A familiar face on the Two River Theater stage, Brandon J. Dirden (right) returns as a first-time director, with a production of August Wilson’s SEVEN GUITARS that opens the new Two River season this weekend.
Last time the Drama Desk looked in on Brandon J. Dirden, the actor was preparing for his starring turn in the Two River Theater world premiere of writer-director Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine; a project that capped a busy year on the Broadway stage (where he won acclaim as Martin Luther King Jr. in the Tony winning All The Way), the TV screen (a recurring role as Agent Aderholt in the FX series The Americans), and — with wife and frequent co-star Crystal A. Dickinson — the ongoing adventure of new parenthood.
When the native Texan helps Two River Theater Company inaugurate its new season this Saturday, September 12, it will be without Santiago-Hudson, the collaborator who previously directed him in the August Wilson plays Jitney (in Red Bank) and a 2012 production of The Piano Lesson that earned the actor an Obie award. It will, however, be in the spiritual company of the late great African American playwright, whose ten-play “Century Cycle” receives continued exploration by TRTC, with a limited engagement of Seven Guitars that runs through October 4 — and that represents Brandon J. Dirden’s first foray as director. First produced in 1995 but set in 1948, Seven Guitars sits at the mid-century heart of Wilson’s dramatic journey through the African American experience of the 1900s. It’s there, in the playwright’s regular setting of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, that blues guitarist Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, fresh out of jail and with a surprise successful record making waves, seeks passage to Chicago to record a follow-up and stake his own claim to that especially elusive American Dream. Through a series of flashbacks, we see how the mistakes of the past — and the choices made toward a hoped-for future — work to keep that dream at arm’s length, in a story that echoes The Blues in all its spirituality, despair, passion, and humor.
Emmy winning Broadway veteran Kevin Mambo (Fela) appears as Schoolboy, and director Dirden has assembled a family of supporting players that includes not only Crystal Dickinson but brother Jason Dirden, with whom he co-starred in the Two River production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog. Brian D. Coats is Hedley, a character who figures into other works in Wilson’s cycle of plays, and other newcomers to the TRTC stage include Brittany Bellizeare, Charlie Hudson III, and Christina Acosta Robinson. Brandon J. Dirden spoke in advance of this weekend’s first preview performances.
So is this high-profile production your absolute debut as director? You haven’t dabbled in things like readings, workshops and such?
BRANDON J. DIRDEN: This is it! I’ve worked with a lot of young actors on a coaching, teaching basis…but if you have to jump in, you jump in the deep end. It was (Two River artistic director) John Dias who asked me to direct this play…and had it been another playwright, I might have passed on it.
When we interviewed Ruben Santiago-Hudson about his long association with August Wilson, he made it clear that he viewed himself as a disciple of Wilson, an artist whose job it was to carry on his good work. Do you see your own association with Ruben in the same light; as a way of passing that torch along?
I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of great directors, and I like to think I picked up a few things myself. My very first director — in 1991, when I was in Wilson’s Joe Turner at the age of twelve — was Claude Purdy, who was August Wilson’s good friend and associate for many years. So, having worked so closely with Ruben…I hope that the torch is alive with me. I wouldn’t have agreed to the project without considering that responsibility. I’m picking up the torch; part of my job is to making sure that flame stays alive for future generations.
One very interesting aspect of this show is the fact that you’ve got both your brother and your wife in the cast. How does that affect the dynamic for you as a rookie director…does it make things easier somehow, or more difficult?
It’s infinitely easier. When I first moved to New York, I spent many hours with Jason, working on our roles together…every audition that Jason and I got was such a huge thing, we would practice and prepare for hours. We directed each other…and working with him is second nature to me; it’s a two way street. Crystal, well, she’s just a remarkable, incredibly inventive actor; the kind that makes these bold choices right from the first read-through! That’s a big gift to a director, really. It’s like going to a paint store, picking from all the different color paint swatches — lavender, periwinkle, fuschia — whatever color you’re looking for, she don’t hafta mix it; she’s got it! And together, those two taught the other actors that it’s safe to interact with me!
You mentioned that you jumped at the chance to direct a Wilson play, and you’ve detailed in other interviews how much his whole body of work means to you as an actor. But since you’re not on stage this time, what about SEVEN GUITARS strikes you as a great script for a director?
This play is just dynamite; just catnip. And it’s a process of discovery for me too…I’ve never acted in a production of Seven Guitars, so that gave me more room to learn from the other actors; building a production that we all own. Every artist involved in this production has a stake in telling this story…so does the audience, for that matter. It’s about your life experiences in a way, and what you bring to the play. Wilson invites you to be part of these characters’ journey; in this case through a pretty fruitful period of the American Dream, when the middle class was on the rise, but when people in the Hill District faced a set of challenges that were pretty different from what most other Americans experienced. So like a lot of Wilson’s plays, it asks if the American Dream is really for everyone…and how do we address the biases that are built into it?
It’s an oddball play to some extent too; like a lot of his stuff it seems to go off on little details just when the audience might have expected him to address some burning issue or big theme. And as you’ve suggested, it’s also funny in places.
August never wrote an out and out comedy, but there are moments in this play that are so funny, I’ve been crying, laughing like a schoolboy during rehearsals. And with the dramatic elements, he confronts these big universal themes through these intimate stories of people in this one specific neighborhood…you get to the universal through the specific, and he challenged other playwrights to think that way. He claimed not to be a historian…he acknowledged that you don’t have to have a Ph.D in history to appreciate the lessons of all that’s come before. I wish we still had that same kind of appetite as a nation. With this play, which is set in 1948, it inspired me to go back and try to understand the times, and the ways that people went about their lives. It’s helped me to keep the history with me at all times…to keep my history close.
And you’re keeping your family close; sharing quarters here in town while you rehearse the show. I can hear your son in the background!
He’s a hurricane force of nature. His favorite artists are people like the Rat Pack, and Gregory Hines. He’ll be playing one moment, then want to watch some Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin!
This may touch upon a potential sore subject, but HBO has been circulating photos of Bryan Cranston as LBJ in their upcoming TV production of ALL THE WAY, but they haven’t detailed the supporting cast, so we were wondering if you got the call to reprise your Dr. King for the small screen…
It’s not a sore subject. They’ve got Anthony Mackie cast as King in the TV version, and the producers talked to me, kept me informed throughout the casting process. And I have plenty of TV work myself right now. I finished a guest shot on the Ed Burns series Public Morals; we’ll be starting up another season of The Americans, and I have a series gig starting in October, working on The Get Down for Netflix. It’s about the rise of Hip-Hop culture in 1970s-80s gritty New York, and it’s a look at that era like we haven’t seen before. It’s a good subject for a Netflix kind of approach, where the whole series is released all at once and you take it in at your own pace. Even with Public Morals, they did it so that after the premiere aired you could stream the first four episodes, and when you’re doing a recurring role on a series like that, it helps you get a real sense of the character…there’s a story arc in there that you can follow from episode to episode, and you get to play longball with these series.
Sounds like the long-game view favors Brandon J. Dirden these days!
Between the series work; the opportunity I’ve been given with Two River Theater; my family…well, I can’t moan and complain about life too much these days!
August Wilson’s Seven Guitars goes up in previews on Saturday, September 12; opening on Friday, September 18 and running through October 4 with a mix of matinee and evening performances. Tickets ($20 – $65 adults) and details on special performances can be obtained by taking it here.