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In his depiction of Troy in August Wilson's "Fences" at Penumbra Theatre this fall, actor James A. Williams often seemed like a man possessed. Moving forcefully through the aisles and onstage, he endowed his character, a frustrated former baseball player, with a muscular physicality that filled the playhouse and held audiences captive to Troy's aching ambition and hurt.
Williams' coruscating performance seemed real -- as if self and character were somehow merged. In playing a misguided father who destroys the family he's trying to protect, Williams said he also was exorcising some ghosts in his own history.
"With Troy, I got a chance to work out my relationship with my father and my relationship with my son, all at the same time," Williams said in a recent interview.
Williams' transcendent year was (almost) all about playing characters written by Wilson. It began for Williams in Baltimore, where he played boardinghouse owner Seth in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." He next moved to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for a marathon of all 10 plays in Wilson's epic cycle. Williams depicted characters in four -- "Gem of the Ocean," "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "King Hedley II" and "Radio Golf."
The actor, called Jay Dub by friends and colleagues, had his only non-Wilson role at Pillsbury House Theatre, where he performed in Eisa Davis' "Bulrusher," a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that was staged by Broadway director Marion McClinton.
And he concluded his watermark year at Penumbra, where he is a founding company member. "My job was to stay in contact with the souls of the people that Mr. Wilson put on the page," Williams said, "and to just give my all for that."
If Williams drew inspiration for Troy's emotional underpinnings from his own biography, he relied on his training for the rest. The actor honed his craft over three decades on Twin Cities stages, including Penumbra, where he acted in the company's very first production, "Eden," and Mixed Blood Theatre, where he did revues, comedies and straight plays.
Williams, who has done musical theater, also spent five years at the Guthrie Theater in the company of Garland Wright, mostly working with an ensemble.
"Jay Dub's craft and technique are strong, but he drives his performance with his emotions, with his soul, not his head," said McClinton, who has known Williams for more than 30 years and who directed Williams in "Bulrusher" and acted alongside him in "Fences." "He understands the rhythms of the work beyond the page. And he's an actor who is generous with his moments [onstage] -- he wants to serve the whole play, not just himself."
'This far by faith'
Born into a poor St. Louis family, Williams is the first in his family to go to college, graduating from Macalester in the mid-1970s. He stayed in the Twin Cities, honing his craft but also falling into drugs. He found his way by becoming a born-again Christian.
"I've come this far by faith," he said. "Nothing but a God."
Over the years, Williams has also worked as a mentor, teacher and director in programs that help troubled teens in the United States and help with literacy in East Africa. He intends to deepen such work. He recently won a grant from the Theatre Communications Group that will allow him to travel to Detroit, to observe Mosaic Theater, and to Venezuela, to see up close the work of Jose Antonio Abreu, who founded El Sistema, a world-renowned program that trains youths in music.
"These two programs take young people that others might not give a chance, and shows them a way to their talent," said Williams. "Over the years, many people looked at me, touched me on the shoulder and gave me a chance. I want to pass that on."
Wilson's dramas have a cosmology, music, especially the blues and jazz, and vernacular poetry that make them sound authentically black and rural, even though most of his plays are set in Pittsburgh. Williams said that the characters feel like kin to him.
"The first time that words from the cycle came out of my mouth in a Wilson play, I knew that I was home," he said. "I knew this neighborhood. I knew this rhythm. I know these people. I am these people."
Williams essentially grew up with Wilson, professionally. The actor was in the playwright's first produced work, a controversial musical take on "Lysistrata" called "Black Bart and the Sacred Hills." Wilson later named a character in "Jitney" Doub in honor of Williams' nickname. And the late playwright, seeking actors who can deliver his idiom with majesty, cast Williams to originate a role in his last play, "Radio Golf."
Wilson's works have taken Williams to Broadway ("Radio Golf"), London ("Jitney") and across the United States, drawing accolades. His achievements mark the arrival of the Wilsonian actor onto the national stage, said "Fences" director Lou Bellamy.
"A Shakespearean actor does work in a certain presentational style," Bellamy said. "A Wilsonian actor plumbs the depths of the blues. He gets in there, stirs it up, and just leaves you steeped in a discovery. Jay Dub does all that."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390