In the new political satire Carlyle, Carlyle Meyers is an African American lawyer for the Republican Party overcome by stage fright during a theatrical retelling of how and why he became a member of the GOP. Happily, no such affliction seems to be affecting the play’s leading actor James Earl Jones II, as he prepares to take Goodman Theatre’s onstage podium for what he considers to be the role of a lifetime.
“I absolutely cannot wait,” said Jones shortly before starting rehearsals of Thomas Bradshaw’s play. “This is going to be an amazing experience. It’s a rare opportunity to not only play a lead character, but also the character for who the play is named. And this is an amazing play.” Jones, a frequent presence on Chicago’s stages, is stepping back into Carlyle’s shoes after appearing in the play’s workshop production at the Goodman’s New Stages Festival in 2014. “This piece really brought out all types of opinions and emotions in the audience, and that’s what the best theater does,” Jones recalled of performing the work, which showcases Bradshaw’s unique, bold take on affirmative action, the Black Lives Matter movement and other racial topics currently at the forefront of discourse in the country. “Thomas is kind of like a Quentin Tarantino figure in theater; there’s the sense among many that he’s looking to shock on purpose,” Jones said of the playwright, who was called “one of the country’s most controversial playwrights” by the Chicago Tribune in 2015. “What’s so amazing about Thomas, though, is that he simply lays it all out there, warts and all, and allows the viewers to form their own opinions. People have a tendency to edit things, but the human experience isn’t edited.”
For all the play’s striking commentary, Jones is focusing on making Carlyle a fully dimensional character. “There are people who will say, ‘Oh, this play is just about a black guy who’s a Republican,’ but it’s really about Carlyle’s road to discovering his own identity. Carlyle comes from a well-to-do family; he’s tried to gain acceptance from everyone in his life, never really knowing what attitudes and behaviors were acceptable in which cultures. For many years he just didn’t know how to fit in. Eventually he found his way, and it just so happens that he found it within the GOP. This is his story of becoming one with himself; being a Republican is just part of that journey.”
It’s a story to which Jones can relate. “I play the character of Carlyle like I’m playing myself,” he said. “Carlyle is eloquent. He’s married to someone who is not of his own race–which for some is still a bit of a taboo—and he struggled with that for a long time. These are things that define me as well. I’ve been in interracial relationships and scoffed at by others. My family often mocked me and said I ‘spoke white.’ It’s really amazing how some people don’t feel comfortable around me until I tell them I’m an actor. It’s unfortunate but true.”
Preparing for the show during an election year when the race for the Republican presidential candidacy has been anything but business-as-usual presents an exciting opportunity for Jones. “I don’t really have an opinion on any of the potential candidates,” he noted, “but the process has been fascinating. First they fight like rabid dogs, then, once the candidate is named, they’ll inevitably turn around and fully support that person?” Not surprisingly, one former candidate continuously arises in Jones’ conversations about the play: African American neurosurgeon Ben Carson. “People keep telling me how timely this show is and try to make the comparison to Ben Carson and Carlyle Meyers.” Though they are both African American men, Carson and Carlyle have very different backgrounds, with a major dissimilarity. “To be fair,” Jones chuckled in his offhanded, charming manner while as he framed his face with his hands, “Carlyle Meyers is much more attractive.”