In conversation with
by Alice Saville
photography | Dario Acosta
Having performed in five of the ten of the Pittsburgh Cycle by August Wilson, Brandon J. Dirden marks his directorial debut with number six - Seven Guitars. It has been extraordinbary few years for the OBIE and Theatre World awards winning actor. Brandon talks to Auditorium about sharing the stage with Bryan Cranston to the transition from walking the boards to calling the shots.
What first sparked your love of theatre?
Seeing my father performing in plays when I was growing up in Houston, Texas. He didn’t do it for a living but it was something he had a passion for. As an African-American man in Texas in the 60s it was very difficult to make a living as an actor, and he had children he had to provide for, so he chose not to pursue it as a career. But he always said to me that I needed to do it. I grew up watching my daddy in plays, and a lot of his friends were in theater, and they were the most eccentric, wild people. I just enjoyed hanging out way past my bedtime and putting on shows for them and the storytelling of it all – and making and telling stories also gave me a chance to extend my bedtime, so that was nice!
The first play I did was actually August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Alley Theatre in Houston, where August started writing production in Houston. My middle school brought us all to the theater to audition for A Christmas Carol, and I didn’t get in, but they put me in Joe Turner and that’s what really started me. I was twelve years old and I knoew from that poit on that that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It’s a beautiful play – I’ve done it twice now, and I can’t wait to get older so I can do every male role in that play.
You have performed an impressive list of Shakespearian roles, on the other hand, you have made your mark through new writing. Do you have a preference between classics and new work? And what elements from both categories that stimulate or inspire you as an actor?
I have grown to love performing Shakespeare. I used to abhor doing Shakespeare. I resented the value that was placed on a body of work that seemingly did not include my experience. I was wrong. My experience is included in his plays, because I am a human, but as an actor of color I was made to feel like I had no place in the cannon. Once I had a teacher tell me I would never do Shakespeare because of the way I sounded. What she meant was that since my sounds were not "Standard American" (whatever that means) I did not have the credibility to tell these stories. Did Shakespeare write for the "Standard American" dialect? Apparently you can set Macbeth on the moon, but in no way can he sound like he's from anywhere other than England or Middle America. It wasn't until I became a company member at Georgia Shakespeare that I found my way into Shakespeare. It was a most supportive company that welcomed all. For the first 5 or 6 years after grad school, half of my professional work was doing Shakespeare. I do less Shakespeare now, but I will always return.
As for new writing, I absolutely relish the opportunities to help develop new work. Playwrights are perhaps the most courageous people in the theater. They painstakingly deliberate over each word only to entrust their story to a group of artists and technicians that can never have the same level of investment as the author. There is a lot of trust involved in developing a new play. Working on a new play is much like maintaining an incubator. My proudest moments in the theater have been helping a playwright to realize what they could only imagine.
One of your most acclaimed performances on stage to date was as Martin Luther King opposite Bryan Cranston’s Lyndon B Johnson. How did you prepare for playing Dr King, and what helped you find his voice?
I started with his autobiography, and another book he wrote called Why We Can’t Wait that’s a reflection of the years (1963-1964) covered by the play, and their involvement in trying to break Jim Crow laws in Birmingham, Alabama. Reading the story of that time period in his own words put me into his headspace and into the type of mission he was on, after the disappointment he had just recently suffered in the summer of 1963. He saw the window closing on the opportunity to get civil rights laws passed.
It was also about just listening to Dr King’s words over and over and over again. Let’s face it, if you’ve got to research speeches they’re not bad ones to listen to! I was fortunate in that there’s a lot of Martin Luther King footage out there since he came to prominence in 1954. There’s even more the FBI has locked away that they won’t let anyone touch – he was wiretapped and everything. Hopefully it will be unveiled in our lifetime so we can learn more about this man. I listened a lot to his “ I Have A Dream” speech, which took place just before he play started, and then some later speeches like “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” which he gave just before he was assassinated in Memphis. It was about understanding the rhythms and his cadences of his speech, but most importantly of all his spirit. I was trying to tap into that, and think about where does his spirit live. He put his life on the line, every day for over a decade, knowing he was getting these death threats. I was really challenging myself to dig deeper and find out where that courage lives. And that’s when I started to produce sounds out of my body that normally I don’t think it’s capable of producing.
Yes, I noticed that your performance as Martin Luther King had his amazingly resonant, musical quality. But something else that seemed significant was his stillness, and his silence at crucial moments. How did it feel, to have to be silent in the centre of these portrayals of a struggling, quarrelling civil rights movement?
It takes a lot of trust in the director. I had to suppress that urge to want to be in there. As a matter of fact, we were rehearsing some scenes which were just not working, and I discovered it was because I just had too much dialogue. I would ask the writer from time to time “Can you take this line away, we don’t need him to respond in this moment.” Because Dr King said what he meant and he meant what he said, always. And he didn’t have to always be speaking, he often considered everybody’s point of view and then decided, because his voice had weight. He understood that if he spoke too rashly or too suddenly, or said something he didn’t mean to say, that could cause a ripple effect. So I think he was very careful. That doesn’t suggest the was without passion, because that certainly isn’t the case. But he was at such a critical moment of American history and could not be misunderstood. And hat’s the great thing about Martin Luther King – as much as people criticise his work, no one ever dismissed him as a windbag, or as blowing a lot of hot air. And so finding that quiet dignity and absolute courage to stay silent, that’s a real challenge and something I embraced nightly.
I also was fascinated by the silence where LBJ subtly lets King know that he’s cottoned on to his infidelities. The two are sharing a tiny coffee table in a very intimate interaction, but King completely refuses to respond to LBJ’s attempts to appeal to him as “one of the boys.”
That’s the chink in Dr King’s armor, his appetite for female companionship. And I think it’s so smart of Robert Schenkkan’s text to make it clear that LBJ knows this, and has it in his hand in that moment. It also shows the resolve and the intelligence of King, that he doesn’t respond. I really hooked into that idea, that King is just smart – he’s not going to give anything away. It’s an incredibly intelligent decision he makes in that moment. That entire scene is a negotiation. King comes in there to get voting rights – he says “Look, no more changes, you have no more wiggle room.” And that’s a mighty big risk, but one that pays off.
The relationship on stage between you and Bryan Cranston as LBJ wasn’t always the smoothest, but how were things offstage? How did you get on?
Aw, it’s terrible! I tell you man, they had to break us apart every day because we’re almost at each other’s throats… No, but seriously , people ask me a lot what’s like to work with Bryan, and my favourite answer is that it’s pleasantly routine. He’s at the height of his popularity. Certainly he’s an incredible talent and he got all his much- deserved praise but he didn’t let that affect his work. He actually protected everybody in the cast from the mania, and he’s incredibly generous with his time and with our visitors. He’s the real deal and I learned so much from him about just continue to dig deeper with your character. Every performance with him is so different because he kept coming up with new things every night, and learning what worked.
With colour-blind casting becoming quite a norm these days, are there any other great roles that you would like to see yourself tackling one day?
Interesting question. I honestly don't spend much time considering great roles that I want to tackle, traditional casting or otherwise. I have been very fortunate, and some would say spoiled, with the roles I have been able to take on so far. I have always prided myself on embracing the uncertainty of whatever the theater gods blow my way and finding the value in each role. I am just getting to a point in my career where theaters and directors are asking me what are some of my passion projects. Maybe next time we speak, I will have some ideas.
Which other plays inspire you? Are there works you’d love to see come to Broadway?
I’m a huge fan of August Wilson, and one of his ten play cycle hasn’t been produced on Broadway and that’s Jitney – I’d love to be part of that. And the other thing is a fantastic play called Trouble in Mind, by the great Alice Childress. This play was supposed to be the first play on Broadway written by a black female writer. It was a huge hit when it ran off Broadway in 1955, and the producers were ready to bring it to Broadway, but they wanted to change the ending so much that Alice pulled it off the table. Trouble is an astonishing play and I think it actually cuts to the core even more than Raisin in the Sun, which I think is a perfect play, one of the greatest plays ever written. But Trouble in Mind was so head of its time, and I would love for that to finally come to Broadway in my lifetime.
Your brother Jason was in Raisin in the Sun on Broadway at the same time as when you were performing in All the Way. Raisin also looks closely at civil rights in the same time period. Do you think Broadway has entered a period of looking at race relations and social issues more closely?
I don’t see a lot of new writing on the topic, with the exception of a play my wife was in called Clybourne Park. That was probably a play which touched on race a racial issues in America in a way that hadn’t been touched on before in Broadway, and it actually comes out of the events that take place at the end of Raisin in the Sun – so it’s all very closely linked together.
I’m so excited that these past couple of seasons there were plays dealing with strong issues, and that we are embracing the idea that Americans want to see ourselves reflected at the theater – where we’ve been as a country and where we want to go. The beautiful ting about All the Way and why it’s timely is it’s the 50 years anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. During that time period I think finally America had to look at itself and say “Were the country that promised the ideals of freedom and equality for all: how are we doing with that? Are we honoring our principles?” And we had men like MLK and LBJ at the forefront who said America wasn’t doing so good. This is a time period where we finally say, “We’re gonnamake good on those promises or we have to live in shame that we failed to live up to those promises.” So the passing of this legislation is just incredible.
And now 50 years later, we are at a standpoint where again we say America, how we’re doing? Dr King understood that it wasn’t just about the color of your skin, it was about economics and about poverty. That’s one of LBJ’s great missions – the war on poverty, the Great Society. We are supposedly the richest and most powerful country on earth and yet we have millions of people going hungry everyday, how do we deal with that? So while you come to Broadway and you get to forget about your troubles, while you go to see Wicked or whatever, and I’m not disparaging those shows, you also get to see a play that is 100% American. The events of this play could not happen anywhere else in any other country. It’s not about a mother and father, a sister and brother, it’s not universal in that sense. This is a story that only comes from America being founded on the principle of equal opportunities for all, then enslaving 3 million people, and then having to deal with that – when the chickens come home to roost. I think this is thrilling and I was inspired when I walked out the stage door and people wanted to talk about the issues of the play, not just the celebrities, and to go and do something about them.
You have been doing a lot of TV work lately, from The Americans, Ed Burns' Public Morals to the upcoming Baz Luhrmann's new Netflix show The Get Down. What adjustments you felt were needed for a theatre actor going into television?
The main adjustment that I made working in television is adjusting my performance to the size of the audience. We naturally do this as stage actors anyway. My performance in a 99 seat theater will not work in a 2000 seat theater and vice versa. In television, there is only one audience member, the camera. Sometimes you hear actors or filmmakers talk about playing it "smaller" for the camera. Thinking that way can sometimes take the texture away from your portrayal. I much rather think of it in terms of what is necessary to be in communication with my audience.
You are just about to make your directorial debut. Since August Wilson's work has played a crucial part in your career, it came as no surprise that you would pick one of his plays to direct. But why Seven Guitars?
It actually picked me. The Artistic Director, John Dias, is committed to presenting all 10 of Mr. Wilson's plays at Two River Theater. Seven Guitars was next on his list and he asked if I would direct. He could have asked me to direct any one of the 10 and I would have agreed. I find Seven Guitars to be particularly gratifying. I have never acted in this play and had only seen one other production, so I did not have too many ideas of the way it "should" go. I have been able to discover the genius of this play alongside the actors and designers. It has been a terrific communal experience.
You have shared the stage with both your brother and your wife several times and the stage partnerships seemed to have paid off brilliantly every time. How is it going with Seven Guitars now that you are in the director's chair and they are both your cast members?
Very well! When Crystal, Jason and I first moved to New York, we would help each other prepare for every single audition. We were essentially directing each other then, and this experience has been an extension of that. What is especially great about having them as a part of this cast is that they became the example for other cast members. Crystal and Jason set the bar really high for their mates. They come in everyday very prepared and focused. But they also teach others that there is a freedom and ease in working with me as a director.
Your brother Jason said in an interview with us last year that one day he would love to direct Fences. Are you guys going to have to throw a dice on how to split which Wilson's plays each one of you are going to get to direct?
Haha! Fortunately for us, there are many theaters around the country and globally that will be doing August Wilson for many years. I think we will both have plenty of chances. He just better cast me when he is directing!
A profound subtlety and a sonorous musical quality to your delivery are two of many qualities one has come to expect from your performance. Now, what can we expect from Brandon Dirden as a director.
My hope is that you don't see the director. I want Mr. Wilson's language to sing out unobstructed. I want you to meet these seven people and love them all as much as I do. I want you to have a singular experience in the theater with out my interference.
Part of this article first appeared in the American issue of Auditorium
Brandon J. Dirden photographed on set of Seven Guitars by Dario Acosta exclusively for Auditorium