‘It’s snot a big deal’ co-star tells APT newcomer
Stage Right/Wrong: Actor Russell was once a cop
Editor’s Note: “Stage Write/Stage Wrong” is an occasional series by Madison Magazine theater reviewer Aaron R. Conklin about those occasions when live performances do not go entirely according to the stage directions. Most actors, directors and designers have the grace and style to appreciate and/or survive dropped lines, stumbles and misbehaving props, but it’s the confident ones who are willing to relive and share those experiences with us.
This summer, Jefferson A. Russell is playing a loyal but morally bankrupt sergeant and an unexpectedly erudite British convict on the boards at American Players Theatre in rural Spring Green.
A few decades ago, Russell’s stage was a little different: The streets of urban Baltimore, where Russell spent eight years as a police officer and a juvenile probation officer.
It’s a fascinating transition for Russell, who was lured from the East Coast to Spring Green for his debut APT season partly on the recommendation of his friend and fellow company member Gavin Lawrence.
He’s starring in APT’s complementary stagings of “The Recruiting Officer” (as Sergeant Kite) and “Our Country’s Good” (in dual roles as the twitchy convict Wisehammer and Captain Phillip).
Russell studied sociology and criminal justice at Hampton University in the late 1980s. He found himself inspired by the 1987 election of Kurt Schmoke, the United States’ first African-American mayor.
“That was like my Obama moment,” he recalls. “A big change was coming and I wanted to be part of it.”
But Russell had also discovered acting while at Hampton. As a freshman, he auditioned for a one-act play.
“That first experience encapsulated what theater could do,” says Russell, who ended up taking the production to a theater competition in Chicago, his first foray as an actor in the Midwest. “It opened up another world for me.”
Russell enjoyed acting so much that he deliberately took midnight shifts at the precinct so he could rehearse and perform in community theater productions. It wasn’t yet something he considered doing professionally — until he hit his 10th year in Baltimore’s criminal justice system and began to feel the wearying signs of burnout.
Fortunately, the NBC TV series “Homicide: Life on the Street” happened to be filming in Baltimore. Russell landed an audition, appeared in an episode and found doors subsequently opening.
Now, two decades into a successful professional acting career, he finds himself in Wisconsin, performing classic theater.
He took advantage of a break in his performance schedule to relate a few doozies from his back catalogue.
Earlier this year, Russell starred in an Everyman Theatre/Olney Theater production of “Aubergine,” Julie Cho’s play about an African-American hospice nurse who helps a Korean-American chef come to terms with the impending death of his father. Russell found himself swept up into the play.
“When you do shows, you rehearse them — it’s your job,” he explains. “But you’re also so close to it. I’m not always wholly aware of the impact it may have, even though you know how potent it can be.”
Russell’s character, the only non-Korean character in the play, was a Caribbean immigrant who delivers a moving monologue about his experience. In the show’s audience talk backs, Russell heard those sentiments echoed.
“The stories the audience relayed to us about their own experiences, it was just beautiful,” Russell recalled. “It was an affirmation of the power of theater, how these stories can be so transcendent.”
In that, Russell sees similarities between “Aubergine” and “Our Country’s Good,” which also celebrates immigrants — in this case, British convicts transported to Australia — and the transformative power of theater. He hopes it opens some eyes.
Wisehammer, Russell’s character, “is a mangled soul, but he also has this deep love of literature — he’s one smart dude,” Russell says. “It makes audiences reconsider their reactions to what it means to be an immigrant.”
Like a lot of actors, Russell’s not afraid to get emotional for a role. Sometimes, a little too emotional.
Russell was playing the doomed Eifert Lovborg in Everyman Theatre’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s head-trippy “Hedda Gabler.” In one of the play’s pivotal scenes, Gabler slips a loaded pistol to a weeping Lovborg, then kisses him as he goes through a door and exits the stage.
Russell played the scene for all it was worth, tearing up and weeping before his dramatic exit. When he sat down at his dressing room station a moment later, he discovered he’d pushed his performance, um, just a little too far.
“I looked in the mirror and said, “Oh, my God — I was snotty!'” Russell relates. “And she still kissed me! She was so committed to the role.”
For a second, Russell entertained the thought that his nasal drip might have gone undetected. “There’s no way she couldn’t see it. There’s no way the audience couldn’t have seen it.”
Fortunately, Russell’s co-star was a good sport about the snot. The two laughed about the incident over a cup of coffee the following day.
“The Recruiting Officer” runs in the Hill Theatre through Sept. 29. “Our Country’s Good” runs in the Touchstone Theatre through Oct. 7.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.
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