Want an actor with charisma and fearlessness to play a star athlete onstage?
Call Ansa Akyea.
In the past decade or so, the chiseled Swiss-born performer has bulked up, then stripped down to play the title wrestler in “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. He put on pounds to play a tubby Kirby Puckett at St. Paul’s History Theatre. He was a lithe baseball player in “Take Me Out” at Mixed Blood. And he played a physically blustering Aslan, the lion king, in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” at Children’s Theatre.
If you think that he has been cast in these important roles because of his impressive physique, you would only be partly right.
“He’s got a great instrument and he uses it well,” said Children’s Theatre head Peter Brosius, who directed Akyea in “Iron Ring” and “Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy.” “Ansa’s the total package — smart, generous with his fellow actors and willing to try anything to make his character work.”
Akyea (pronounced ah-CHAY-ah) gets a chance to demonstrate those qualities when he stars as barrier-breaking baseball player Jackie Robinson in “Jackie and Me,” opening Friday at Children’s Theatre. The play is teaching him a thing or two.
“Every show I do is instructive, and this one is especially so,” he said last week from the car as he picked up his two children from school. “Whatever I may be dealing with — whether divorce, child support, paying bills — those are nothing compared to what Jackie Robinson dealt with. As the first black baseball player, he had to absorb so much hurt and hatred for three years before he could even respond. Imagine that.”
Akyea’s own emotions have been raw since going through a recent divorce. He remains involved in the lives of his son and daughter.
“Jackie” is adapted by Steven Dietz from the book by Dan Gutman and is directed by Tony nominee Marion McClinton. It involves time travel and a change in skin color as a little boy goes back in time for a school assignment to meet Robinson, who in 1947 integrated what was then the all-white major leagues.
“It’s a story of triumph and perseverance but also of how far we have come,” said Akyea.
In its own way, it’s also a measure of Akyea’s journey.
When he was a boy in Switzerland, where he was the youngest of three children born to a father who was a U.N. high official and a mother who taught French, Akyea dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. “I love science and the ocean,” he said.
He nurtured those dreams as he bounced around West Africa, where he spent part of his youth as a diplomat’s brat. But his goals began to change as he aged. By the time he got to the University of Iowa, where his family settled in the 1990s, Akyea was deep into Francophone literature and culture, his undergraduate major.
By his own admission, he was “messing around” and got cast as the lead in a student production of playwright Yulisa Amadu Maddy’s, “The Amistad Revolt.” That show was followed by another and another.
“I was doing acting, but I had not studied it, so I needed to do that,” he said. He went on to graduate school, earning both a master’s and a master’s of fine arts at Iowa.
He moved to the Twin Cities after graduation, earning roles at the Guthrie in “A Winter’s Tale” and at Penumbra, where founder Lou Bellamy directed him in “The Piano Lesson.” Akyea played Boy Willie, a struggling young man who wants to sell the family’s piano to start a business.
“Ansa’s got some strength about him and a whole lot of craft,” said Bellamy. “August wrote roles that are culturally specific and Boy Willie allowed Ansa to expand into it. He used all of who he was, and it was pretty memorable.”
Sonja Parks acted opposite Akyea in “A Cool Drink of Water” at Mixed Blood and “In the Red and Brown Water,” a Pillsbury House and Mount Curve production at the Guthrie. She also directed him as “Othello” for Ten Thousand Things theater.
“As someone who’s worked with him on both sides of the table, I can tell you that he’s incredibly generous as an actor, and that he’s willing to go to places where other actors hold back because of fear or lack of confidence or whatever.”
Parks cited Othello. “Othello goes from being someone who’s self-assured with everything under control to a man who is been broken and beaten down. Ansa really embodied that contrast between power and being destroyed by the thing you love.”
In 2007, City Pages named Akyea its best actor, lauding his “combination of dramatic heft and humane lightness to every role he touches. While he isn’t particularly tall, he has such a physical presence that he could pass for a 6-plus-footer. And he’s blessed with a big, expressive, handsome mug that enables him to run the gamut from heartthrob to nurturing protector.”
Those adjectives also are apt descriptions for his character, he said.
“Jackie Robinson is a symbol, but he was flesh and bones, too,” said Akyea. “He was a family man who did a great service for the country and the world.”
Sounds like the aspiration of many a boy and girl.