Early assist from Wilson brings actor back for play

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In the world of August Wilson, Montae Russell goes right back to the beginning -- the first staging of Wilson's first Pittsburgh Cycle play, "Jitney," by the Allegheny Repertory Theater and Bob Johnson's Black Theatre Dance Ensemble in 1982.

That was one of the experiences that set Russell on the way to an acting career. Over breakfast last week, he recalled that Wilson, whose own New York breakthrough was a year or two away, told the young man from Homestead, "Hey man, I'm in New York, you can do this professionally." Savoring the memory, Russell says, "Everyone now and then needs those green lights."

He's had plenty. He's worked mainly in TV in Los Angeles, although he also played Mister in Wilson's "King Hedley II" (2001) on Broadway. Now he's back in his hometown and back also at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, playing Caesar in "Gem of the Ocean," the closest thing to a black villain in Wilson's works.

Russell is now batting a fine .700 -- he's acted in seven of the Pittsburgh Cycle's 10 plays. So returning to Wilson is a homecoming, too, as is returning to the stage. "I'm an actor because of theater," he says. "The theater is calling me back; it's just so much more challenging than TV."

Russell respects TV, which pays the bills; he respects its challenges. But "you don't feel as freed up as in theater," where you can "seize the stage. No one's going to tell you to 'seize the camera'! So you feel you want to bust out of that box."

At the Public in 1989

Russell's first Wilson play at the Public was also the Public's first, the 1989 "Fences," where he played Cory, the angry son. That and "Jitney" so fixed Wilson's plays in Russell's heart that he regularly left what he was doing in New York or Los Angeles to return to the Public for more. He was back later in 1989 to play Jeremy in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," then moved up in age and class to play the explosive lead, Levee, in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (1992) and the more lighthearted young protagonist, Sterling, in "Two Trains Running" (1994).

"That was my favorite," he says, "both to perform and to listen to." Now, he's excited by the challenge of Caesar, and he "can't believe it's been 12 years since I've done a show back home."

He campaigned to get cast and originally thought he might play Citizen Barlow. But after director Regge Life and artistic director Ted Pappas saw his actor's demo reel, his agent called to say that, although they thought him too old for Citizen and too young for Caesar, "they wanted me for the show, so they cast me as a younger Caesar."

Caesar serves the white political bosses of Pittsburgh, keeping blacks in line. You could say he's gone over to the Dark Side: "There's a lot of Anakin in him," says Russell. But he hopes to let the audience understand "why Caesar is the way he is."

With a week to go to first preview performance, Russell was at the point "when the poetry reveals itself." To start, you work on memorization and meaning. But then you realize, "This long sentence, it's musical! There are reasons for every word."

He remembers speeches in "King Hedley" where even apparently random choices of "these," "them" or "those" added to the music. "If you didn't know your lines," he recalls, "Wilson would say, 'Keep your script in your hands.' He worked so hard to do what he did, you want your work ethic to meet his. 'Stool Pigeon says, "God wants your best." ' August always gave his best. As an actor, you're obligated to give your best; if not, you're missing the beats in his music." And as you go further, the words "keep revealing their different layers."

Positive influences

Russell knew he wanted to be an actor since he was 12, but it was never a sure thing. "I remember my high school principal [at Steel Valley in Munhall] saying I wasn't going to be anything but a janitor. The guidance counselor kept trying to send me to industrial schools."

But there were positive mentors, too, including Vernell Lillie at the University of Pittsburgh, who got him involved in her Kuntu Rep, acting in Rob Penny plays as a high school student, when he also did that "Jitney."

She saw his ability, he remembered back in 1989, and insisted he go to college: "She bought me SAT books and supervised my homework." On leaving Pitt, several Pitt faculty and theater people helped him prepare for auditions. That and a letter from Wilson got him into the graduate acting program at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

In early articles the Post-Gazette followed in detail the initial steps in Russell's career, but there's too much now, as the Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com, will attest.

Recent TV work includes "Commander in Chief" and "Threshold" (Agent Harper), and he's had a recurring role as Paramedic Zadro on "ER" Among film and cable credits, he was Lisa Raye's unfaithful boyfriend in "The Player's Club" and Natalie Cole's hustling brother in "Lily in Winter."

Russell considers himself fortunate in his profession. He hasn't had to work "a money job" since he first got out of Rutgers and worked as a proofreader for law firms.

"For me," he says, "work is work. I'm from Homestead, I'm from Pittsburgh, with a blue-collar mentality. You are who you are and where you grew up."

For one thing, work helps support his family -- wife Tonia, an elementary school teacher in south central Los Angeles, and son Montae Jr., a fourth-grader who's already done some acting.

But, TV and film are directors' mediums, so as an actor, Russell has kept slipping back to theater. Now, he seeks more control on the screen, as well. In 2004 he completed a film directing program at Los Angeles City College, and he wrote and directed a 45-minute featurette, "Something for Nothing," which won awards at four film festivals and official selection in others.

He's been preparing to get behind the camera by shadowing directors in episodic TV, such as Marita Grabiak, whom he met when she was script supervisor for "ER" And he's shopping a screenplay, "The Art of Theft," with him attached as director. His immediate objective is to launch a feature film career as a director: "If 'Art of Theft' is a go, I feel very ready."

Russell says his "overall philosophy in is that you're going to encounter obstacles on your journey in life, be they racism, sexism, personal resistance, whatever, but you can't let them send you home packing. You have to stay prayered up, bring your A-game, and go around, above, or below your obstacles or simply bust through them. There are no guarantees you'll reach your goals, but at least go down swinging in your pursuit of them."

A lot of August Wilson characters, and their creator, too, would subscribe to that.

Alyssa Cwanger, Post-Gazette
In a "Gem of the Ocean" rehearsal, Montae Russell as Caesar, left, warns Ed Blunt as Citizen Barlow to stay on his good side while Charles Weldon as Solly Two Kings, at table, and Cortez Nance Jr. as Eli, bear witness.
Click photo for larger image.

Post-Gazette theater editor Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.


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