The voice, the role, the actor

Avery Brooks, here for Center Stage's 'Let There Be Love,' made a career by playing epic figures

February 14, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley | mary.mccauley@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

It's hard to believe, but apparently it's true.

Actor Avery Brooks - he of the magnificent bass instrument, he of the voice that seems to power its way up like a geyser from somewhere buried very deep underground - yes, that Avery Brooks - was a boy soprano.

As facts go, this one is doubly confounding. Not only does the 61-year-old performer call to mind grand forces of nature every time he opens his mouth, Brooks also has a bass personality.

There's a reason that directors hire him to play authoritative, magisterial roles, such as a spaceship commander (Captain Ben Sisko on television's "Star Trek: Deep Space 9") or a war hero (Othello) or an ancient tyrant (Tamburlaine). He recently narrated a television movie about the history of African-Americans in the military, scheduled to run this month on Maryland Public Television.

Currently, Brooks is portraying a West Indian immigrant named Alfred in the production of "Let There Be Love," which officially opens Wednesday at Center Stage. Though Alfred might lack Othello's medals and social status, he's the absolute ruler of his domestic domain. Alfred doesn't merely lay down the law; he inscribes it in stone.

That kind of willpower, or the voice to convey it, doesn't manifest itself overnight.

"As a child, I sang the high parts in the church choir," Brooks says. "Then one day in the seventh or eighth grade, my teacher asked me to sing the baritone part, and I found I could do it. When my voice started to go that way, my mother was so disturbed."

Nor is Brooks the only elemental energy involved in this production. "Let There Be Love" is written by Kwame Kwei-Armah, a young playwright who could be considered as the Spike Lee of the British stage, given his knack for exploring explosive social issues through the lens of personal relationships. His "Elmina's Kitchen," which ran at Center Stage in 2005, was one of the most powerful productions in Baltimore of the past decade.

"Let There Be Love" uses the character of Alfred to take a look at issues of immigration and reverse discrimination. Though Alfred was born in the West Indies, he bitterly resents the recent influx of refuges from Eastern Europe into Britain. Now, he's physically ailing, and he takes out his rage on his feminist daughter and on the young Polish woman who is hired to help care for him.

When Kwei-Armah was growing up in London, he never dreamed that the deep-voiced actor he admired on American television shows would one day star in his play.

"My brother was a big Trekkie, and I grew up watching 'Hawk' and 'Spenser: For Hire,' " Kwei-Armah says. "I'm a tremendous fan. When our director, Jeremy Cohen, suggested getting Avery to play Alfred, it seemed incredible that we'd ever get someone of his stature. When he said yes, I did back flips."

Brooks tends to depict epic figures. In particular, he's spent a lot of time on stage portraying Paul Robeson, the singer, scholar, actor, All-American athlete and social activist. Since 1982, Brooks has performed on and off in Phillip Hayes Dean's one-actor play based on Robeson's life.

Brooks now lives in Princeton, N.J., where Robeson was born. Robeson was the third African-American student accepted into Rutgers University; Brooks' association with the school, first as a student and later as a teacher, dates back nearly four decades.

Robeson was the first African-American actor to portray Othello, a role that Brooks has inhabited at least three times. And both men are known for the dark beauty of their voices.

Listening to a recording of Robeson's rendition "Ol' Man River" in Kern and Hammerstein's "Show Boat," is like hearing the singing of the majestic Mississippi waterway itself.

"I have an intense desire to evoke the memory of one of the greatest Americans we have ever produced," Brooks says.

"It's a desire to provoke people who don't know Paul Robeson's story to find out about it. I am the inheritor of a legacy and lineage that includes not just him, but Ossie Davis, Ira Aldridge, W.E.B. Du Bois and Malcolm X. I am walking directly in the path that they have put down, trod upon, blazed for me.

"One of my dear friends says, 'You're not here on vacation.' None of us are. All I can do is to use to the best of my ability the gifts I have been given. I have no other choice."

Brooks tends to talk like that, in sentences without sloppy "ums" or "ahs," paragraphs that are long, elegant, well-crafted and not even remotely self-revealing. During rehearsals, Brooks listens to instructions from director Cohen while sitting in what psychologists describe as "the power position" - his legs thrust out in front of him, his hands knotted behind his head and elbows turned outward.

He is a man who likes to be in control, and mostly, he likes to be in control of himself.

When Cohen knew he'd be directing this production, he immediately embarked upon a campaign to persuade Brooks to take the role of Alfred.

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