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Episode 43: Art’s tangible effect, featuring Wendell Pierce

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The truth will set you free

Wendell Pierce and Charlie Robinson, Some Old Black Man

Wendell Pierce (left) and Charlie Robinson play son and father in “Some Old Black Man,” filmed at Detroit’s Jam Handy. (Image courtesy of UMS.)

Actor Wendell Pierce discovered his affinity for the arts as a high school student in trigonometry class.

“I figured out someone could use the same toolbox as me and come up with a different proof,” says the New Orleans native, whose credits include “The Wire,” “Treme,” Selma, and more. “There’s an absolute truth, no matter how you get there.”

That revelation set Pierce on a path toward acting on stage, screen, and television. It’s how he first understood Shakespeare. It’s how he clicked with Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman (a performance that earned him an Olivier nomination). And it’s how he found his way to “Some Old Black Man,” a 2015 stage play presented this month in digital format by the University Musical Society (UMS).

Going digital

Pierce recently completed his digital artist residency at UMS, where he co-starred in the filmed production of “Some Old Black Man,” written by James Anthony Tyler. The two-person play also features veteran actor Charlie Robinson and is directed by Berkshire Playwrights Lab founder Joe Cacaci. HMS Media, based in Chicago, filmed the production.

Though often at odds, the play’s characters Donald and Calvin share a deep and complicated father/son bond that is rarely depicted on stage, especially by African American men, Pierce says.

Behind-the-scenes conditions helped the two actors bond quickly. Due to COVID-19, they lived with their director, writer, and assistant director under quarantine before filming the play at Detroit’s Jam Handy. They relied heavily on technology to rehearse, produce, and capture the performance. They followed protocols to isolate and communicated digitally from their rooms. Even so, director Cacaci tested positive and moved to an alternate location. Pierce and Robinson had just about 10 days to rehearse in one another’s presence prior to filming.

It went surprisingly well, Pierce says. “It was quite an interesting experiment and I realized that I want technology to advance as much as possible.”

There’s actually a silver lining in the digital realm, he admits. UMS’ January 2021 premiere of “Some Old Black Man” reached all 50 states, six continents, and some 30 countries.

“So many people responded to the performance by saying, ‘It was great to see live theater again,’ and these were all people who saw it digitally,” Pierce says. “That’s cool. That’s exactly what we wanted them to feel.”

Don’t look back

Pierce and Robinson at the Jam Handy

Pierce and Robinson on set at the Jam Handy. (Image courtesy of UMS.)

Pierce has decided to keep riding that wave. While audiences stream ”Some Old Black Man,” the actor is already working in Cupertino, Calif., applying what he learned at UMS. He is preparing a digital production of “12 Angry Men … And Women: The Weight of the Wait” for Apple. The performance of monologues originated at Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Billie Holiday Theatre.

But Pierce wouldn’t be there now if he hadn’t first come to Ann Arbor on the advice of high school friend Wynton Marsalis. The musician recommended the world-class UMS to him by saying, “Man, these are some of the best presenters in the world, the high end of the gold standard,” Pierce says.

Just a different platform

The actor is pleased with how the emotional resonance of the father/son dynamic plays in the digital format. His own father, a widower at 96, lives in the New Orleans home he purchased in the 1950s. Pierce was a young adult when he learned his father had put aside his artistic aspirations to pursue a steady career as a studio photographer.

“One of the things that I really loved about the play, in spite of all the conflict, is that you see a father and son who may be misconnecting, but who have a deep love for each other,” says Pierce. “It’s a father trying to be protective of his son, doing the best he can, hoping his dreams deferred are not his son’s dreams deferred. And that was reflected in my own personal life and relationship with my father.”

Sons and fathers are a recurring theme in Pierce’s life and art. As he aged into the role of father Willy Loman, Pierce says he responded to Miller’s universal themes: losing one’s way, chasing false hope, and fearing one’s best days have passed.

“That speaks to everyone across time and place,” Pierce says.

He hopes the new digital performance of “Some Old Black Man” will illuminate another absolute truth the creative team discovered by working during the pandemic.

“Technology does not inhibit our humanity,” Pierce says. “It actually amplifies our humanity in a different platform.”

Comments

  1. Barbara Randolph - 1971

    I would love to see this production! Is there a plan for those of us who missed “Some Old Black Man” to see it in the future?
    Barbara Randolph, MA ‘71
    Grayling, Michigan 49738
    randolphb14@gmail.com

    Reply

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