BACK STAGE WEST
June 24, 1999
Actors We Love
There's no star system in Ashland's peerless acting company, but
there are stars.
by Rob Kendt
Forget, if you will, our culture's purported current love affair
with Shakespeare, and also the ongoing discussion about the American vs. the
English approach to the Bard's timeless verse. And please, please set aside the
rancorous debate about "non-traditional" casting in classical roles,
and the claptrap pronounced on the subject by everyone from John Simon to
All these fleeting sideshows fade in the face of a stunning and
inspiring, and too little known, matter of fact: that the leading actor at the
leading Shakespeare company in the United States is a statuesque
African-American man of extraordinary prowess and sensitivity who is, with his
seasoned company mates, doing some of the best classical theatre anywhere at
Hyperbole? On the contrary, Derrick Lee Weeden and the Oregon
Shakespeare Festival in Ashland have raised the artistic bar for themselves,
and the past few seasons have represented a creative peak for both: In last
year's sweeping mainstage production of Lorraine Hansberry's seldom-performed Les
Blancs, Weeden nailed the meaty role of Tshembe Matoshe, a brilliant,
Western-educated African with a Hamlet-like calling to return to his homeland
and avenge colonial wrongs.
And this year he is playing the role:
Shakespeare's earnest military fool, Othello, whom Weeden steeps in a warrior's
pride and a lover's anguish and renders with a voice like a cello in Tony
Taccone's spare, heartrending production.
"I've worked on this play for 20 years," said Weeden,
off-stage a tall but not overbearing man with a Greek mask of a face and huge,
sad eyes; he played Othello once years before, at the Alabama Shakespeare
Festival. "Othello is basically the hardest role in the canon to make
work. It's overclimaxed; his arc is so long. There's a reason that Stanislavski
focused his book Building a Character on Othello, for arcing and modulation
and restraint. For me, it's really about how to stay it, how not to blow it,
how to keep it going in different forms."
For Weeden, it's not a play about jealousy per se. Echoing the
insights of James Earl Jones, who called Othello's plight not jealousy but
"tragic confusion," Weeden said, "The key for me is in the
lines, 'Perdition catch my soul/But I do love thee! and when I love thee
not/Chaos is come again.' Again—all the early stuff in the play is about how
Othello has been a soldier since he was seven years old, he's been in slavery,
he's had all these horrific things happen, he has all this scarring, so that's
the life he knows-and then he has this light in his life, Desdemona. Then to
have it turn, as he believes, means he's going back to all that stuff, and he
can't go back. In killing her, he's killing himself."
Such a psychologized reading belies Weeden's training in Southern
Methodist University's M.F.A. acting program under Jack Clay, where the stress
was on voice and body work and the plays of Shakespeare, Shaw, and Shepard. And
while I've seen few actors onstage upon whom a character's inner life registers
as richly and spontaneously as on Weeden, he is clearly an actor versed to his
marrow in speech, text, and movement.
In repertory with Othello, he's also playing Hedley, a
crazed, pathetic old street vendor in 1940s Pittsburgh, in August Wilson's Seven
Guitars—a boldly unlikely casting move by director Kenny Leon. Costume
and makeup aside, Hedley is played by a physically different actor altogether;
articulate arms and a noble if unclear head seem to be the centers of Weeden's
Othello, the broken-down Hedley's center is in his clogged, tubercular chest,
as he hunches intently stocking his cart or furrowing a small garden.
But all these roles—Othello, Hedley, last year's virile Matoshe—have
something in common. While he's played his share of classic urban or
Southern-inflected African-American roles, and more than his share of
Shakespearean parts of all kinds, Weeden brings a unique onstage power, rooted
in his voice and physiognomy, to larger-than-life Mediterranean, Caribbean, and
African characters, and this quality is nowhere more unexpectedly resonant than
in Shakespeare. Weeden seems to tap some ancient stream in which the classics
are not merely European or American or Greek, and in which the voice of the
African Diaspora clearly and deeply belongs.
"For years, as a younger actor, I read reviews by people like
John Simon that we, African-Americans, shouldn't be doing Shakespeare,"
recalled Weeden, a military brat born in Panama and raised all over the world
by his African-American/Cherokee father and West Indian/Irish mother. "My
sense of dealing with that is to say, Hey, we have a tradition. My mother
speaks English in a wonderful way; you hear phrases that are directly
Shakespearean phrases, the semantics and everything. That's what my ear hears.
"And I think of all the great African-American Shakespeare
actors—James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, James Marshall, Ira Aldridge. I look
to those people as much as I do to the thrill of hearing Paul Scofield speak.
It's as if to say that these plays are from one country and one time, and we
weren't there. But in 1600, Elizabeth banned all Negroes, Negresses, octaroons,
etc., because there were so many in England. All the first black people in
America came from Spain and England and Portugal before they came from Africa.
We were there.
"The more I've worked on this play, the more I believe one
thing: Shakespeare knew Africans. Also, that Othello is Shakespeare; it's so
close to the bone. You read the sonnets—his jealousy, the dark lady. It's him.
And I never saw it until a few months ago."
Theatre and its practitioners often seem starved for self-worth.
Even among much good theatre I see, there is an indefinable quality of it not
being enough somehow-not for the people onstage, and certainly not enough for
us in the audience. In L.A., it's easy to spot the culprit in actors' need for
a showcase to the local industry; in New York, it is the feeling of high-volume
trade, and in regional theatre, there is often the attenuated air of
politically correct controlled experiments. The only place I've consistently
felt that theatre was an end in itself, both aesthetically and professionally,
was in my two visits to Ashland.
As much credit as I should give artistic director Libby Appel and
her associates, Tim Bond and Penny Metropulos, and the vigorous artistic staff
there, I get this feeling of belonging in the festival's large and loyal
audience most viscerally from the actors, who look like they belong on the
stage. Maybe that's because they do: A company of more than 60 actors, they're
on Equity LORT contracts almost year-round, working in as many as three plays
apiece-many of them for many years now. Weeden estimated he's averaged between
200 and 250 performances a year for the last 12 years (nine of those at OSF),
so one believes him when he says, "I've gotten to grow here."
And if Weeden exemplifies the stage-worthiness of the OSF actor,
there are so many others in whose work I've experienced as much awe, delight,
intellectual pleasure, and pure entertainment value as I've ever gotten from
any so-called movie stars. There are the comic powerhouses: the impossibly
gleeful Catherine Lynn Davis, whose hyperventilating giggle makes her Roxie
Hart, in this year's Chicago, seem somehow diabolically innocent;
the snappily droll Tony DeBruno, who even when he uses broad strokes—as the
cynical reporter in Chicago, as a befuddled vendor in The
Comedy of Errors—remains a study in comic delicacy; the remarkably malleable G.
Valmont Thomas, a meek, clumsy Flute in last year's Midsummer and a show-stealing
Red in this year's Seven Guitars, and tall, preposterous David Kelly,
last year's daffy Bottom in Midsummer and one of the officious gods in this
year's The Good Person of Setzuan.
And there are dramatic masters, starting at the top with Weeden, and including Anthony Heald, whose plays a fiesty, feral Iago to Weeden's Othello and a hollowed-out, melancholy John Rosmer in Rosmersholm, and Robynn Rodriguez, a rueful Emilia in Othello and a tart landlady in Good Person.
Of course, such distinctions melt away with these versatile
actors. Was Ray Porter's scruffy, effrontive Puck in Midsummer entirely a
comic creation? Not if you count his moving closing speech. And how to classify
a performance as full yet human-scaled as BW Gonzalez's achingly beatific Shen
Te/Shui Ta in Good Person? How to bottle the infinite variety
of an actor like Dan Donohue, who gave us a glam Prince Hal, a comically
impatient Ezra Pound, and a simpering Restoration fop, all last year?
Weeden himself is the first to attribute his own onstage power to
the collective bonding of the company.
"What you're seeing here is a company for real," Weeden
said. "It's not about a performance, it's not about how I can make the
audience laugh. The aesthetic is about the script-how do we tell the story? At
our best, that's what we go for; otherwise, I'd rather be doing something else.
If I can't take this great script by this great playwright and try to tell it
fully with 20 other people-if it's just about me showing off or getting my
laughs or trying to get an agent-it makes no sense.
"What I love is when people leave talking about the play."