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An actor-scholar tees up a big role

Harry Lennix will debut on Broadway in August Wilson's `Radio Golf,' a black bourgeois breakthrough.

April 29, 2007|Rob Kendt | Special to The Times

New York — SOME roles you just don't turn down. Like, say, the lead in the Broadway bow of August Wilson's final play, "Radio Golf." Or, for that matter, the part of Benny Southstreet in a production of "Guys and Dolls" at Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary in Chicago.

"I didn't think about it as a freshman -- I thought, 'Theater? Acting? That's for weirdos,' " recalled Harry Lennix, the actor who took both parts and has no regrets about either. "But my sophomore year, these pretty girls were coming to school and I asked why. I was told they were auditioning for the play, and I was like, 'Well, let's go!' "

Thus ended Lennix's childhood ambitions of being "either a priest or a baseball player" and began a slow-building career onstage and on the big and small screens that culminates next month with arguably his biggest, meatiest part: Harmond Wilks, mayoral candidate and real estate developer in Pittsburgh circa 1997 in "Radio Golf."

The role marks more than simply Lennix's Broadway debut, opposite such powerhouses as Tonya Pinkins, who plays his wife, Mame, and Anthony Chisholm, a seasoned Wilson regular. It is also the debut in Wilson's oeuvre of a specimen long overdue for his theatrical consideration: a black bourgeois.

"This is August's first play about the middle class," said director Kenny Leon, who also helmed the 2004 Broadway run of Wilson's penultimate play, "Gem of the Ocean," which was set in 1904 and featured a character, Caesar Wilks, who is Harmond Wilks' great-grandfather. "It's interesting to work on this right after 'Gem of the Ocean,' which was set not long after slavery. Those people didn't have food or a place to lay their heads. Now, almost a hundred years later in 'Radio Golf,' we have homes, we have cars, we can walk onto golf courses almost anywhere. But are we sustaining ourselves in terms of our culture and our history?"

That open question throbs through "Radio Golf's" two-hour-plus running time, as Wilks is poised between an acquisitive, golf-worshipping young business partner and a wise oldster who refuses to abandon a condemned house in the blighted Hill district -- a neighborhood whose redevelopment is a linchpin of Wilks' campaign. Lennix, at 6-foot-4 an imposing, naturally heroic figure almost invariably cast as surpassingly serious men, is onstage nearly without a break.

"Harry's the perfect Harmond," said Leon, who directed three other actors in the role before New York (including Rocky Carroll in the play's 2005 premiere at the Mark Taper Forum). "It's a challenging role. For a lot of it he's listening to other characters. He's got to give the impression that he's listening differently to different people. You have to see the man change right before our eyes."

Utter devotion

INDEED, though he bypassed the priesthood, the way Lennix talks about his craft suggests a reverent dedication that wouldn't be out of place in the cloisters.

"I like to get in there -- I have to understand what I'm doing, I can't sort of just wing it," said Lennix, 42, an impeccably tailored bachelor with large brown eyes, an understatedly smoky voice and a Kirk Douglas-worthy chin dimple.

He cited the recent production of "Macbeth" he headlined at Hollywood's Lillian Theatre.

"I would try to stop myself, but I would wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning thinking about a moment in the play, and I'd have to get out the variorum and read what Tennyson said about this line or that line," Lennix said, referring to the scholarly reference editions of Shakespeare's plays. He continued in a tone that may be as close to breathless as he gets: "The cool thing about the new variorum for 'Macbeth' is that it has performance history, so you could see what Barrymore did or find out how Booth did it. There's not a variorum on August Wilson yet, but I'm sure that there will be one day, saying, 'This is what he was writing about,' or, 'This is the interpretation of that line according to Laurence Fishburne.' "

The absence of such annotations doesn't deter Lennix's research.

"I especially have to do this work with August Wilson, because his plays are dense," Lennix said. "There's a lot of intertextuality -- things that he's referencing that may or may not have historical basis but do have cultural bases and resonances."

In fact, many of the references, particularly in Wilson's later works, are to previous plays in the 10-play "cycle" he completed before his death Oct. 2, 2005. Lennix is well versed in this body of work, which encompasses plays set in every decade of the 20th century: He has appeared in two Chicago productions of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," and he played the title character in the Taper's production of "King Hedley II" in 2001.

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