Theatre yesterday and today



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James Earl Jones, who turns eighty-eight years old today, was the first dramatic 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 young theatregoing life (in fact, it was only my sixth Broadway show and my very first straight play— what a way to start!). Watching him felt like being 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, almost 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-one Broadway shows over the next six decades. With just as many to his credit off-Broadway, he has also performed all across America in regional theatre, which is where both his Tony Award winning performances (The Great White Hope in Washington, D.C. and August Wilson’s Fences in New Haven, CT) began.

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.

The infant 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 has always been a pleasure to see James Earl Jones onstage is an understatement. Beyond that afternoon at The Great White Hope, when I was 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 successor to the Tony Award-winning Zakes Mokae in Master Harold… and the Boys, by Athol Fugard, one of Jones's favorite playwrights.

The indomitable James Earl Jones.