There are actors who disappear into their parts, and then there are actors like Delroy Lindo, who stride in as an unforgettable force of nature, commanding each and every scene. From the movie screen to the theater stage, Lindo has ably transferred his versatile stage presence to the film set, stealing the show in such blockbusters as Heist
, The Cider House Rules
and Malcolm X
. But through it all, Lindo says, he’s waited for just the right time to make a return to the New York theater scene – to the community that bestowed him with a Tony nomination as Herald Loomis in Joe Turner's Come and Gone
His long-awaited 2009 return takes the form of the New York Theatre Workshop’s Things of Dry Hours
, which shows through June 28. Written by Naomi Wallace and set in Alabama during the darkest days of the Depression, the play focuses on Tice Hogan, an out-of-work African American Sunday school teacher and member of the Communist Party, as well as his daughter, whose daily routines and racially-defined worldviews are turned upside down when a white factory worker stumbles to their front door in the middle of the night. Tice suspects from the outset that this visitor is a spy, sent to rout out area communists, but the stranger insists that he’s been fired from his factory job for assaulting a foreman, and is fed up with the same working conditions and disrespect that has rallied so many black citizens in this ailing region around the Communist Manifesto.
The L Magazine
talked to Lindo in the midst of previews for the new show:
The L: It must be a big jump, to go from working with movie cameras for so long to going back in front of a theater audience – how is the transition going?
It’s actually going really well – I feel the whole enterprise is going in the right direction. I did a play last year in Los Angeles (Agamemnon
at the Getty), but prior to that I had not been on the stage for 10 years. But what I found last year when I returned is that, in doing theater before film, that muscle you’ve developed is still present. It may have been dormant for a while, but I was surprised, as I started rehearsing and working again on the stage, that a lot of things came back almost instantly. It was sort of like being a fish out of water. When I returned, it was a very familiar form that my body instrument was familiar with.
So even after a decade, the acting instrument stayed fresh…
Prior to Agamemnon
, it was all the way back in 1998 that I starred in Othello
, and those intervening 10 years were a long stretch, but I think what it is, it has to do with muscle memory. I had done 10 years of theater solid before that, from off-Broadway to a lot of regional theater, and so it’s a muscle that’s always there. Through the years, I had gotten my instrument into a way of working for the theater that all I had to do was dust it off and reinvigorate it, rather than many film actors who have never done theater before and this is a totally foreign concept to them. I was very fortunate in that regard, and pleasantly surprised that I could slip right back in.
So you’ve seen other film actors struggle with that transition?
Well, I really love working with film, but it’s a totally different art form. Part of what I love about film is being able to take my training as a theater actor and adapt it strongly for the camera. But one of the things that always made me nervous about film was the lack of preparation – the fact that I come from a theater background gave me a much-needed foundation of confidence that I’ve been able to lean on. I remember on one film, I had a half-page monologue and one of my co-stars said, “Wow did you nail that,” and I started thinking: Gosh, in the theater, that’s just the way you train. To be able to retain Shakespeare, to come out and talk for a page and a half straight, it’s nothing – so you gain a certain confidence in the theater. That’s why I think people from the film world find the theater so challenging.
How did Things of Dry Hours come your way – how did you know this was the right way to return to the New York stage?
I actually wasn’t familiar with this play. I knew Ruben Santiago Hudson from over the years, and he called me months ago, saying that he had a piece of material he wanted me to look at. So he sent me the script and was extremely patient as I worked out scheduling issues, but I very much wanted to come back to New York, and so it was very timely that this particular material presented itself.
Tice is such a different character for you – your other characters are so confident and sure of what they think, but here, Tice doesn’t really seem to know what to think about this visitor, and about whether his attempts to spread the communist message are working. There’s some insecurity there. Did you feel that he was different from what you had done before?
For me, in terms of my interpretation – my ever-evolving interpretation, because it is evolving – is that certainly this is a man who is very resolute about something, but who is also searching and questioning himself in a very deep way, and even though I believe the writer feels differently, I think in terms of my interpretation, that’s one of the reasons he comes back. The character has been killed and comes back to Earth, and one of the central reasons Tice comes back to tell this story is to bring closure to some very deep-seeded strands that have been left hanging in his life. His relationship with his daughter, his political beliefs, he comes back because he has not figured everything out.
There are times where Tice seems just a little confused about whether he’s actually making progress in this community…
Confused is a good word. The writer and director may disagree with me, but I have always thought that one of the fundamental questions from the outset was: Why does Tice come back? In one of the last moments, Tice says ‘Well, I’ll be damned,’ and it’s such a subjective climax. It could mean all kinds of things – is he frustrated? Amused? I don’t know if Naomi Wallace has changed her mind since we’ve been rehearsing, but she said that part of the reason Tice comes back is that he has something to share with the world now – the world in which we’re living in 2009. But the more I have lived with the character, the more I think it has to be something far more personal. It’s an intriguing and interesting and illuminating process, to rehearse and explore that very question.
Clearly this character is leading you to explore these new issues of confidence – what previous roles in the theater have challenged you to grow most as an artist, to prepare for a challenge like this?
I think my craft as an actor has improved tremendously as a result of two parts I did in particular. One was Walter Lee at the Kennedy Center, in a 1986 production of Raisin in the Sun
. It was a wonderful connection, and I felt like I connected with the part of Walter in a very full and immediate way, it was a very definite and specific point in my career. And I think part of it was that I went up to Yale to play the part in the original production in 1983, and I wasn’t very good, and so to have a second crack at it a few years later, it was very fulfilling creatively. That, in tandem with Herald Loomis (in Joe Turner's Come and Gone
), which was profoundly personal to come. My connection with that part, I was able to tap into those very intimate, personal resources to bring them to bear. And with that show culminating on Broadway, it was a huge step forward for me.
You talked about wanting to make it back to New York – what’s your favorite thing to do, now that you’re back working in the East Village every night?
Well, I haven’t had any time! In addition to the play, I wanted to come to New York to direct a reading of this very interesting new play that’s stuck with me called Levee James
, written by Sherry Shephard-Massat – which is a play I hope to be involved in in the future – and so I’ve had the time to do that. But other than that, it might sound mundane: I love to just find a wonderful little café and shoot the breeze with friends. You have to realize that the East Village has changed a lot since I was last working in the city, but it’s just so good to be back in the middle of all the energy that you find here in New York.
Things of Dry Hours
continues at New York Theatre Workshop
through June 28.
(photo credit: Joan Marcus)