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On ‘Thurgood’: A Q&A with actor James Craven

Starting Thursday at the Illusion, Craven will don the robes of a U.S. Supreme Court justice for the regional premiere of “Thurgood,” a play based on the life of Thurgood Marshall.

James Craven

Three things most people probably don’t know about actor James Craven: That if he hadn’t been an actor, he would have been a journalist. “For many years, my hero was Ed Bradley,” he said recently in conversation at the Riverview Café. “I also like war correspondents like T.D. Allman. I like Sebastian Junger a lot, and photojournalists like James Nachtwey.”

That he writes postcards. “While I send a lot of text messages and emails for immediate stuff, anything I want anybody to have, I write on a postcard. I send postcards to Olympia Dukakis” (with whom Craven spent a week in 2011 on a prestigious Lunt-Fontanne fellowship) “and she always has her assistant send me an email: ‘Olympia just loved your postcard.’ ”

That in his younger days he used to canyoneer and spelunk, and not in a tame, play-it-safe kind of way. “I’ve been in a lot of scary situations, and my heart races even now just thinking about some of the tight spots I’ve been in. I’ve thought – I’m never getting out of here. I’m going to die. … Nothing clears your mind better than dangling on a rope 400 feet from the ground and trying to figure out what to do. You don’t have time for clutter.”

Does he draw from that well of experience when he’s onstage? “I never regarded it as being related. It’s completely different. I will say this, though: I’ve never had stage fright.”

Craven’s “never” spans over 40 years of steady, highly respected work as an actor, mostly at the Penumbra and the Guthrie. At the Penumbra, he has appeared in more than 35 plays including August Wilson’s complete Pittsburgh Cycle. He has acted at the Illusion, the Park Square, and the Jungle in “Driving Miss Daisy” opposite Wendy Lehr. In the early years of his career, he alternated between Minneapolis and New York, lived in Los Angeles, understudied for Morgan Freeman in Europe in Lee Breuer’s “Gospel at Colonus” and worked in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in David Rabe’s “Streamers” with Ken Olin, who later went on to star in the TV series “Thirtysomething.”

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He was on stage in Portsmouth when he knew that acting was his calling.

“Kenny [Olin] was playing the role of Billy, and he gets stabbed. He had a blood pack, so it looked like he was really stabbed. He’s walking along the stage – this is in a very deep thrust kind of theater – and all of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye, I see a man stand up in the audience and walk down onto the stage, and he’s just standing there next to me looking at [Olin]. Then he passed out cold – bam – face down. And I realized at that moment the intense power of the theater, and I said: I want to do this.”

Starting Thursday at the Illusion, Craven will don the robes of a U.S. Supreme Court justice for the regional premiere of “Thurgood,” a play by George Stevens Jr. based on the life of Thurgood Marshall. It’s a one-man play, 90 minutes long, with no intermission. Preparing for the role sounds a bit like training for a marathon. “Each day, I go at the script and just go, go, go, and stick more and more words in my head,” Craven said. “The biggest challenge for me so far is just the stamina of it, the physical stamina. It takes a lot to do it.”

MinnPost: What do you do to build your stamina?

James Craven: Talk really loud. Read at what I consider a performance pace, and do it loud. I have to breathe and pace myself, and get my pace up and going.

MP: Are you at home when you’re doing this?

JC: Everywhere I go. I’m constantly running the tape in myself.

MP: Lou Bellamy has said that you put knowledge, research and history behind your roles. What are you doing for “Thurgood”?

JC: I found out I’d gotten the role about three weeks ago, and I’m in rehearsal now. I’ve got a short window of time. The most I can do is try to get the essence of what the story is about, the man, and present it in the best way I can. My approach is to bring what is written to life in a strong, entertaining way.

MP: What do you see as the essence of Thurgood Marshall?

JC: The essence of this character is a man who was focused on the law. What I see in the script, and what I understand of him, is that he was tunnel-visioned about the absolute law. To him, this was the salvation and the way forward.

He had no time for any kind of what he considered Uncle Tom-ism, so he hated Nat King Cole. In the play, it says he would get into arguments about the right approach to the civil rights movement. He would have gentlemanly arguments with Martin Luther King. I don’t know if I believe that. In terms of the script, it seems a little pat.

MP: Do you feel a sense of responsibility to get this character across, because of who he was?

JC: Yes, I do. I think that he’s a big name that needs to be out there. Curiously, we had some kids from South High School come to the rehearsal yesterday and they were asked, “Do you know who Thurgood Marshall was?” And they said, “We kinda know he was something.”

Then I went home last night and I asked my grandchildren, “Do you know who Thurgood Marshall was?” One said, “Yeah, he was a football player.” When I said that he wasn’t a football player, he was the first black Supreme Court justice, he said, “Just because he’s black, how do you expect me to know that?”

I think it’s important to know the names of these giants – Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall. But more important, in terms of talking to young people, are the people you don’t hear about. There’s a part in the play about that, when [Thurgood Marshall] says [something like], “The people who had to stay in Alabama and South Carolina are the real heroes, not me who went down there, won a case, hopped on a train and went back to the safety of D.C. or New York, where I wouldn’t be attacked and I was revered, I could go to restaurants and white people were my friends, and I didn’t have to worry about getting lynched.”

Those are the kinds of things I think about all the time. I look back at my life and think, golly, how lucky was I to live in Minneapolis? Being able to go wherever I wanted to go and play with whoever I wanted to play with and just do stuff. I can’t imagine being in the South.

My mother put me in swimming classes when I was 7 years old at the downtown Minneapolis YMCA, and [at first] I was the only black kid in the class. And there was a time when there were six of us [black kids] in the class and one of the instructors divided us up into teams for water polo – white kids on one team, black kids on the other – and he told the white kids to hold us underwater. I didn’t know he was doing this to entertain himself. We just thought we were kids having fun, playing a rough game.

I remember being on a football team at Brackett Field when I was probably 11 or 12 years old – I was skinny, but I could run really fast – and one of the coaches in our cub football team telling the entire team of white kids, “Tackle him.”

So there was always that little bit of racism thing. But I never got lynched. I never got tortured. When a white girl and I kissed at 13 years old, I didn’t think about getting lynched. We were young junior high school kids who really liked each other, and we walked home holding hands. We walked from Roosevelt High School all the way through South Minneapolis – two miles – holding hands, looking each other in the eye.

MP: What do you want people to take with them after seeing “Thurgood”?

JC: If I’m successful performing this thing, [I would hope] they think about the achievements of what Thurgood Marshall was able to do with the “Brown v. Board of Education” and “Plessy v. Ferguson” decisions, and to understand that Jim Crow – what he called “Jim Crow Deluxe” – is still alive, still kicking, and it’s coming back into fashion in a major way. If you don’t want that world to rule us anymore, people need to get out and do something about it, with the ballot or with protests or however you’re going to do it. Because it’s coming back, and it’s here.

MP: Is that why you’re doing this play?

JC: That’s why I’m doing it. It’s a political statement. … I hope I can do this right. Just like anybody else, I always have doubts about what I’m capable of doing on stage until I get up and do it.

MP: What’s next for you after “Thurgood”?

JC: I’m going to be doing “The Choirboy” [by Tarell Alvin McCraney] with Peter Rothstein at the Guthrie. Then I’m trying to write a grant for a piece that Lou [Bellamy] and I want to do together, because Lou and I haven’t worked together in a long time, and he’s my collaborator.


“Thurgood” by George Stevens Jr., directed by Michael Robins, opens Friday, March 6, at the Illusion Theater in Minneapolis. FMI and tickets ($20-$35). Through Sunday, March 15.