Editors' pick

King Hedley II


Editorial Review

By Celia Wren
Friday, February 6, 2015

Busy director had other ideas for his career
By Celia Wren
Friday, February 6, 2015

‘Keep breathing, everybody!” director Timothy Douglas says affably as an actor puts down a prop machete in a rehearsal room at Arena Stage. It’s the lead--up to Arena’s production of “King Hedley II,” one of the works in August Wilson’s revered 10--play cycle, and Douglas is trying to fine--tune the intensity of a climactic scene. Talking quietly in his deep voice, the 6--foot--3 director analyzes the way one scene’s energy level affects the next, urging the actors to keep themselves vulnerable.

“You have to let it be as uncomfortable as it is,” he tells one actor, speaking of a critical juncture in the play, about an ex--con struggling to make a life in 1980s Pittsburgh.

Douglas’s rehearsal strategy obviously gets results: The 53--year--old director has a busy freelance career that has allowed him to stage eight of the 10 plays in Wilson’s cycle, which chronicles the 20th--century African American experience, decade by decade. Among his other claims to fame: In 2005 Douglas directed the premiere of “Radio Golf,” the cycle’s 1990s--set play, at Yale Repertory Theatre. (Last year, he directed the 1960s play, “Two Trains Running,” at Round House Theatre in Bethesda.)

Not all of Douglas’s achievements have been Wilsoncentric. His recent undertakings have included the premiere of “The Lake Effect,” by Rajiv Joseph (“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”), for the Chicago company Silk Road Rising. A self--described “adventure junkie,” Douglas will have another new play on his plate when he tackles Nathan Alan Davis’s “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea” for Washington’s Theater Alliance in May.

Douglas knows his way around older scripts, too. He conceived of, and directed, a primarily black--cast version of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful” significantly before the buzzed--about 2013 Broadway production that starred Cicely Tyson (and which was staged by another director, still a sore point for Douglas).

The New York--based director says his method always focuses on trusting and empowering actors. “The actor is the channeler ---- is the storyteller,” he says. Douglas has so much confidence in the performer’s ability to align with a playwright’s intent that in rehearsal he simply focuses on “insisting [actors] remain true to themselves with every gesture and utterance.”

Douglas’s “actorcentric” approach is “more about revealing than creating,” says KenYatta Rogers, who plays Mister in “King Hedley II.” Rogers also appeared in Round House’s “Two Trains Running,” as well as in Robert O’Hara’s “Insurrection: Holding History,” which Douglas directed for Theater Alliance in 2007.

The director’s love of theater goes back to his childhood on Long Island. His grandmother regularly took him to Radio City Music Hall spectaculars, and the Rockettes dazzled him.

As an undergraduate at Marymount Manhattan College, Douglas studied lighting design, but a stint as an actor in Beckett’s “Endgame” pushed him toward performance. “I didn’t understand the play,” he recalls. “Nobody came to see it. But there was something about that experience that just woke me up.”

He went on to study acting at the Yale School of Drama, and he understudied roles in Wilson plays at Yale Repertory Theatre, which gave an early berth to much of the 10--play cycle. Douglas realized, however, that the acting lifestyle was not for him. An encounter with the voice--training technique of Kristin Linklater proved more fulfilling, and he decided that voice instruction was his calling.

While teaching voice and acting at the University of Southern California, Douglas was required to direct a play. It was the last thing he wanted to do, he recalls, but the production ---- “A Raisin in the Sun” ---- impressed the right people, and other opportunities soon arose. In 1995, he shouldered his first professional directing assignment: “Richard III” at Folger Theatre.

More recently, he joined Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park as associate artist. When Douglas directs a play, says Playhouse artistic director (and former head of Round House) Blake Robison, “you will never be disappointed.”

Jamil Khoury, the artistic director of Silk Road Rising, which tells stories through Asian American and Middle Eastern American lenses ---- says Douglas is an important voice in American theater regarding difficult conversations about race and representation. These are issues, Khoury says, that “Timothy has thought a lot about and grappled a lot with.”

Douglas gets to grapple with those issues again in “King Hedley II,” which addresses whether the social and economic deck is stacked against an entire neighborhood, an especially timely question in light of recent protests over the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York.

“The latent protest that lives inside ‘King Hedley,’ ” the director says, “has been ignited on an emotional level, on a psychic level.”