Theatre yesterday and today



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James Earl Jones, who turns eighty-six years old today, was the first actor I ever saw on the Broadway stage who took my breath away. Seeing him as Jack Jefferson in Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope was one of the highlights of my theatregoing life. He took my breath away because watching him felt like I had been sucker-punched in the stomach; I was literally gasping at the range and scope of his performance. I had never seen anything like it. And today, nearly fifty years later, it remains so.

James Earl Jones as Jack Jefferson in The Great White Hope (1968)

Jones made his Broadway debut in 1958 with a small role in Sunrise at Campobello, the first of what would come to total twenty Broadway shows over the next six decades. With just as many off-Broadway to his credit, he has also performed in all across America in regional theatre, which is where both his Tony Award winning roles (The Great White Hope in Washington, D.C. and August Wilson’s Fences in New Haven, CT) began. And any sort of retirement isn’t on the horizon (and least not yet) as it was announced only a short time ago that he would be appearing at the American Repertory Theatre in Boston beginning next month in Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana. If you plan on attending and don’t know the play, don’t be surprised that Jones will be playing it entirely from a wheelchair. Rest assured this is not due to any infirmity on his part, but simply his conforming to the playwright’s instructions.

Born in rural Arkabutla, Mississippi in 1931, Jones had a childhood far from the bright lights of the big city. Nothing strange in that, considering many actors are drawn to a life in the theatre from even farther distances and greater personal obstacles. Jones’s major stumbling block, a tough one when your sights are set on becoming an actor, was that he stuttered as a child, causing him painful shyness and anxiety.

James Earl Jones (1931)

Things were fine for a few years until a traumatic move to Jackson, Michigan forced another separation. The changes in adjusting to the north from the south caused young Jimmy’s already tenuous hold on things to exacerbate his minor stutter into something major. In his autobiography, Voices and Silences, he wrote: “For about eight years, from the time I was six until I was about fourteen, I was virtually mute.”

His young parents didn’t have a clue how to care for him, and separated from one another directly after his birth, his father taking off for the west coast. His mother then drifted away, leaving Jones to be raised by his maternal grandparents, whom he adored and called Mama and Papa.

As a young man, Jones was finally reunited in New York with his father, who by this time had become an actor. Blacklisted from work in film and television like so many others in the late 1940s and early 50s, Robert Earl Jones took refuge in the close-knit world of the New York theatre. This example provided his son with the template of a safe haven which he has never abandoned, even though he has been prolific in film and television, winning Emmy Awards and even a career Academy Award for distinguished achievement in 2011 (he couldn’t be at the ceremony because he was in London performing onstage in Driving Miss Daisy opposite Vanessa Redgrave).

To say it is always a pleasure to see James Earl Jones onstage is an understatement. Beyond that afternoon at The Great White Hope, when I was only twelve years old, I got to see him in Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and in Philip Hayes Dean’s Paul Robeson — magnificent in all, and all of which I saw before turning twenty-one. In later years, Jones would shine in Othello opposite Christopher Plummer and as a replacement for the Tony Award-winning Zakes Mokae in Master Harold … and the Boys, by Athol Fugard, one of his favorite playwrights.

But nearly twenty years after I saw his Jack Jefferson in The Great White Hope, came his Troy Maxon on Broadway in 1987's Fences. With the film version finally on screens across the country right now, I have been flooded with memories of Jones’s performance, which I saw twice. I think the film is terrific and the acting nearly flawless. But that said, nothing can really match seeing a piece of work like Fences on stage, which calls for both underplaying and operatic heights of its actors, the very dimensions Jones brought to it. It doesn’t hurt that he is larger than life at a commanding 6’2” and a voice that is unlike anybody else’s. Deep, penetrating… how else to describe it? He’s Darth Vader, for crying out loud!

In 2012, I was on a visit to New York while a revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man was playing its final weekend. I didn’t really want to see it, since I had only seen a revival of it a dozen years earlier, but I took into consideration that Jones was playing the juicy role of former President Art Hockstader and I couldn’t resist. I bought a ticket for the last performance that, for all I knew, might have marked his final appearance on Broadway. So I went, and was happy I did. Then, three years later, I was back in the city and it was during the final weekend of the 2015 revival of Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You, where Jones was playing the role of Grandpa Vanderhoff. I didn’t hesitate. I bought a ticket for the final performance and it was grand.

The indomitable James Earl Jones

Since I knew someone in the show, I went backstage. I couldn’t resist when she asked if I’d like to meet Mr. Jones. Seeing him in his dressing room, he looked absolutely exhausted. I thought to myself, “He’s incredible, a force of nature. But surely eight performances a week at eight-two is a very tough thing on the man.” It seemed credible that afternoon would be the last time I would see him on stage.

Well, guess who already has tickets for The Night of the Iguana in Boston?

Happy Birthday, Mr. Jones.

And for more stories about Jones (as well as other theatrical greats), my new book Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing.