A.C. Smith | Performer of the week
August Wilson’s Century Cycle is composed of ten works that chronicle the African-American experience across the 20th century, and A.C. Smith has appeared in nine of the ten plays. In Jitney, his fourth Wilson production at Court Theatre with director Ron OJ Parson, Smith gives a passionate performance as Becker, the owner of a gypsy cab station who is forced to confront his past when his son returns after 20 years in prison. Born and raised on the South Side, Smith attended Columbia College as a business major before seriously pursuing acting. He entered the professional acting world immediately after graduating, aided by a Columbia staff primarily composed of Steppenwolf ensemble members. He’s been acting in Equity theaters ever since, appearing in nearly all of Wilson’s plays in various roles all across the country and earning a Jeff Award for his portrayal of Troy Maxon in Court’s Fences. Smith talks to us about working with Parson, creating chemistry and history with his fellow actors, and what Court Theatre has brought to the Hyde Park community.
What was your first experience with August Wilson’s work?
Ironically enough, I was in New York doing another show by Charles Smith called Jelly Belly. I was at the New Federal Theatre off-Broadway doing that, and the casting director who handled all of August’s casting, Meg Simon, she just happened to cast Jelly Belly and she looked at me and said, “A year from today, I’ve got a show called The Piano Lesson, it’s by August Wilson.” I didn’t know who he was, and she said, “I’m going to be sending you a plane ticket to come back to New York to audition for Lloyd Richards,” who was the main director for all of August’s plays, and no doubt, a year from that day, I was at the O’Neill Theatre on Broadway auditioning for Lloyd Richards. And I didn’t get Boy Willie, which is the lead, but he asked me to understudy and we did that for a year. And the main guy who got it, Isaiah Washington, was so generous, he let me go on, I don’t know how many times within that year. If I had people in a certain city where we went, it was a national tour, he would let me do five, six shows in that week. That was my first introduction to August Wilson, and during that time I got to meet him, hang out with his family, eat, view a lot of Pittsburgh, I really got to know him very well.
How has the Century Cycle resonated with your own life? Do you see any similarities between your own experience and those of Wilson’s characters?
Absolutely. I couldn’t do any August without seeing some relatives, some family member or myself, my friends. All of those characters, it is absolutely an African-American cycle. And I talk to other people too, they see their family members. It resonates all of that. So when I’m doing one of these characters, all I have to do is think of people in my family, friends who I grew up around, and I just draw from that and speak the language he’s written. That’s easy, speaking the language, because it speaks through me. I love it. I identify with it so strongly.
At the heart of Jitney is Becker’s relationship with his son. Did you have a strong relationship with your father?
I was 15 when he and my mother married, but he was always around. Yeah, we had a pretty strong relationship. We didn’t really talk about too much because I was already out there, doing my own thing running with my friends so I didn’t really have too many questions for him. But it was strong, we had no kind of problems or anything like that. I’m sure he would’ve really appreciated this piece.
What kind of preparation did you do for this role?
It was not mainly me, but it was Ron OJ. He’s worked with me so many times, we’ve known each other 25, 27 years. In this particular piece, he told me he didn’t really want me to do any of my “A.C.-isms,” as he called it. He told me to fight against all of that. So normally where I would generate power and take off, he wanted me to reserve some and hold back until it was time to do that. And my style, I’m a belter. I just go for it, and he wanted me reserve a lot of it until it was called for, which was very effective, but it was very hard for me to do that. Every time I wanted to take off, he’d go, “Uh oh! Calm down, calm down. Just talk.” And that was hard for me to do, and I have to thank him when I see him again, because it feels great. I’m going to adopt that now in my technique for other shows. I don’t have to build all the time, slow down until it’s time.
What do you think Ron’s directing brings to each of the plays you’ve worked on together?
He’s just so personable. It’s so friend and family-like, because he is an actor and he knows what it takes. He’s one of the easiest directors I’ve ever come across, but at the same time very stern and very hard. He’s on this Busby Berkeley type thing, he doesn’t want you to make straight lines, he wants you curve, the banana curve. Never just walk straight to someone, curve so you can give that audience member some, that audience member some. It’s like a dance, and it’s hard to do when you first start, but once you work with him a while, you automatically make that curve and go into it and it works. He has so many techniques that he’s incorporated in his style of directing that I take to other shows with me, and its effective there to. I love working with him.
I was really impressed by the history you could just feel between all the men in that station. How much did you work with your fellow cast members to really flesh out those relationships?
That was kind of hard too, some more than others. Allen Gilmore’s character Turnbo is so funny to me, and then when you add the costume and the wig and the belly, I had a hard time focusing in scenes with him. So I told Ron in rehearsal, I said, “Man, let me get this all out now.” So we were acting and breaking and laughing at that, and I got it all out and I was able to focus. Of the other actors, Alfred [Wilson, who plays Fielding], I’ve acted with him in almost every August Wilson [at Court], and I’ve done all of August Wilson but one, and that’s Seven Guitars. And I’ve done them several times over in different capacities, different characters, so I really consider myself a Wilsonite, because how many actors can says they’ve done them all, and all over the country? Alfred, I’ve worked with him in other cities, so we have chemistry there. Anthony [Fleming III, who plays Becker’s son Booster] of course, he played my son in Fences so I have chemistry with him. And a lot of the actors I was working with for the very first time, like Kamal [Angelo Bolden, who plays Youngblood] and Caren [Blackmore, who plays Rena], and Allen Gilmore, too.
Which is your favorite play of the Century Cycle?
Of course, it would have to be Fences. Fences, Piano Lesson, Jitney, Ma Rainey. Because the other ones, they have the fantastical and the mystical, which is great for theater, but those particular ones are more real to me in my life.
What do you feel Court Theatre brings to the Hyde Park community?
Well, I’m learning more and more, and it’s amazing. During tech week, we do 10 out of 12 [hours], and we go to lunch, and we don’t see posters in the window and we tell people about the show. And they say, “Court Theatre, where’s that?” And they’re right around the corner, literally sometimes. This was in the early days. Now, people know Court is there. Their black subscribers have risen, and now we can look out there and see, no offense, instead of white faces, we see a mixture now. And that was the goal, I imagine. Now it is happening, and it is up and going. The black community has come out, they go to theater as a community now, and that is great and they get to experience really fine theater. And classic theater, at that.
Jitney runs through October 14 at Court Theatre (5535 S Ellis Ave, 773-834-3243). Read our review of Jitney.