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.
A theatrical historian
The experience, and Anderson’s work on several other of Still’s plays, puts Still at the top of his list of favorite playwrights. “Well, it’s a tie between August Wilson and James,” says Anderson. “For different reasons. James writes characters with lots of heart. People that you can embrace, people that you may know, and that you care about.”
Anderson has had ample opportunity to delve into the worlds created in Wilson’s ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle, which chronicles the African-American experience through each decade of the 20th century.
“August is a playwright who is chronicling and giving voice to the lives of people that I specifically know. When I look at the characters that people his plays, these are people that as a kid I knew. Giving voice to them in turn gives voice to me. I feel like I have a lot of pride when I get a chance to do August Wilson. He’s written some incredible characters and some really powerful plays.”
“You feel like you’re a historian in a way,” says Anderson. “You’re telling stories about the people that a lot of people don’t hear about. I take pride in it because I’m telling stories about people that I know my parents know, [who] didn’t get a chance to tell those stories.”
Wilson saw Anderson perform in a production of Jitney, one of the Pittsburgh Cycle plays. “There was a fundraiser at some house prior to the show, and I got to meet him…to stand on a porch and smoke a cigarette with him,” Anderson smiles. “After the show, he commented about my performance. I did a very honest portrayal, but not the way he envisioned it. Basically, that’s what he said. I think he wrote the role for a specific actor. But I’m not that actor, so I did it the way I wanted to.”
Though Anderson's process varies from play to play, he points to commonalities between any rehearsal and performance process. “Each role brings a different challenge for different reasons. Ultimately, the goal is to create a real honest character. You look for what makes them who they are [and] what connects you to them. The bottom line is, its about ensemble work, which was one of the things that was pounded into me at Penumbra. It’s about working with others to create the relationships that are going to best serve the moment. Acting is a lot about sharing. The more you give to a moment, the more you can get from it.”
As a young actor in the 1980s, Anderson cut his teeth at the IRT and Penumbra Theatre. Each company offered him life-long mentors in artistic directors Janet Allen (IRT) and Lou Bellamy (Penumbra). “I met Lou Bellamy in ‘89,” says Anderson. “And got cast in my first show by Janet Allen [at the IRT] in 1990. Janet has been very supportive of my growth as an actor, as has Lou.”
From there, performance opportunities opened up around the country: at Baltimore's CenterStage, the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (Othello and King Lear), the Berkshire Theatre Festival, The Black Rep in St. Louis (Macbeth). “It took me from there to here, to Seattle to Baltimore then back to Penumbra over the course of a season,” says Anderson. “It gave me a snapshot of how you can build something by developing relationships.”
With his dream in full swing, Anderson set his sights on becoming a company member with Penumbra Theatre.
“I got a job offer for a play in Chicago at the same time I had an offer to work on a staged reading at Penumbra, and I chose Penumbra,” explains Anderson. “I wanted the opportunity to work in a black theater, to be part of that. But I lived out of town, so there was a disconnect for me where I felt I wanted to be connected. After I had been in a couple of shows, I asked Lou what a brother has to do to be a company member. One year I went up and opened the book and there was my name. For me, it means a strong sense of pride. August Wilson is also listed as a company member there.”
“When I applied for my grant, I applied for the opportunity to see more plays. If you’re working, you don’t get a chance to see many shows,” says Anderson. “I rediscovered my enjoyment for the theater. I found that I was able to just sit and let this thing take me along, which is what you want to happen. You want to open the door to this vehicle to the audience. You want them to get in and enjoy the ride. I found I was still able to do that.”
In addition to watching theater himself, Anderson also used his grant to watch audiences. “I discovered that I was looking at the numbers of specifically African-Americans who go to the theater. I found that, if the show is by, for and about African-Americans, we tend to come a bit more. I also found that some of these places weren’t really marketing to African-Americans unless they were doing African-American plays.”
Most of these African-American plays are scheduled to coincide with Black History Month. “There is a running joke,” Anderson says, “that if you’re a black actor, you’re always working in February…which makes sense on one hand, but on the other hand you’re fighting against everyone else’s Black History Month play. I would maybe consider putting it somewhere else [in the season].”
Penumbra’s Lou Bellamy will direct the IRT production of Radio Golf, the final play in Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle. “For me, this is the meeting of two sides of my family coming together for the first time…my two mentors coming together,” Anderson says.
Anderson's main focus was on the text while preparing for the play. “Basically, what I’m doing is just reading the play and getting familiar with it,” Anderson says. “It sums up, in many ways, some of the struggles of the African American community at the end of the 20th century. If you go back and look at [Wilson’s] series of plays, if you look at the issues of each group of people in each one of those plays: racism, assimilation, alienation, family, politics, all of those things seem to be in this play. Its set in the ‘90s, and it deals with a lot of the issues you might think about, when you think about a group of people moving into a new century.”
“We all assimilate on some level,” Anderson says. “The fact that you have to learn to do it where you can still look at yourself in the mirror is accomplished [in Radio Golf] through the metaphor of golf. It’s a well-written play, very lyrical. He is such an effective storyteller.”
David Alan Anderson, at a glance
Education: Arsenal Tech High School, Indiana University-Bloomington
Recognition: Achievement Award, Circle City Chapter of The Links (African-American volunteer service organization); 2007 Lifetime Achievement Award from Arts Council of Indianapolis
Key roles: Caesar in Julius Caesar (IRT), Capulet in Romeo and Juliet (IRT), Walter Lee in A Raisin in the Sun (Guthrie Theatre and Penumbra Theatre, Minneapolis; Arizona Theatre, Phoenix; Cleveland Playhouse; Kansas City Rep); Othello in Othello (Great Lakes Theatre Festival, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival; Alonzo Fields in Looking Over the President's Shoulder (IRT, Delaware Theatre Company)
Film and TV work: Mike Hammer: Private Eye, America's Most Wanted, A Song for Jade, 587: The Great Train Robbery, Time Won't Fly
As director: MVP at IRT, Topdog/Underdog at Phoenix, The Color of Justice at IRT, Two Trains Running at Phoenix
Favorite roles: Floyd the Schoolboy Barton in Seven Guitars (Penumbra; “one of the tightest productions I've ever been a part of”); Alonzo Fields in Looking over the President's Shoulder; Kent in King Lear; Macbeth in Macbeth
Favorite play: August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone: “It speaks so much to a man's struggle to find himself ... about him trying to be the best he can be.”
Favorite playwrights: August Wilson: “He writes for me and writes about me; about my history and people that I know; and James Still: “His people have such a truth of heart.”
Favorite place in Indy: Eagle Creek Park: “I like fishing, and being on the water is kind of medicinal; I like to go there to meditate.”