NEW YORK CITY | Anthony Chisholm is a quintessential August Wilson actor.
I sat with with Chisholm to talk about Wilson; in our conversation Chisholm was quick to get “in character,” instinctually inhabiting everyone he referenced, from characters in Wilson’s plays to August Wilson himself.
Interviewed at the Cort Theater on Broadway, Chisholm has acted in six of the 10 plays in August Wilson’s cycle. According to his own benchmark, he’s been in three production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, eight of Two Trains Running, two of Fences, 18 productions of Jitney, four of Gem of the Ocean, eight of the final one, Radio Golf.
How long have you been in the acting profession?
Since I got out of the United States army. I was a drill sergeant, and I went to officer candidate school, but I quit because I didn’t want to do another two years in the army, which they require. I went to the war and had been a platoon leader. I am a combat Vietnam veteran. I was drafted. I won a scholarship to Yale Drama School while I was in early training school in the army because I won a talent contest.
I was encouraged to apply for one of three scholarships. Yale, Pasadena Playhouse and American University were all offering tuition scholarships to military personnel. I had won in the category of dramatic reading in the army contest. That encouraged my thought to think in the direction of acting when I got out. I would have to credit my mother for my appreciation for the spoken word. She was an unpublished novelist and poet, and she had me learning and reciting long sophisticated poems by Langston Hughes, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Noyce, Rudyard Kipling.
Reciting poetry was your first theatrical experience then?
Yes. I was 2 or 3 four years old learning these words and reciting them in front of the family and family friends. This was in Cleveland. I remember how it made me feel to say things that they responded to; it was like a call and response, but it was recycling this energy.
My grandfather was a big man, twice the size of James Earl Jones. He was 6’5” 300 some odd pounds. He was an orator, a storyteller and a bit of a bully with his size but a kind man, and he would tell these long stories. I remember the storytelling rhythms and patterns. We’d be around a campsite. He’d smoke his pipe. Sometimes he’d smoke them stinky cigars. You better say nothing about it.
Do you remember your first play?
It was a church play. I was 11 years old. It was a pretty good size church, about 500 seats, a congregation. It was a biblical play. I wore my Christmas brand new purple violet bathrobe as part of the costume. I was playing the king. I remember my mother’s baby brother, my Uncle Pete, walking me home, telling me this was my calling.
I vividly remember him telling me that after the play. It stuck somewhere in the rear regions of my inner sanctum of mind. I didn’t do another play until I was 24 when I got out of Vietnam and it was at the Karamu Theatre. A lot of famous performers came out of the Karamu: Ruby Dee, Ivan Dixon, Langston Hughes, Halle Berry, Arsenio Hall, including the late great Minnie Gentry who is Terence Howard’s great grandmother.
Everybody came out of the Karamu. My first play there was Boys from Syracuse with an integrated cast. I auditioned and got the part of the sergeant of police; I had a solo with the chorus joining in. I went into Threepenny Opera, another integrated cast.
What happened to Yale?
I’m still eligible to go to Yale anytime I want. Yale is another story. I got professional right away. I’ve worked up there many times with the great Lloyd Richards. But when I went up to Yale and presented my credentials, the dean there said, “You can start in the fall, but you will not be able to function professionally.” It was a school rule.
Did you agree with the rule?
No, no, no. I told him I’d get back to it. At that point I had done eight films. I had worked at the Public Theater twice. I was in the mix and flow of acting. I would get anxiety attacks if I left New York for several days. There was no way at that point that I was going to give up my professional pursuits. I was fully bit by the bug. I was addicted. At some point I’ll use it. I could be 99 years old and still use that scholarship.
My only acting teacher was Lloyd Richards who wasn’t the Yale dean then. As soon as I got to New York, I auditioned for Negro Ensemble. Douglas Turner Ward put me in the master class. I got into the class taught by Lloyd Richard, who I call the Dean of the American Theatre.
And you met August through Lloyd.
Yes, I did, but that was 22 years later. This was 1968 when I was a student of Lloyd. I didn’t meet August until 1990. I had been acting for 20 years. And August didn’t come on the scene until 1984; that was the first level of development. I got to know August on Two Trains Running. Samuel L. Jackson only did the part of Wolf at Yale Repertory Theatre. Lloyd grabbed me when they were mounting the play in the second city until it arrived in New York two years later.
If you got a chance to perform in the four Wilson plays you haven’t done, which parts would you like to play?
Bynum in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. I would love to play Loomise, but Bynum is my first choice. In Piano Lesson, Boy Willie and Doaker. There are several characters I like in Seven Guitars, but Hedley if I had to say anything. And in King Hedley 2, Stool Pigeon and Elmore.
What’s always in your dressing room?
A group picture of August Wilson Broadway alumni that was taken in 1992 when we were touring with Two Trains Running on the journey to Broadway. It was our last stop out in Los Angeles. It was taken at opening night party at Hollywood Roosevelt ballroom. There were 13 of us all together: Lloyd and August. Myself and Samuel L. Jackson. Charles “Rock” Dutton. Cynthia Martell. Angela Bassett. Carl Gordon. Rocky Carroll. Delroy Lindo. Laurence Fishburne. Roscoe Lee Browne. Sullivan Walker.
What do you always bring with you to rehearsals?
My prayers. My coffee cup.
Is there a performance style for August’s plays, a way to do them that’s different from when you’re doing other plays?
His words are so vivid it’s like reading a great novel. August and I are close to the same age, and we grew up in sister cities: Cleveland and Pittsbrgh were rivals in football, the Browns and the Steelers. We grew up around the same old timers, our pops and grandfathers. We grew up hearing the same colloquial midwestern sound, the same rhythmic vocal speech patterns. I think that has been a blessing for me because I can identify what the cadence rather quickly.
But if I stand back and tell to anybody else who may come from anywhere else, I’d say, do the action on the lines. Don’t do any acting in between lines. Keep it all bouncing right on the lines. Especially when there’s a task. There’s a fusion that makes magic and suddenly illuminates it to another level. The characters will tell you how you should behave and sound just like they told August how to write the play.
Name something you would like to change about yourself.
I have a lot of great ideas that that I don’t follow through to completion. They keep coming to me, and there’s no way any person in one lifetime can do them all. I wish I could just serve one idea at a time from start to completion because I had an experience of what that could be like. I gave an enormous party. “The Great Halloween Freak Party,” I called it. It was in the West Village at the famous Paradise Garage, which doesn’t exist anymore. I put it together in four and a half weeks from the moment I had a dream about it. It was celebrity dripping: over 5,000 people came to that party. Liza Minelli, Andy Warhol. Sylvester. Rick James. All of the Funkadelics. I hired 28 circus performers from Ringling.
I had illusionists bringing in a truckload of magic in the center platform. Twelve dancers with fiery torches escorted every act through the crowd. And I wasn’t trying to mind everything I was in a black Grim Reaper robe, black velvet with a golden mask. I was on top of the world. It told me the power of the dream.
This was my lodestone whenever I lost confidence. (Switches into a dark, deep voice) I said, “You are cordially invited to attend one of the most fantastic parties of all time. The great Halloween Freak. A disco costume party of dancers. Honoring a night of BIG FUN”—I bolded that out—“I wish to caution you. This will be no ordinary party but instead an array of Happenings, culminating with a midnight un-coffining of Dracula. Be careful. He may bite you.”
Have you dreamt up another great idea lately?
I got an idea now to develop myself into a rapper. He’s called (alters voice again), “Old Dog.”