James T. Alfred spent the past year refining “A Brown Tale,” whose revamped version previews Thursday at the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis.
When director Lou Bellamy staged the premiere of James T. Alfred’s “A Brown Tale” at Penumbra Theatre a year ago, the autobiographical up-from-the-projects story was well-received, even selling out some performances. But neither Bellamy nor performer/playwright Alfred was completely satisfied with the result.
The play “contained a lot of great stuff but could have been better structured,” said Bellamy, who first worked with Alfred about eight years ago when he directed him in “Jitney” and has since directed him in dramas all over the country. “It could have been tightened; James wrote it in a vacuum, and out of a place of great respect and love.”
The playwright is best known locally for playing Levee, the cocksure trumpeter in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and a lonely, conflicted Martin Luther King Jr. in “The Mountaintop.” He also appeared alongside Kelsey Grammer and rapper/actor T.I. in the TV series “Boss,” playing a gangster-turned-political broker.
Alfred spent the past year refining “A Brown Tale,” whose revamped version previews Thursday at the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis.
While in Arizona doing “The Mountaintop,” he enlisted the advice of skilled playwright Gus Edwards. In addition to changes to the script, the remount also includes different blocking, because the Capri has a proscenium-arch stage and Penumbra, where “A Brown Tale” first played, is a modified thrust stage.
“The proscenium is basically like looking at a picture,” said Alfred, who earned a master of fine arts degree in theater at Harvard. “You can only look at it head-on. At Penumbra, I could turn my back to the audience and still have my face seen by two-thirds of the house. I cannot do that at the Capri, as I’ll lose my connection to the audience.”
Coming of age
Alfred was in corporate sales, selling phosphates and soda ash, when he saw a late 1990s production of “Jitney” at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. He was so taken by the characters onstage that he decided to quit his job and become an actor.
“Those cats up there [onstage] were like kings,” he said. “They were that mythic, larger-than-life. I wanted to be part of that.”
The journey would take him from Chicago to Moscow. It also would result in his writing what turned out to be his first play — “A Brown Tale,” a one-person one-act he has been noodling with for well over a decade.
It’s Alfred’s story about coming of age on Chicago’s South Side. While the people were poor, they were proud and close-knit. The actor/playwright recalls that he had many “aunts” and “uncles” who looked out for his well-being, whether as protectors, patrons or disciplinarians.
“The people were colossal in terms of personality,” he said. “Children respected adults; adults took care of children. It was a safe village where people borrowed sugar from each other, did all the neighborly stuff.”
Alfred enacts all the characters in the show — from the prim church lady who enforces a moral code but who also loses her religion in moments of excitement, to the male guardian at the community center who instills pride in the young men and teaches them to respect their female peers. The production includes vignettes on dating within religious parameters, playing sports and substitute teaching.
He delineates these characters with physical tics, vocal intonations and gestures.
“James has such a latitude, he’s like Robin Williams,” Bellamy said. “He can turn around and, pow! He’s another character. And he has no problem connecting with an audience, even if he has to go out there and sit with them.”
Alfred has an athletic build. He played sports through high school and college and has recently taken up boxing.
“He has total control of his instrument,” Bellamy said. “You can literally walk up to him and give him a direction — turn your foot out, hold your shoulder this way — and he can do it, bam! Plus, he’s got a wonderful sense of humor. That covers a lot of area in theater and life.”
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390