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John Beasley and Sons Make Acting a Family Thing at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop and Beyond

September 3, 2011 8 comments

John Beasley, the patriarch of Omaha’s First Family of Thespians, and his John Beasley Theater & Workshop, have been the subjects of many stories by me, all of which can be found on this blog. This particular story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) looks at how Beasley’s two sons, Tyrone and Michael, haven’t fallen far from their father’s solid acting tree. John is an acclaimed television, film, and theater actor. Tyrone is a respected actor and director. Michael is emerging as a character actor force in television and in studio and independent films.

 

 

John Beasley

 

 

John Beasley and Sons Make Acting a Family Thing at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop and Beyond

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

As time goes by, it’s clear acting is a birthright with the Beasleys, that talented clan of thespians fast-evolving into the first family of Omaha theater.

John Beasley long ago made his mark on the Omaha theater scene, scoring dramatic triumphs in the 1970s and ‘80s at the Center Stage, the Chanticleer, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, the Nebraska Repertory Theatre, the Firehouse Dinner Theatre and the Omaha Community Playhouse, among other venues. Now, having done the regional theater circuit and built a nice screen acting career, he’s returned to the local dramatic arts fraternity with his own John Beasley Theater & Workshop. Sharing space with the South Omaha YMCA in the La Fern Williams Center at 3010 Q Street, the theater’s become a showcase for African-American plays and emerging talent, including Beasley’s sons, Tyrone and Michael, who’ve shown serious acting chops themselves. Tyrone comes from a professional theater background and Michael is transitioning back to acting after a long layoff.

In a June production of August Wilson’s Jitney, the proud papa and his progeny led a rich ensemble cast on the theater’s small stage. John, as the hot-headed Turnbo, inhabited his part with his usual veracity and found all the music in Wilson’s jazz-tinged words. Tyrone, as the emotionally-scarred Booster, hit just the right notes as a man desperate to salvage his misspent life. Michael, as the decent Youngblood, brought an unaffected gravity to his character.

In a reunion of sorts, Beasley recruited Broadway actor Anthony Chisholm, with whom he’d done Jitney at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, for the JBT show. The Alliance is one of many regional black theaters Beasley honed his skills in and serves as a model for what he’s trying to create in Omaha.

Jitney broke all box-office records in the short history of Beasley’s theater and now he and his sons are poised to build on that success. They’re opening the 2004-2005 season with a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed A Raisin in the Sun, whose revival on Broadway last season earned kudos. Raisin, which Tyrone will produce and play a small part in, runs September 17 through October 10.

 

 

Tyrone and John Beasley

 

 

A Shared Craft and Passion
Although Jitney was the first time all three Beasleys acted together, John and Tyrone collaborated as producer and director on the JBT’s rendering of Wilson’s Two Trains Running in 2003. Tyrone co-starred with Michael in Two Trains. Years earlier, Michael portrayed Biff opposite his father’s Willie Loman in a Center Stage mounting of Death of a Salesman. The trio’s eager to work together more, but it’s not easy making their busy schedules jive, much less finding pieces with the right parts. While taking vastly different paths to the craft they now share, each articulates a similar passion for acting and its sense of discovery.

For John, who comes from a family of storytellers, it’s all about expressing and exploring himself through drama. His working process is direct. “The first thing I try to do is commit the words to my memory so that I can make them mine,” he said. “I like to do that early on, especially in the rehearsal process. I prefer to jump right into the character and to find the energy, the emotional nuances and the relationships. As an actor, you have to be willing to give and receive with your fellow actors. That way, if we’re playing opposite each other, we have something to react to and build off of.” Character development, he said, never really stops. “Even by the end of the run, you’ll never really fully realize the potential of your character. You just continue to look for things and to look for ways to grow.”

For an extrovert like John, to “come in blasting away and still have a lot” left over is one method. Another, is the more studied method used by the more reserved Tyrone. “I have a slower process,” Tyrone said, “where I first have to work on the words until they’re really embedded. Then, once I know what’s happening in the scene, I start to explore. So, it takes me awhile to get the little nuances.” Once he’s up to speed, however, Tyrone likes to “play,” by which he means improvise.

“That’s when Tyrone gets up there and looks for something new every night,” John said of his son’s ability to riff, which is something Beasley prides himself in as well.

Tyrone loved the experience of working with professional actors in Jitney. “You feel a lot freer when you have people up there who really know what they’re doing and are really seasoned at it. People that you can play with and play off of, and not distract them. It’s fun to bring something new and different and exciting every night. It was a real enjoyable experience in that way,” he said.

Spontaneity in acting, John said, is sometimes misinterpreted by the uninitiated as discarding the script and just winging it. But that’s not the case. He said in early rehearsals for the JBT’s production ofFor Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow’s Enuf, the mostly newcomer cast “came in with a lot of wild stuff. They were even making up lines and things, and I’m like, No, that’s not what I’m talking about. Within the words on the page you can find a new and exciting reason every night for your performance.”

 

 

Michael Beasley

 

 

Making It Your Own
For someone as accomplished as John, tweaking his craft is, as Tyrone puts it, “a lot more subtle, because he’s been doing it so long. When you get to a certain level, there’s only so much that you can do as far as the technique of acting. But with each character it’s different, and you have to approach each character differently and hopefully learn about yourself and see the world from someone else’s point of view. That’s what we, as actors, are basically trying to do — to show this character’s point of view, which may not be the same point of view you have. So, growth on a certain level comes from that, and he does that all the time.”

It’s dredging your inner self to find the right emotional pitch to fit the character and the dynamics of the scene. “We’re all trying to find the character within our own reality,” John said, “to make it an honest presentation as opposed to just acting.” “To make it our own,” Tyrone added.

“You have to think about it and feel it first before you can express the truth about it. You don’t just rattle lines off. Method actors call it being in the moment. And this is what we instill in our people,” John said, referring to the JBT workshops he and Tyrone lead that train its many first-time actors. “The first thing we tell them is, Get out of your head. Get away from — I did it this way last night and the audience really loved me, so I’m going to repeat the same thing tonight. Then, you never grow. If you want to do that head thing, you can go someplace else because we’re trying to set a certain standard here with believability.”

Tyrone said the goal is to achieve the kind of unadorned truth his father finds in everything from a classic soliloquy to a modern rant. “We’re trying to make it seem conversational, so that as the audience you’re like eavesdropping in on people just talking, not acting. That’s what we’re trying to get to.” John added, “It doesn’t matter what the script is. It can be Shakespeare or whatever, but you still bring that honesty to it. Another thing we teach is to try to find the music and the rhythm of a piece. It wasn’t until I learned the music of Shakespeare’s writing that it really flowed for me.” A key to August Wilson’s work, he said, is its jazz quality.

For Tyrone, the appeal of drama is “storytelling and trying to portray stories truthfully. Drama’s like holding a mirror up to life. I like paying attention to the details and colors of life. My job is to explore that and, using my imagination, to take it to the fullest.”

No two actors work the same. Even widely varying styles can mesh. John recalls working with the great Roscoe Lee Browne. “You know, he’s got this great voice and he uses the voice as opposed to finding an emotional base. The way I normally work is, I’ll come in and listen and then I’ll give my line as a reaction to what I hear that night. One night, Roscoe and I were working on Two Trains in Chicago. We had this thing where we’d almost compete. I had this great speech and then he had a great speech after it. And if I was OK, he’d step up his game, you know, and the voice would get deeper and the audience would be like, Wow. Well, one night we were both really great and Roscoe came off stage and said, ‘I know that was wonderful, but I know you’re going to fuck around and change it.’ And I said, ‘That’s what I do, man.’ So, we all do different things.”

An acting novice compared to his father and brother, Michael Beasley sounds as if he’s been paying attention to them, when he says of his own approach, “I’m still learning the process, but I try to get the words down as quick as possible, so that in the rehearsal process I can play with it and try to find the character. Each night, I’m still searching for my character and looking to grow my character.”

Tyrone saw Michael’s growth in Jitney. “Something I noticed with this performance is when he moved, he really seemed like he belonged in the space of the jitney stand. It felt like he wasn’t on stage as an actor, but there as that character.” John agreed, saying, “Oh, yeah, he’s come a long way since Two Trains. He’s learning. He does his homework. That’s the most important thing.”

 

 

 

 

Like Father, Like Sons
As the sons follow in the shadow of their father, they’re treading some of the very ground he once trod. Like his father before him, Tyrone’s performed at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. And Michael’s been signed to his first film by the same producer and casting agent, Ruben Cannon, who inked John Beasley to his first national acting jobs — the ABC movie Amerika and the ABC-TV series Brewster Place. Michael has a speaking part in the indie project, Trust, now shooting in Atlanta, where he resides. In another Atlanta project, The Diary of a Mad Black Woman, he’s doubling gospel playwright, actor and director phenom Tyler Perry, who co-stars as Madea in this film adaptation of Perry’s smash stage show.

John, a veteran of the boards and the bright lights, is the mentor and role model whose strong, centered, accessible presence is something each of his sons, or for that matter, any actor, aspires to. Despite some formal training, he’s largely a self-taught actor. He draws on rich life experiences — he’s been everything from a jock and jitney driver to a radio-TV host to a longshoreman and janitor — to inform his real-as-rain portrayals. He is, as the saying goes, a natural.

It’s been 20 years since this family patriarch made the leap from acting on community and regional theater stages to character parts on television and in feature films. His film roles include small but telling turns in the feel-good Rudy and the intense The Apostle. Even with such successes, the realities of screen acting dictate being an itinerant artist — going wherever the next gig takes you. That is, until he landed the recurring role of Irv Turner on the WB series, Everwood. Now that he has “a regular job,” he’s devoting much of his time away from the Everwood set to the south Omaha theater that not only bears his name, but stirs fond memories and renews old ties. The theater is the site of the old Center Stage where Beasley first flexed his acting muscles. Just as it celebrated diversity in plays by and about minorities, the JBT is all about alternative voices and faces.

In addition to occasionally acting there, John serves as JBT executive director and artistic director, and has directed shows, most notably its inaugural production of August Wilson’s Fences (in which Beasley starred as Troy Maxson). He and Tyrone also teach the workshops that are part of the JBT’s mission of developing a pool of trained actors the theater can draw on for future shows. That pool is growing.

For Jitney, Beasley brought in ringers in the figures of professional actors Anthony Chisholm and Willis Burks, but the rest of the cast was local. An indication of the talent here, Beasley said, is something Chisholm told him. “He thought this was a better cast than we had in Atlanta, and in many instances he’s right. I thought with the people we put together, we could have played that show anywhere.”

According to John and Tyrone, an ever expanding base of minority talent is being identified and groomed through the JBT workshop program. “I see young people coming in who are going to do very well. When they come out of my theater, I want them to have that confidence they can work anywhere.” “That’s exactly why we have the workshop — to give them the confidence,” Tyrone said. One JBT “graduate,” Robinlyn Sayers, is pursuing regional theater opportunities in Houston.

An Omaha Benson High School grad, Tyrone earned an art degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He did some modeling. Then, after getting hooked on acting at the Center Stage, he took private drama lessons in Chicago. Following in the footsteps of his father, Tyrone scored a coup when cast by the legendary theater director Peter Sellars in The Merchant of Venice at the Goodman Theatre. Blissfully ignorant of Sellars’ world-class reputation as an enfant terrible genius, Tyrone found himself acting with future heavyweight Philip Seymour Hoffman in a production that eventually toured Europe. “I don’t know how my audition would have went if I knew who he (Sellars) was. I might have been more nervous.” After Chicago, he attended California State University, Long Beach, where he acted with the California Repertory Company. “I also worked out of Los Angeles doing readings and worked behind the scenes as a film production assistant. That was a great experience.” After his father launched the JBT, he was enlisted in 2003 to help get the fledgling theater on “a solid foundation.”

Aside from that one time on stage with his dad in Death of a Salesman, Michael Beasley was hell-bent on a career in athletics, not dramatics. After making all-state his senior season at Omaha Central, he earned Juco hoops honors at McCook Community College before playing for the University of Texas-Arlington. He played more than 10 years of pro ball in the States and abroad, mostly in Latin America. Off-seasons, he lived in Atlanta, where he still makes his home with his wife and kids. Then, the acting bug bit again. His first post-hoops gig came as a last minute replacement — not unlike getting called off the bench in a crucial game situation.

“The way that went down is I was deciding to get back into acting when some people fell out of the Two Trains cast and Tyrone called and said, ‘Can you come up here and do this play tomorrow?’ So, I came up, and it was a great experience. It whet my appetite to pursue it further,” Michael said.

He admits to some trepidation acting with his father in Jitney, in which their antagonist characters wage a fist fight. “Everybody said, ‘You better bring your ‘A’ game.’ But it was great,” Michael said. “I try to absorb everything like a sponge and feed off the the stuff my father does to prepare. I’ve been able to draw on the experience I had in the play and bring it to the film projects I’m in now.”

John found it “real enjoyable” working with Mike. “He knew what I expected,” John said. “We had real good eye contact and we were able to play off each other really well, which became really important when we had to replace our Becker, Ben Gray, especially in the fight scene, which moves along pretty fast.”

So, was a life in acting inevitable for his sons? “I feel like I was definitely influenced because my father did it, but I feel like it’s chosen me more than anything. It’s a calling,” Tyrone said. “Of course, my father was an influence,” Michael said. “A lot of people think I’m in acting now because my father’s really successful at it, but our father never pushed us. It’s just something I chose. When I said I wanted to do it, he said, ‘Are you sure about that?’ It fills a void after basketball. I can’t play anymore at a high level, but with acting — the sky’s the limit. It’s something else to be passionate about. Besides, I’m not a nine-to-five guy. And I love the challenge.”

In John Beasley’s opinion, no one chooses acting. “It chooses you,” he said. And how much acting shop talk is there when the Beasleys get together? “We talk about it a lot. It’s part of our lives,” he said.

Looking to build on the momentum of Jitney, John Beasley’s commissioned noted UNO Theatre director Doug Paterson to direct Raisin. Paterson and company will workshop the play six weeks before it opens. Beasley’s also working with his agent to help round out the cast with name actors. “That’s a really good connection to have for putting some really nice ensembles together,” Beasley said. “We have a lot of talent in Omaha, but sometimes it helps to bring in some professionals. I think it’s good for the theater, good for the audiences and good for our actors here.”

Anthony Chisholm is in the House at the John Beasley Theater in Omaha

June 13, 2011 9 comments

For a six-seven year period I devoted much time and energy to reporting on Omaha native John Beasley, a respected film, television, and stage actor and the director of his own namesake theater in his hometown. You’ll find on this blog several of the stories I did about John and his theater, including productions mounted there, and various guest artists who performed there. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader,com) is about one of those guest artists, actor Anthony Chisholm.  My reporting about Beasley and his theater came to an abrupt end a few years ago when he took such strong exception to a review I wrote of one of his productions that it spoiled that particular beat for me. For all I know, he’s forgotten about the incident. But the verbal excoriation he gave me was so unsettling that I haven’t had the urge or the guts to contact him again, much less set foot in his theater. I did right by John and his theater for years, and he knows it, and so I do hope we can be friends again in the sense of my covering his work. The ironic thing is that that review was the only review I ever wrote – everything else was a feature or profile, and he never had any problem with those. Can’t we all just get along?

By the way, he’s picked up a recurring part in the HBO drama Treme and he hopes to have his recurring role in the NBC serio-comic series Harry’s Law continue.  He continues to develop a feature film on Marlin Briscoe, the NFL’s first black quarterback.

 

 

Anthony Chisholm

Anthony Chisholm is in the House at the john Beasley Theater in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Actor Anthony Chisholm, a great interpreter of the late August Wilson’s work, is in Omaha for the second time in three years at the invitation of the John Beasley Theater. Chisholm’s originated roles in several Wilson plays about the African-American experience. He was a close friend of the playwright.

Chisholm once played opposite JBT founder John Beasley in a regional theater production of Wilson’s Two Trains Running. A friendship was born. In 2004 Chisholm came here to be part of the ensemble cast for Wilson’s Jitney at the JBT. Now, fresh off a Tony nomination for his featured role in Wilson’s Radio Golf, Chisholm is back at the JBT in Athol Fugard’s Master Harold…and the Boys. The show opens October 26 and runs through November 18.

This marks the first time that Chisholm, a veteran of regional theater, off-Broadway, Broadway, television and film, has worked in a piece by the South African Fugard. Chisholm met Fugard through the late director and drama instructor Lloyd Richards, a key figure in each man’s life. Chisholm studied under Richards, who brought Fugard’s work to the States at the Yale School of Drama and on Broadway.

Chisholm, a resident of Montclair, N.J., was destined to be an actor from the time his mother, an unpublished poet and novelist, encouraged him to recite prose and verse as a child in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. A young Chisholm wowed family, friends and fellow congregants at East Mount Zion Baptist Church with his resonant bass voice and perfect diction.

“I remember my uncle Pete telling me that was my ‘calling.’ He said it in such a deep and placed way that that stuck somewhere back in me,” Chisholm said.

One of Chisholm’s favorite childhood haunts was the Karamu House, a social settlement offering arts and crafts, dance and theater. The Karamu House Theatre, whose notables have included Langston Hughes, Ruby Dee, Brock Peters, Ivan Dixon and Halle Berry, gained fame for its integrated productions.

Intent on an architectural career, Chisholm entered Case Western Reserve University. He waited tables at a posh Washington, D.C. nightclub, the Junkanoo, to earn enough so he could continue his studies. This was the mid-1960s. As the Vietnam War grew hotter and the draft loomed larger, Chisholm’s number came up and he landed in the U.S. Army. His commanding presence found him a drill sergeant — barking orders to a regiment of 1,500 old-timers.

While in uniform he won a dramatic reading contest that earned him a scholarship to Yale. He never used it. On a leave home he visited the Karamu and found himself shanghaied into a reading of Douglas Turner Ward’s A Day of Absence. Cast on the spot, he had to beg off due to his military commitment. But Chisholm recalled the director encouraging him by saying, “’When you get out of the Army you come back here — we’re going to get you started.’ And so it was.”

Not before Chisholm got his orders for Nam. He served as an M-60 gunner on an armored personnel carrier with the 4th Armored Calvary, 1st Infantry Division. He saw his share of firefights. He survived the shit and just six months after returning home he began doing rep at the Karamu. Things happened fast. Paramount Pictures came to Cleveland to shoot a feature, Up Tight!, and he was cast alongside Roscoe Lee Browne and Raymond St. Jacques. Seven more film roles came in short order, including a pair of cult classics – Putney Swope and Where’s Poppa?.

 

 

August Wilson

 

 

He’s continued to act on the small and big screen, including parts in Beloved and in the new Adam Sandler-Don Cheadle film, Reign Over Me, playing opposite Cicely Tyson. He’s also done many guest shots on episodic TV and played a recurring character, Burr Redding, in the acclaimed HBO series Oz. But he’s mainly a stage actor. As a young man he hooked up with the Negro Ensemble Company, where he studied under Richards in a master class. He’s gone on to act with such leading theaters as the Goodman and Steppenwolf in Chicago, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the Seattle Repertory. Then there’s his association with August Wilson, whom he first met in 1990. He considers himself a disciple of Wilson’s.

“There was something very holy about him. He was a prophet-philosopher. He was just this very unusual individual. If you read his writing so many of the things he says in storyline, as characters speaking, are so philosophical and deep,” Chisholm said. Doing Wilson, he added, “has made me a beter actor without a doubt because working with well-written material brings out the best in you.”

An actor’s journey is all about discovery — about one’s self, one’s craft. It’s very much a life-long, self-taught process. “You teach yourself and you borrow from observation and every now and then you’re informed of something — an eye-opener,” Chisholm said. “So, yes, it’s always continuous.”

Arriving at the truth is the goal. It means being vulnerable and letting go.

“I know my own truth serum,” he said, “and if I don’t believe it, nobody else is going to believe it. Each role, as I move along, gets more truthful. You have to listen. I’ve been working on listening more. I don’t even think when I go out on stage or in front of the camera. I just throw myself out there. That’s a conditioning I’ve got to at this point, where I try to keep my head clear — a blank slate.

“I don’t care if I have a million lines, I don’t think about those words. As I observe and I feel, when it’s time to respond, it vomits out. The words will be there because I know the words back and forth. And that’s the way we are as people. Stuff comes out of us as we bounce things off one another.”

Get Your Jitney On: August Wilson Play ‘Jitney’ at the John Beasley Theater


jitney

Image by macwagen via Flickr

I am drawn to stories with multiple layers and textures, and the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is a good example, as it resonates on social, cultural, historical, and artistic levels, among others.  The piece uses the production of the August Wilson play Jitney to look at the gypsy cab phenomenon that is the context for the drama and to look at the theater company that put on this production and its founder-director, John Beasley.  When I found out that Beasley himself had driven a jitney in his hometown of Omaha, the symmetrey was complete.  Beasley has a distinguished track record acting in Wilson plays in regional theater and he is personally responsible for introducing Wilson’s work to Omaha.  His company, the John Beasley Theater & Workshop, has performed virtually the entire cycle of Wilson plays and is considered a fine interpreter of the late playwright’s work. Beasley  knew Wilson and for the production of Jitney I wrote about here he brought to Omaha two more veterans of Wilson plays in the actors Anthony Chisolm and Willis Burks.

Get Your Jitney On: August Wilson Play ‘Jitney’ at the John Beasley Theater

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Gypsy cabbies are at the heart of a milestone event in Omaha theatrical history unfolding this month at the John Beasley Theatre & Workshop, located in the South Omaha YMCA at 3010 Q Street.

For its current production of celebrated American playwright August Wilson’s drama Jitney, the JBT’s assembled some of the leading interpreters of the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner’s work. Its director, Claude Purdy, is perhaps the dramatist’s foremost collaborator outside famed director Lloyd Richards. Adding luster and weight to the ensemble cast are award-winning regional theatre and Broadway actors Anthony Chisholm and Willis Burks, members of Wilson’s stock company. The actors are joined on-stage by the theatre’s namesake, John Beasley, a Wilson regular who’s worked with Chisholm. In a first, Beasley appears in Jitney with each of his sons, Tyrone and Michael, both of whom he shares intense scenes with.

Boasting four artists closely associated with his signature plays, there’s even talk Wilson may visit Omaha to catch Jitney during its JBT run. Like his Broadway-produced Seven GuitarsTwo Trains Running, The Piano Lesson (Pulitzer-winner for best drama), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Fences (Pulitzer and Tony Award-winner for best drama) and Ma Rainey’s Black BottomJitney’s set in Pittsburgh, Pa.’s black Hill District. The Wilson “canon,” as Chisholm calls it, is richly evocative of the monumental struggles and triumphs of the African-American experience, from slavery till today, as filtered through the rise and fall of one neighborhood Wilson knew as a child and rediscovered as an adult. It’s the place that nurtured him as an artist and that he’s chosen as a prism for telling The Black American Story.

Wilson has said his Hill plays are about “the unique particulars of black culture…I wanted to place this culture onstage in all its richness and fullness and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us…through profound moments in our history in which the larger society has thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves.”

 

 

August Wilson
Jitney is one chapter in this epic story. The circa-1970s drama takes place in a storefront gypsy cab stand amid a decayed inner city landscape reeling from urban renewal. Off-the-books earnings of jitney drivers figure in an underground economy where numbers running, drug dealing and loan sharking go on. Unlike these more unsavory pursuits, jitneys provide a community service — public transportation — that’s lacking or lagging. When events conspire to threaten the livelihood of Jitney’s men, they are angry, then resigned and, finally, moved to take action.

In telling the story, the JBT’s gathered an unusual confluence of talent that president/artistic director John Beasley sees as a step towards his vision of making the two-year-old facility a regional theatre. It’s his hope the JBT continues being a magnet attracting top talent from around the country as well as a training ground and launching pad for local actors, directors, playwrights in pursuing their craft.

Nothing quite like this has happened on the Omaha theatre scene. Touring troupes from the Royal Shakespeare Company and Guthrie Theatre have done residencies. An occasional New York director or actor has come through. But Omaha hasn’t had this many artists of this caliber work in a locally produced play, unless you count opera, since 1955. That’s when two Hollywood-Broadway icons at the peak of their powers, native Nebraskans Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, returned to perform in an Omaha Community Playhouse benefit production of The Country Girl. Henry’s ingenue daughter, Jane, made her debut in that same show.

Now, half-a-century later, the JBT is stamping itself as an important regional presenter of a living master playwright’s work. The New Yorker’s John Lahr has said of Wilson, “No one except perhaps Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams has aimed so high and achieved so much in the American theater.”

Although set in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh, the action reverberates with the wider black experience. For example, John Beasley drove a jitney out of two Omaha stands — Chappie’s Corner and Speedy Delivery — in the late 1960s. “Yeah, those were the days, man,” he said. “We’d go into the jitney stand in the morning and give the owner something like a $6 fee. It’d say ‘Pickup and Delivery’ on the window of the store, but everybody knew what it was. And then when the calls came in you took ‘em in order. Some of us had regular customers. They’d call in and ask for certain guys. ‘You got a car? Yeah, where you going?’ A dollar would carry you most places. You used your own car. Unmarked. I had a little raggedy Ford at the time. I think the farthest west we went was the Crossroads.”

 

 

John Beasley

 

 

Unregulated cabs have long been a fixture on Omaha’s Near Northside, where they serve a gap left by city sanctioned and state licensed cab companies reluctant to serve residents there. Since the displacement of homes and businesses by the riots and North Freeway construction of the late ‘60s, north Omaha’s high crime rep has made regular cabbies even more leery of taking calls or cruising for fares there. “There’s still jitneys today. Cabs don’t want to come to the north side. It provides a service to people who maybe don’t have cars or don’t have licenses. And as high as gas is going, a lot of poor people can’t afford to drive,” Beasley said.

Jitneys are officially banned, but authorities look the other way because they do fill a need. As Beasley put it, “What are they going to do? Nobody else is serving the neighborhood.” Anyone in north Omaha can tell you where to find one. Postings for their services adorn public bulletin boards. Former University of Nebraska at Omaha public administration professor Peter Suzuki drove a jitney in Omaha in the early ‘70s to research a series of published papers he wrote on the subject. He said drivers of that era were typically young men — as Beasley was then — or retirees looking to make ends meet. Jitney stands, bookie joints and after-hours spots were vital parts of the black community. “That’s why the story resonates with me so much,” Beasley said. “It’s a black experience. A personal experience.”

Partly based on the denizens of a Pittsburgh jitney operation, the play gives voice to a working-class segment of black American culture. Anthony Chisholm said, “It shows how this cab station contributed to the service of the community. It was a lifeblood of the Hill. It gives you a peak into a certain category of lives there that made up the mosaic of the whole. It shows black men in the throes of survival.”

 

 

A building in Pittsburgh’s Hill District

 

 

Amid their patter, invective and humor is revealed an authentic, vital vignette of inner city street life rarely glimpsed by non-black audiences. But the real power of the words and ideas is they are culturally specific yet universal. Chisholm suggests that with only minor changes the play would work equally well with “white working class” characters. Their lives are similar. “The soul and humanity in these words are in every human being on this planet,” he said. “There’s a lot of humanity in Jitney.”

Guest director Claude Purdy said that above all, he loves “the language” of Wilson. “He’s a poet.” Purdy’s strong ties with Wilson put him on intimate terms with the icon. Their friendship goes back to when they were emerging artists in their shared hometown of Pittsburgh, whose Hill District is the inspiration for the writer’s projected ten-play cycle chronicling 20th century African-American life. It was Purdy who suggested Wilson turn his Black Bart poems into a play and leave Pittsburgh for St. Paul, Minn.’s lively theater scene. Purdy preceded him there to direct at the Penumbra Theatre Company, a black regional theater. It was, indeed, in St. Paul where the largely self-educated Wilson turned playwright. He only found his voice, however, after returning to Pittsburgh and steeping himself in its culture.

Among the venues where Purdy’s mounted Wilson’s work is the American Conservatory Theatre, the L.A. Theatre Center, the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, the Penumbra and the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. He’s also directed regional-national tours of various Wilson works. Guest actors Anthony Chisholm (Burr Redding on HBO’s Oz, the film Beloved) and Willis Burks (CBS’ Law & Order, the film Sunday) have worked extensively in Wilson plays. They workshopped Jitney with him. They and castmates of the original 2000 New York production won Drama Desk/Obie Awards for best ensemble performance. Jitney won the Drama Critics Circle Award as best play of the year, one of seven Wilson works so honored. Chisholm appears in Wilson’s new play, Gem of the Ocean, opening on Broadway in the fall. Each man considers it “a privilege” to speak Wilson’s words.

“He’s a philosopher and a poet along with being a great storyteller,” Chisholm said. “He writes really deep stuff. His passages are food for thought for everyone. I always recommend anyone take the time to read his plays. If you read O’Neill or Tennessee Williams or Shakespeare or Chekhov, or you’re just in the habit of reading, then his work is a must.”

According to Burks, “Saying the words of such a powerful writer as August Wilson is like speaking the words of my own Shakespeare because his work is about my people and what we do and what we are as a community. I can relate with that. Not that I can’t with Shakespeare. But I have more ties with these types of characters that we play. In my neighborhood where I was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, I saw these same people. I knew these same people.”

John Beasley claims his own Wilson connection. The owner of major props in film (RudyThe Apostle) and TV (Everwood), the Omahan first came to prominence in Wilson plays on Minneapolis, Chicago and Atlanta regional theatre stages.

Under Beasley’s guidance, the JBT is fast becoming an August Wilson showcase. Housed in the site of the defunct Center Stage Theatre, where Beasley honed his own acting chops, the JBT grew out of a kind of rescue mission. In 2002, he reopened the abandoned Center Stage by mounting Wilson’s Tony Award-winning drama Fences, which he directed and starred in. Its success led the Omaha Housing Authority, which oversees the La Fern Williams Center the theatre is part of, to rename the Center Stage in Beasley’s honor. That’s when he and son Tyrone, himself a regional theatre veteran, began taking ownership of the JBT.

Since Fences, the JBT’s presented Ain’t Misbehavin and the Wilson plays Joe Turner’s and Two Trains and Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. It’s no accident Jitney is the fourth Wilson play among the JBT’s six offerings to date. “August Wilson is arguably America’s greatest living playwright,” Beasley said. “His work is always well-received. But I still don’t see theaters around here taking on his plays. I think it’s essential, especially in Omaha where we really don’t have a minority media voice, to have this arena,”.

In Beasley’s eyes, Wilson reveals a story often withheld or obscured. “Basically, he deals with every decade of the 20th century…with blacks migrating from the south to Pittsburgh and what they faced once they got there,” he said. “His characters talk about what happened back down south and touch on some of the reasons they came north. It’s always their stories. The plays deal with the era of urban renewal, when a lot of black businesses and neighborhoods were being boarded-up and blight set in and how, once redevelopment came in, blacks were being forced out. You can see the same pattern here in Omaha. He’s really telling the black American story, but the thing about August’s work is it’s not just the black experience, it’s the human experience, and that’s why I love August.”

Beasley’s elicited the same strong identification from white audiences playing Troy Maxson in Fences as he has playing Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman. “Both are tragic figures who had a dream dashed,” he said. Each craves recognition, affirmation. As Loman says, “attention must be paid.”

 

 

Anthony Chisholm

 

 

The men in Jitney share similar regrets and rants. They comprise an independent, disparate breed of urban entrepreneurs threatened by encroaching “progress.” Representing a variety of ages and life experiences, they must all hustle to get by. There’s Becker, the weary cab stand owner whose heart has grown cold over the terrible mistake his son Booster made. In his stage debut, KETV photojournalist and Kaleidoscope host/producer Ben Gray plays Becker. Tyrone Beasley essays the estranged Booster. As Turnbo, the resident gossip always messing in other people’s business, John Beasley assumes a role he’s performed many times before. In the part of Youngblood, the upwardly mobile Vietnam vet desperate to escape The Life, is Michael Beasley. The former pro basketball player made his JBT debut last year in Two Trains under the direction of his brother Tyrone.

As Fielding, a former tailor who drinks too much pining for his ex-wife, Anthony Chisholm recreates one of the roles he’s become identified with. Playing Doub, the sardonic Korean War vet, is Omaha actor Vince Alston. Shealy, the good-natured numbers runner, is recreated by Willis Burks. Familiar Omaha actor Kevin Williams appears as Philmore, a frequent customer and the stand’s drunk comic relief. The only female character, Rena, is the distressed wife of Youngblood. She’s played by Iris Perez, a Hot 107.7 FM on-air personality and just one of many talented local actresses the JBT’s developed in its ongoing acting workshops.

 

 

Willis Burks

 

 

Tensions and jokes abound among the men of Jitney. Personal baggage weighs them down. Their lively exchanges and monologues ring with the authentic African-American vernacular, idiom, patios and sensibility that Wilson could only get from careful observation and listening, something he did haunting the Hill District’s juke joints, bars, diners, clubs, hotels, whore houses, jitney stands and bookie parlors.

Chisholm and Burks have walked with Wilson through those same streets, going to some of those very places and meeting the colorful figures he’s based characters on. They’ve heard the laughter and despair. Wilson is known to write listening to the strains of Bessie Smith and other great black music stylists and his spoken words do echo the plaintive tone, lyrical jive and lift-up-thy-voice testimony of gospel, soul, jazz and the blues. “All of his work has that really nice rhythm about it,” said Beasley. “It’s jazz. That’s how his plays sound to me. I compare him to Shakespeare. It wasn’t until I learned the music of his writing that it really flowed for me. Every word is well chosen for a certain rhythm…for a certain effect.”

The words are often quite funny, too. Burks said he and Chisholm were part of an early tour of Jitney on “the chitlin circuit,” where they played to audiences in broad comic strokes. “It can go in that direction,” he said. “The laughs are there.” It was later brought back to its dramatic roots. The actors also witnessed Wilson expand the play by more than an hour. “It was a different play then from what it is now,” Burks said, adding that whole characters were dropped and others made over. Burks character Shealy became “less fly” and more “respectable.” Chisholm’s Fielding was “rounded out” and given a “back story” drawn from the actor’s tailor-father. Booster was made less “gangsta” and more “educated.”

 

 

 

 

When the Jitney men learn the surrounding neighborhood is slated for demolition, their cab stand becomes a kind of metaphorical last stand for all they hold dear. In the end, each stands alone, yet together. “What is it about is a tough question to answer because it’s such an ensemble piece. Every character has his own story,” said JBT associate artistic director Tyrone Beasley. “It’s like a slice of life that comes into focus at this critical moment in their lives.”

“That’s what Jitney is, it’s a slice of life,” John Beasley said. “The interesting thing to me is the relationships between each of these individuals and how they eventually pull together for a common goal. Even Turnbo, who’s a pain in the ass. They’ve got a business to save. Like one of ‘em says, ‘Where else can you make $40  a day?’ That was pretty good money in the black community in those days. It was a decent enough way to make a living. It was a necessary business, too.”

What Beasley’s doing with Jitney is part of a stated mission to move his theatre to the next level. “I want to do things not being done by other theatres in town, which is basically plays by and about minorities. I want this to be a regional theatre where established artists can come and work with local artists. What I’m finding is,  it’s taking on a life of its own,” he said.

Jitney’s guest artists say they’re down for return engagements and support the JBT’s aim of joining America’s handful of black regional theatres. “In regional theater it’s all about putting it together and making a good ensemble piece. It’s working with people who respect the writer and respect the process. And from what I’ve seen, it’s the same thing here,” said Burks. Chisholm added, “It’s a great opportunity to work your chops.”

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