Veteran actor James Craven was worried.
Eight days before opening in “Thurgood,” George Stevens Jr.’s stage biography of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, he had not yet memorized his lines. Nor does he have other actors who can serve as a crutch. “Thurgood,” which opens Friday at Illusion Theater in Minneapolis, is a solo show with 50-plus pages of monologue.
“I don’t want to do this when I’m up there,” he said before freezing for a few seconds. “That’s every actor’s worst nightmare, going up.”
So Craven was reading his lines one day last week at the Riverview Cafe and Wine Bar, an old haunt that serves as his unofficial office in the south Minneapolis neighborhood where his family has lived for generations. Craven has a daily routine that involves morning walks along the Mississippi River and Minnehaha Falls.
“The Mississippi is the life force of the country, and it carries the soul and history of this country,” he said.
After his walk, he drops his granddaughter at school and heads for the Riverview, where the staff knows his name. Ensconced in a leather chair, he peers over the pages of his script, reading the lines over and over again.
“That’s how I get the lines into my body, my memory,” he says. “This is my time to do it.”
To supplement his theater wrok, Craven drives a school bus, a source of great pride. He often brings blankets, coats, hats and gloves for his students, many of whom are immigrants.
That heart is something he shares with the character he plays in “Thurgood.” The first African-American on the Supreme Court made his legend fighting unjust laws on behalf of the NAACP. His most famous legal victory was Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the landmark school desegregation ruling in 1954.
James Earl Jones played the role on Broadway.
“I’m playing the man,” not the huge historical figure, said Craven. “He was complicated and dedicated.”
Craven comes from a storied family whose Minnesota roots go back to 1906, when four brothers, seeking opportunities to fulfill their American dreams, relocated to the Twin Cities from Arkansas.
His mother, Erma Clardy Craven, worked briefly as a social worker in New York — where Craven was born — before returning to the Twin Cities in the late 1950s. She also was a political operative and fiery trailblazer who addressed the 1976 Democratic National Convention. Craven credits his mother with his interest in politics, and his appetite for learning and activism. He never knew his father.
While Craven had always been interested in theater — he remembers acting in shows at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church as early as 1959 — it became a career possibility in a roundabout way.
In his senior year at Minneapolis Roosevelt High School, Craven had a vocal disagreement with a drafting teacher that led to his suspension.
“He called me the N-word and other things — that kind of stuff was allowed back then,” he said. The suspension threatened his graduation.
Guthrie a way out of trouble
Craven’s drama teacher suggested that he could make up the credits by enrolling in a student residency program at the Guthrie Theater. He did it successfully and after graduation, the Guthrie invited him back. Craven worked as a production assistant to theater founder Tyrone Guthrie and his successor, Michael Langham, who took the young man under his wing.
“One day, Langham said to me, ‘I think you should go to college [for theater] because you’re good at it,’ ” said Craven. He applied for and was accepted into the top-tier program at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
“I thought I was going to become a director like Langham but realized that I didn’t want to make all these decisions about casting, design, etc.,” he said. “I just wanted to be a character onstage.”
It was while in Pittsburgh in the early 1970s that Craven met August Wilson and his friend Claude Purdy, both young, aspiring theater artists. He was surprised when, after college, he came back to the Twin Cities and found both men here.
“I remember walking into Penumbra and seeing both of them and I was like, hey!,” he said. “We hung out but what we said and did is private.”
Craven broke into laughter.
Wilson plays were key
Wilson would become the most important playwright in his life. While Craven has played a sensitive shaman in Marcus Gardley’s “The Road Weeps, the Well Runs Dry” and the driver in “Driving Miss Daisy” at the Jungle, he is best known for roles like Hambone, the dogged fellow in Wilson’s “Two Trains Running.”
Some actors and directors interpret Hambone as a sad, aggrieved figure who seeks reparations. Director Lou Bellamy and Craven saw him as a hopeful man in their production at Penumbra Theatre.
“Every morning that [Hambone] woke up, he thought, ‘This is going to be the day,’ ” said Craven. “He knew he was going to get his reparations, win the lottery.”
Craven essayed Herald Loomis, the determined man who sees his family separated because of slavery in Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” Loomis shares similarities with Simon, the one-time captive in Matthew Lopez’s Civil War-era play, “The Whipping Man,” that Craven also depicted with affecting pathos. Both characters seek healing and closure before they can continue.
“What makes him so valuable to a director, to me, is not just that he has the acting chops,” Bellamy said of Craven. “He’s matured to a place where the craft is so deep you don’t even see it anymore.”
Thurgood Marshall is relatively straightforward compared with past roles, said Craven. But the role’s historical heft — he was trying to make sure that it clocks in at 90 minutes — and the playwright’s writing style, make it more of a challenge.
“I’m pressing forward with everything I’ve got,” he said.
“Thurgood” director Michael Robins is not worried.
“As an actor, Jim is both intuitive and very intelligent onstage and off,” he said. “He makes choices in building the character that are natural, so when you see his Thurgood Marshall, the character is not some remote figure from history. He’s standing right in front of you, and very real.”