Tony Award-winning actor Brian Stokes Mitchell performs two rituals whenever he begins a play in a new theater. He burns sage throughout the building to drive out evil spirits. And before the first performance, he gathers the cast on stage and shares the history of the theater.
Observing rituals reinforces the actor's belief that his life has followed definite patterns. These patterns go all the way back to his birth, which happened to fall on Halloween, a holiday he believes is an ideal birthday for an actor.
"Isn't it fascinating!" he exclaims. "Being born on Halloween, when adults dress up as other people."
As to his two theatrical rituals, one has a personal component, and the other, professional. On the personal side, burning sage is a Native American custom, and Mitchell's heritage is part Native American, as well as Scottish, German and African-American.
Studying the history of a theater is purely professional. It's a way to connect with the actors who have performed on a particular stage before him. Mitchell has become so well-known for this practice that he was asked to write the preface for Playbill's updated edition of At This Theatre, released last week by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books.
At Washington's National Theatre, where Mitchell is starring as Don Quixote in the Broadway-bound revival of Man of La Mancha, two major Quixotes figure into the history he unearthed: Richard Kiley, who originated the role in this musical retelling of Cervantes' masterpiece, and Raul Julia, who played the wayward knight in the 1992 Broadway revival.
Both stars left big boots to fill, but Mitchell, who chatted enthusiastically in his dressing room before a recent rehearsal, isn't easily daunted. Consider his two best-known Broadway roles. When he played Coalhouse Walker Jr., a fictitious early 20th-century black revolutionary in the 1998 Broadway musical Ragtime, he was following in the footsteps of late Baltimorean Howard Rollins, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the 1981 movie. Three years ago, when he played Fred Graham, the egocentric actor-manager in the Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate, the footsteps were those of the legendary Alfred Drake. Mitchell won a Tony for his interpretation of that role.
The actor insists a pattern connects each of his roles, and Man of La Mancha is a good example. In this case, however, Mitchell made the pattern happen; he instigated the production.
In a way, it was exactly what an old-time actor-manager would have done. And the fact that Man of La Mancha composer Mitch Leigh saw him playing just that in Kiss Me, Kate may have helped clinch the deal. (La Mancha has a libretto by the late Dale Wasserman and lyrics by Joe Darion.) "He's a man of extreme grace, and it's not put-on. That comes through on the stage, and to deal with the quixotic notion, he's ideal," Leigh says.
When Mitchell talks about Man of La Mancha, the 44-year-old actor leans toward the listener, his eyes sparkling fervently and his arms reaching forward almost as if he is trying to catch his words and hold them a moment longer before they dissipate in the air.
In an era when stardom usually is associated with youth and movies, Mitchell is the rare stage actor repeatedly described as a matinee idol. With his stately bearing, honeyed baritone and magazine-cover good looks, the 6-foot-1 actor certainly has the talent and appearance to merit this description.
To the despair of many fans, he also has a wife, actress Allyson Tucker, who has a small role in La Mancha. "I think he's a handsome man, but I see much more. [Being called a matinee idol] makes us both blush. It makes him blush absolutely," Tucker says of her husband, whom she met in 1990 when they were appearing in David Merrick's revival of Oh, Kay!
As Tucker's words suggest, Mitchell doesn't have a jot of matinee-idol attitude. Unlike the temperamental star he played in Kiss Me, Kate, he has a reputation for being a joy to work with. "They don't make them better. He's so generous of spirit," says his dresser, Geoffrey Polischuk, who also worked with Mitchell on Kiss Me, Kate. "Everything's light about him."
If Mitchell is feeling especially light and generous these days, it's because Don Quixote is a role he has longed to play since he was 17 and portrayed one of the musical's rough-neck muleteers at the Belleville Dinner Theater in California.
Mitchell was born in Seattle, the youngest of four children. His mother had been that city's first black woman police officer, and his father was a civilian electrical engineer with the Navy, a job that required the family to relocate frequently. Mitchell spent much of his early years in Guam and the Philippines. His peripatetic childhood established a pattern that he says was good preparation for an actor's life.