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An actor-scholar tees up a big role
Harry Lennix will debut on Broadway in August Wilson's 'Radio Golf,' a black bourgeois breakthrough.
By Rob Kendt, Special to The Times
New York — SOME roles you just don't turn down. Like, say, the lead in the Broadway bow of August Wilson's final play, "Radio Golf." Or, for that matter, the part of Benny Southstreet in a production of "Guys and Dolls" at Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary in Chicago.
"I didn't think about it as a freshman — I thought, 'Theater? Acting? That's for weirdos,' " recalled Harry Lennix, the actor who took both parts and has no regrets about either. "But my sophomore year, these pretty girls were coming to school and I asked why. I was told they were auditioning for the play, and I was like, 'Well, let's go!' "
The role marks more than simply Lennix's Broadway debut, opposite such powerhouses as Tonya Pinkins, who plays his wife, Mame, and Anthony Chisholm, a seasoned Wilson regular. It is also the debut in Wilson's oeuvre of a specimen long overdue for his theatrical consideration: a black bourgeois.
"This is August's first play about the middle class," said director Kenny Leon, who also helmed the 2004 Broadway run of Wilson's penultimate play, "Gem of the Ocean," which was set in 1904 and featured a character, Caesar Wilks, who is Harmond Wilks' great-grandfather. "It's interesting to work on this right after 'Gem of the Ocean,' which was set not long after slavery. Those people didn't have food or a place to lay their heads. Now, almost a hundred years later in 'Radio Golf,' we have homes, we have cars, we can walk onto golf courses almost anywhere. But are we sustaining ourselves in terms of our culture and our history?"
That open question throbs through "Radio Golf's" two-hour-plus running time, as Wilks is poised between an acquisitive, golf-worshipping young business partner and a wise oldster who refuses to abandon a condemned house in the blighted Hill district — a neighborhood whose redevelopment is a linchpin of Wilks' campaign. Lennix, at 6-foot-4 an imposing, naturally heroic figure almost invariably cast as surpassingly serious men, is onstage nearly without a break.
"Harry's the perfect Harmond," said Leon, who directed three other actors in the role before New York (including Rocky Carroll in the play's 2005 premiere at the Mark Taper Forum). "It's a challenging role. For a lot of it he's listening to other characters. He's got to give the impression that he's listening differently to different people. You have to see the man change right before our eyes."
INDEED, though he bypassed the priesthood, the way Lennix talks about his craft suggests a reverent dedication that wouldn't be out of place in the cloisters.
"I like to get in there — I have to understand what I'm doing, I can't sort of just wing it," said Lennix, 42, an impeccably tailored bachelor with large brown eyes, an understatedly smoky voice and a Kirk Douglas-worthy chin dimple.
He cited the recent production of "Macbeth" he headlined at Hollywood's Lillian Theatre.
"I would try to stop myself, but I would wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning thinking about a moment in the play, and I'd have to get out the variorum and read what Tennyson said about this line or that line," Lennix said, referring to the scholarly reference editions of Shakespeare's plays. He continued in a tone that may be as close to breathless as he gets: "The cool thing about the new variorum for 'Macbeth' is that it has performance history, so you could see what Barrymore did or find out how Booth did it. There's not a variorum on August Wilson yet, but I'm sure that there will be one day, saying, 'This is what he was writing about,' or, 'This is the interpretation of that line according to Laurence Fishburne.' "
The absence of such annotations doesn't deter Lennix's research.
"I especially have to do this work with August Wilson, because his plays are dense," Lennix said. "There's a lot of intertextuality — things that he's referencing that may or may not have historical basis but do have cultural bases and resonances."
In fact, many of the references, particularly in Wilson's later works, are to previous plays in the 10-play "cycle" he completed before his death Oct. 2, 2005. Lennix is well versed in this body of work, which encompasses plays set in every decade of the 20th century: He has appeared in two Chicago productions of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," and he played the title character in the Taper's production of "King Hedley II" in 2001.
Suggest to him that Wilson's view of the African American experience over the last century was essentially tragic and despairing, if not hopeless, and Lennix counters with the kind of close reading only an actor or a scholar — or a hyphenate actor-scholar, as he seems to be — seems qualified to do.
"At the end of 'King Hedley II,' there's a little thing where a cat meows — it's the black cat come back to life," Lennix said. Indeed, in that play's unutterably bleak conclusion, not only the title character has perished over the grave of the aforementioned feline. Also among the play's casualties is the cat's owner, Aunt Ester, a conjurer said to be 366 years old, who had been preserving the community's only pre-slavery links to Africa. That offstage meow is a flicker of hope, later stoked into a blaze by the end of "Radio Golf," when a chastened, renewed Harmond, still dressed in his buppie's suit and tie, literally dons war paint to fight city hall.
"I think August really takes a lot after the person he was named after, which was St. Augustine," Lennix explained of the playwright born Frederick August Kittel in 1945. "St. Augustine, in a time of strangely confluent negative impacts on the Holy Roman Empire, was able to reinfuse Christian symbols in a way that really spoke to the people, to say that there is a reason to find courage and take hope. August Wilson does the same thing with things that are commonplace in the black experience — people believing in witches, ghosts, haints. So that black cat means something. And the final image of 'Radio Golf,' of a man putting on war paint — he's going out to fight this fight. And I think that Harmond Wilks can win."
Glacial pace of change
IT'S hard not to notice, though, that by the end Wilks has effectively taken the fight outside of electoral politics. Doesn't the growing slate of African Americans in elected office inspire some hope of change from within the system?
"In Chicago, we had a black mayor for a long time," Lennix said. "Los Angeles had a black mayor; New York has had a black mayor. What has changed as a function of those people being in those political offices? I can find very little. The first order of business when you get elected as a black person is to make the white people comfortable — to let them know you're not going have a Mau Mau rebellion and take over the police force, and that you'll protect them."
"We always fall into the trap of trying to find one current of black thought as represented by one black person," Lennix said. "It's always one guy that we look to. Right now, Barack Obama has captured the zeitgeist, but I don't know how much of my experience he can really relate to — I'd like to think he can. But the bottom line is that black American thought is multifaceted, and it cannot be contained in one person."
Lennix knows whereof he speaks: The working-class South Shore neighborhood where he grew up represented as multifaceted a cross-section of midcentury African American culture as you could find, with a heady mix of recent Southern arrivals, black Muslims, street gangs and a burgeoning funk-music scene.
"Chicago at the time, and my neighborhood in particular, was a variety of worlds," Lennix recalled. "It was like this weird tapestry — this rug that you rode on that was the combined black experience all in one."
Though he remembers some tough economic times as the youngest of four children raised by the widow of a World War II veteran from Louisiana, Lennix felt no scarcity of positive black images in either his immediate environs or the larger culture.
"We all read Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry in school, and it was the time of the blaxploitation films and 'Roots,' so I saw a lot of black people doing a lot of black stuff," Lennix said. And though he's had his share of success in Hollywood — with memorable roles on "24," in "The Matrix" franchise and "Ray" — Lennix said he feels that the cultural status of actors of color hasn't improved since his youth.
"If you look at what black actors get credit for playing, or what they get awards for, it's almost invariably some negative person on the one hand, or else someone ridiculously superhuman or saintly," Lennix said. "So we're back again to playing basically glorified extras — unrealistic people or really bad people. Most times that you see black people in film or on TV, they really don't have a story of their own; they're only there to help out the white leads. They don't drive the narrative."
To the extent that Lennix can drive his own career choices, he does. And while he understands that as an actor, he's essentially hired in service of the visions of others, he's adamant about his contribution.
"Because actors are so heavily relying on writers and directors, the only area of power that we have is our immediate experience," Lennix said. "We become the audience, in a sense — we become the actual moving figures that allows those other visions to come through." The most important thing, Lennix said, whether he's playing a villain (as in "Titus" or "Barbershop 2") or a hero (as in the Adam Clayton Powell biopic "Keep the Faith, Baby"), is that he can create "a multidimensional human being. I like to play the types of people whose energies and work are worth noting, whether they're good or bad — to say, 'Hey, this guy was here and you had to take note.' "
Notice has been taken. As director Leon said of Lennix in "Radio Golf": "It seems like he put everything, all facets of his life, into this one part."
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