Broadway's John Douglas Thompson Says Watching An August Wilson Play Pushed Him Into Acting

Broadway's John Douglas Thompson Says Watching An August Wilson Play Pushed Him Into Acting
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John Douglas Thompson

John Douglas Thompson

Courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown

By Gwendolyn Quinn

Lauded by the New York Times as “one of the most compelling classical stage actors of his generation,” John Douglas Thompson currently stars in August Wilson’s Jitney, which made its Broadway debut in January at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club, Jitney co-stars Harvy Blanks, Anthony Chisholm, Brandon J. Dirden, André Holland, Carra Patterson, Michael Potts, Keith Randolph Smith, and Ray Anthony Thomas.

Born in Bath, England, and raised in Montreal, Canada, and Rochester, New York to West Indian parents, who were part of the migration path from Jamaica to the United Kingdom, Thompson says his career as an actor might not have happened if not for a date. After college, where he studied business and marketing, Thompson moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where he worked for Burroughs Corporation (now Unisys), a computer, software, and service company. When arranging a first date with a Yale Medical School student, he decided to impress her with tickets to August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which happened to be playing at the Yale Repertory Theater across the street from where he lived. “I thought, ‘She'll like me if I take her to this play, it’s intellectual, it’s art, it’s creative, and it’s imagination,’” he recalls. “We set up a time to go see this show, and she stood me up.”

Thompson went to the theater alone, and that night in 1986 changed the course of his life. Before Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Thompson had only attended one Broadway play, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. “That was my only theater experience, and I hadn’t seen any black people on stage,” he continued. “I had no idea that there were stories about black people on stage. When I went, I had no idea what the story was about. I was sitting there watching this fabulous, incredible story of black people, people who look like me, people who act like me, people who are members of my family. It was an epiphany for me. I was watching the story unfold and I was taken aback by the whole experience, watching all this nobility and grace onstage.”

“I knew right then that that's what I wanted to do,” Thompson continues. “I wanted to do what I was watching; I wanted to be an actor. In that moment, that's when the idea, the dream, the desire to want to be an actor came. I remember distinctly; I said ‘Oh God, if you’re watching, teach me how to do what I’m watching; make me an actor.’ It was a powerful moment. I always tell people I certainly built a career doing classic plays, like Shakespeare, but I became an actor because of August Wilson, for sure.”

Although resolute in his decision to be a thespian, it still took a while before the dream manifested. Thompson continued as an account executive with Burroughs Corporation for nearly seven years until he was laid off and took a severance package, then collected unemployment for 18 months. During that time, he auditioned and enrolled in Trinity Repertory Conservatory in Providence, Rhode Island, where he entered into a then two-year Master of Fine Arts program. After Thompson graduated, it took another four years before he landed his first professional job.

Years later, in 2012, a full-circle moment occurred: Thompson starred in his first Wilson play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and was ushered in by director Phylicia Rashad at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Jitney is the second Wilson production in which Thompson has appeared, and his fourth on Broadway after appearances in A Time to Kill, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Julius Caesar.

Jitney is the last of the late August Wilson’s ten century-cycle plays to run on Broadway after being produced off-Broadway in the ‘80s. Thompson says he has followed the career of director Santiago-Hudson for several years. “I’ve seen three or four of Ruben’s productions of August Wilson, and they were all stellar and they all featured brilliant actors,” says Thompson. “The last production I saw was Piano Lesson at the Signature Theatre, which I thought was incredible. He made that play sing for me in a different way than it had previously. I knew I wanted to work with him. I would contact him from time to time when he was casting a show, but by the time I reached him he had already had the play cast.”

Last summer, Thompson had an opportunity to work with Santiago-Hudson at a gala event for The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park Festival, where they shared a dressing room. This time, Thompson’s timing was perfect. He asked if he could audition for Jitney. Santiago-Hudson sent him the sides to audition for the role of Becker, the owner of the gypsy car service. He auditioned with Anthony Chisholm, who plays Fielding, and Brandon Dirden, who plays Booster. He read for two scenes, one with Becker and Fielding and the other with Becker and Booster. He got the job. Thompson says, “This is one of those incredibly rare occasions where you audition, and they tell you that you got the job in that moment, in the room, because typically you audition and you don’t hear about it until later or you may never hear about it.”

The character of Becker is a husband, father, and a pillar of the community. Thompson describes him as the patriarch of the jitney station. Thompson says that when he initially received the sides, he didn’t think he was right for the role because he felt he wasn’t old enough to play Becker. However, he was willing and prepared to play any of the roles just to have the opportunity to work with Santiago-Hudson.

“Working with Ruben is fascinating because he is what I suspected,” says Thompson. “He is the best communicator of August Wilson’s works, themes, and ideas. He gave us all such an amazing context for our characters, for the world that our characters are in, and for what we were doing. You couldn’t help but fall in love with your character. He made you love your character. I loved Becker from the outset, but he showed me things about August Wilson in the words and the meanings that made me fall even deeper in love, not just with the play but with my character of course.”

As Thompson further explains, Santiago-Hudson had a very strong understanding of the rhythms, the pacing, and the velocity at which the play should move. Thompson was fascinated by his approach to directing because he feels that in other contemporary plays, the actors often have a tendency to speak their lines in their own time and at their own pace. Thompson shares that Wilson’s work requires a unique pace within the context of the language to establish meaning, create ideas, and communicate them effectively to the audience. Thompson says he was well aware of those internal workings.

Of the cast rehearsals, Thompson says, “Every day was like a wonder because we could see all this new stuff coming right out of the language. We would witness the actors making these incredible choices that just made the language sing in a way, and made the play sing in a way, and made the story sing.”

An official Wilsonian, Thompson is honored to be a part of the Wilson legacy. “August Wilson plays are universal and are told through African-Americans and the prism of African-American life and culture,” he says. “His themes highlight African-Americans and says you have a place, too. You’re important. You too are part of the landscape of America. All ten of his plays made it to Broadway. That’s a singular achievement. There’s no other achievement like that in this country and perhaps internationally, where a playwright has written a series of plays like this. His exploration of the African-American journey in this country in the 20th century have made it to the pinnacle of theater. That’s unheard of. Eugene O'Neill hasn’t done that, Arthur Miller hasn’t done that, and Tennessee Williams hasn’t done that. There are many other great American playwrights, but I’m a part of this historic moment. If there was a Mount Rushmore of playwrights, August Wilson goes dead center because what he has achieved is beyond what those other three great playwrights have achieved. He left us too soon.”

Next month, Thompson will be featured in Oprah Winfrey’s HBO film The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, premiering on April 22. Directed by George C. Wolfe, the movie co-stars Rose Byrne, Courtney B. Vance, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Oprah Winfrey, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and others. Thompson currently co-stars in Wolves, which was written and directed by Bart Freundlich and premiered last year at the Tribeca Film Festival. Thompson plays an ex-NBA basketball player who becomes a surrogate father for one of the characters in the movie.

Well-known for an outstanding body of work in classical and contemporary theater, the award-winning and critically-acclaimed Thompson has an extensive list of credits, including roles in Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, The Iceman Cometh, A Doll’s House, Antony and Cleopatra, Hedda Gabler, Red Velvet, Richard III, Mother Courage, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, Tamburlaine, Satchmo at the Waldorf, The Emperor Jones, The Father, The Forest, Troilus & Cressida, and others. Thompson currently resides in New York City.

Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media consultant with a career spanning more than 25 years. She is a contributor to and BE Pulse (via, Huffington Post and Quinn is also a contributor to Souls Revealed and Handle Your Entertainment Business.

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