The mellowing of El Ra

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 3, 2011 - 10:41 AM

His reputation as a firebrand and provocateur mostly behind him, actor Abdul Salaam El Razzac talks about his life and the theater.

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Frequent Penumbra actor Abdul Salaam El Razzac lives in California but calls St. Paul home.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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"When someone comes up to me and says, 'I remember you from the old days,' I go, 'Uh-oh,'" said actor Abdul Salaam El Razzac, 67, as he dragged on a cigarette outside Penumbra Theatre during a recent rehearsal break. "I get suspicious because I don't know if they're among those people I cussed out or went off on back in the day, or if their memories are sweet and loving. Either way, it makes me a little paranoid."

He has reasons to be wary.

Still tall, dashing and colorful, the former Allen Johnson II has been a theatrical provocateur and bomb-thrower for decades. He remembers being literally run out of small towns in the heady 1970s. At one northern Minnesota venue during the bicentennial he and fellow ensemble members of the Mutima Theatre company sang their own version of Samuel Francis Smith's "My Country, 'Tis of Thee":

"My country, yes indeed, sweet land of slavery, on thee I scream. Land where brothers were lynched, land where slave ships were sent, from every voice we spent, let freedom ring."

"Droves of people walked out on that, saying that we ruined their bicentennial. But everything I've ever done, even stuff that's pissed people off, has been to make this country better," said El Razzac. "It's all come from a place of fierce love."

Pillar of Penumbra

El Razzac is now calm and serene, just like the seasoned characters he plays on stage and screen. He depicted cool piano player Toledo in Penumbra's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" last season at the Guthrie and has matured into the consummate actor of the August Wilson canon. He plays Holloway in "Two Trains Running," the latest installment in Wilson's 10-play cycle to be staged by the company.

"I should be a supreme Wilsonian actor because, A, I've studied these people all my life," he said. "And B, he wrote these characters based on us, based on this company of actors here at Penumbra."

"El Ra is one of the anchors, one of the pillars of this company," said Penumbra founder and "Two Trains" director Lou Bellamy, using El Razzac's nickname. "He's got this presence and this wisdom to anchor the production. When you add in James Craven, Crystal Fox and other members of the cast, it's like I'm coaching players in an all-star game."

That El Razzac is an actor at all still surprises him. Growing up in Cleveland, the son of a postal worker father and public servant mother, he saw himself onstage, but with a different purpose.

"I come from a family of musicians, so I never wanted to be an actor," he said. "I wanted to be with the cats jamming in the pocket. But this thing kept calling me."

Life in Cleveland offered few outlets, he said, so right after high school he enlisted in the Air Force during the Vietnam War era. "That might not seem like much now but during that time, many people were trying to go the other way," he said.

He spent six years in the service, stationed in Korea, where his first child, a daughter, was born.

When he got out of the Air Force, he moved to the Twin Cities in the late 1960s. Most of the world still called him Allen Johnson II, the name his parents gave him. In those heated days, the same time setting for "Two Trains," he adopted a Muslim name to invoke peace ("salaam") and service ("el razzac").

"You couldn't use a name like that right away because people made automatic assumptions about who you were and what you were up to," he said.

What he was up to was teaching in schools, studying at the University of Minnesota and doing provocative theater. He remembers being let go from a teaching job after he encouraged students to find their inner rebels.

"Kids need to have a safe place to express their rage, and the stage is better than taking it out on somebody's property," he said.

Wise men

His 20-plus years living in the Twin Cities means that he considers the area his home, even though he has been in California since 1989. A seasoned character actor, he has appeared in such movies as "Pretty Woman," "Terminator 2" and "Malcolm X."

"I do films, but my heart and soul are here in St. Paul," he said.

El Razzac has acted in nearly all of Wilson's plays, playing an assortment of rapscallions, musicians and sages.

"This wise man-philosopher character is, in some shape or form, in all of August's plays," he said. "Which is the big challenge for me, since I don't want Holloway to be Toledo ['Ma Rainey'] or Bynum ['Joe Turner's Come and Gone'] or Wining Boy ['The Piano Lesson'] or Stool Pigeon ['King Hedley II']. He can't be the last one you saw me do."

El Razzac said that the rehearsals have had their own challenges. "I told Lou the other day that it's interesting that we talk about slavery so much in this play even as he, the director, is out there cracking the whip."

The through-line of his life has been service, El Razzac said, from enlisting in the armed forces to actng onstage.

"You know, I didn't expect to survive to this age," he said. "Lots of people I know didn't. That said, I've learned a few things along the way and am glad to share them whichever way people will hear them."

  • TWO TRAINS RUNNING

    What: By August Wilson. Directed by Lou Bellamy.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sun. Ends Oct. 30.

    Where: Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul.

    Tickets: $40. 651-224-3180 or www.penumbratheatre.org.

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