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JAMES EARL JONES
The American interview
In his review of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof [The American magazine January 2010], our theatre critic Jarlath O'Connell wrote, "This cast makes one look afresh at this piece, NOT because they (the cast) are black but because they are great actors." Following Flynn Jones up the narrow stairs to his father's dressing room, his words echo in my mind for I have just witnessed one of the most electrifying second acts on any stage in London at the moment. It was a mano to mano performance between two actors, James Earl Jones and Adrian Lester, and I need time to reflect on the play I find myself thinking, not interviewing the man who is undoubtedly the star. Despite that performance, and another coming up later that evening, James Earl Jones greets me warmly.
There is a quietness about Jones that relaxes one, perhaps more than any reviewer should be. Tall, big boned, and handsome in a rugged kind of way, he, perhaps more than any other black actor of his age, pioneered the way for Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Holly Berry, Phylicia Rashid and all the other great African American actors who followed. In his career, he has won two Tony awards (The Great White Hope and Fences) as well as Emmy nominations and awards for his considerable TV work. But it is his voice, deep, low, rumbling, that is recognizable, especially by Star War fans for whom he is and will always be Darth Vader.
Born in Mississippi in 1931, Jones spent his first five years living with his maternal grandparents on their farm while his mother worked away from home. His father, Robert Earl Jones, also an actor, had left before he was born, and it was his maternal grandfather whose values he was most influenced by. His paternal grandparents offered him a home, but when the five year old was driven to their house he clung to the car and they realized it was best to leave him where he was. "I would have had a better life had I gone with them," he told me, "but then I would have stayed in the south and not have had the advantages I had after my family moved to Michigan."
However, it was the confusion of that move that created Jones' stutter and he spent much of his childhood as a virtual mute because of it. Yet, it may have been that very disadvantage that turned him into the actor he is today. John Updike, the author, who also stuttered, once said his talent as a writer was born in the silence of listening. Jones admits he wrote poetry during his teens and it was only because of a high school teacher named Donald Crouch, he overcame this weakness and turned his difficulty in speaking into his greatest strength. Thanks to Crouch who encouraged him to compete in high school debates and oratorical contests, he won both a public speaking contest and a scholarship to the University of Michigan.
It wasn't until after graduating from the University of Michigan and a stint in the military before Jones went to New York to pursue an acting career. His first years were difficult and for a time he considered leaving acting. Jobs for black actors were few and far between and there was as well the example of his father, also an actor, who had been blacklisted for his political activism. Then, in 1961, he appeared in the American premiere of Jean Genet's play, The Blacks, and attracted the attention of audiences and critics. This historic production introduced the theatre public to other talented African–American actors including Cicely Tyson, Godfrey Cambridge and Maya Angelo. After this came Clandestine on the Morning Line and two Obies for his performance in Bertolt Brecht's Baal and Shakespeare's Othello.
Over the decades, Jones has continued to act on stage as well as in over fifty films. A memorable performance was as the writer Alex Haley in Roots II. He shied away, however, from my compliment that he was a pioneer in the development of black theatre in the States. "I'm still learning," he insists. "Each part I take is a new experience." He does own up that he is bothered at times that people are embarrassed by elderly sex and a smile curves as his mouth when I suggest Judi Dench and he would be perfect together in Macbeth. He plans to be here for the Olivier awards, but declined to tell me if there were any acting roles after 'Cat'.
It is the family relationship in this play by Tennessee Williams that attracted Jones. The fact they are black is immaterial. "I know that Mississippi farm person because I am one," he points out. " I understand Big Daddy better than most northern Caucasian actors because I grew up with people like him." Cat was changed from the segregationist fifties to the more tolerant eighties and having lived in South Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia during that period, it was easy for me to accept the family were wealthy. Neighbourhoods were still segregated in Atlanta at the time, but there were black areas with homes that could compete with many of the wealthiest neighbourhoods.
Perhaps the toughest part in the play is Maggie. Sanaa Lathan literally has to carry the first act while she fights to get back Brick's love and forgiveness at the same time. She is a woman who has betrayed and is betrayed by a husband who, in hiding his own guilt, blames her for the death of his closest friend. Adrian, as a former football player who has turned to alcohol to escape from "mendacity", lets her down. A little less hobbling around on crutches and holding on tightly to that bottle would have been easier on him and the audience.
It isn't until the second act and his confrontation with Big Daddy that I began to realize what a talented actor Adrian is. But then, he was acting with a man who can command the stage with just with a look and gesture. Jones brings a sensitivity to the part of Big Daddy that was too often missed in the previous productions of Cats I've seen. (Three on stage, one film.) His small pelvic moments as he tries to show Brick he's still potent is touching rather than vulgar. He treats his wife cruelly (Phylicia Rashid) until the end when he learns he still has cancer. The simple gesture of holding back his arm in agreement when she begs to be with him gave more meaning to their marriage than all the harsh words that were spoken previously. Phylicia as his wife is excellent as are Peter de Jersey and Nina Sosanya as the neglected older son and his wife.
In the States, 80 percent of the African Americans who came to see Cat had never been to a play before. When I asked Jones if there was a difference between the audiences in England and the States, he said there weren't any. As he pointed out, this is a play about people and the problems they're experiencing could happen to any family whether Chinese, Spanish or any other culture background. As someone who is part Cherokee, African American and Irish, he may be speaking from experience.
Home for him is a farm in northern New York where he escapes to with his wife Cecilia Hart, an actress, and their son, Flynn. Despite his success as an actor, he has not earned the kind of salaries the top actors black or white earn nowadays. If that bothers him, he's far too good an actor to show it when I ask.