From Shakespeare to Steinbeck
Actor Ron Cephas Jones on his Upper West Side neighborhood, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Richard III
Although he has been on the New York theater scene for quite some time, Ron Cephas Jones never had a major role on Broadway until now. It was worth the wait. In "Of Mice and Men," he brings the sharp-witted stable hand, Crooks, to life so poignantly on stage. And the actor realizes what a privilege it is to recite John Steinbeck's powerful words every night. The play has a limited run at the Longacre Theatre and Cephas Jones has embraced his new Broadway family, which includes James Franco and Chris O'Dowd as George and Lennie. "I'm enjoying myself very much. We're all blessed," he said.
Crooks' scene with Lennie is very significant. What does it mean to you?
I think the scene is not so much about any type of race, although you may hear the N-word and it's a segregated situation. They place horseshoes together and I would imagine he may eat when everybody else does. But the fact that he has a place to stay in the barn and can't go into the bunkhouse is indicative of the segregation that was happening at the time. But what is so profoundly beautiful about the scene is that Steinbeck cuts through that with Crooks' attitude. "Well if I can't be in there, then you can't come in here." It works both ways, you know. He makes light of that very early in the scene and the human connection happens between him and Lennie.
What's the atmosphere like backstage?
Everybody's cool. The way the theater is structured and the way the play is laid out, everybody's kind of busy during the course of the play, moving in and out. But it's a real mellow place. Broadway's like that, the staff and the people who work there help make it comfortable. And you're always doing all kinds of family-type oriented things, like meals together on two-show days. Little things like that, so I find that's really beautiful about the theater. I mean, you have your little spats here and there, but, for the most part, it's always great to go to the theater and hang out with theater family.
Had you read the book before you were cast?
Yeah, I'm just another one of those students who read it in grammar school. I read it again during the course of doing the play, in rehearsals.
You're part of the LAByrinth Theater Company. Explain what that is.
It started with John Ortiz, Stephen Adly Guirgis, and Gary Perez, a lot of Latino cats who wanted to come together to make work for themselves, and it blossomed into a major theater company. Philip Seymour Hoffman came in some years later and became the artistic director along with John Ortiz. We've done plays like "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train," "Our Lady of 125th Street," and "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot." It became a very popular, sort of vanguard theater. We were on 21st Street for a while at Center Stage in an office building that was developed into a theater. It was a small, with 70 seats, and we were drawing a lot of crowds to come see our work. Now we have a place down on Bank Street. That's our home at the moment. And Philip Seymour Hoffman's wife, Mimi, has been artistic director. We had a big blow recently with his passing, but she still remains artistic director, which is wonderful. It's a place that's been very dear to me; it's been like a home. I made a lot of friends there that have become like family.
Earlier in your career, you read at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
I started out there in 1988. I was hanging out there a lot, reading poetry. And that's how I got back into theater. I was doing a play there called "Don't Explain" with Rome Neal. And Meg Simon happened to be in the audience, and some months later, called me in for an audition.
I read an article about you playing Richard III as part of a mobile unit.
We took a pared-down rendition of "Richard III," and took it to maybe five different prisons, as well as soup kitchens, homeless shelters and schools. Then we had a four-week run in the theater itself and got major reviews from the New York Times. I'm very proud of that. The mobile unit is the historical thing that Joseph Papp actually started at the Public Theater. They didn't have a space originally. The Public started out in a truck where they would take Shakespeare to the people. Two years ago, Oskar Eustis [the artistic director] decided to bring that concept back to return to Joseph's original idea of what the Public Theater is representing. He wanted to have different programs that reached out directly to the public, to bring people who wouldn't normally get theater or couldn't afford it, access. His philosophy is that theater belongs to everybody.
When did you come to the city?
I've lived in New York off and on since 1974. I lived in Harlem, the East Village, the West. I lived all over this town. I've been on the Upper West Side for maybe almost seven, eight years now.
What are your favorite places in your neighborhood?
I like Riverside Park. I'm there a lot with our dog. I eat at lot on Amsterdam. They have a Peruvian chicken over there, at Flor De Mayo. Of course, French Roast. I'm always meeting people there for lunch and coffee.
Your daughter followed in your footsteps.
Yeah, my daughter's been in the business for maybe two-and-a-half years now. She's 24. Her name is Jasmine. She took on my name too, Jasmine Cephas Jones. She grew up in the theater with me and her mother's a singer also. She did her first off-Broadway run at the Atlantic Theater and booked a couple of television gigs already, so I'm very proud of her.
When is "Of Mice and Men" ending its run? And what are your plans after it's over?
July 27th is the date that we got. It's a limited run, I would imagine, because of Mr. Franco's schedule. He's into so many different things, as you know. You know, I'm not sure at the moment. I'm still at that level where I'm getting offers, but I'm not that Hollywood elite sort of recognizable movie actor. So I'm hoping maybe some television stuff will come along. There's a couple of things on the table, I just don't know if anything's gonna pan out yet. But I have faith that I'll be involved in something good.
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