While he watched the young brother’s performance in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Chuck Smith’s intuition knew that a collaboration had to happen. Eventually, Smith would cast this actor, a Chicago Public Schools teacher named Harry Lennix, as Malcolm X in The Meeting, which played at the Chicago Theater Company, which Smith had co-founded.
The gentlemen’s ensuing twenty-year partnership would include award-winning, attendance-record-setting theatrical performances, touring a play entitled The Meeting nationally, and forming Legacy Productions, a company that focuses on developing works that address the Black experience.
Smith and Lennix discussed their partnership, Black theater, and what it takes to succeed in “Black Theater is Black Life,” a forum held last Saturday at Northwestern University (NU), Lennix’s alma mater. The discussion, included as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, was moderated by Dr. Harvey Young, a theater professor at NU.
Lennix is currently featured in the NBC program The Blacklist. He has also earned acclaim for his roles in films such as Ray, Barbershop II, and Man of Steel. Born 49 years ago and raised in South Shore, Lennix originally wanted to be a priest. But while attending Quigley South, an all-boys high school, he discovered his acting talent, and that he could meet girls by performing in plays.
Lennix models his work ethic – he had been working in New York on The Blacklist one day before the forum, flew into Chicago the day of the forum, and would fly to Detroit the next day to film a movie — after his mother.
“My mom refused…to take any government assistance and decided to work. She had three or four jobs, and I always have had a job since I was 10,” said Lennix, whose father died before his second birthday. “I (once) developed a bleeding ulcer because of the stress of doing two plays at one time and teaching school. I was 23 (then). If I did that now, it would kill me.”
Nearly ten years after first seeing Lennix, Smith cast him in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Goodman Theater. This performance would earn Lennix a Jefferson Award and set attendance records at the theater. “I had been at the Goodman Theater since 1992; this was ’97, but I was still a little bit insecure,” Smith recalled. “After that, I was no longer insecure. That (success) gave me the confidence to do what I do best, and that is direct plays without any pressure.”
When asked by the moderator about Wilson’s role in supporting Chicago’s Black theater scene, Smith said that the Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright’s support spread nationwide and even to London. Wilson’s work, Smith said, rightfully made him the most important playwright in these times, as he created one play set in every decade of the 20th century. Each play, he added, can stand by itself. A person could see one play, not know about the others, and still have an enjoyable experience.
“Once upon a time, the major houses were saying, ‘We don’t have any good, Black plays out there, so that’s why we’re not doing them,”’ Smith recalled.” That excuse is null and void now. …August Wilson just stabbed (that claim) into the ground. He said, ‘Later for that. Here’s ten (good plays) right here. Which one you want?”’
Next year, Smith will honor Wilson, who died in 2005, in conjunction with the Goodman Theater’s 90th anniversary. He plans to direct Two Trains Running, which will be staged from March 7 to April 19. During this engagement, the nine other plays Wilson wrote (known as “The Pittsburgh Cycle,”) will be read throughout Chicago, at NU, and the Evanston Public Library. Seminars about Wilson will also be held, his unpublished poetry read, and, for two nights, music inspired by his writing will be performed.
When asked what advice they have for people with theatrical aspirations, Lennix began by quoting Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.” He then added that one’s goal should be clearly defined, to know if you want to work in film, the theater, to perform the great works for zero money, or combine those pursuits with “mediatized entertainment.”
Theater, Lennix continued, risks becoming obsolete as it is too expensive and only for elitists. Connecting with an audience should be attempted via every platform, he said, and, most importantly, serious study must occur.
“You must learn the literature of the theater,” he said. “Learn how to be a thinking actor and what methods work for you. No one method holds dominance. I think literature first, self-reflection second.”
Smith added that hard work is necessary to succeed, citing Lennix’s career as proof.
“Harry does what he does because he has to do it. There’s a passion there; nothing else will satisfy him. If you don’t have that passion, find your passion,” Smith said. “You know what turns you on. Go for it, and don’t let anybody change it. …And another thing, watch out! Don’t make babies too soon.”
When questioned by Dr. Young about Black theater’s future, Smith expressed his belief that an actor willing to perform for an audience, and an audience willing to see that actor perform, will always exist.
“The major stumbling block I find is producers; there are just not enough producers,” he said. “Fortunately, we do have forward-thinking individuals like Jackie Taylor (at the Black Ensemble Theater,) who built a brand-new theater a couple of years ago.”
Seeing Black movies and plays is not difficult, Lennix stated, citing popular work by Tyler Perry, whose work he considers theater. Such mass-appeal product is being consumed, he said, but what these moviegoers receive is disturbing.
People’s spiritual, artistic, critical, and intellectual needs are not being met by these mass-appeal productions, Lennix continued, and the results lead to patrons being served poor productions with negative messages.
“You have writers who are not being supported by those who claim most to want better representation,” he said. “There are so many talented actors and writers who are forced into doing substandard garbage because the patrons…are giving lip service. They express all these high-minded (ideals), but they eat the equivalent of ninety-nine cent hamburgers.”