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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.
You might not realize it watching Jamal James earn uproarious laughter for his role as Marlow, the tongue-tied young noble in American Players Theatre's production of "She Stoops to Conquer," but comedy — well, period comedy, anyway — doesn't come easy to the Virginia native.
"With contemporary comedy, there's context — you know the cultural context," says James (who is also playing the young jazz musician Lyons in August Wilson's "Fences" in the Hill Theatre this summer). "With Old English comedy, you're using an old language. There are societal names and in-jokes. You're not sure if you're being funny at all."
James had an easier time in his scenes with co-star Laura Rook, who plays Kate Hardcastle, the woman who delights in torturing his character. Marlow can scarcely put together two coherent words in the presence of a noblewoman but has no trouble letting loose with the house staff. The physical aspects of his role, like when he must nervously edge away from Rook's Kate or contort himself to avoid making eye contact with her, came much more naturally. But even these scenes were a challenge, says James.
"Not every audience laughs at the same place," he notes. "You have to ride that wave as it's happening. It's an act of listening for comedy to work."
All laughs aside, James took a break to talk with us about a few of his other memorable stage experiences.
A few years ago, James had the opportunity to play a fictionalized version of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, in playwright Marco Ramirez's "The Royale." Unfortunately, he tripped while working a catering job a few months before the show was to open, fracturing his kneecap.
The two months leading up to opening ended up feeling like a boxer training for a big comeback. James had to spend eight weeks with his leg propped up, locked in a brace to aid healing.
"I was in pain all the time," he recalls. "My body was betraying me in ways I hadn't anticipated."
While the play doesn't feature any dramatic bouts or fancy footwork — "It's a boxing play with no boxing," James quips — the role still required stamina and physicality. Pulling it off for the entirety of the run felt to James like an underdog knocking an opponent out with an unexpected left cross.
"The amount of control it took to get through this created a magical experience," he says. "It changed my approach to everything."
The hardest part? Having to beat up a punching bag for two full minutes in each show.
"You figure out a way," he says.
Back in 2011, James starred as Lumiere, the suave footman in the Barter Theater production of "Beauty and the Beast: The Broadway Musical. " If you've seen it — Middleton Players Theater staged it a month and a half ago — you'll recall that for the bulk of the play, the actor playing Lumiere is wearing an extravagant costume that reflects the household object into which he's been transformed. In James' case, it meant playing the candelabra without the full use of his hands.
In the show's second act, there's a big throwdown as the servants in the Beast's castle try to fend off an attack from Gaston and the fearful townspeople. During the battle, one of James' "hands came unscrewed and fell off, hanging loosely from his arm by its electrical wiring. Without a second hand free to try to get it back in place, James had no choice but to seek offstage help.
But he went the wrong way.
"I ran stage right to try to get it fixed, but all the techs were stage left," James says. "And I couldn't go backstage because we were in a repertory theater, and there was another set blocking my way."
So James did the only thing he could do: He waded back into battle, his broken hand/candelabra swinging at his side.
"I tried to use it as a lasso," he laughs. "I seriously didn't know what to do. It was pretty stupid."
Aaron R. Conklin covers the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.
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