Great Barrington — Two experienced actors who have never worked together are rehearsing onstage at Saint James Place. Their chemistry is remarkable, considering this is only their fourth rehearsal on the same stage.
One, however – a seasoned Tony Award-winning actor with a celebrated career – still glances reluctantly at his script only six days from opening night. If you guessed the actor is less than professional or simply a slacker, you would be dead wrong.
Such is the scene at the Berkshire Playwrights Lab rehearsal of Some Old Black Man, a two-person piece by award-winning young playwright James Anthony Tyler that premieres this week. The three-week run marks the first full production for BPL. It is being staged at Saint James Place, a former Episcopal church on Main Street lovingly restored and converted into an arts and cultural center by Fred and Sally Harris.
Aside from the unusual performance venue and obvious strength of its acting and writing, what sets Some Old Black Man apart is the circumstances that brought the two great actors, Roger Robinson and Leon Addison Brown, together with Joe Cacaci, the veteran director.
Cacaci had cast established actor and writer Adolphus Ward as Donald, the father of Brown’s character Calvin. But Ward fell ill with chest pains a few weeks ago, and, as of Saturday, was still in the hospital. Cacaci said Ward is going to be okay, but there is no way the 82-year-old would be able to perform.
“I called Roger and he said, ‘I’m open for the next few weeks,'” Cacaci recalled. “He came in, we did a blocking rehearsal, then he had three days of work. He is as good an actor as I have ever worked with. He is just sensational.”
Some Old Black Man is what theater people call a “two-hander:” a two-character play. In this case, it’s about an aging father who has to move in with his son and it’s also about the simmering tensions of long-held grievances that emerge under the pressure of this shift in their relationship. It’s a little like “Frasier,” but with elements of the black experience and minus the relentless slapstick humor.
This father-son reunion is what Cacaci calls “sharp and poignant, with flashes of humor and warmth.” Some Old Black Man looks at the dynamics between an 80-something father, Donald, who has unwillingly relocated from his Southern home to the penthouse of his son, Calvin, in Harlem.
The ensuing dialogue between the two men as they begin their days together varies from the profound to the humorous. It is billed by the producers as “a timely theme, the play tells the story of caring for an aging parent while also relating the experiences of two generations of African American men in a post-Civil-Rights-era culture.”
In other words, the play is, on one level, about the black experience. But the essential concept is universal, one for which any adult who has had to care for an aging parent can easily summon buckets of empathy.
“This play is wonderful and quite complicated and nuanced,” Robinson said in an interview during a rehearsal break on the Saint James stage. “The emotional terrain of this play … it’s really close to home. It’s very family. It’s father-son, and that has a resonance that just takes you to places that you’ve lived.”
“The great black migration from South to North is condensed in these two characters,” added Brown. “And it’s through dialogue that rings true. In terms of playwrights, it’s what separates the men from the boys.”
One of the reasons Robinson was a great fit as a last minute replacement to play the role of the father is that, two years ago, he had participated in BPL’s staged reading of the play and has been a strong supporter of the project ever since.
Robinson was slated to return in the full production until he got called back to a major television series in which he has a recurring role. Consequently, Cacaci hired Ward for the role. As luck would have it, Robinson was able to accommodate BPL’s urgent need and now reprises the role of Donald two years later.
Robinson told us that in his long career – he started acting professionally in 1963 – he has never been called in to perform a role this large on such notice.
“The closest was in ’63 when I did [Shelagh Delaney’s] A Taste of Honey and [later] I played Dolan in Mister Roberts. But those are parts that are not dependent on carrying the entire show. Nothing like this. Nothing.”
Ditto for Brown, who has been called upon to perform some last-minute roles himself but never anything on the order of magnitude that Robinson is facing. The two actors had never worked together before, either, though they were acutely aware of each other’s work.
“It’s an honor for me to be onstage with him,” Brown said of Robinson, who won a Tony for best performance by a featured actor in the 2009 revival of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. “He’s been my favorite stage actor ever since I got into the business.”
Brown recounted the story of how one of his neighbors excitedly told him, “I just saw Joe Turner on Broadway. But there was this one actor I couldn’t take my eyes off of. That was Roger Robinson!”
“I had to pay him a lot to say that!” Robinson bellowed.
A Seattle native, Robinson has appeared in several Wilson plays, all but one of which – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – take place in Pittsburgh and chronicle black life in the late 19th century. He considers the late Wilson – and now the much younger Tyler – to be a master of dialogue on a par with Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard and David Mamet.
Brown is no slouch, either. He trained at the North Carolina School of the Arts and has appeared in several Broadway productions including Misery, The Trip to Bountiful, On the Waterfront, Someone to Watch Over Me and Prelude to a Kiss.
Brown received the Drama League’s nomination for distinguished performance for an off-Broadway production of Master Harold and the Boys. Regionally, he has performed at the Hartford Stage, Westport Playhouse, People’s Light Theatre, Arena Stage, Yale Repertory and the Long Wharf Theater. He is also no stranger to the Berkshires, having performed at the Williamstown and Berkshire theater festivals.
“My very first job out of drama school (1985), I was at the Berkshire Theatre Festival,” Brown recalled. “We did four plays: The 5th of July, The Day They Shot John Lennon, and a new musical called Incoming. And then the following year after I got my Equity card, we came back and did A Visit to a Small Planet.
Brown has also appeared in films and television including Madam Secretary, The Good Wife, Law & Order and SVU.
“Roger is perfectly paired with Leon,” Cacaci said. “Leon is the consummate actor.”
Asked whether he had ever directed a play with such a major casting change at the last minute, Cacaci said that, in 1986 in New Rochelle, New York, he was directing a production of another father-son play, one he had written himself: “Old Business.”
The week before opening night, one of the leads – veteran character actor Joe Silver – complained of stomach pains and was diagnosed with a malignant tumor. Consequently, the show had to close. But Cacaci managed to squeeze one night out of it.
He called his friend, the legendary theater producer Joseph Papp, who agreed to play the role for opening night only with book in hand.
“Joe did me a big favor,” Cacaci said. “It was total luck. He was the same age [as the character] and he was Jewish.”
Cacaci’s longtime friends and acquaintances still talk about that performance.
“He nailed it,” Cacaci said of the celebrated producer and director who founded the Public Theatre in Manhattan. “It was making the best of a bad situation.”
Cacaci was the founding director of East Coast Arts, where he produced 20 world premiere plays over seven seasons. He was also the producing director, with Dan Lauria, of the Playwrights Kitchen Ensemble in Los Angeles, where over 500 new plays were given staged readings.
While he has also produced and directed productions of works by established playwrights and television screenwriters, Cacaci is clearly passionate about directing the new works of emerging playwrights. That’s part of the reason why he teaches television writing in the graduate program of the Film School at Columbia University and in undergraduate programs at Wesleyan University.
“To me, it’s the most exciting thing to do,” Cacaci said, his voice rising more than slightly. “It’s about developing the work and seeing something for the first time.”
He sees Some Old Black Man, BPL’s first full production, as “the fulfillment of a direction for Berkshire Playwrights,” the play in particular as “the culmination of 10 years’ work” and “emblematic of the kind of work we want to put out in the world.”
Cacaci very much likes the performance venue of the former St. James sanctuary. When rehearsals first commenced, the acoustics of the space were less than desirable, but the Harrises quickly fixed the problem and now the sound is outstanding, as this writer can attest. And the intimacy of the environment is perfect for the two-man play.
“We got over it being a church pretty quickly,” Cacaci said of the space. “The first time I uttered a profanity, I thought I would be struck dead. Fortunately, Fred assured me the place had been desanctified. I guess anything can become a theater.”
There will be discounted preview performances of Some Old Black Man on Thursday, Aug. 10, and Friday, Aug. 11, with performances Thursdays – Sundays Aug. 12–27. Tickets are $30-35 and group tickets are available. Opening night is Saturday, Aug. 12; tickets are $55 each and include a reception with the artists after the 8 p.m. performance. For information on how to purchase tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar.