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Actor with Detroit roots returns to open Plowshares @ 15 celebration
Lou Beatty Jr. to play title role in ‘Paul Robeson’
While preparing for the title role in “Paul Robeson” that opens Feb. 23 at Detroit’s Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, former Detroiter Lou Beatty Jr. had quite a shock.
“The lady I rehearsed with is 50 years old, and she was just dumbfounded. She said, ‘All I knew was he’s on a stamp.'”
That lack of knowledge, Beatty promises, is about to change – thanks to Black History Month and Plowshares Theatre Company.
Written by one-time Pontiac resident Phillip Hayes Dean, “Paul Robeson” follows the star athlete, lawyer, actor and activist from his teen years in New Jersey through his career-ending appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1950s. Its Broadway premiere in 1978 starred James Earl Jones, but Avery Brooks has since played the role to much acclaim.
“Avery Brooks has had this role for 18 or 20 years to meld it, form it and feel it,” Beatty laughed, noting he hasn’t had such a luxury. “Since the day I got the script – on Nov. 15 – I’ve missed only two days. I mean to be prepared and let the chips fall where they may!”
The production is the opening event of Plowshares’ fifteenth anniversary year – and Beatty’s second show with the company. (His first, “I Am a Man,” was co-produced in 1997 by Plowshares and Meadow Brook Theatre.) It’s a celebration in which Beatty is only too happy to participate. “Plowshares is probably the most wonderful theater company I’ve ever worked with. They have wonderful people coming through this company.”
But not necessarily in this production, as “Paul Robeson” is primarily a one-man show. (Gesu music director and organist Carl Clendenning provides the music and plays the role of Lawrence Brown.) Is that intimidating, the actor was asked?
“Let me tell you something about acting,” Beatty responded. “You’re intimidated when you ain’t working! In colloquia, I love this shit!”
Finding inspiration in Detroit
The ruggedly handsome and athletic actor grew up on Detroit’s North End, an ethnically diverse neighborhood Beatty called “one of the most exciting places for a child to grow up. We had Jews, Chaldeans, Ukrainians and Poles, so the neighborhood was just chock full of wonderful smells and sounds.”
It was also populated by the likes of Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson. “I sang in the choir with one of the Vandellas [Rosalind Ashford]. The Four Tops were like older brothers. Little Willie John tried to date the girl two doors over. They ended up being some of the greatest names in the history of music.”
Beatty left Detroit to attend St. Emma Military Academy in Virginia, and later, Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., where he played football and studied business and music.
After completing his education, Beatty returned to Detroit where he wrote and produced commercials for radio stations WCHB and WCHD (now WJZZ). But when asked to sit in on auditions for a race track commercial, Beatty’s career – and life – took a sharp and unexpected turn.
“Guys were auditioning saying things like ‘groovy’ and ‘hep man’ and all these types of things that the general population thinks black people say, and I said to him, ‘I’m black and I don’t speak that way.’ So he said, ‘Okay, will you do it?'”
He did, of course, and the commercial ran for three years.
Beatty’s first stage appearance was in 1980, and for the next seven years, he split his time between Detroit and Chicago. His greatest acclaim was in the 1987 award-winning production of “Back in the World” at Detroit’s Attic Theatre.
He made the move to Los Angeles the following year, and within three weeks, he was on national television. He has since been seen in movies and on such TV series as “Boston Legal,” “Charmed,” “CSI: Miami,” “X-Files” and “Dynasty” as Rudy Richards.
But it was while in the play “Raft of the Medusa” at L.A.’s Zephyr Theater that Beatty almost found financial security. Because he convincingly played a bisexual man with AIDS in the play, producers of “NYPD Blue” called him in to discuss an upcoming role in the series. “The guy obviously thought I was a gay actor, but when he realized I was not, he went right back to the [play] and got Bill Brochtrup.”
Lessons for today
For Gary Anderson, producing “Paul Robeson” gives him the opportunity to introduce theatergoers to a man whose accomplishments deserve more than acknowledgment on a postage stamp.
“He was a man who evolved and became who he was based on the experiences that he had throughout his life,” Anderson said. “He had been given a series of beliefs, and through his experiences, they were reinforced. He wasn’t a Sunshine Soldier; he knew what he wanted to do, he knew what was right, and he knew where he stood.
“You don’t see people like that today. Instead, you have politicians who waffle on issues, who obfuscate behind positions on really critical issues. This man couldn’t make a living because of what he said he believed, and I think that’s the kind of hero we need to see. We need to understand that there are people who believe that there’s something greater than just making a dollar at any cost.”
For Beatty, “Paul Robeson” could be the role of a lifetime. And it’s a play he hopes people of all colors and backgrounds come to see. “I hope people don’t take the attitude that this is just ‘Black History’ – and come out to see this story of a man who faced his fears and fought the great fight.
“I think we’re going to make some magic here,” he concluded.
“Paul Robeson” Staged Tuesday through Sunday by Plowshares Theatre Company at Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, 350 Madison Ave., Detroit, Feb. 23 – 27. Tickets: $15 on 2/23; $35 all other performances. 313-872-0279 or 313-963-2366. www.plowshares.org.