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Choir Boy - Off-Broadway

Manhattan Theatre Club presents Tarell Alvin McCraney's new gospel-centric play.

Choir Boy’s Chuck Cooper on August Wilson, Tony Kushner & His Regrets About His Tony-Winning Role

Choir Boy’s Chuck Cooper on August Wilson, Tony Kushner & His Regrets About His Tony-Winning Role
Chuck Cooper looks back on favorite plays and musicals.

Chuck Cooper exudes power on stage, both as a singer and a dramatic actor. His charismatic performance as a pimp named Memphis in Cy Coleman’s 1997 musical The Life earned the Ohio-born actor a Tony Award. Cooper has done tons of Shakespeare (including Othello) in regional theater, and he shared his passion for the plays of August Wilson during the acclaimed 2012 off-Broadway run of The Piano Lesson. Now appearing in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s gospel-infused Choir Boy at Manhattan Theatre Club, Cooper chose an impressive variety of parts for his Role Call.

Role That Was a Game-Changer
The Life [1997, as Memphis; Best Featured Actor Tony Award] was a 10-year odyssey that started when a group of us were asked to audition for a workshop of a show about pimps and whores. Our initial reaction was, ‘Really? That’s what we have to do?’ But Cy Coleman wrote one of his best scores for the show, and we began to see that it was an intimate story about the friendship of two women [played by Tony winner Lillias White and Pamela Isaacs]. I took to calling my character an “agent” [rather than a pimp]. He was a businessman in a world where it was difficult for a powerful black man to function. I had no problem doing it at the time, but in retrospect, I have strong feelings on both sides: I was playing a mean black pimp who terrorized women and scared white people in the audience. How hard was that? For a big black man? Not very hard at all, and that saddens me. You think of Trayvon Martin—how many young black men are in the grave because they scared a white person? But I was fully committed at the time, and they gave me a Tony Award for it.”

Role That Was a Dream Come True
“I feel an incredible sense of satisfaction and relief about The Piano Lesson [2012, as Wining Boy; Lucille Lortel Award], having lived in the time of August Wilson. I missed every opportunity to be in one of his plays on Broadway and it was something I wanted very badly, so to finally get a shot at a role like Wining Boy in a production like this was a dream come true. The first time I heard the words of August Wilson was when I saw James Earl Jones in Fences, and I thought ‘Oh my god!’ The music of his language was the music I had grown up with. I knew it intimately, but I had never heard it on the stage. As we began this [off-Broadway revival], we had the sense that we were on a special journey. It was just the perfect mix of personalities; everyone was cohesive. I got to do all my tricks and learn some new ones—I don’t play the piano, so I had to learn well enough to trick folks into thinking that I play!”

Role That Fans Ask Me About Most
“People constantly come up to me and say, ‘Caroline, or Change [2004, as the Dryer and the Bus] is my favorite musical.’ When we did the first reading, there wasn’t any music: Tony Kushner asked us to go through the script and improvise singing when we felt the need to sing. I remember thinking, ‘What is this hodgepodge of singing buses and singing radios?’ After [composer] Jeanine Tesori came on board, the piece really started to take off. She tailored the ‘Bus Aria’ to me, based on an old style, the ‘field holler,’ which slaves used to communicate across distances. I wish I could show you all the Bus costumes that were built and then thrown out. One of them was a big fiberglass thing that was like the front of a bus! In the end, they modeled it on a grio, the man who leads the funeral march in New Orleans in a boater hat, and I pulled a cart. The Dryer had a big pompadour wig and black silk suit and cravat—he represented the devil. Caroline, or Change was a wonderful collaborative journey for us with Jeanine, Tony and [director] George C. Wolfe.”

Role That Was the Most Surprising
“I had the rare opportunity to play the father in All My Sons at the Intiman Theatre [in Seattle; 2011] in a production in which they made [the Kellers] an African-American family. First of all, when am I ever going to get to do Arthur Miller? And to play a dramatic role of that size? The amazing thing is that Mr. Miller’s words in our mouths felt almost like an August Wilson play. The musicality of the text, and the stakes of a black man making that mistake [using faulty parts in airplanes] are through the roof. At the end, as my character goes to kill himself, there was such an exquisite silence in the audience. I saw [Joe Keller] as a guy who just got swept up in something tragic. In my own life, I’ve done things that I should not have done, but the current seemed to drag me along. I understood this man. He thought he was taking care of his family. The way he did it was wrong, but people make mistakes.”

Role That Taught Me to Act Shakespeare
“I was lucky enough to be tutored in the art of performing Shakespeare by director John Hirsch, who hired me to play Tullus Aufidius in Coriolanus at the Old Globe [1988]. He’s the archrival of Coriolanus, and they’ve been at war forever, although they have a great deal of respect for each other. John Hirsch and I sat alone in a room and went through my part line by line. I can’t even begin to tell you what a gift that was—he’s a world famous director who knew Shakespeare backwards and forwards, and he basically taught me how to do it. Since then, I’ve worked at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC and at the Old Globe, and I’m going to be playing Lord Capulet in Romeo and Juliet on Broadway this fall with Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad.”

Role That Was the Most Inspiring
“I had always wanted to do a one-man show, and Paul Robeson [in Robeson, 2002, Passage Theatre in Trenton, NJ] is one of my heroes; I don’t think there’s been anyone like him before or since. He was an extraordinary individual: an outrageous athlete, a Rhodes scholar, a lawyer, a social activist, a great singer—at one point, he was probably the most famous person in the world. His testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee gives you an insight into how searingly intelligent he was. I approached the role with a great deal of humility. I wanted to be as rigorous and relentless and fearless as I could in order to be truthful to the memory of this incredible patriot.”

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