JAMES EARL JONES AND FRIENDS
As I mentioned in my last entry, when I was fairly young in my teaching career I took the initiative to see if I could replicate my experience with Broadway actors for my own students nearly twenty years later. What inspired me was the performance by James Earl Jones in August Wilson's wonderful play Fences, a play which copped both a TONY and a Pulitzer in 1987. Fences is one of ten plays written by Wilson that are collectively known as The Pittsburgh Cycle. They deal primarily with the experiences of African Americans throughout the last century--one drama for each decade. Fences, set in the 1950s, tells the tale of Troy Maxon, a former baseball star who now works as a garbageman. Wilson explores the frustrations and tensions in his life, focusing especially on his family turmoil. Jones won his second TONY as Best Actor for the performance. (Above: The play's window card. Below: the playwright August Wilson)
I wrote to James Earl Jones at the theatre and outlined for him how profound an experience it was for me to talk to him when I was in high school. I asked if he could spare a few minutes for my students, now that I was the teacher. Not long after, I received a call from his manager who said that Mr. Jones agreed to meet with my classes after the performance we were to see. My students loved the play, and after the curtain they filtered down into the front rows of the 46th Street Theatre. Mr. Jones and a handful of cast members soon came out from the wings and took questions from my very excited students. (Below: a tense scene between father and son)
He was terrific, as I knew he would be. Most of my students today first encountered Jones through his magnificent voice, either as the tubercular rasp of Darth Vader in the Star Wars films or as Mufasa in The Lion King. In the years after seeing him first in The Great White Hope, I saw Mr. Jones numerous times. He was Claudius in Hamlet in 1972. I drove with Anne from Dayton, Ohio to Louisville, Kentucky to see him as Paul Robeson. He was clearly quite ill that day. He looked feverish and weak and he carried a handkerchief around in his hand, which he employed frequently, but as they say-- the show "had to go on" and it did. I loved him in Athol Fugard's A Lesson from Aloes (I was the one stricken with a fever that day, but I figured I owed it to him to show up!) We saw him as Othello too!
The success of that day prompted me to write fairly regularly to actors asking if they would meet with my students. Liev Schreiber said yes, but unfortunately a pipe burst at the Public Theatre and the performance was postponed. He couldn't see us after the rescheduled performance of Hamlet, but his Gertrude, played by Diane Venora, stayed well after midnight to talk to my students. I had seen Venora in Hamlet before, as Ophelia. And in the early 80s she was one of the few women to actually play Hamlet!
(Below: Diane Venora as Ophelia to Dana Ivey's Gertrude in Kevin Kline's Hamlet and then Miss Ivey as the title character in Mrs. Warren's Profession)
Dana Ivey also accepted an invitation to speak to my students when we visited the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan for a production of Mrs. Warren's Profession. She was her usual feisty, prickly self, demanding that the students come up with better questions for her! Bill Irwin, the wonderful clown who has had so many long-running hit comedy shows, spoke to my students after his eye-opening performance in Edward Albee's The Goat. One of the students set it up because her father was a clown who had worked with Irwin. People have often expressed surprise that I teach The Goat, but I find it to be a work that compels students to question their own views on many aspects of life.
Most recently, things came full circle when I asked Jane Alexander, the TONY-winning co-star of James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope to talk to my students after we saw a revival of Edward Albee's The Lady from Dubuque a few years ago. I never received any response to my letter, so after the show I tried to herd all my students back to the bus. While I was upstairs checking the food court and the bathrooms in the Signature Theatre complex, unbeknownst to me Miss Alexander, still in make-up, had run out onto 42nd Street, found the Ranney bus, and brought my classes back into a sitting area in the complex. I get to the bus with one of my late straggler students only to find it empty! I run back to the theater desperately looking for my classes, when I discover them captivated by Miss Alexander, who was talking to them about her performance and her work with Mr. Albee! "Hi, Doug," she said, proffering her hand. "I'm Jane." I was pretty much thunderstruck. She was terrific. She told me that my letter about first seeing her back in 1968 had moved her and that she was so excited to talk to my students. Below are some scenes from the production, Miss Alexander, and the window card.If you ever want to see a master class in acting, check out the 1976 film All the President's Men. She's only in the film for eight minutes, but she deservedly copped an Oscar nomination for that performance. Jane also dedicated much of her life to the fight for human rights. She was a peace activist and also, at one time, the Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts.
Above: Jane Alexander as "The Lady from Dubuque" giving comfort to the terminally ill Laila Robins. A photo of Miss Alexander. The window card for the production. I'd be lying if I said that all my requests had been acknowledged. Brian Dennehy blew me off when I wanted to take students to see him in Long Day's Journey into Night. Ditto for Al Pacino when he was taking on Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. But all in all, I'd also be lying if I said I wasn't impressed that so many actors took time to talk to my students after they had given grueling, gut-wrenching performances and probably just wanted to crash, or go out for dinner, or just go home. I tip my hat to them all and extend a hearty thank you!