TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:
Award-winning actor Wendell Pierce thinks he may have just found a way to bring back theater. He's starring in a production that's streaming for free this weekend. It's a play by the author James Anthony Tyler called "Some Old Black Man."
WENDELL PIERCE: The thing I love about the play is not often do you see Black men just love each other.
MOSLEY: But it's a hard journey to get to that place of love, a journey that explores racism, oppression and the relationships between fathers and sons. Pierce plays a college professor who just moved his elderly dad into his New York City apartment. His father was a taxi driver in Mississippi. He's played by Charlie Robinson.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SOME OLD BLACK MAN")
CHARLIE ROBINSON: (As Donald Jones) Wasn't nothing wrong with my house.
PIERCE: (As Calvin Jones) OK, fine.
ROBINSON: (As Donald Jones) You were raised in that house.
PIERCE: (As Calvin Jones) And couldn't wait to leave.
ROBINSON: (As Donald Jones) That your way of saying I ain't did enough for you.
PIERCE: (As Calvin Jones) I apologize.
ROBINSON: (As Donald Jones) I drove around white folks never looked me in the eyes before barking take me here. Take me there. Can you drive faster, boy? You think I did all that for myself?
PIERCE: (As Calvin Jones) I apologize.
ROBINSON: (As Donald Jones) No. Do you think I did all that for myself?
PIERCE: (As Calvin Jones) If you won't eat, could you just be quiet?
ROBINSON: (As Donald Jones) I don't want to be quiet. Go somewhere else and eat.
PIERCE: (As Calvin Jones) I will eat at my dining table.
MOSLEY: You know, one of the most significant and maybe complicated themes in this piece is pride. It's how men find pride. It's what happens when it's threatened or questioned or taken away. How does pride show itself in each of the characters?
PIERCE: Yes, the classic confrontation of father and son that can be very difficult at times, the pride of saying, I've always looked for your sense of approval, the trauma that my father has gone through and the pride that he has of saying I survived something that you have no idea how difficult it was for me. And what happens is that pride can get in the way of connection. And that's what we discover in this play, the conflict of a father and son who, if they were to forgive themselves and allowed themselves to get the pride get out of the way, they can actually connect and understanding that there are those who do not have our best interests at heart, that have infected psyches, can place obstacles in front of that ability to love each other. And this play is mining the way back to loving each other.
MOSLEY: And there are some similarities to your own life. You've actually been spending a lot of time with your own father during this quarantine. He's 95 years old.
PIERCE: Yes, he will be 96 next week.
MOSLEY: Happy birthday to your father.
PIERCE: Yes. And my father, there are real similarities here. My father fought in World War II, loved this country when this country wasn't loving him back. My father fought in Saipan, came back, was awarded medals and were denied them by a white officer who said, no, not you, not your unit. There was nothing that this country was doing for him or to him that would make him love this country. And in spite of all of that, he gave us a love for country because of the values that we are aspiring to as a nation.
MOSLEY: I'm really struck by you saying that your father instilled in you a love of country. We're thinking a lot about things that happened in the past, those stories that you're talking about. I mean, we're trying to grab on to context as a way to make sense of this world that we're living in. This is kind of the root of your play, that through his father, this son, your character, is gaining an understanding of himself just by hearing his father talk about the things that he had gone through.
PIERCE: What happens generationally is that we forget that our forefathers and mothers, by their experiences, have garnered a wisdom that they can pass on to us. And what happens in this play is you see the realization, the epiphany that my character comes to understanding of the history that my father has gone through, making him the man that I knew him to be. And without that knowledge of the history and his experience and the trauma that he's gone through, I misinterpreted his behavior as being unjustified and just abusive when, actually, it was an attempt, as flawed as it may have been, to protect me, to protect me from the racial abuse that he had experienced in his life. And I thought about my own father because he was against me becoming an actor. You know, I should become a lawyer, a doctor, a real job. It wasn't until years later that I realized my father was a photographer. He had an exhibit at Southern University. He had studied - I knew he studied photography in New York, but I didn't know he was aspiring to become a Roy DeCarava or a James Van Der Zee. And I realized that his was a dream deferred.
PIERCE: And he didn't want that pain or that disappointment for me. And that was the reasoning behind his aggression against me becoming an artist. And I remember telling him opening night on Broadway for a play that I did - I said, I remember that day you told me you would never take me to another rehearsal. I said, do you remember that? He said, yes. I said, Daddy, I want you to remember tonight. We're celebrating us. He said, I'll remember tonight, too, son.
MOSLEY: You know, it struck me that being able to watch this play on a screen might actually open up the world of theater to people who normally don't attend a theater performance.
PIERCE: Absolutely. With all the arts, we can become a little rarefied in our presentation. So many people look at this as stuffy when, actually, it's the presentation that's stuffy. Now, this makes it accessible for so many folks. That's the thing I love about the title. There will be some old Black man...
MOSLEY: Black man, yeah.
PIERCE: ...That just says, oh, what is this about? What they trying to say about me? Let me look at this. Let me check this out. I'm some old Black man. And actually, it will give voice to things that they've probably harbored in their hearts and minds and soul. (Unintelligible) Yes, because that's the role of theater, the place where we reflect on who we are and expand our values and then go out and act on them. And that's a wonderful thing.
MOSLEY: Wendell Pierce, thank you so much for this conversation.
PIERCE: Thank you, Tonya.
MOSLEY: Wendell Pierce stars in the play "Some Old Black Man." And the first screening is available today at 7 p.m. Eastern. It's free through Monday, but registration is required. You can go to ums.org/someoldblackman.
(SOUNDBITE OF LIGHTNIN' HOPKINS SONG, "I WAS STANDING ON 75 HIGHWAY")
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