On my way down to Tribeca to meet actor John David Washington for lunch, I had a lot of questions swirling in my head that made me nervous about our encounter. I am meeting a man who comes from a Hollywood dynasty of sorts. Washington has had so many experiences, what questions could I possibly ask that would make our conversation relatable and engaging. John David is the oldest of four children and his parents are two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington and actress/singer Pauletta Washington.
At the age of seven, he appeared as a student in a Harlem classroom in Spike Lee’s 1992 feature film Malcolm X, which starred his father in the titular role. As he grew older, his interest shifted to something a bit more physical. He started his professional football career at Morehouse College in Atlanta, and then signed on with the St. Louis Rams as an undrafted free agent. However, it looks like the acting bug came back in full force because John David has worked with Christopher Nolan in Tenet, starred in Malcolm and Marie, worked with Spike Lee in BlacKkKlansman. Now he is starring in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson on Broadway.
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Directed by LaTanya Richardson Jackson and set design by Beowulf Boritt, Washington stars as Boy Willie, a man looking to sell the family piano and from the sale, he aims to start his life as a self-sustaining farmer. Along with Washington, the play stars Samuel L. Jackson, Danielle Brooks, Ray Fisher, and Michael Potts and runs through January 29th at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in NYC.
The Charles family consists of Boy Willie (Washington) family matriarch Berniece (Brooks), her daughter Grace (Matthis), and uncle Doaker Charles (Jackson).The family piano resides in Berniece’s house which is considered a symbol of the deep generational strife in the family History. The piano used to belong to the Sutter family, who once enslaved Berniece’s and Boy Willie’s ancestors. The Sutters’ traded the Charles siblings’ great-grandmother Mama Berniece and grandfather Papa Boy Charles for the piano. The siblings’ great-grandfather Papa Boy Willie carved beautiful images of his wife and son on the piano in remembrance of them. Feeling that the piano belonged in the family, Boy Willie’s and Berniece’s father, Boy Charles, stole the instrument back from the Sutters.
When Boy Willie returns from a long absence away from him he plans to sell the piano. Berniece resists this idea as she wants to hold on to the family heirloom and maybe pass it down to her daughter Maretha (Nadia Daniel/Jurnee Swan) one day. As the battle between brother and sister escalates, the two discover a newfound openness to honestly facing the past, ridding her home of haunting memories, and thereby opening the way to a better future.
Now, in the car ride, I reminisced about the play. I sat in the orchestra and remember thinking it was such a good seat because I got to see the body language of the actors, their facial expressions, and even the spit coming out of their mouth as they recited Wilson’s words. The dialogue has a familiarity that cuts deep and as a Black person I was able to identify with the struggle of the characters. They have a balanced energy that works like an assembly line as one thing would not work without the other. Washington has a particular awareness of time and space as there is a large amount of physicality required for the role.
Anyway, when I finally got to the restaurant, I walked through the door and was hit by the smell of baked bread and loud chatter. I discovered they had John David tucked in a corner out of sight from the public. He was wearing a Moorehouse sweatshirt and offered me a warm smile as we shook hands and sat down. He’s observant, considerate, gracious and easy to talk to. Our conversation was very specific–specific in a way that only people like us could have, based on his personal experiences, and the material of the play. In this interview, the actor and I talk about his connection to August Wilson’s work, the differences between theater and working on films, and what he learned working with Latanya Jackson, and Samuel L. Jackson.
DEADLINE: When did you first learn about August Wilson and his works?
WASHINGTON: Not until my late twenties. I got to see Fences on the stage, and that was the first time I saw an August Wilson play. Then I saw LaTanya Jackson do Two Trains Running in Atlanta years later. It was around that time, when I first knew of him. His works resonated with me because the words sounded so familiar–like talking to family members in North Carolina. There was something artistically elevated about it where it also reminded me of Shakespeare (whom I love), in a way. There’s this healthy combination that really expresses an elevated narrative of the African American experience.
DEADLINE: One thing that I love about his plays is that they are not preachy. Wilson knows even the smallest details of Black life, which speaks to your previous point about familiarity.
WASHINGTON: I remember going to North Carolina as a kid, where my momma’s folks are from and being overwhelmed with joy and having this great buzz when I first saw my grandma, my cousins, aunts, and extended family. The story harps on the importance of history and family, and when my character Boy Willie enters the stage, I felt that same elation seeing the other actors on stage as I did with my family. The joy of being around family, as complicated as it is, but I relate to that.
DEADLINE: You have a budding career as an actor, but what made you put that on hold to join the theater cast of The Piano Lesson?
WASHINGTON: It’s almost like I’m proving something to myself. I love that dynamic. Samuel L. Jackson originated the role as he played Boy Willie in 1987, and I thought to myself “The pressure’s on,” and I like that challenge. Danielle, master at her craft, and Ray, and Michael are so talented. This is held together by LaTanya Jackson’s direction, so I couldn’t pass this up.
DEADLINE: Can you talk about the specifics of working with LaTanya Jackson?
WASHINGTON: As a director LaTanya Jackson reminded us that we’re there to accompany and lift up August Wilson’s words. She also wanted the audience to have a lived-in-experience by bringing them into the Charles household. There is a rhythm to theater. Jackson would have us do acting and vocal drills to help animate each performance. They all gave me a hard time throughout the rehearsals because I was a newbie and I loved it. That toughness is a language I understand, especially having a football background. You have to be tough to get on stage. You’ve got to be ready.
DEADLINE: Watching the play, I noticed your character Boy Willie has a lot of wordy monologues. I wondered what your process was for internalizing bulks of dialogue?
WASHINGTON: Memorization. Just going through it, drilling it. Having a sports background, I go by this motto of, “Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.” I just knew that, if I could get it in my body, I wouldn’t have a problem on stage. I recited lines at the gym, and in front of strangers — which at times created very awkward situations–but I had to keep it pushing. We had a very strong leader in LaTanya, and she demanded we be at our best. She understands the story and it was under her guidance that I felt the confidence to be able to do it.
DEADLINE: Boy Willie strives to create a new life for himself as a farmer. How did talking to people in the profession help you get into character?
WASHINGTON: Jeremy, a man from Iowa, who is a fifth-generation farmer, was my source of information. We had these weekly conversations about farming and sustainability. His great-great-granddaddy got his first piece of land in 1932, or something like that which is around the same time the play takes place. He explained how his grandad came into it, and the government’s influence. He showed me the deed that his great-great-granddaddy signed when he got the land, and this is the thing that Boy Willie is crazed over, this deed and getting his own property. The tangibility of that gave me motivation for why Boy Willie is on this quest.
DEADLINE: What Lesson did you learn from the story?
WASHINGTON: I learned something about the past, and the way it can creep up on you. Everybody has their own different interpretation of what that looks like and what that means for them. There are also several themes in this that attracted me to this. One is the Charles family dynamic, second is the history of our oppression. I don’t necessarily look at who’s right or wrong within this story as far as the Berniece and the Boy Willie characters. I think it’s about point of view, and what they value more as far as the continuation or the evolution of self and family.
DEADLINE: What I’m curious to know most besides the obvious is, what are some of the main differences you learned between working on a film set and working in theater and how has this new information impacted you as an actor overall?
WASHINGTON: Theater is more possessive and autonomous. What I mean by that is a film performance is edited. You act out different scenes and it’s cut together and hope “It plays like it felt.” In theater, what you see in that performance is what you get. There’s no editing. You can’t choose another take, or adjust lighting between takes. You get one shot to be totally honest. That, to me, is a major difference.
DEADLINE: The idea of autonomy in theater is interesting. Never thought of it that way…
WASHINGTON: A lot depends on the director, but there is a part of the film experience that can take away from the heart of a performance due to all the changes that are made in post. What you execute on set, may not always be what you see in the final product. On stage as an actor, I have a bigger role in portraying the character and story. It’s enormous pressure and risky because If you go up on stage and you fake it, the audience will see it. You can’t hide in the theater world.
DEADLINE: Have you been in tune to what the response was to your performance?
WASHINGTON: On opening night, an actor I’m a big fan of cornered me for a short talk about my character and how it made him feel as a person. He loved the play, and he was just praising the performances. He also discussed the process of guilt and how the show is important for white folks to see August Wilson’s works as a call out to white America–and I thought that was pretty profound.
DEADLINE: What projects do you have coming up that you can tell us? I heard about True Love which also stars Gemma Chan and Alison Janney.
WASHINGTON: True Love, directed by Gareth Edwards, wrapped filming in early 2022. It was a six month shoot and I think the story is brilliant. Edwards is such a calm human being and collaborative director who embraces every performance. True Love is a character piece about betrayal, guilt, PTSD, and dangerous technology. It takes place in the near future, and that’s all I can say about it. It’s such a complete script, and full of opportunity with a role I’ve never played before and its a project I am very excited about.
DEADLINE: Last question: earlier you talked about Shakespeare. Your father is clearly a Billy fan since he starred in Julius Caesar on Broadway in 2005. Is there any Shakespearan play you’d like to star in?
WASHINGTON: I’d like a crack at Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew. There’s something about him that I feel is a bit misunderstood. He’s dealing with a bunch of childhood trauma that may inform some of the behavior we see from him in the play. With that knowledge, I would like to examine the story and try for the part if the opportunity ever came up.
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