“Right this way,” said the nattily attired man in vest and tie as he held the car door open. “Welcome.”
The man is James Craven, a pillar of Twin Cities theater. His invitation was for a visitor to step into his blue 2006 GMC Envoy.
By night, Craven plays a commanding taxi stand owner in “Jitney,” the August Wilson classic now playing in a sterling production at Penumbra Theatre. By day, he works as an Uber driver, taking passengers to the airport in predawn runs, or to sundry appointments or to Vikings games.
Actors are known for having side jobs. But for Craven, 66, driving and acting are intertwined. He has been at the wheel professionally since he was 16, when he delivered flowers in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Over the decades, he’s driven delivery trucks, school, city and casino buses, taxis in the Twin Cities and New York, and now, Uber, which he began in May.
He’s also taken road trips — to Canada, California, Virginia and elsewhere.
“I’m a restless soul,” he said as he nudged the vehicle out of Penumbra’s parking lot. “And I like the poetic thing of driving, of going from one place to another, of taking in new sights and learning new things.”
Onstage during that half-century stretch, he has essayed classic and contemporary roles across the country (and in a few films). He is best known for inhabiting Wilson characters, including a searing Herald Loomis, who goes searching for his family in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” and the ever-hopeful Hambone in “Two Trains Running.”
“He’s got so many skills for a director to pick and choose from that, with his permission, you can craft whatever you want,” said Penumbra founder and “Jitney” director Lou Bellamy, who has worked with Craven for 30-plus years. “He comes with great training, but you never see it because his craft is so good. Plus, he’s black to the bone.”
The characteristics that make Craven so compelling onstage, including his honesty, forthrightness and moral authority, are also evident offstage. He’s totally open as he talks about his life and his work, and the changes he’s made in recent years.
As he pulled onto the highway, his 10-year-old granddaughter, Serenity, rode shotgun. Craven has raised Serenity since birth. And since his wife died a year and a half ago after a long illness, it’s been a solo effort, with assists from members of the acting community. He takes her to rehearsals when he has no baby sitters.
“I drive because I’m a grandparent-parent, and raising kids takes a lot of money, especially if you want to give them a fuller life, which I do,” he said. “You rent the violin for school season, well, that’s $300. She plays it for a week and it sits in the corner there, reminding you. There’s $200 for a guitar, money for art classes and cooking classes and extra science classes …”
Serenity is true to her name. She likes traveling with her grandfather, and was happy to visit Canada this summer.
What does she want to be when she grows up?
“An actor,” she said with quiet confidence. “It looks like fun.”
“Last week it was a costume designer,” said Craven.
He took his visitor to Hillside Cemetery in northeast Minneapolis, where his grandparents and his mother, Erma Craven, are buried. (He never knew his father.) Erma Craven was something of a firebrand political figure who addressed the 1976 Democratic National Convention. Craven has his mother’s fire, but he doesn’t share it with passengers.
“Sex, religion and politics — those are the things I never bring up,” he said. “If my passengers do, I try to be polite and hold the neutral line. I’m more interested in giving people good customer service than my opinions.”
He got in the vehicle again, this time pulling up to his home, a duplex in Minneapolis’ Powderhorn Park neighborhood. As her grandfather-father parked, Serenity greeted the family cat.
The house testifies to his hectic life, and to sharing space with a creative young spirit. There are musical instruments and half-completed art projects in the front room. There are paintings on walls evoking American Indian culture. There also is an urn.
“I made that myself,” he said. It’s a shrine to his late wife, including a photo ID.
Craven left his granddaughter at home — she was being picked up by Mary Winchell, Penumbra’s stage manager — and hit the road again.
As he drives, he projects memories on the spaces he sees. “This is my town,” he said with wistful affection.
He moseyed up to Stillwater to visit one of his favorite haunts, a bed-and-breakfast called the Elephant Walk. The owner greeted us, and showed us the room where Craven and his wife used to stay. Craven pointed out a koi pond in the back that’s heated year-round.
“As actors, we’re in the business of transporting people through different types of spaces, cultures, worlds and realities,” he said, linking his daytime and nighttime pursuits. “The work that August Wilson does is interesting because we [African-Americans] are like an unknown foreign entity to the mass society. But August Wilson shows that we’re not exotic. We’re human beings like everyone else.”
Heading back into town, Craven related a story about a friend with wanderlust who rode a motorcycle from Minnesota to Argentina.
“He left a motorcycle in Bogotá for me to pick up. It’s still there,” he said in a tone that sounded like he was thinking out loud.
You could practically hear the wheels turning in his head.