An American in London (Theatre): Interview with Actor Joseph Mydell
Free from the relentless "black and white" trap in American performing arts, Joseph Mydell talks with PopMatters as he prepares to play Ben Loman in Marianne Elliott's much-anticipated revival of Death of a Salesman at London's Young Vic.
A defining production of its era, director Declan Donnellan's staging of Tony Kushner's Angels in America at the National Theatre in 1992 and 1993 had a life-changing impact not only on many of the audiences who saw it, but also on the actors who were in it. Joseph Mydell, whose performance as Belize won the production its sole Olivier Award, was so affected by the experience that he deliberately avoided seeing revivals of the show for the next 26 years. "Angels at the National wasn't just a play or production; it was an event," Mydell says. "It was frightening to do at the start because we didn't know what people were going to think of it. We were in the height of the AIDS crisis and we were all challenged by that. I had family members back in the States who died. Because of the intensity of what happened with us doing the show, I couldn't face seeing the revivals, including the recent one at the National by Marianne Elliott, whom I'm about to work with on Death of a Salesman."
Yet, a few days before our conversation, Mydell had finally seen Angels in America on stage again, and in a rather unexpected location: Łódź, Poland. Mydell was visiting the city with the Shakespeare scholar Professor Tony Howard to present some lectures connected to Ira Aldridge, the pioneering 19th century African American performer who died in Łódź during a European tour in 1867 and is buried in the city. Learning that the final year acting students of Łódź's famed Film School were performing Angels in America as one of their three Diploma Shows, Mydell couldn't resist seeing the results.
The experience, the actor says with evident emotion, "blew me away. The production was excellent and the students were doing things with the play that were startling and wonderful. The wrestling with the angel scene was extraordinary. The use of music was amazing. The visual poetry and emotional impact of some moments was so strong that I was welling up when I spoke to the actors afterwards. Polish theatre is gutsy: it takes things full-on and really goes for it, which is refreshing. In England there's often a 'how subtle can we be?' approach. Well, sometimes you can be so subtle that nothing gets across."
Mydell's connection to the student production was particularly strong because of Polish influences in his own training as an actor. "When I was a student at New York University a lot of the stuff we did was influenced by Grotowski's plastiques," he explains. "I also had a voice workshop with [Ryszard] Cieślak. When I saw a recording of Akropolis I said to myself: 'That's the kind of acting I want to do.' Acting in which your face, body and voice produces a character and changes it, and you do it without costumes or masks or artificiality. That approach fed directly into Lyrics of the Hearthside (1986) the one-man show I put together later on Paul Laurence Dunbar, the 19th century African American writer, which is what brought me to the UK in the first place. So the Polish connection influenced that show, and by extension, my whole career. Being in Łódź all these years later and seeing these young Polish students in Angels felt like coming full circle. I'm so pleased that it was here that I finally saw the show again."
Mydell plans to return to Poland soon to continue research for a new documentary about Aldridge, one in which, as he states, Łódź will be "'a character' in relation to Ira's impact on the city and his death here." In fact, the project will be Mydell's second film about Aldridge, following a short documentary, The Black Tragedian, which he directed some years ago while at the Royal Shakespeare Company. This time, though, the idea would be to explore contemporary resonances in Aldridge's experiences. As a figure who connects Africa, America, England and Europe, his story, Mydell suggests, has much to say to our current, painfully polarised moment. "The idea would be to have an implied comment on an outsider like Aldridge coming into a city where he isn't proficient in the language but where he deliberately sets up a situation in which he can work with actors speaking in their native tongue while he speaks his lines in English. I'd like to see how that might have something to say about now as much as then, so that there's not the sense of his story as some kind of historical 'curio' but rather as something that resonates with the present moment."
As an African American actor who's made his own career primarily in classical theatre in the UK, Mydell clearly feels an affinity with Aldridge, who received a considerably warmer reception in Europe than he did in the States, where he was subject to racist harassment, including the burning of the theatre he performed at. I wonder if it's a personal mission for Mydell to establish a continuum of black actors in the UK, linking pioneers like Aldridge to Earl Cameron and to his own Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) peers such as Hugh Quarshie and Josette Simon.
"Yes and no," Mydell says, weighing his words carefully. "I have thought about doing a book about black actors and interviewing people. But it's such a huge project that it would basically mean giving up acting to complete it. And then I meet academics like Tony [Howard] who are actually doing it. So, no I don't think I have to do it, because I'm part of the story. But I do think it's important for someone to do."
In a Guardian interview couple of years ago ("Josette Simon: 'Powerful women are reduced to being dishonourable'", David Jays, 21 Mar 2017), Josette Simon stated that the label of 'black actor' is one that she rejects. Does Mydell share those sentiments? "I've heard that notion for some time but I guess I see it a bit differently. I'm black, I'm an actor so I don't mind people referring to me as such. It's like the notion of 'colour blind' casting. I always want to say: 'Oh really so you don't see me?' Of course in the end we are all actors, after all. But I don't object to my race being acknowledged. It's part of who I am and I'm proud of it.
L/R: Femi Temowo, Joseph Mydell, Ian Bonar, Martins Imhangbe and Maggie Service in rehearsal for Death of a Salesman. (2019) Photo © Brinkhoff Mögenburg (courtesy of Young Vic)
"I recently read a quotation from Marlon Brando, in which he said that the pain and suffering that his mother experienced informed every part that he played. I've always thought, but never said publically before, that with every role I've done I've brought something of who I am at that given time, and also that I can tap into where I come from, my background and my family. When I did Angels there were two people I absolutely tapped into for Belize: my sister and my half-brother, who was outrageously gay. They were both very streetwise and forward and I took all of that into Belize."
Mydell's background was in the segregated American South -- Savannah, specifically -- and he describes himself as a "very bookish" child whose passion for performance was stoked by the oral tradition of school and church recitals where "kids would be stood up in terrible dresses and suits and have to deliver doggerel. If you managed to get a line out you got a round of applause so it was very encouraging! But I participated in earnest because I really was interested in words and expression." His ambitions soon ran up against segregation's stumbling blocks: "I learned 'The Raven' and wanted to recite it on a local afterschool programme, but of course black children weren't allowed on that." Still, a core of self-belief held firm in the face of prejudice: "I never thought there was something I couldn't do, even though I was told I couldn't do it."
His formative encounter with Shakespeare's work came when, working at his high school library as a teenager, he discovered a recording of an Old Vic production of Macbeth in the vinyl section. "I was spellbound, overcome, and just connected with it so deeply. The frustrating thing about making these discoveries is that you don't know where your connection to it comes from or what it can lead to. It's like having a ghost around you. You keep it to yourself because you don't think people will understand. So it's a lonely kind of existence. But then all these years later I auditioned to get into the RSC and what's the first play I do? Macbeth, playing the Bloody Sergeant and the Scottish Doctor. It's incredible how things come together sometimes."
Did he feel any sense of culture shock in coming to work in the UK? "Well, in terms of training I already had a connection because when I was at NYU I worked with the wonderful Scottish voice teacher Kristin Linklater. The funny thing was that my other teachers discouraged me from going to the UK, saying I was 'too impressionable.' What they meant by that is that I spoke welI, something I got teased about." (Mydell's voice, by the way, is indeed wonderful: precise Brit-influenced elocution mixed with a rich and warm stealth Southernness.) "They thought that I'd go over there, get an English accent, and not be able to get work in the States. I thought: well, is that such a horrible thing?!"
Wendell Pierce and Arinzé Kene in rehearsal for Death of a Salesman (2019). Photo © Brinkhoff Mögenburg (courtesy of Young Vic)
Asked about RSC career highlights, he mentions working with Complicité veterans Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni on a 1996 production of Everyman in which he played the title character. "That was such an exciting production to be part of. I was never in such good shape because the work they do is very physical. Also, it was medieval theatre, an area I was very interested since studying drama because of the connection with the church and how drama started. The whole impetus of religion was very strong in my background, and how you could talk about other things in that context became very clear to me when doing Everyman."
Mydell is the kind of actor who also makes an impact in a smaller role. As well as his time at the RSC and National, he's most recently been seen in two distinctive Shakespeare productions at the Almeida: Rupert Goold's 2016 Richard III, with Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave, and, last year, as John of Gaunt in Joe Hill-Gibbins' idiosyncratic Richard II, with Simon Russell Beale. Mydell's take on the "sceptred isle" speech had particular resonance in a pared-down production that evoked without overstressing parallels with contemporary Britain's divided state. He loved working with Fiennes and the "mesmerising" Redgrave on Richard III and speaks very warmly of Russell Beale, with whom he'd collaborated a few years before on a high-tech RSC production of The Tempest.
"It's wonderful to work with someone of that ability and to find that you can communicate without words. In Richard II, we negotiated that whole scene between Gaunt and Richard without having to say a lot. What I favour most about working in England generally is finding people I can work with who are text-based, rather than going on and on about 'character.' To me that's just become another word for 'personality,' nothing to do with the Stanislavski thing at all."
Although most of Mydell's signature roles have been on stage, his CV hasn't lacked for screen appearances. One in particular stands out: Manderlay, Lars von Trier's undervalued 2005 sequel to 2003's Dogville, a fiendishly smart and deeply subversive take on American race relations and ideals of "freedom". Mydell played Mark, a character "notorious," as John Hurt's wry voiceover informs us, "for never giving an intelligible answer to anything."
How was the experience of entering von Trier's singular universe? "Oh, I had a whale of a time working with him," Mydell says with a grin. "I just had this 'sympatico' with someone who was slightly... deranged -- and brilliant at the same time. I didn't find that intimidating and I didn't ever try to impress him. I just took him on board and it was a pleasure to do what he asked of me -- and to find that I had the ability to do it."
Among brilliant British actors such as Clive Rowe, Doña Croll, and Mona Hammond, Mydell and Danny Glover were the only African Americans in the cast. "Oh yes, a lot of black American actors wouldn't touch Manderlay," Mydell says, with evident frustration. "They thought it was totally 'hands off'. Famously, Harry Belafonte was going to do it but because of his civil rights activism it was thought that it would be out of keeping with his reputation. Honestly, that's part of why my career ended up being in England. Because I think in America you can get trapped as a black actor into whatever image you're supposed to be projecting."
Challenging the view of the younger generation of British performers, who present defection to the States as necessary to secure "better" roles, Mydell expresses refreshing skepticism about the opportunities offered to black actors in the US. "I was just reading about the NAACP Image Awards... In America it's so much about how you're perceived, this whole idea of 'positive' representations. That's why in the States you still end up with these exaggerated forms of black characters in films which I think can end up being as 'minstrel' as the thing that you're fighting against. It's easy to get trapped because everything is black and white in the States. I'm so glad that I'm free of that, and that I was able to work with someone like Lars. I wrote to him a couple of years ago, when Trump came into office, and said: 'Well, you were far ahead of your time.'"
Next up for Mydell, before further work on the Ira Aldridge doc, is the aforementioned Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic, in which he'll play Ben Loman, opposite Wendell Pierce as Willy and Sharon D. Clarke (fresh from her Olivier Award success in Caroline, Or Change) as Linda. The production will reunite Mydell with Marianne Elliott (co-directing with Miranda Cromwell) whom he worked with "a long time ago in Manchester when she was just starting out on a production of As You Like It. That was the play that her father Michael Elliott had famously directed with Vanessa Redgrave and there was a lot of curiosity about what his daughter would do with it. But she got great reviews, and, well, she's certainly done OK since then, hasn't she?!"
What is he looking forward to about rehearsals? "Well, I've never played a ghost before and I'm most excited to see how Ben features in this renowned play. I'm also interested and excited to see how the piece resonates with a black family as the focus."
The production joins several other high-profile recent or current Arthur Miller revivals in London, including The American Clock and All My Sons at the Old Vic and The Price in the West End. How does Mydell account for this current spate of "Miller-itis"? "Yes, there is more Miller in London than there is in New York right now! I do wonder if a Trump America makes us want to look at the American dream afresh and see it perhaps more as a nightmare, which Americans can't awake from. I don't know. I certainly think that there's a desire to hear complete sentences and reflections from America, which you get with Miller, rather than tweets and soundbites."
Death of a Salesman is at the Young Vic between 1 May - 29 June.