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Meet The Artist: FENCES Actor James T. Alfred

Meet The Artist: FENCES Actor James T. Alfred

AUTHOR: Erin Treat, Online Engagement Coordinator

James T. Alfred plays Lyons in ATC’s critically acclaimed production of August Wilson’s Fences. Other ATC credits include Jitney, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, To Kill a Mockingbird, and most recently, The Mountaintop. We sat down with Mr. Alfred to discuss life as an actor, August Wilson’s unique voice, and more!

ATC:
You’ve mentioned before that August Wilson’s work is what inspired you to become an actor. What was the show that did it?

Mr. Alfred:
I went to the Goodman Theatre in 1998, and I saw Jitney. I remember sitting in the theatre after the show was over and looking around with my jaw-dropped, and saying “I wish this was still going. I wish we could do two and a half more hours!” I’d never seen that kind of unapologetic embracement of African American culture, and ordinary people. I mean, we’re not talking about the President of the United States or some judge or something; we’re talking about guys that you walk past every day in your neighborhood. We’re talking about the wino, the pimp, the small mom-and-pop business owner, the hustler, the numbers man. Everybody that would be deemed a derelict or an outcast in society, he made them human. I’m too young to have experienced A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, I was not a theatergoer, so I had not encountered another playwright that was doing that. I saw Jitney and saw the celebration of black life, and I wanted to do that, I wanted to be a part of that. And fortunately for me, the first play that I did as a professional union actor was Jitney, directed by Lou Bellamy, the founder of Penumbra Theatre.

ATC:
How old were you at the time?

Mr. Alfred:
I was 26. I was fresh out of college, two years. I’d gotten a job upon graduation; I was in corporate America, doing the whole thing that you’re encouraged to do. I had a good job at a Fortune 500 company. And about three months in, I was like, “I’m not going to do this. I can’t see myself doing this for thirty years. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

ATC:
And then you saw Jitney.

Mr. Alfred:
Yeah, then I saw Jitney.

ATC:
How did you start acting?

Mr. Alfred:
It sounds so cliché, but I was standing at the water cooler with a temp worker, and we were talking about what would we do if we were not here, if we were not in this office, what were our dreams. I said, I had ambitions of playing professional basketball, but that didn’t pan out, but I’d thought about acting, being an actor. She said, “Really? I have a friend who’s directing a play – Romeo and Juliet – down at the Des Plains Theatre Guild.” I said, “Yeah, I did a couple scenes from that in a summer program.” She said, “You know, maybe you should audition for the play.”

I auditioned, and I got cast as Tybalt. One performance, Mercutio and Tybalt were in a fight, and my sword broke. And you know, you’ve got to kill Mercutio or the show doesn’t go forward. So I just instinctively looked around and said to another guy on stage, “Fetch me a rapier.” The director just thought that showed uncanny instinct, and he asked, “Have you ever thought about doing this professionally?” And I said “No. Because I don’t know how one does that. I mean, how do you be an actor, make a living?” I just thought you had to know somebody, you catch a break, you get discovered – and I had no time for that mess. But then after I’d done a couple shows, I said, you know, I really like this. It fits. I think work is an extension of yourself, and if you’re going to do something, it has to be fulfilling. It has to be some sort of service to others. And this fit.

The funny thing about it is it was new to me, but nobody else was surprised. My seventh grade teacher – who was also my fourth grade teacher – she would always tell me when I wanted to play basketball, she would tell me, “Boy, you need to get your butt on somebody’s stage because you are a natural-born actor.” Her name is Leslie Barron, and I’ll never forget her.

ATC:
You’ve done some work recently for TV, most recently the FOX show Empire. How did you get into TV from theatre?

Mr. Alfred:
As for my career, television is a natural progression. I was in Chicago and I auditioned for Prison Break in 2005. I had three lines in that show, but it got me my SAG card. Empire was simply something that came down the pipeline, a normal audition. I’d done a show called Boss with Kelsey Grammer, did some decent work on there, and the casting agent was pleased with it, and it kind of solidified my relationship with the casting director, and so they keep calling me in.

I turned down the first opportunity to audition for Empire. I didn’t know what it was and if it was right for me. But the casting director told me John Singleton was directing the episode – I’m a fan of his – and I thought it’d be great to work with John Singleton, so I did the audition, and I was cast. It was written as a one-off, but as it turned out, I came back to do a second episode in season one. I have appeared in two episodes in season one, two episodes in season two.

ATC:
Do you think you’ll try to move more into TV, or stay in the theatre?

Mr. Alfred:
I believe actors act. There are a lot more opportunities for me – being based in Chicago – to stay on stage. There are only five shows shooting in Chicago. It’s a different machine. Of course, if there’s work for me on television I’ll take it, because it just pays better. I mean, what I make in a week here, you can make in a day, so it’s a no-brainer. That’s what a lot of actors do – if they can get consistent TV work, a lot of them never come back to the stage because the money is just too good. It’s just a natural progression of what’s the next phase of my desired career. Some people don’t want to do on-camera work at all, period. I do. I like the money, and I think it’ll give me a wider reach, a larger audience to whom I can speak.

ATC:
I’ve read in another interview that you’re also writing a screenplay.

Mr. Alfred:
I wrote a one-person play called A Brown Tale that is basically a semi-autobiographical sketch of my life growing up in Chicago on the south side, in public housing. I’m turning that into a book, a screenplay, and a television show. I want to get as many creative, intellectual properties out of one entity as possible. Kinda like Sylvester Stallone did with Rocky.

I also wrote a full-length play called Tied to my Apron Strings. I had a couple readings to hear it. I’ve shelved it for now. I’ll revisit it later.

I am writing more. There’s a lot of opportunity in television for African American writers. The success of shows like Empire put black people en vogue. The success of shows like Empire is partly due to its authenticity and appeal to specific segment to society. Staff writers, white staff writers, are tired of calling down to the mail room, asking the one brother in the mail room, “How would you say this?” or “How would this be?” A buddy of mine was just hired for the new Jennifer Lopez show, Shades of Blue. He just got another show. He was telling me that there’s a dearth of African-American writers. They’re there, they just haven’t been found. So, yeah, I want to continue to simultaneously run those two trains together as an actor and as a writer. It’s self-empowering.

ATC:
I get the sense that you’ve done a lot of August Wilson, not just here but all around.

Mr. Alfred:
I’ve been fortunate where most of my career I’ve collaborated with Lou Bellamy. He directed me in my one-man show, A Brown Tale; he directed me in a play called Redshirts, and he directed me in all the Wilsons I’ve done, with the exception of one production. I feel fortunate to have that because you can continue to grow your relationship, the theatrical conversation that you’re having. You develop a theatrical vocabulary together. We both understand each other’s artistic aims and intentions behind that work specifically, so there’s no guesswork. So it’s like, “Okay, we’re going to continue where we left off last time but in this play.”

I’ve done four of the plays, but in seven productions. I’ve done Fences three times – one time playing Cory, and this is the second time I’m playing Lyons. I did two productions of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Two Trains Running, and Jitney.

ATC:
When you revisit the same plays over and over, do you find new things in the character every time you do a production?

Mr. Alfred:
We often joke that August wrote one play, really. Just one play.

I think that in the American theatre, because everything is so commercially driven and money always comes into account, you don’t really get a chance to “bake the cake.” By the time the show closes here [in Tucson], we’ll just be in the groove, we’ll just be getting settled in. We’ve traditionally done four-week rehearsal processes; now they’re doing two-week rehearsal processes, three-week rehearsal processes. But when I was in Russia, they would rehearse a play for a year sometimes before they’d put it in front of an audience because you want the cake to be fully baked. So it’s always good for me to revisit not only the play, but if I get the chance to do the same character twice, I can deepen it. You can add some stuff that you discovered after you finished it the first time.

Doing Wilson’s works, for me – each time is like a baptism. I get washed, I get cleansed, because these plays are affirming. They affirm my experience as a human being in this country, which is something that is not often done. Now, writers create from a commercial impetus. With August, it’s always refreshing. I mean, he takes you from the time we hit the shores – 1619 – up into now. It’s stuff I discovered in Fences just listening and hearing it this time; there’s stuff I hadn’t realized. Thematically, the journey he’s taking, what he’s touching on, cycles that are still being played out currently in modern society. Yeah, each time you get a chance to go back through, you go deeper in the waters, and for me it’s a healing thing. I love it. I would be satisfied doing the works of Wilson until I die. I will age into another character in another play. And that’s fine with me.

ATC:
Do you have a favorite Wilson play, either that you have done or have read and are hoping you will do?

Mr. Alfred:
I think Two Trains Running is my favorite. Now, everybody loves Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and that’s the one with which I’m least familiar. That’s one of the items to check off this week, read Joe Turner’s Come and Gone again.

Two Trains Running does it for me because it’s so radical. I mean, it was such an important period in this country – for African American people in particular – that ’65 to ’68 period. The language in that play is so unapologetic, the indictment that he makes on this country for what they did to indigenous people. And here’s the thing, what August is showing you is “It’s not what you did to African Americans, it’s what you did to yourselves, what you’re doing to this country.” And everybody always says, “Well who’s the ‘they’?” It’s anybody who buys into this supremacist ideology and classism. And August, if you read or hear that play, it’s a strong indictment. And he’s holding both sides accountable – he’s talking about blacks and whites. And he does that pretty much throughout all his plays. He’s consciously always reminding black people that they have to love self. And going back to what I mentioned before, I love doing these plays with Lou Bellamy because Lou understands that.

A lot of people that are doing these plays have a surface understanding of them. A lot of people do them because that’s the work they have available to them, both directors and actors. Some people do it because they’ve never done a Wilson play. But you don’t understand what’s happening until you develop a love for these people, black people. And if you’re an African American, you’ve got to love yourself. Because you have to love these people in order to do it. And they hurt, and they should hurt on both sides.

Comments

  1. Frank Charles Dodson says:

    I have personally seen James T. Alfred on stage in both ‘Jitney’, and ‘Two Trains Running’, with Penumbra Theatre at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre Company, in Kansas City, MO, James T is a consummate actor, in that he brings excellence, and perfection to whatever role he is playing. I also had the opportunity to work with him on stage in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, also at The Kansas City Repertory Theatre, and as a result of that experience with him, my own stage craft was tremendously uplifted. His presence of mind is continually apparent when you watch him portraying a character, for he is truly living in the moment, in the role! He is really the caliber of an actor equipped for Broadway, or the West End of London theatrical venues. My belief is that theatergoers who have not seen him are in for the most wonderful surprise when they finally get the chance to catch him in action.

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