January 17, 2023: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
James Earl Jones, who turns ninety-two today, was the first dramatic actor I ever saw on the Broadway stage that took my breath away. Seeing him as boxer Jack Jefferson in Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope was one of the highlights of my young theatregoing life (in fact, it was only my sixth Broadway show and my very first straight play — what a way to start!). Watching him was akin to being punched in the stomach; I was literally gasping at the range and scope of his performance. I had never seen anything like it. And today, more than fifty years later, it remains so.
Jones had made his Broadway debut ten years earlier in 1958 with a small role in Sunrise at Campobello, the first of what would come to total twenty-one Broadway shows over the next six decades. With just as many to his credit off-Broadway, he has also performed all across America in regional theatre, which is where both his Tony Award winning performances (The Great White Hope in Washington, D.C. and August Wilson’s Fences in New Haven, CT) began. And in a full circle journey, Campobello played the Cort Theatre, recently renamed the James Earl Jones in honor of Jones's contribution to the American Theatre. I was in attendance at the dedication ceremony in September and can tell you that it was a genuine thrill when they unveiled the new marquee. This short video of Jones getting a private tour of the renovation was shown to mark the occasion and is deeply moving:
Born in rural Arkabutla, Mississippi in 1931, Jones had a childhood far from the bright lights of the big city. Nothing strange in that, considering many actors are drawn to a life in the theatre from even farther distances and greater personal obstacles. Jones’s major stumbling block, a tough one when your sights are set on becoming an actor, was that he stuttered as a child, causing him painful shyness and anxiety.
Things were fine for a few years until a traumatic move to Jackson, Michigan forced another separation. The changes in adjusting to the north from the south caused young Jimmy’s already tenuous hold on things to exacerbate his minor stutter into something major. In his autobiography, Voices and Silences, he wrote: “For about eight years, from the time I was six until I was about fourteen, I was virtually mute.”
His young parents didn’t have a clue how to care for him, and separated from one another directly after his birth, his father taking off for the west coast. His mother then drifted away, leaving Jones to be raised by his maternal grandparents, whom he adored and called Mama and Papa.
As a young man, Jones was finally reunited in New York with his father, who by this time had become an actor. Blacklisted from work in film and television like so many others in the late 1940s and early 50s, Robert Earl Jones took refuge in the close-knit world of the New York theatre. This example provided his son with the template of a safe haven which he has never abandoned, even though he has been prolific in film and television, winning Emmy Awards and even a career Academy Award for distinguished achievement in 2011 (he couldn’t be at the ceremony because he was in London performing onstage in Driving Miss Daisy opposite Vanessa Redgrave).
To say it has always been a pleasure to see James Earl Jones onstage is an understatement. Beyond that afternoon at The Great White Hope, when I was twelve years old, I got to see him in Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and in Philip Hayes Dean’s Paul Robeson — magnificent in all, and all of which I saw before turning twenty-one. In later years, I got see Jones shine in Othello, opposite Christopher Plummer, and as successor to the Tony Award-winning Zakes Mokae in Master Harold… and the Boys, by Athol Fugard, one of Jones’s favorite playwrights.
Then nearly twenty years after I saw his Jack Jefferson in The Great White Hope, came his Troy Maxon in 1987’s Fences. The play called for its actors to both underplay and scale operatic heights, the very dimensions in which Jones specialized. It doesn’t hurt that he is larger than life at a commanding 6’2” and a voice that is unlike anybody else’s. Deep, penetrating… how else to describe it? He’s Darth Vader, for crying out loud!
In 2012, while still living in Los Angeles, I was on a visit to New York when a revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man was playing its final weekend. I didn’t plan on seeing it, since memories of a revival a dozen years earlier were still fresh, but I took into consideration that Jones was playing former President Art Hockstader, a wonderful part, and I couldn’t resist. I bought a ticket for the last performance that, for all I knew, might have marked his final appearance on Broadway. Then, three years later, I was back in the city and it was during the final weekend of the 2015 revival of Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You, where Jones was playing the role of Grandpa Vanderhoff. I didn’t hesitate. Just as three years prior, I bought a ticket for the final performance (one which I thought again could be Jones’s last), and was equally pleased when it didn’t turn out that way. I even went backstage with my son Jeremy, and after telling him that he was leaving soon for Russia to study at the Moscow Art Theatre, he looked my son dead in the eye and said: "Stay away from Putin."
Jones would return to Broadway again a year later with The Gin Game, D.L. Coburn’s complex two-hander, opposite Cicely Tyson. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to see it. But when in 2017 it was announced Jones was going to take part in a revival of Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge Mass, I made sure that this time I would be there.
As Nonno: the ailing nonagenarian, described by Williams as “a minor league poet with a major league spirit,” Jones was perfection. Outfitted in an ill-fitting, tattered and stained linen suit, he wheeled onto the stage early in the evening (as the script dictates), sporting a wig identical to Frederick Douglas’s massive mane; the leonine hairstyle suited the character for whom a haircut would be of little importance. Since Nonno is confined to a wheelchair, Jones’s movements were restricted, lending extra authority to his already formidable vocal instrument. To have seen this eighty-six-year-old bring his enormous reservoirs of grace and dignity to the role was a thing to behold. Nonno has been working on finishing a poem, according to his daughter, for many years. And his method of composing is to speak the poem aloud, repeating the phrases until he finds the last ones which will complete it. Images of oranges falling off a tree are part of its rich poetry, and when Nonno does achieve its completion, naturally his life is over.
It is safe to assume, due to age and infirmity, that this was the final hurrah stage-wise for James Earl Jones. Blessed is the only word I can muster for what a privilege it was to have seen him this one last time, adding yet another chance for me to experience his special magic — and actor of grace and majesty. We may never see his like again.
If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. To receive all future columns by email, hit the blue FOLLOW button above and feel free to comment below or write me at Ron@ronfassler.org.