A Conversation with James Earl Jones II
From the way James Earl Jones II shows up, early, dressed to the nines when it’s barely noon, and with that disarming smile at the ready, you could easily assume he’s running for office. Currently though, Jones is starring in Carlyle, a new work by playwright Thomas Bradshaw, at The Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Carlyle is based on a simple premise. The Republican Party is in trouble and they need someone to save it. So, enter Carlyle, a black Republican man and the Republican Party’s choice for the role of cheery ringmaster, impossibly charming you with feats of daring and slights of hand, luring your attention away from the broken lock on the tiger cage in back.
Now, in an industry that sets schedules eighteen months in advance, Bradshaw and The Goodman have managed to produce their smart satire on the American political arena at the exact point of pique bloodlust in the election season. My trip to the campaign office, such as it is, was spent in one of those infamous back rooms (a lounge, upstairs at The Goodman) talking red, white, blue, and black.
Kelly Wallace: So this show…I’m very excited about it.
James Earl Jones II: As am I.
KW: You’ve done the show before, now you’re coming back to it in the middle of a complete firestorm in the American election cycle.
JEJ: Yes! I was telling someone…it just so happens that all of the stars are aligned and here we are in a discussion about the Republican Party and where it’s headed, who could be heading it, and people of color involved in the Republican race, and who will come out victorious. So I think it’s extra interesting.
KW:It certainly is. And who will be heading it is the interesting question we’re all stuck on right now. A lot of people seem to think the Republican Party is about to crack down the center.
JEJ: Right, yeah. Especially with our show, before we even really jump into the script, it’s like… “Did you hear?” That’s every day. Somebody comes in with something new. “Did you hear?” And sometimes we haven’t heard because, for me, I will say that I get a lot of information secondhand because… if I think about anything other than the script I will lose my mind.
KW: How do you separate the noise from doing character work – from doing the text?
JEJ: Honestly, I know it sounds really crazy, but I’m an actor first. It’s not only something that I’m passionate about, but it’s my job. It goes back to when kids used to say, “My dog ate my homework.” There’s a lot of things going on, but you have to get your homework done. And so I find myself in these moments where it’s like, “Wow, this is happening and this is happening…” I’m like…but I’ve gotta get my homework done. We did a show on Sunday afternoon that was drastically changed by half-hour for the evening show. And so, if I come into the theater, there’s a possibility that I can get an email maybe an hour or two before the show starts… here’s a new line. And that’s where I keep my focus, regardless of all of the outside stuff going on, regardless of what people are saying is coming up now. I’ll know about it because I have to say it.
KW: Were you a political/history nerd before this process?
JEJ: I was not. And I’m ashamed to say that I really wasn’t. My father was a CTA bus driver, but he’s from Mississippi and dealt with a lot of civil rights issues. My mother was a teacher for 42 years in East Englewood. I know that there’s a lot that goes on, just with education, the balance of who gets what in that particular arena. And so there are certain things that I know about as it applies to people of various colors not necessarily being on equal footing. …I’m a little ashamed to say that I didn’t know more, but it’s very weird. I was talking to a friend who is a dual citizen…people who are taking tests to become citizens know everything. So I’ve been learning – slowly but surely – about some things I was less familiar with. One of the big things – and it doesn’t really seem that big – but I didn’t know that Booker T. Washington was a Republican.
KW: I feel like that surprises a lot of people.
JEJ: Right. And that there was this conflict between him and W.E.B. DuBois and I was like…really? This happened? I had no idea!
KW: One of the things you say in the press videos as Carlyle, is that everyone might be a little more Republican than they think they are. Do you feel like you’re more Republican than you thought you were?
JEJ: I don’t feel like I’m a little more Republican than I thought I was. I know that I’m a little Republican, but just a smidge. In the play they talk about affirmative action. I find myself torn in many ways because I know people who have jobs, who work really, really hard, and they work really hard to get to about here, and they’re above poverty but not quite at middle-income, but they’re working their butts off. And no one just says here, have this. Then there are people who are like, I have had 5 or 6 kids, I’ve been in and out of homeless shelters, but I can have housing downtown if I work the system right. I think that’s a discredit to people who are getting up every day. You work hard to get a little bit of nothing; this person doesn’t work at all to get everything. That seems unfair. So yeah there are lots of things on the Republican side that I don’t get but with regards to empowering yourself and working hard for what you get, that’s something I do believe. It bothers me, just because I just see it so often. It just makes me sad sometimes. So I will say, yes there is a dash of Republican in me. Because I believe in African-American empowerment, I believe in Latin-American empowerment, I believe in people fighting and earning things and saying that I got this because I actually deserve it and worked for it, as opposed to someone saying I have this fantastic home and I have two hundred and-fifty dollars in food stamps, which I can sell at my leisure. You know it was something I had never been exposed to until maybe about 10 or 11 years ago. It was the first time a person approached me in a store and was like hey, I can sell you some food stamps. I was just thinking…this is supposed to be for food. But if I give you $50 or $35, you can give me $75 worth of food stamps and it’s no skin off your back. Okay, I say to myself. I look at my check. I look at my taxes. And I say that I’m paying them for this person to have free stuff. And that irritates me. But yeah, that’s just one aspect.
KW: At one point, Carlyle describes himself as a “political unicorn,” to be a Black Republican. One of the things I was looking over before this was a poll in the New York Times that said 1 in 5 Donald Trump supporters don’t believe in the Emancipation Proclamation. When you hear something like that, how is there a place for Carlyle in the party?
JEJ: As James Earl Jones II, I’m never shocked by something like that. And maybe in the years, decades, centuries to come, someone will be shocked. I’m not shocked today. It is disturbing to see what the Trump supporters – it’s really kind of like some kind of reckless, free card – , it’s anarchy almost. You’re like, “˜My God!’ I feel Trump’s people right now are caged pit bulls that were beaten over and over and then you release them. There’s no filter. And people are saying and doing things that they have been waiting to –it reminds me of that movie The Purge, where just for one night people just do all types of random craziness. Except it’s happening every day with Trump supporters. In general, it’s hard to think that an African-American, Latin-American, anyone of color is like, oh I found a comfortable place here in the Republican Party with a statistic like that.
I guess in that same vein, life in Chicago is not necessarily life in Wyoming or life in Glencoe, even. There’s obviously some give and take in everything. I think that’s how anybody of color says to themselves, “Oh, I fit here. Even if this person doesn’t necessarily agree with me. I still have the freedom to have my opinion. And maybe that person didn’t agree with the Emancipation Proclamation, but I don’t see them at home and I’m just going to go about my business. I’m not shocked by it. Carlyle might be shocked by it, but he lives in his own world.
KW: And Carlyle’s world is funny. It’s a comedy; there’s humor there. Obviously, these issues we’re talking about are serious but…
JEJ: Yeah, you know, I think somebody was telling me that in some magazine someplace someone called it a drama. And I was thinking, huh, where did they get that from? Because I think that – I’ve always loved comedy. It’s rare that I get a chance to do dramas. But, I mean, when I do them, sure they’re great. But I will say that heavy topics in my opinion are more readily accepted, easier to understand, or the message can sometimes sink in more if it’s lighter. I think there’s something to be said about not hitting people over the head with bricks of despair and sadness. Even if it’s one-act, no one wants to sit through 70 minutes of that. Pain, suffering, despair, more pain. And the audience is like, “God, when is this going to be over?” You don’t want people to come to the theater, I mean you want peoples’ lives to be changed, but ideally for the better, something to invoke thought…but not thought of suicide.
Like, my God, life is awful. You want people to – you hope that people will come away from this show and yeah, there are serious topics, but perhaps serious topics where you’re like, “Huh, I didn’t think about it that way.” But you’re ideally smiling about something. I think that this show is a comedy, but there’s no doubt that it’s going to touch on hot topics and push buttons. We found that out in New Stages. But as far as I’m concerned, this is the best type of theater. The theater that…it might shock you a bit, but it’s definitely going to make you laugh, it’s gonna make you think and talk about it after.
KW: What has the audience response been like?
JEJ: I can only speak about a couple people who have approached me. I have had people approach me with nothing but good things to say. I’ve had a couple people secretly tell me they’re a Republican on the way out the door. Like, “Hey man, that was an excellent job…[whispered] wanted to let you know I’m a Republican…okay, take care, bye!” And they’d rush off. Like, alright then. That always makes me giggle. One guy in one of the talkbacks – I guess he got grilled in there because he was a Republican/African American, I just…I think the responses have been awesome. People who approach me are like, “I’m gonna tell all my friends, I’m gonna come see it again.” The word of mouth has spread the show.
It’s not necessarily Second City, but you’re not sure what show you’re gonna see. Tonight’s show could be potentially very different from tomorrow’s. I have three new monologues…we went to lunch and came back and there were 10 edited pages, there you go. And by “there you go” they mean, “James, this is for you.” ‘Cause it really is generally just me who gets lots of new stuff.
KW: Do you feel like there’s a different energy, for you, doing a show like this written by an African-American author, as opposed to someone else trying to tackle these issues? Does it feel more authentic?
JEJ: So, Stephen Sondheim writes these amazing, brilliant musicals; people are always trying to make the comparison. “Is this your life?” And Sondheim’s like, it’s not my life. None of these things are my life. One specific song in one specific show was about his life called, “Opening Doors,” and that was it. For the most part, these people write these things but it’s not their lives”¦.Too often you find that it’s just a whitewash of a creative team putting together this show for people of color. What they won’t do is hire me, Thomas Bradshaw, and a couple of other popular African Americans to tell the story of Fiddler on the Roof. I’m not offended by it, but I get it.
So they’re like…you might know Jewish people, you might even have a relative that’s Jewish, you may even convert to the faith at some point in your life, but what we won’t do is have you direct Fiddler on the Roof. I’m okay with that. But on the flip side, when you have shows that you know are speaking from this African-American perspective or this Latin American perspective, there’s nothing but a white creative team…it does something to you. It’s weird also when you know, when they write about it. Even going past color, it’s like…Spike Lee wrote this Chi-raq film…but he’s not from Chicago. And he can do the research and he can bring in all of these random actors from LA and New York but there were like two or three people, most of them not leads, from Chicago and it’s like…you don’t know the Chicago experience. You think you do. You’ve googled and you’ve gone on Wikipedia, but have you lived it? How often does a writer of color get to write first person stories? It’s rare and it’s unfortunate.
KW: And it feels like in a lot of ways, Chicago’s ahead of the rest of the country at least having these conversations; we’re talking about these things. Is this a new development, or is there more of an open dialogue in Chicago?
JEJ: Chicago is blue collar. Chicago is gritty. And we hustle in a different way than New York does. It’s very interesting. There are a lot of Chicago actors who are like, I’m in Chicago and I’m not thinking about going to Broadway; I’m just telling this story. I’m interested in doing this work here. And it’s odd sometimes because people are like, what do you want to do, do you want to go to Broadway? That’s the end game. And you’re like…no, I just love what I do and I love telling these stories. I think there’s a certain air that’s put on in New York that I don’t find here as often? Everywhere in this business, there is a question of being blackballed. Things don’t change like when things are going well. It’s like crisis. I have to give credit where credit is due. I have spoken to directors personally like – I think that this is inappropriate; I think that this is wrong – but I have to say, in my opinion, Bear Bellinger is really the catalyst for extreme change. Bear had nothing to lose. He was just like…here goes. He was fed up with various things that had happened to him in his own personal career and was like alright, this is the last straw. A lot of people make the argument that like….oh, couldn’t you have handled it a different way? What other way could this have been addressed so we can talk about race in theaters and identity in theaters? But the thing is, there really is no better way than just to do it. The people who are in positions of power in these theaters have been there for years. It’s not to think that this just happened overnight. These things have been happening at these various theaters for quite some time. But no one has spoken about it. After a certain amount of years, people say, well, what’s the alternative? Well..now, we gotta do this. Because I’m sure there probably were other ideas, but no one did them. So now we’re here. There might’ve been another one back there. I’m sure there were other ideas, but no one did them. So now we’re here. And I think Chicago’s already more conscious but now it’s even a bigger deal. Also, I do also feel there are some theaters that are going to have to follow suit with what’s going on at the Marriott. This theater [the Goodman] isn’t one of them. That is one of the cool things, all the madness going on out there, the audiences that come to the Goodman are regular people; they’re sophisticated, they’re intelligent, blue color, white color; they see themselves reflected on this stage. I think each director, each writer, and Bob Falls make these conscious choices to be extremely inclusive. I’m glad I’m in Chicago where we are more grounded and have a better take on seeing everyone included. I do think obviously some theaters need some help but, as a whole, we are ahead of other cities.
KW: You are. Yet there’s still this sense that Broadway is the goal. What made you want to stay here in Chicago?
JEJ: Well, I have done a tour. And I’ve done regional work. But I think for me…well, I have a daughter here. I wouldn’t want to uproot her life moving to New York. I think that New York, if you are living somewhere like in Ithaca, it might be ideal to raise your children. But there’s something about…every time I’m in New York I always think to myself, these kids go to school on their own, on these trains, and that guy over there might have just killed three people, like…you say to yourself…and then you look over and you see Bobby and Diane and Katie and they’re just sitting there with their chocolate milk and you’re like…this is strange. I’m nervous. So I feel bringing my daughter up in an environment that is healthy and normal and ideally nurturing is important for me. People want to be on Broadway for various reasons. I know someone who booked Les Miserables on Broadway as a Valjean cover, but he was just like, “My bills are killing me.” If you’re asking about being rich and famous, I don’t know anything about that, but these college loans are kicking me. And so people do it for various reasons. I think most people do it for fame. But I think some people do it for financial security. I personally have been very fortunate to be here, in Chicago, with very steady employment. That I haven’t felt like there was a need for me to go anywhere else or do anything else. Maybe I would cross that bridge if I found myself destitute, like I just had nothing, but I love Chicago. I love Chicago theater. I think we’re more real; I think we’re more grounded. We are truth-tellers. It’s like seeing Carlyle or 2666 as opposed to seeing Wicked. I mean, it’s grand. There are dragons. There’s a little bit of pyro but like, at the end of the day you’re just like…but it’s just The Wizard of Oz but really grand, and yeah it took her awhile to get that makeup on and God bless her, but after that it’s like…is there any real truth telling to it? That’s what I think is so amazing. I saw 2666; I was blown away. For one, they were out on that stage for about 5,000 hours. Two, because I was like this is so interesting, intriguing, thought provoking. Carlyle obviously provokes thought in a different way. It’s just 70-minutes. That’s just one Metra ride from Chicago to Wisconsin and you can learn a lot and be super entertained as opposed to like, “I saw this chick with green and she flew…and it was fun.” But I get it, I mean, sometimes people are drawn to that. It’s the Chicago theater audiences that are drawn to “the real” and that’s what you get here, but many tourists go to Cadillac and Oriental and they wonder what show is coming up. But this will always be here. It’s because of the stories that they tell and how they tell them.
KW: A lot of what we’re talking about touches on your kids, too. They need role models. What about you? Who did you look up to and think, “I wanna be that”?
JEJ: Ohhh boy. Well, when I was super young, Eddie Murphy. Eddie Murphy is always stuck in my head. For me it was like a bucket list when I played Donkey [in Shrek] at Chicago Shakes in 2013. I was just like, I get to play Eddie!!!! When I got a little older – at that time I just loved telling jokes; I wasn’t so much concerned with the acting. When I finally started to act, my father was like, “Well, you should probably know James Earl Jones is your cousin. And he’s coming here to do a show. And if you’re interested in goin’, we can go.” I was like…”Oh! Sure!” So I went. Whenever he came here, we would get tickets and see him perform. His story is specifically personal to me because he has an awful stutter. I have Tourette’s. Both he and I…it’s a matter of finding yourself so focused, so in love with what you’re doing, the stutter goes away; the Tourette’s goes away, the quirks and jerks, they stop, and watching him perform, knowing his story, helped me – as I got older – focus on my craft. It was easier to, in the moment, suppress all off my physical quirks and jerks. It was not, though, my desire to be an actor as a career. I wanted to be a doctor.
KW: Slightly different.
JEJ: It actually links to the Tourette’s. They say that it’s a hereditary disease. When I was a sophomore in college and I still had a great-great Grandmother,nobody in my family had tourettes. My mother was talking to me about my very difficult birth and how they thought it might break my neck. Me, theorizing as a non-doctor, I was like, maybe it was my intense breech that did something to the nerve, and perhaps triggered… I mean, a lot of things aren’t hereditary, but it has to start somewhere. I thought, okay, here’s my mission. I’m gonna become an obstetrician and deliver children all over the world and they will never suffer from hurt, harm, or danger, ever in life. And I did early application to Emory University. I was gonna go there for pre-med; I was all suited and booted. I was doing a medical program at UIC [University of Illinois at Chicago] in the department of transplant surgery and I just remember my supervisor talking to me casually about his trajectory through medical school and I was like hmmm…that’s just for you, right? Not everybody has to be there that long?” He was like, “Of course, you can skew it by a year, maybe two, but…you’re lookin’ at 8. Minimum.” So I was like, well, I gotta find something else to do, Jesus. I finished the program and then I immediately started applying to college. Someone told me I could get a scholarship if I sing, which I do, so I went to University of Illinois (at Urbana Champaign), specifically opera. I sang one opera in my entire time at the school. I never auditioned for a single one. Didn’t want to. I was forced to do it. And came out of school still confused. I went to Europe, sang. Came back to Chicago, confused. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was working in advertising and the catalyst that pushed me to perform, he passed away, and left me a letter saying that I had amounted to nothing. He didn’t say it exactly like that, but I kinda felt like in the words it was, “I’m leaving you my piano; I’m leaving you my music. You’re one of my dearest students. I’ve loved you for many years, You’re a wonderful person. You just haven’t done anything.” Like, you’ve spent your time casually singing with Grant Park Chorus or CSO, but you’re singing these well-oiled machines and it’s not something you really enjoy. It’s not something you really care about. You need to do something that sets you apart. Essentially the note was saying that he felt I had a star quality and that he thought I should embrace that. So, beginning of the next year, I auditioned, and I didn’t look back. I was doing shows. Singing on the boat at Navy Pier. I was super busy. Then I booked the show Spelling Bee at Drury Lane Water Tower in ’06 and that basically cemented it for me. Like….okay, I guess this is what I’m going to do for my life. So I did. And so that’s how I found my way here. Which is kind of random but…now that I’m doing it, I couldn’t imagine not doing it. This is all I wanna do for the rest of my life.
KW: It’s funny, my father is a doctor. He would love to be doing what you’re doing…he’d get off at the next exit ramp…
JEJ: [laughter] Well, it’s like Ken Jeong! He’s an M.D. But he’s hilarious. You would’ve never known. It can happen, clearly. If you wanna do it, you just gotta do it.
KW: We talked to Harmony France and Danni Smith…
KW: We were talking about responsibility to racial parity, in addition to gender parity, and how they want to navigate that without just “talking the talk,” why not just do it? Do you feel a responsibility as an artist or an actor to what projects you take or theaters you work at in the sense of being a socially conscious person?
JEJ: Yeah, I think that luckily, for the most part, I haven’t found myself in a really uncomfortable situation where I just absolutely don’t agree at all. But I have found myself doing a show where I thought I had a responsibility to speak up about things that I thought were not really appropriate. Or, I don’t agree. But I think that there has yet to be a show that I have felt my family could not see. There have certainly been shows my daughter can’t see, but I don’t think that I felt like there was a show she couldn’t see because of the subject material, but just that she’s a child I just think that if there’s an excessive amount of cursing…and you can talk about race, but when people get killed onstage then it kinda makes me a little uncomfortable honestly and I say no thank you. Obviously I think that adults grasp that stuff better. And yes, you can’t really seem to avoid something like that on the news. But at the same time, if I can, I want her to see the things that aren’t too intense. God willing, I’m still doing this and she’s older and she feels compelled and wants to attend, she can. I don’t think I’ve done something yet where I’m like – where my family can’t see this because this is just ridiculous. When the time comes, I’m sure that I will make the conscious decision, my parents encourage me in everything that I do. But I feel like I want to make sure that I’m making them just as proud as I think they’re feeling when they’re supporting me. As opposed to them smiling like, “Great job son, can’t believe you did that!” Now to be fair, my mother, I love her so much, [sotto voce] she’s so boring, but she’ll say James, I don’t know. That one moment I had to turn my head. Okay mama, that’s fine. My grandmother on the other hand is like, “Baby, I loved every minute! It was so FUNNY.” Like, in this show, my mom is like…”James, what’re you doin’ onstage?” And my dad loves everything. My mother is the nurturer, but she’s also the prude. She’s the prude in the family. But I don’t feel like I’ve done anything so out of pocket that my family could not be there to support me. And hopefully I never find myself at that point.
There’s art and there is morality. I do believe that they can coexist. I feel like there are probably people out there who think they’ve lost their souls years ago, but I still have it. I’d like to hold onto it for a few more years. I haven’t done a show yet where I’ve felt like I was being socially irresponsible, or inconsiderate to who I am, or to my family, or to who I am as a culture.
KW: So you don’t want to lose your soul…where does your soul want to be in theater-future? Five, ten years from now? What conversations do you want us to be having?
JEJ: The conversations that we’re having now. The conversation that you and I are having. But on a grander scale…to the point that we don’t have to have the conversation. That we find ourselves in a place where the things that you talk about have nothing to do with race or height but just that you saw an amazing show. I realize that’s ambitious. For all of the stuff people say, many people are like it’s 2016 and you look out your window or watch your TV screen and you’re like, but this madness is happening. So as far as people think we’ve gone, there are still people who have taken 3.5 million steps back. You just hope that, especially in something like theater, like you go to the AEA website and go on any casting notice, the first thing they try to make clear is, ‘AEA is open to all ethnicities, disabilities’ and that’s not true. A lot of theaters will say well, yeah, we put it. We don’t BELIEVE it, but we have to put it, we have to put it. And I think that’s sad and unfortunate. So, hopefully, when we have conversations five years later, it’s not about asking whether there’s an issue with being too black, too hispanic, where it’s just like, we’re doing this show and we’re all various cultures and we all like to identify individually, but we are all accepted. When you sit down and watch a show, you’re not completely caught off guard by the difference in race or gender, but instead caught up in it. The Matchmaker…if that isn’t the most randomly diverse group of actors brought together in a long time I don’t know what is. To have someone say, “No, I only have one leg, but I’m all good.” That’s amazing. But the thing is, I read one of her interviews, you want people to just see the show and not think, which leg is real. You want people to see the through and not get caught up with something that is trivial. Are you in the story or not?” You know, like, don’t worry about how short this actress is as opposed to how tall he is or how short he is vs how tall she is or the fact that one of them is Asian American and one is Latin American or any of those things. Just being able to come to a theater, see a show, and have a conversation about how great it was. Not about how black, how dark, how light. How Asian sounding. I mean, there are so many things that people will sometimes touch on and you’re like, that’s irrelevant. So, that’s…what I’d like to see in 5 years? Hell, I’d like to see it tomorrow. The sooner the better.
KW: Do shows like this help? Do you think a piece like Carlyle gets people engaged who may not have been before?
JEJ: I will say the awesome thing about our time right now is that we have Google. And Yahoo, and Bing, and access to the internet. All types of searches. There are people who learn things about the show that they didn’t know…and they will wait until they can turn their phone on, and they will look this stuff up. It’s kind of random, but I don’t know if you know there’s a story coming out about Anita Hill.
KW: Yes, with Kerry Washington.
JEJ: So if you google it, Kerry Washington, Anita Hill, you’ll see it. It’s like, this show couldn’t be more on time. But it’s one of those things where 20 years ago, eh, 25 years ago where what you could do was very limited on the internet, people were talking about stuff that happened with Anita Hill. Things that happened decades ago, sometimes people talk about, but it’s not like, those things don’t “go viral” per se. The time that we’re living in now, everything can go viral. It’s like, there are young people who know nothing about Anita Hill or younger generations who don’t know, they’ll come and see this and be like…Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, what!? And they’re gonna google it and then Kerry Washington’s show is gonna get more heat – not that it isn’t already – but it’s out there and it’s being talked about. So it’s just interesting how that circle works. People will leave this theater and things that may be were never really relevant to a younger generation is going to be relevant, and people will talk about more. It’s very interesting how it all comes together. I know about Anita Hill, because I’m of a certain age, but a lot of people don’t. And they’re like, what’s the story? Huh. And I can guarantee that someone is going to see Confirmation and wish that they had seen this show too.
KW: Confirmation is, obviously, a TV movie. What do you feel you get out of being onstage that maybe you don’t get on film or in TV?
JEJ: Well, I do a lot of voiceover. But theater is great because every day it’s different. Every audience is different. Sometimes…some days the script is different. [Shhhhhh!] Alright, alright. But that’s the thing, when you’re doing a show like this or the Spelling Bee show where you have four spellers from the audience you have no idea what they’re gonna say, no idea how they’re gonna react or what they’re gonna do. Carlyle is the same in that it immediately breaks the fourth wall. The purpose is to talk to these audiences. And so just talking to them, just having a conversation, the reactions are…[pause] they’re great. For me, theater is the best because you know that you’re changing all of these people. Maybe for the better, hopefully not for the worse. But you know at that moment, you are affecting each of these individuals in a way. You don’t do that with film. You do the film, you leave. You do a commercial, you leave. But like the theater you’re in it, you see these people, you hear them. It doesn’t necessarily change my show per say but it’s interesting to hear and to see. It’s just as thrilling for the actor’s onstage watching the audience.
KW: So you have a daughter…how old is she?
JEJ: Ten…OOOOHHHHH. Eleven! She’s eleven, I’m in trouble.
KW: What kind of conversations do you have with her about all this?
JEJ: It’s no offense to anyone who happens to be a white child, but my daughter will find herself in the thick of more conversations…my daughter is me, she’s like a female Caryle. Carlita. In the regard that like, she’s a dark-skinned African-American girl, who really hasn’t had to deal a great deal of issues regarding race because most of her friends at her school, many of them, are white, Asian, or Latino. For some odd reason, and it’s super disturbing, you’re made fun of more as an African-American girl amongst other African Americans. At my mother’s school, I just felt like the kids said the most out of pocket things. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Hotel Rwanda?
JEJ: It’s like Hutu and the Tutsis. We have a problem with you because you’re darker, as opposed to just being a different color. That’s something she doesn’t necessarily deal with at her school. They’re just like, oh, that’s Semaje. As opposed to oh, that’s Semaje the African dark girl. She just happens to be dark skinned, that doesn’t classify her as something less than you, or not as important, or not as attractive. But for some odd reason, the ignorant black kids do that. And so that was…that’s been a slight issue for her when she finds herself around a lot of black kids that may be… She generally doesn’t deal with that, with us. And she’s intelligent, she’s an only child. She can have fun but she’s sometimes not as playful because she is the only child. I’m not outside every day doing cartwheels with her, we ride bikes together, but…I feel like there are things that I tell her that I want her to be aware of when I think that it’s appropriate. But I have to say that there’s also the drawback of sometimes, when you don’t find a good balance of being with people of various races, colors, creeds, what can happen sometimes and what I feel has happened with my daughter at some point, where she was like, “All you see on TV are these Disney princesses who are white with fair skin, and she was like…I want to be like that.” Until the Princess and the Frog came out, every princess didn’t look like her. And it’s so subtle, it like goes under the radar, but it can affect them greatly. There’s another cast member in the show, Patrick Clear, his daughter is doing her residency at St. Francis in Evanston. He said, “I’m so lucky that my daughter had great, positive, female science teachers along the way.” You don’t think about it, but…they were female, and they were great at their job, very interested, and this potentially shaped who his daughter was. My mother is a teacher at my daughter’s school, unfortunately there is one African female teacher. Ms. Easely, 2nd grade. I remember that during the teacher assignments, they gave my daughter the other teacher first. And I was like “Oh…oh no, laughter,”I don’t want to have to burn down the school.” Miss Easely is going to be my daughter’s 2nd grade teacher hell or high water. Why? Because my mother is a teacher, my mother is a positive female figure in my daughter’s life, and the only opportunity she could see that in action is Miss Easely. So then I’m gonna need her to have Miss Easely. This may be the only time until she gets to high school where she can be exposed to an African-American woman doing something great in the classroom setting. So yeah, that is important. It might seem like a subtle thing but like…having people who look like my daughter exposing her to musicians and actors and scientists…I try to expose her to as much as I can but I also want her to know that there are POC both male and female that she can read and learn about. I think it is important for her to know that if she sets her mind do it, anything she wants to do, she should be able to do. And so I try to expose her to what I feel is appropriate. We talk about Civil Rights. She loves Coretta Scott King. She’s done some research papers about her. She tells the whole story, the speech. That’s important to me. Unfortunately, we don’t see that enough, specifically in the African-American community. I feel like you’re surrounded sometimes by a sense of apathy and mediocrity in certain circles. It’s important to pull people from those circles. To encourage them to shoot for the stars.
James Earl Jones II returns to Goodman Theatre, where he previously appeared in the New Stages Festival production of Carlyle. Chicago credits include October Sky, Elf, Dreamgirls and The Full Monty (Marriott Theatre); Satchmo at the Waldorf, The Secret Garden, The Good Book and Porgy and Bess (Court Theatre); Sondheim on Sondheim (Porchlight Music Theatre); Shrek (Chicago Shakespeare Theater); Cymbeline (First Folio Theatre); Sweet Charity and the upcoming Company (Writers Theatre); Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting (Lookingglass Theatre Company); Porgy and Bess (Lyric Opera of Chicago and San Francisco Opera); The Wiz (Theatre at the Center, Jeff Award nomination); Aida, Spamalot and Ragtime (Drury Lane Theatre); A Civil War Christmas (Northlight Theatre); Annie Get Your Gun (Ravinia Festival); The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Broadway in Chicago and Mason Street Warehouse); Dessa Rose (Apple Tree Theatre); Aspects of Love (Jedlicka Performing Arts Center); I Pagliacci (Intimate Opera); On the Town (New Classic Singers), as well as The Gondoliers, Patience, H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance. National tour credits include The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Television and film credits include Pokerhouse, Chicago Fire and Empire.