Jones lends familiar voice to BSO's 'Oedipus'

February 18, 1993|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Staff Writer

There's just no ignoring that voice. It demands attention and commands authority. And actor James Earl Jones has turned it into a commodity.

From "Star Wars' " Darth Vader to telephone spokesman, his deep, resonant voice has become legend.

Today and tomorrow, Mr. Jones will be using that voice during the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's performances of Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex." He will narrate the well-known Greek tragedy of a king who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother.

"I'm thrilled at the idea of doing it," says Mr. Jones. "Actors love the idea of using their voices as part of an orchestra."

Given his signature voice, it's hard to believe he was once a severe stutterer and considered almost mute.

"Yes, I stuttered," said Mr. Jones in a recent telephone conversation from the University of Mississippi where he received the annual Award of Distinction for outstanding black Mississippians.

His stuttering began early in his childhood when his family left their farm in Tate County, Miss., and headed north.

"We moved to Michigan. My family considered it a jubilant voyage -- an escape. But for a 4-year-old, it was traumatic," he says.

Mr. Jones, 62, reacted to the move by rarely talking while growing up. Not until high school did he gain confidence in his ability to speak.

"I had a great teacher in high school," he says of the English instructor who encouraged him to read poetry out loud.

Once regaining "the power of speech," he began acting in high school to sharpen his vocal skills and eventually decided against an originally planned medical career.

He has never looked back.

The BSO couldn't have picked a better speaker than Mr. Jones to narrate "Oedipus Rex," says John Gidwitz, its executive director.

"The idea was [BSO conductor] David Zinman's," says Mr. Gidwitz. "The tremendous authority that Mr. Jones projects and his magnificent speaking voice make him an excellent choice."

The decision also agrees with Mr. Jones, who first became familiar with the play while in college. "I find it fascinating," he says of Stravinsky's version of the Sophocles drama. "Not just that he went to bed with his mother but that he was abandoned by his parents as a child," he says. Narrating a Greek tragedy is only one example of his wide ranging talents.

His work in theater has included a role in August Wilson's "Fences," Athol Fugard's "Master Harold . . . and the boys" and his portrayal of Shakespeare's "Othello."

To most Baltimoreans, Mr. Jones and his voice have become nearly synonymous with the telephone as a spokesman for Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone yellow pages.

"He has instant credibility and instant recognition," says Dave Pacholczyk, spokesman for C&P. "When you hear that deep, bass voice, there is no question of who that is. We think that reflects very well on the product."

To football aficionados, his was the voice that introduced Michael Jackson during half-time at the Super Bowl. News junkies hear him announce the CNN call letters.

Mr. Jones has racked up numerous awards for his performances, including Emmys (television), Aces (cable television), Tonys (theater) and aGrammy (music).

But when it comes to movies, he usually doesn't get top billing, which, he says, suits him just fine.

He can be seen now in the movie "Sommersby," which stars Richard Gere and Jodie Foster. And his next movie is "Meteor Man" directed by Robert Townsend and partly filmed in Baltimore.

"I love doing small parts in big movies," Mr. Jones says. The reason being -- the smaller the part, the less time he is away from home. "If I could take my family with me on location, then it wouldn't be a problem," he explains.

He lives with his wife, Cecilia Hart, and 10-year-old son, Flynn Earl, in Southern California, but Mr. Jones says New York is really the city he considers home. "We have temporarily relocated to California because the boy's school is in California," he says. "But New York is home. It's where my father lives."

His future plan is to finish a book about his journey from a nearly mute child to a man known for his oration skills. "It is a journal," he says of the book. "The words 'silence' and 'voice' will both have to be in the title. Both have defined my life."

'OEDIPUS REX'

What: James Earl Jones with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Where: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 8:15 p.m. today and tomorrow.

% Call: (410) 783-8100

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