This story was first published on NJNext.com, a statewide arts & events calendar created by the founders of VillageGreenNJ.com.
Andre Braugher is sitting in Dressing Room #1 at South Orange Performing Arts Center. His striking acting oeuvre ranges from his indelible portrayals of Detective Frank Pembleton in the police drama “Homicide: Life on The Street,” Corporal Thomas Searles in the Civil War film “Glory,” and currently, his fastidious and dour Captain Raymond Holt in the acclaimed police sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”
But right now, Braugher has a rehearsal on his mind.
While there’s much to discuss about his Emmy-winning and Obie-winning career, Braugher is devoting his full concentration to the task at hand — his starring role in the world premiere of “Tell Them I’m Still Young,” a new play by Julia Doolittle. The American Theater Group production will begin its limited run at SOPAC on Thursday, January 24 and run through Sunday, February 3.
For an actor who has recently spent roughly eight months out of every year shooting in Los Angeles, the rehearsal commute from his South Orange home to the SOPAC stage is a breeze. Braugher, along with his wife and actress Ami Brabson, have been living here for over 20 years. And while they’ve raised three sons here, Braugher has had few chances to perform onstage in his own backyard.
From SOPAC to Broadway?
“It’s a lucky coincidence,” he said, when asked how he became involved in the play. He was approached by director Kel Haney, whom Braugher met when he was acting in a production of “The Whipping Man” at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2011. Haney served as the assistant director for that production. “It’s such a beautiful play and it has such interesting and mature roles in it,” he said of his newest project. “For fiftyish or sixtyish actors, these are really dynamite roles.”
In early 2018, Braugher took part in a staged reading of “Tell Them I’m Still Young” at Ensemble Studio Theatre in Manhattan. “Ami told me that it’s a really beautiful play and it’s a terrific role for me,” Braugher recalled. That’s when he decided to test out the play and see if it’s a play that he should bring to New York, either as a Broadway production or in another venue. “We’re inviting everyone from New York and beyond because I want to find out what people think about it.”
From the beginning, Braugher was struck by Julia Doolittle’s writing. “I really admire Julia and I hope we’re on the way to developing a full and rich vision of her play,” he said. In addition to Braugher, the production stars Tony Award winner Michele Pawk, who has worked on Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theater, and television. Pawk, a South Orange resident, is also a director and teacher.
“She’s such an outstanding actress and so accomplished,” said Braugher, who grew to know Pawk after they both missed their train to New York on the day of the play reading. “We got into my car and sped to the city in order to make the reading. Michele is an interesting, engaging, and lively actress.”
The two stars portray a professor (Braugher) and a poet (Pawk) whose marriage is shaken when tragedy strikes. “I am thrilled that these two outstanding actors will take part in our production.” says American Theater Group Producing Artistic Director James Vagias. The cast is rounded out by Janice Amaya and Seth Clayton.
“Acting is acting”
When asked about the transition between “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and this stage production, he describes it as a struggle. “It’s been so long since I’ve been onstage. For years, if I’ve had to get a joke right, there’s a take two and three and four – many sorts of repeats and set-ups,” Braugher explained. “There’s a ‘let’s get ready now’ quality to my acting on stage that’s premature. What I’m learning in this rehearsal is I have plenty of time; but because I’ve not had plenty of time for so many years, I am overprepared and underexplored. So now I’m exploring more and thinking the thoughts more. It’s getting back to a process that worked for me onstage before.”
However, Braugher believes that the fundamentals of acting are the same whether it’s on television or the stage. “I think acting is acting. The emphasis may change because in television we’re shooting out of order and not telling a story in a linear way,” he said. “[Television] is much more of an editor’s than a director’s medium. Although the director is an integral part of the process, it’s really about communication between the actors telling the playwright’s story to the audience. [Theater] is much more intimate and communicative in real time.”
On family and privacy
Although Braugher’s intense schedule and characters have kept him incredibly focused on his career, he reiterates the importance of his family. “When I go on the road, I’m very concentrated,” he said. “I’m not the kind of guy who’s flitting from event to event. I don’t make personal appearances, I value my privacy. I’m either at work or I’m at home.”
He firmly believes in separating work from family, too. “I have a houseful of young boys and there’s a lot of work to be done, and dad is not a psycho killer, he’s not a cop, he’s not a judge, he’s not a lawyer, he’s not a doctor … he’s just dad,” said Braugher. “From my perspective I may superficially appear to have it all, but if I’m not there to watch my kids grow up and create memories … then that’s hard.”
However, he and his wife share an artistic discourse with the family. “Ami and I talk about acting a lot because it’s our great love,” said Braugher. “Our children have grown up with us talking about storytelling and behavior.”
And Braugher is engaged in Brabson’s work and acting career. In late 2017, she performed “Phenomenal Women,” a one-woman show at Luna Stage in West Orange. “I’m her all-around factotum. I’m her sounding board and I’m her roadie,” he said.
“There were few positive Black roles for actors”
Braugher’s resume is chock-full of nuanced, textured and vibrant characters. He’s worked hard at making sure to pick his projects carefully.
“When I came up in the 80s, there were very few positive black roles for actors. Period. And part of what was happening to me in the 80s and the 90s is I was just turning down stuff,” he recalled. “And if I wanted to work more, I wasn’t in a position to turn anything down. But I just wanted my mother and father to be proud of me. There was a huge run of gangster films and crack stories … [but] I just personally couldn’t be involved because the storytelling wasn’t humane enough.”
Braugher refers to the Public Theater as a “saving grace” because of their color-blind casting. He estimates that he acted in over a dozen productions there, including his Obie Awarding-winning performance of the title role in Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” “The Public Theater sustained me artistically … ‘Glory’ was an incredible boon to me. My career might have taken a very different turn if I hadn’t been involved in ‘Homicide’.”
“I’ve been a fortunate man my entire career,” he said before heading into the rehearsal room. “I’ve always bumped into the right project at the right time. I’m hoping my luck holds up.”
What: “Tell Them I’m Still Young”, a play by Julia Doolittle and directed by Kel Haney
With: Andre Braugher, Michele Pawk, Janice Amaya, and Seth Clayton
Where: South Orange Performing Arts Center, 1 SOPAC Way, South Orange, NJ
When: Thursday, January 24, 2019 – Sunday, February 3, 2019. Performance times vary.
Tickets: The SOPAC Box Office can be reached at (973) 313-2787. Additionally, Patron & Ticket
Services can be reached at (973) 382-1025. View event information online.