who looked like me see me onstage in a classical role. And hopefully that would be somewhat inspiring. And there are still roles that are on my bucket list that are of a classical nature. I want to do my Hamlet.
That’s right! I mean I’m a little long in the tooth to do it, but I do want to.
Jitney opens tonight at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre