Just before the opening night curtain rises on Fences on Thursday, a voice in the corridor will call “five minutes,” and James Earl Jones will make his way to the darkest corner of the stage. There, he will stand, rapt, alone, listening to the murmur of 1,300 people settling their bodies and belongings into the seats of the 46th Street Theater. What he hears, he says, will be an animal noise, a low, benign, undifferentiated rumble that reaches his ears as hubbahubbahubbahubbahubba. This a nightly ritual, a moment of communion with the unseen audience. The sound can bring on tears; with luck, it can evoke the emotion he wants for the first scene. At the very least it will, in his word, settle him before the lights go up on James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson, lover, liar, spoiler, domestic bully, trash man and faded star of the Negro Leagues, who thinks of life and death in baseball metaphors.
Fences is August Wilson’s vision of the black family experience—and the blighted dreams—of the 50’s, a few years before civil rights protests began to boil up through the country. In more than 30 years of acting, Mr. Jones has played a truckload of high and low characters (“I’m at my best as garbage men and kings”), but he said the other day that Mr. Wilson’s work is the first contemporary play since his momentous 1968 success as the fighter in Howard Sackler’s play, The Great White Hope, that draws on the depths of energy and emotion he is prepared to invest in a performance.
“Troy is supposed to jostle you, frighten you and maybe even depress you,” Mr. Jones said. “He ravages, partly because of his appetite, partly because he cannot separate his principles from his prejudices. He’s a highly principled man, but some of those principles are based on prejudices. He’s illiterate with a great deal to say. He wounds and bruises his kin. As an actor, I love him, just as I loved Jack Jefferson in Great White Hope.
The flawed, doomed hero of The Great White Hope was Mr. Jones’s signal opportunity to use a powerful range of gifts, and he seized it. The show not only made him a star, it established him as America’s premier black actor, a status yet to be challenged. His great variety of roles have ranged from Lopahin in The Cherry Orchard through a small parade of Shakespearean characters to the Alex Haley of the television mini-series Roots, to the slow-witted Lennie in Of Mice and Men. There have been times when Mr. Jones was the transforming principle of a night of theater. In the 1980 Broadway production of Athol Fugard’s A Lesson in Aloes, the moment he came on stage in the second act of the play, a quiet stream became a torrent of exploding water.
In Troy, Mr. Jones has a role shaped to his talents as lovingly as a master tailor cuts a bespoke overcoat. Four years ago, midway into a first draft of Fences, Mr. Wilson was writing an impassioned speech for Troy, one that required “a magnificent presence,” and suddenly began hearing James Earl Jones sound the words. A resident of St. Paul, and a relative newcomer to New York theater, he knew only Mr. Jones’s film and TV work, but from that point on, the voice and image of the actor dominated his drama. The speech was cut from the performing version; it didn’t work out, but the actor did.
This is Mr. Wilson’s second outing on Broadway. His first, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, took the New York Drama Critics Award for the 1984-85 season. Like Ma Rainey, Fences, with Mr. Jones, was first brought to life at the hands of Lloyd Richards at the Yale Repertory Theater, where he is the artistic director. That was nearly two years ago. Most of the original cast played a short run last year in Chicago, where Carole Shorenstein Hays saw it and decided to finance her first independent Broadway production. Mrs. Hays, who owns three theaters in San Francisco, took the play to her home territory for a month before the New York opening.
A few days after the company’s return, Mr. Jones, back home in Pawling, N.Y., with his family, came to town in casual ex-urban gear: black jersey shirt, bright red suspenders attached to nondescript trousers and an Army fatigue cap, souvenir of last summer’s filming of Gardens of Stone, a Francis Coppola movie scheduled for release in the fall. In his producer’s diminutive Times Square office there was hardly space for a large actor to make an expansive gesture.
Mr. Jones is 56. Steel gray has attacked his sideburns, and the beard he wore until recently, and an enthusiastic appetite has rounded his jowls and betrayed his belly. The deep, supple voice is still an instrument of power and beauty, and the pale, greenish eyes are instant barometers to his mood. They turn wary when he thinks he is about to hear a question about his private life, as if a man ruminating on his work were not already revealing the most intimate matters.
For all that Mr. Jones loves the role, playing Troy has upset him in a way he cannot fully explain. Some of his distress, he thinks, is rooted in the thorny father-son relationship crucial to the play: For reasons that are sound to him, Troy Maxson exerts an adult’s oppressive, thwarting power over his teenage boy’s life, and Mr. Jones seems to find it hard to come to terms with that. “Actors never take their roles home with them,” he said. “We’re happy to take off our costumes and wipe off the sweat and have a drink, you know, and think about other things. But up until about a week ago I would take the play home in a deep depression.” Some of the melancholy has lifted—“I can almost let the play go.” But he did not or could not say how this happened.
Fences brings Mr. Jones back to Broadway for the first time since he replaced Zakes Mokae in Mr. Fugard’s “Master Harold” … and the Boys four years ago. He has said some terrible things about New York audiences (“dead,” “corpses,” “martinied and cannellonied”) and he can’t bring himself to take the words back. Offended or interrupted by rudeness, Mr. Jones has suggested that a spectator shut up. He has delivered a classic obscene Latin arm gesture to a paying customer. Once in a small theater where a youngster was noisily cracking her gum, he used a generally socially unacceptable four-letter word.
Mr. Jones cheerfully volunteered reports of these events as examples of his “misbehavior,” and while unrepentant, said that he has tried hard to discipline himself. In the face of inappropriate laughter he will now stop a performance and simply wait until quiet returns. The tactic was not always effective for his most recent Othello, a 1982 Broadway event in which Christopher Plummer was Iago.
Without a discernible note of anger in his voice, he said, “Christopher Plummer insisted on playing a farce, and I and the rest of the company were trying to play tragedy. There was a laugh element set loose in the audience that was not controllable. Roderigo was the first death, and there were howls of laughter at his being killed. I admire that man”— Plummer—“so much I couldn’t say, ‘Cut it out or I’ll leave the stage.’ I said to him once, ‘You know when they laugh at death, Chris, we’ve got a problem.’ He said, ‘Ah, but Jimmy, this is a bloody farce after all, isn’t it?’ ”
The Othello, his sixth in 17 years, at least had the virtue of fostering romance. Mr. Jones, who has been married twice, has the distinction of having wed two women who played Desdemona to his Moor. He and his current wife, Cecilia Hart, were married during the run of the play and have a son, Flynn Earl, 4. Fatherhood came late to Mr. Jones, and it seems to have filled his life in a way he had scarcely imagined. Farm animals were the companions of his boyhood, and the Pawling place once teemed with them. Since the birth of his child, they are mostly gone.
James Earl Jones’s early years were spent on farms, in Arkabutla, Miss., where he was born, and in Manistee, Mich., where his grandparents took him to live when he was 6. His mother had divorced and remarried. His father, Robert Earl Jones, left the family before the child’s birth and became an actor in New York. He has to come to know his son as a grown man.
From his ninth year to his mid-teens, James Earl Jones stuttered so badly that he could not speak. In his last two years in high school, he overcame the handicap. But vestiges of it surface in everyday speech and once in a great while threaten a performance. “Once a stutterer, always a stutterer,” he said. “It’s stamped on your psyche.” Mr. Jones has learned to pause a beat in a scene if he thinks his speech is in danger. He has to live with the fact, however, that sometimes, on an occasion of intense Elizabethan emotion, that elegant trained voice will briefly sound Mississippian.
At the University of Michigan, on scholarship, Mr. Jones discovered an appetite for acting. He went into the Army, however, made first lieutenant and was tempted to stay. With his eye on the least secure of professions, Mr. Jones says he was drawn to the “absolute” nature of life in the military. He remembers sitting on a mountain top in Colorado during a training mission, listening to his colonel urge him to go for a captaincy. “The only thing I had that was not geared toward the art of killing was the Catholic Church, to which I had converted in the Army, and the complete works of Shakespeare.” His dad was an actor, he told the colonel, and “something in me is curious about that.” The colonel said if acting didn’t work out, he would help him regain his commission. Had he stayed, Mr. Jones reported with a wicked little laugh, he would have wound up on the “dark side” of soldiering, a sort of Darth Vader mercenary. He has been, of course, the voice of Vader in the Star Wars films.
Mr. Jones came East, stayed with his father and enrolled in acting classes at the American Theater Wing. He waxed floors and made sandwiches to pay for lessons and, after a few years, seems never to have stopped working. The Shakespeare Festival Theater took him on in 1960. In 1963, an admiring news magazine piece took note of an unusual work record: In 30 months, Mr. Jones had appeared in 18 plays, a pace certainly unmatched by any other New York actor at the time.
Among the James Earl Jones kings have been Lear and Claudius in Central Park, a Timon of Athens at the Yale Rep and an Oedipus he did without pay in an Off-Off Broadway production. The first garbage collector in his repertory was Roop, the strutting, lecherous trash man in Claudine, a 1974 movie starring Diahann Carroll.
“I love a role where I’m asked to play a common man, a man who has no obvious reasons to call attention to himself. Lear is my favorite king because by the time the play opens, he’s not really the king. He’s a crazy old kid looking for salvation.”
He takes risks and, occasionally, finds himself falling short of his aims. Some time ago, he agreed to play Hickey in a Circle in the Square production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, a role with the indelible imprint of Jason Robards. The character, he discovered, needed “sparks” he could not provide. Rapid finger snaps convey the sparks. “I knew I was going to have trouble with it,” he mused. “I’m more lava than sparks. Robards was brilliant, brilliant. I enjoyed doing it, but I’m not sure I brought as much to it as should be brought to that play. But that’s all right.”
With similar equanimity, Mr. Jones will take movie roles largely to “put supper on the table,” and sometimes out of curiosity. The acerbic law professor in last year’s Soul Man falls into the latter category. “I was offered a role that was essentially a black John Houseman. I said, ‘That’s curious. I wonder if I can make that work.’ When I read the script it made me laugh, so I had no apology for what people, black people or white people, felt about the movie.” Soul Man took some heat from civil rightists protesting the idea of a film about a white youth who blacks up in order to win a scholarship for black students. Mr. Jones says it was a funny movie, and laughter is healing—or should be. But he understands that laughter does not come easily to people “with unresolved pain.”
Then he has a sudden sardonic thought. Unresolved pain, a legacy of the trauma of wearing black skin in white America, is threaded through his new vehicle; Mr. Jones proposes that all the people who were unhappy with Soul Man buy tickets to Fences. It certainly has its moments of comic relief, but he thinks it unlikely they would laugh at the wrong places.