James T. Alfred is mesmerizing in "Ma Rainey" at the Guthrie. His conversion to a life in the arts was sudden and irreversible.
For actor James T. Alfred, playing fiery antihero Levee in August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at the Guthrie is karmic fulfillment. Fourteen years ago, he saw a staging of another Wilson play, "Jitney," that changed his life.
It was 1997 when Alfred, 23 and a rising corporate hotshot, read an article about Wilson in a magazine. The church-bred Chicago native was taken with what the playwright was saying about the purpose of his art and culture and the responsibility that artists had to their communities. Alfred bought a ticket to see "Jitney" at the Goodman Theatre. It was his first professional play.
"It blew my mind," he said. "I'd never seen black people onstage like that -- with such dignity and honor. These men were up there talking and sounding like my uncles from Mississippi. They had warmth, wisdom and style. I said, 'This is incredible, I want to be part of it.'"
He decided to leave the security and high pay of his job in sales to pursue a life on the stage.
"I was pretty naive at that point about what it would take to live this life, but I knew that there's no price for happiness and self-actualization," he said. "I was making more money than anybody in my family, that's true. But to give that all up wasn't that hard. I had to take care of my soul."
He has never looked back.
To Harvard, ho!
Alfred, who has an undergraduate degree in international business, has brought to the stage the same dogged zeal that endeared him to his corporate bosses. The first thing he acknowledged was his unfamiliarity with the field. He decided to build his knowledge of theater both by experience and education. He auditioned for shows at suburban Chicago community theaters, playing Tybalt in "Romeo and Juliet," for example.
"I'd never swung a rapier or anything like that, but I'd swung baseball bats," he said with a laugh.
And Alfred took the notes of directors and cast members, who recognized his talent and encouraged him to take classes.
One friend, esteemed stage and screen actor Harry Lennix, suggested that he go to graduate school. Alfred wanted to go to Yale Drama School, but, after four auditions, he did not make it. "They were building a company in the class and they probably had someone like me already," he said.
He enrolled instead at Harvard, which accepted him into its joint master's of fine arts program with the Moscow Art Theatre School. Since graduating in 2006, he has worked across the country.
"He's got endless energy and a fierce attack," said "Ma Rainey" director Lou Bellamy, who also directed Alfred in three other productions: "Redshirts" and Wilson's "Fences" at Penumbra, and "Jitney" for a Kansas City Rep co-production. "In fact, he's got to be modulated. But you never have to ask him for more."
"What I like about him is that he's a Harvard intellectual, so he's got that side of the classical craft covered," Bellamy continued.
"But he's also got the street smarts that those finishing schools frequently take out of people. When you put the craft together with his cultural grounding and his power, watch out."
In "Ma," Levee is an ambitious, hotheaded trumpet player who is pioneering a new sound and wants to have his own band. Alfred likens him to a flea that does not know that he's in a corked bottle.
"All the other fleas have stopped jumping, because they know they're going to hit their heads," he said. "But Levee keeps jumping. Maybe he thinks it hardens his head, and gives him the strength to finally break through."
Levee wrestles not only with questions of worldly injustice, but with theology. That struggle hits close to home for Alfred, who was raised in a devout household.
"I grew up watching my mother, a good woman, a churchgoing woman, having to step over bottles to go to work," he said. "When I heard Levee do that God speech, I was like, 'Wow, these are some of the questions I secretly had my whole life.' Why, God, does my mother have to live like this when other people, who don't love you as much as we do, seem to live off the fat of the land?"
Levee dances, but has the edge of a boxer. He's a fighter who will not quit, but, ultimately, a character of deep heart, said Alfred.
"He's so passionate, so committed," he said of a character he has grown fond of, after playing Levee at the Court Theatre in Chicago and now in this Penumbra co-production. "It was seeing a production of August Wilson that touched me so deeply, that changed my life. Now, I have the honor to try to do that, to touch someone like that."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390