James Tolbert has decades of experience on stages in Philadelphia and around the country, most recently as the lead in August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at Plays and Players. He sat down with the Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority to talk about the play, life, and race.
PPAA: Hi. Congratulations on your role and performance in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson. Wilson is such a giant of 20th-century American playwriting. What is his appeal to you and what do you see as his greatest talents?
James C. Tolbert III: I think he’s a modern-day Alex Haley [author of Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X]. I’ve always wanted to do an August Wilson play. I never thought I was ready for it but it’s been in the back of my head, it’s something I set myself to do. I haven’t had a whole lot of opportunities to do it, but when this one came up I jumped at it pretty quickly. He’s an anchor for me with regards to my family history and to black history in general. He’s our Shakespeare.
PPAA: What is this play about, to you?
JT: Honestly, I still haven’t figured exactly what it’s about. Generally it’s about a guy who’s looking for his wife, but there’s so much more going on in the play. I’m constantly questioning “What is going on here?” “What is his intention?” “What do these people really want?” I play Seth Holley, and from the onset you think he’s just a businessman or a busy-body, but he’s so much more. Each person in the play represents something familial to him, whether it’s Jeremy as the son he never has, they all take a family position for him.
PPAA: I see that, there does seem to be a lot underlying the dynamics. Like the best art, it’s about something specific — a family in a boarding house in Pittsburgh — but he manages to represent so much more.
JT: So much more. Seth and Bertha don’t have any children. Why is that? Ruben talks about his friend Eugene who passed away, he’s taking care of his pigeons. The actress who plays Bertha, Sherie, and I decided that Eugene is our son, but we never talk about it. The thing that clued us in to that is the that Miss Mable, who’s Seth’s mother, comes back to Ruben as a ghost and says “Why didn’t you let the pigeons go, Eugene wanted you to let the pigeons go, why didn’t you let them go?” and she hits him over the head with her cane. So we thought, “maybe Eugene is more than just a friend to Rubin.” Wilson writes those little things that give the play color.
PPAA: I’ve seen a couple of your recent performances: as Maceo in John Rosenberg’s Queen of All Weapons (HellaFresh Theater), Melvin in Josh McIlvain’s Waiting for the Boss (SmokeyScout Productions), and now Seth Holly in an excellent Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at Plays and Players. While they are quite different characters in very different plays, they are all in different ways unlikable, perhaps even assholes—
JT: They’re surly. What are you trying to say Chris? [laughs]
PPAA: [laughs] No, I’m saying that presents a challenge, because despite their surliness you have to make them relatable. What do you like about those characters and how do you handle that challenge?
JT: They are all part of me. At some point in time I have been each one of those guys and it’s fun to revisit that and flush that out, the whys and hows and whats. They’re real people with real problems, real issues, real quirks, and you try to keep it as real as possible but they all take on a bigger-than-life persona.
PPAA: I think it would be easy to make them caricatures, but you don’t do that.
JT: Absolutely, but if you’re playing for the truth and humanity of what’s happening you can’t do that. These are real people. Whether it’s Queen of All Weapons, Maceo: complete drug addict, really no redeeming qualities whatsoever, but he cares about his roommate more than life itself. And in Waiting for the Boss the guy was just a complete ass. Then Seth [in Joe Turner], he’s not just a busy-body, he’s genuinely concerned with the people who live under his roof. They feel like family to him.
PPAA: Seth, in particular, is a hard person. You can tell he’s a good person, but he has that hardness. Where do you think that comes from?
JT: I think the hardness comes from his family. He was born of free parents. He heard stories of the struggles his parents and grandparents came from, but when they came to Pittsburgh all that was left behind. He’s an uppity guy, he say’s something like “I never touched cotton, I’ve never seen cotton.” All that’s foreign to him. He’s kinda a snob, he says “those niggers coming up here with that backward country style of living.” That says it all to Seth. They’re so 1848, so in the past. He wants them to step it up, “Come into the future! We’re free right now, yes it’s hard but you have to do this things, this is how you’re gonna get here.” He’s all business—he’s not a Sambo, he doesn’t kowtow. He knows the difficulty of being black in that time period, but he doesn’t hold back. “Move on,” that’s what it’s about.
PPAA: This play takes place in Pennsylvania 100 years ago, in the same year that Plays and Players was founded. Much has changed in America and for African Americans since then, but what makes this work relevant today, to you?
JT: It’s about people holding each other and motivating each other. It says something about being more open to each other as a race. At the end of the day they were all supporting each other and you don’t see that very much these days.
PPAA: Is this you first time with Plays and Players? What did you like about the production and the company?
JT: I’ve been trying to get in this theater for the longest time. I love being on that stage. It’s a historic stage. I think about people on this stage 100 years ago, people were pushing carts down the street and blacks might’ve been free but they were still second class. I think about that, and I respect that history, and I’m here now.
PPAA: I met your young niece on opening night. This was her first time seeing you on stage. What did she think? Do you have any insight on what she took away from the play?
JT: Yes! Sianni! She talked about it from the moment she got home. She took the program to school with her to show her teacher and her friends.
PPAA: How do you approach the stage differently now than you did when you were starting out?
JT: I approach it as a regular guy. I started out in musical feature. I did Starlight Express in Germany. An international tour of Hair. I’ve really done everything I set out to do. I’ve been a working actor for a long time, no bartending, et cetera. I think when I made that decision everything fell into place. Now, I’m doing more character stuff and I’ve done a lot in my 46 years so I’ve got a lot to draw on.
PPAA: How do you think the theater, and theater in Philadelphia, has changed in your career?
JT: I haven’t been in Philadelphia the whole time, but in general I think there’s much more colorless casting, people taking more chances with minority casting. And I’m openly gay, so playing a lead role who’s heterosexual man in 1911 is a big thing, a big step forward. When I first went to the audition I was a little worried about not being cast because I’m openly gay, but I’m really grateful I had the opportunity to show that sexuality really has nothing to do with who we are as actors. Gay rights and civil rights, it’s all the same thing: one’s dealing with race one’s dealing with sexuality
PPAA: What projects do you have on the horizon?
JT: I’m going to start taking guitar lessons, take a break and focus on my music, unless something comes up and I really have to do it.
PPAA: Thanks for talking to me. I’m going to get another drink.
JT: Anytime, brother.