I don’t remember if it was my sophomore or junior year at August Martin High School, but I had auditioned for one of their mainstage productions and was offered a role that I judged to be “not a positive depiction of an African American man.” I declined the role and voiced my reason for doing so. My position was met with: “I thought actors act.” This memory serves a great starting point as I reflect on my work in Nia Witherspoon’s THE MESSIAH COMPLEX, which performed in April 2014 as part of the Downtown Urban Theater Festival.
2013 was the first time I heard of DUTF, despite it being in existence for over a decade. I did more research about the festival, which included chatting with actor-friends who participated in the festival’s prior presentations, and ultimately decided that performing at DUTF would be a smart thing to do.
So I auditioned and was offered a role for one of the shows performing in the 2013 festival. Due to a misunderstanding regarding my availability between me and that show’s producer, the offer became a “let me regroup with my team and get back to you,” and ultimately became me learning about the show via the reviews it received after its performance…it happens. That situation ultimately resulted in “performing at DUTF” to now become a bucket-list item, and I was determined that if an opportunity to perform at DUTF were to present itself at some point in the future, I would jump on it.
In February 2014, I read a Miles Maker post announcing auditions for a forthcoming stage production being produced by a connection of his. My Facebook message communications with Miles would reveal that the play would stage at…you guessed it...DUTF.
It was now time to “jump on it.”
After my audition, director Misha Chowdhury and I had a quick chat, and it was quickly apparent that our personalities did not clash. A few days later I received an offer, to which I replied with a request to read the entire script, which was emailed right away.
I never read the script prior to Misha’s follow-up email two days later. Nonetheless, I accepted the offer...and my goal of performing at DUTF would soon come to fruition.
A day or two later, I finally read the script and was transported back to that sophomore or junior year at August Martin. My limited understanding of who Curtis was, based largely on the choices I made during my one-page cold read audition, was not who Curtis was at all.
Curtis was an alcoholic. He was struggling with his sexuality. One could argue that he was a “deadbeat Dad.” He was “not a positive depiction of an African American man.” If one were to describe Curtis’s type, he would certainly NOT appear on the list of types one would associate with me: Russell Jordan, that clean-cut, white-collar, executive, [insert other character-type] actor guy.
I questioned what Misha saw in my audition that made him think, “oh, yeah… this guy can perform Curtis.” I wondered if I could perform Curtis, a doubt that a few of my friends know I struggled with well into the start of the rehearsal process.
Then I remembered something acting coach Rosalyn Coleman once shared with me: (This is a deliberately poor paraphrase, but it was something about) growing as an actor can only come from placing oneself in those non-safe situations…which forces one to stretch and grow.
For whatever reason, I was presented with the opportunity to take on this role. The time had come for me to take a big-boy pill and shut the fcuk up.
Misha lead our talented thirteen-creative ensemble through a rehearsal process that was fraught with challenges, one of those being trying to schedule a thirteen-creative ensemble so that we we could all actually work together as often as possible. Looking back, I would like to think that with few exceptions, we would have all liked to have rehearsed for a few more hours. Alas, a reality of the New York Off-Off Broadway theater experience: actors, like everyone else in this town, have survival jobs, and our limited availability is what it is. That notwithstanding, every member of the dedicated ensemble worked their butts off.
I would continue my work to create the most honest “Curtis” I could, and in one of our final run-throughs, I felt that I was getting close to being in my zone…(I’m sure my actor-friends know what that means). After this particular run-through, castmate Peggy Johnson said to me, “I saw you having fun just now.” And I was.
Performance day came...which was also load-in day and tech day…and it was also our one and only time to see all the pieces in place, and ultimately the “shape” of the show. (This is not unique to DUTF, but I still dislike this aspect of “festival work.”) We literally worked up to the last possible moment before our house manager informed us that they would soon open the house to our patrons.
Holy [bleep]. But the show, as the saying goes, must go on.
After the show, I felt somewhat “meh” about my performance...likely because I was just tired...and tired. I knew that I did not feel that I was in the “zone energy” that I enjoyed in rehearsal a few days prior. And that bummed me out, especially since I knew that this show, as with all the other festival productions, given only one performance. The show was over and done.
As the cast cleared out of the HERE Arts dressing room in preparation for our post-show celebration, all I could think about was, quite honestly, getting back home as soon as possible. I just wanted to turn the page… move on… forget. But for whatever reason, I was still in the process of packing up my belongings when castmate Chris Herbie Holland came up to me and said, “I learned so much working with you.” At that moment, that was THE LAST thing I wanted to hear. So, I gave a half-hearted “thanks” (or some other wise-assery) and kept it moving.
But his comment haunted me.
A couple of days later, I felt compelled to email Chris for clarification. When one says “I learned so much,” to me at least…I take into consideration both the good and the bad…as there is learning to be found in both places.
Following up on your "I learned so much" feedback... (I'm not good at receiving positive feedback, hence my silly/not-really-trying-to-deal-with-it-at-that-moment reaction.... trying to get better at that.)
There is value in feedback, so if you could take a minute to share exactly what you learned... "good," "bad," or "otherwise," it would be helpful for me as I continue along my journey.
I thoroughly enjoyed observing your process and the choices you made with Curtis. Your presence and intentions behind all your scenes were real clear for me; clarity is a skill, one that I'm still working on in my work. One has to give oneself permission to take up space, to be, to talk and react and I learned that from your work.
That perspective was the slap in the face I needed to pull myself together and pull myself out of the funk of self-doubt slash I wish we had more rehearsal time slash I wish yadda-yadda-yadda funk I had created and was trying exist in, which was clouding my vision from an undeniable fact: I got out of my own way and said “yes” to a role that for years I have said “no” to, and just a few weeks earlier was still judging.
The big-boy pill did what is does. And there was some stretching and growth.
This was a reason to celebrate.
A few days after the show, I took a picture of myself as Curtis and comped an image of my in-my-head “Russell Jordan brand” image along-side my Curtis. It's the image that you see at the top of this post.
I posted this image to my various social media accounts, and received an overwhelmingly positive response. And I’m sure it was due to the fact that this was a Russell Jordan that I was not ready to embrace...until now.
On Facebook, I replied to the feedback with the following:
Thanks for the likes and feedback on this shot. Had I not worked on THE MESSIAH COMPLEX, I likely would not have ever embraced this "color" in my "crayon box." (It's always been that color that I knew was in there, but chose not to pick up and create with.)
A day after posting that Facebook reply, actor-friend Damon DiMarco reached out to me asking if I had shared this Russell/Curtis image with industry. I told him that I had not and that I wanted to first produce one-sheet with production stills and quotes from any press that may have reviewed the show. Damon suggested that the image itself was strong enough to stand on its own. “Russell, I had to do a double-take. I did not know that was you.” he said. “Do you know who J.K. Simmons is? You are fortunate enough to have a J.K. Simmons chameleon-like quality. You are a character-actor...and character-actors work.”
As I finish writing this post, it is now one week since my performance in THE MESSIAH COMPLEX. And I now know that Curtis needed to happen to me now, just as me being told “actors act” that sophomore or junior year back in the day.
It is time to pick up yet another unused crayon/character from the box and start creating.