David Alan Anderson may not have the leading role in the Indiana Repertory Theatre's upcoming production August Wilson's Radio Golf, but he's listed first on the cast list, a measure of his local draw — and the respect he's earned at the IRT and within the local theater community.
“I continue to be fascinated by how audiences are drawn to David,” says James Still, playwright-in-residence at the IRT. “He’s a great storyteller on stage. David and I are deep collaborators. In a collaboration like the one I have with David I’m able to learn about what I’m writing about.”
Anderson has just finished a run of A Christmas Carol at the IRT, and Wilson’s Radio Golf, in which he plays a bank vice president seeking to gentrify a Pittsburgh slum, opens Jan. 10. But our story of Anderson's role at the IRT really begins with that of John Henry Redwood.
Redwood originated the role of Alonzo Fields in James Still’s Looking Over the President’s Shoulder in 2001 at the IRT. The one-man show follows the life story of a White House butler who served from 1931 to 1953.
“I was technically the understudy for that production,” explains Anderson, who sat down with me in the IRT’s lobby a few weeks ago. “Once [the show] left [the IRT], its life existed with him in the role pretty much exclusively.”
That is, until 2003, when Redwood, who had performed the show more than 300 times, went missing a couple weeks prior to the opening of yet another production, this one at the People’s Light and Theatre in Pennsylvania.
“I was part of a small circle of people who were trying to find John Henry,” says Still. “It was a terrible situation.” Redwood was discovered in his home, dead of a heart attack at 60.
Looking over Redwood's shoulder
That’s when Anderson got the call that would bond him and Still for life. “I was told that I was going to be receiving a call inquiring if I was interested in going and doing it at the next theater,” says Anderson. “When I finally spoke to James, the feeling was that I was the understudy, and I was very much a part of this.”
“Where David comes into [this story] is extremely intense,” remembers Still. “Who do you turn to in a time like that? Who could I entrust not just the play, which is enough of a responsibility… but then on the personal side of things: Who was I going to risk walking through that moment with emotionally?”
Anderson agreed to step into the part. He had just closed the second of two August Wilson plays performed at Penumbra Theatre, an African-American performance company based in St. Paul, Minn., of which he's a member. That was on a Tuesday. By Wednesday, he was at the IRT getting fitted for a tuxedo and watching archival video of Redwood’s celebrated performance.
And a week after stepping off stage at Penumbra Theatre, and with book in hand, Anderson performed the Pennsylvania premiere of Looking Over the President’s Shoulder in front of an audience.
“Honestly, we had a very truncated, short, intense rehearsal process just trying to make David as comfortable as possible,” says Still, “but also trying to mount a professional production that audiences were going to want to see. I remember we would work, and I would go outside and have to cry. It was a very scary intense time. The fact that I went through that with David … experiences like that bond people forever. Artistically, I was so incredibly proud of him. A solo show is a wonderful mountain for an actor to climb. I love witnessing their artistic triumphs. In this case, it was so much more loaded. I was so proud of him — and moved by what he was able to do in his own time of grief.”
“It didn’t dawn on me until I got there, when I saw James,” says Anderson. “This was tough for him. I had no room to deal with how it affected me. If I did, there was no way I could do it. I wanted to be strong. He [Still] was hurting, and I just wanted to be there for him. I had to understand that it was a staged reading. I had no choice but to look at it like that. When things like that go on, audiences are kind of hyped for it. This is the magic of theater.”
As the run of the show progressed, Anderson began to understand how deeply he was bonded to his IRT family. “I was really tired. August Wilson plays are mountains, and I had just finished doing two,” says Anderson. “I started getting letters and notes from people [at the IRT]. I taped them all on my wall. Email notes. Notes of encouragement. From people in the scene shop or costuming, the box office, marketing, donors, board members.” In remembering this, Anderson‘s voice quivers as he says, “And, um, that was really cool. That was really cool. It made it easier too.”
Anderson later reprised the role on the IRT stage under the direction of Janet Allen. “I started from scratch, but I brought my bag of goodies,” says Anderson.