James Earl Jones is mellow now, cooled out after the primal therapy, the idyllic/traumatic childhood, the broken marriage, after surviving what he calls "the gamut of the crazies."
The overpowering masculinity is there still, but with it a moderateness and a seriousness, although he will occasionally go limp with mirth. Then his hazel eyes glint like stars, his fingers shoot up and he'll flash that famous gap-toothed smile, the basso laughter coming up from his chest with a rumble.
Gone are the candid statements of a decade ago Guardedness has replaced spontaneity. No more saying things such as "Acting for me is like sex. It's got to be what I want, when I want it," as he was once quoted after he burst upon the national scene in "The Great White Hope" a decade ago. No more saying where he thinks Sidney Poitier "is at." He is no longer willing to discuss his ambivalent feelings about his father. "It is morally wrong for me to talk about relatives if they aren't here to give their side," he says firmly.
Perhaps it is because he has matured or been burned; perhaps it is his new role, his one-man portrayal of Paul Robeson, "essentially a tragedy," which opens Monday night at the National Theater. He was different when he was filming the comedy. "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings," in Macon, Ga., a couple of years ago, more jovial. But "that was a different kind of play, a differnet kind of mood."
Perhaps it is because he feels Phillip Hays Dean's play itself still falls short of being the kind of gigantic event to which he has in the past joined his prodigious talent. "The play will continue to change," said Director Lloyd Richards, who directed the originl "A Raisin in the Sun."
Paul Robeson, who died nearly two years ago, was the enormously endowed singer-actor-activist who was caught in the vortex of controversy in the post-war years for his outspokenness on behalf of blacks, Africans and the poor, and his friendship for the Russian people. For a quarter of a century, Robeson's name was a great hush in America. Efforts to revive his reputation have spread since 1973.
Maybe it is because "Paul Robeson" is under siege. Pickets showed up in Boston; in Philadelphia, the controversial singer-actor-activist's son. Paul Robeson Jr., furiously scribbled pages of notes and called the play a "fictionalized and grossly distorted portrait," and in Chicage, leaflets attacking Jones' depiction of Robeson were handed out to playgoers entering the Studebaker Theater here. A group protesting the depiction of Robeson in the play has scheduled a press conference in Washington on Tuesday.
That the protests have only barely hurt attendance thus far is largely due to James Earl Jones, a giant of a man whose reputation as an actor is of roughly the same proportions. Throughout it all, Big Jim has held steady as a rock, sipping tea and honey backstage, popping vitamins, digging with gusto into such homey meals as liver and onions, corns and coleslaw.
His new circumspectness hasn't altered his power - words like dynamic, volcanic, unpredictable still describe his performances. In a small dressing room that gives something of the air of the lion in the lair, Jones has presence even relaxing in his undershirt after a taxing matinee. His secretary helps him into his tuxedo shirt. A vase of blood red roses glow from a dressing table. "From an admirer," he laughs. "She promised to send me a nice note or a nice flower every day I'm here. I think that's a bit extravagant."
He seems almost to have found . . . contentment. Or is it that, at 46, he has come to terms with his loneliness?
"I would say I'm essentially a lonely person . . . and all my characters are the kinds of friends I would like to have . . . even the bad guys because they are really just elements of myself. It's sort of like one is creating one's own family through himself. I don't have children, so they're my children, my friends, my family . . ."
If Jones's characters are his friends and his family, tere was a void in his life before he became an actor. For while he says proudly that he was a country boy ("Whatever little balance I've had emotionally, mentally and physically, I owe to being a farm kid. The values are dictated by nature, not by man"), for him there was trouble in paradise. Born in 1931 in Tate County, Miss., he was rbought up by his grandparents and later moved north to Michigan, to another farm, with other relatives. As an adolescent, he became a stutterer.
"Stuttering is set off by an emotional trauma," he explains." It might take years for it to set and have effect, but it's an emotional trauma. I wouldn't doubt if it didn't start at the first moments of life . . . some pain, either psychic or physical or moral. I mean, can you imagine a child or an infant having moral pain? It does, they did, we do. That's one of the biggest aspects of Paul Robeson's life - moral pain."
Jones learned to work around his stuttering - "I was essentially mute for several years, so I longed to express myself" - by entering oratorical contests. He enrolled at the University of Michigan with vague thoughts of becoming a doctor, but dropped that notion when he found he didn't enjoy or excel in the premed courses. After graduation, he entered the Army. At the age of 21, he went to New York. There, his father, Robert Earl Jones, an actor who was an acquaintance of the celebrated Robeson, took his son to a privately arranged concert where Robeson sang - the first of several meetings young James Earl Jones would have with Paul Robeson.
By the time JOnes won an Emmy for the role of Jack Jefferson (Jack Johnson) in Howard Sackler's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "The Great White Hope," 14 long years of hard acting work (including as much Shakespeare as the average British actor) had gone into his "overnight success." In one two-year period alone, he had appeared in 19 plays, all infeatured parts or leads - including Jean Genet's "The Blacks," and Errol John's "Moon on a Rainbow Shawl" with his father. In 1962, he received an Obie as best Off-Broadway actor. For seven summers before, he had acted in Central Park.
In January 1968, he Desdemona in a 1964 production of "Othello". They were wed in Washington where "The Great White Hope" was premiered at Arena Stage. But with the glory came the bad times.
"Being that high - that expensive of a commondity - your privacy is abused by yourself and by others. You're expected to develop a new lifestyle - one befitting a star - more opulence and more indulgence in pleasure and so on. Obviously . . . for any artist, it's a trap. I realized very soon that I was, for some reason, attracting insane people around me . . . some of them were journalists, some of them were groupie-type people . . . for any artist, it's a trap. I realized very soon that I was, for some reason, attracting insane people around me . . . some of them were journalists, some of them were groupie-type people . . . some of them were producers.
"I took the one insight I got and acted on it: If I was attracting crazy people, maybe there was something crazy about me. So I had my first bout with therapy. I had primal therapy (a psychotherapeutic technique devised by a Hollywood psychologist named Arthur Janov that involves a series of wrenching, sobbing sessions in which patients relive their childhood traumas and exercise them with screams and tears).
Jones also went back Off-Broadway, in South African writer Antholl Fugard's "Boesman and Lena" with Ruby Dee. "It was the fact that the character I played was so rock bottom humanity that I suddenly began to see life more clearly again. After the hysteria of the Jack Johnson world, things were not very clear. I found myself needing to go back to basic characters and simplify my life . . ."
By the early 1970s, his marriage had ended. Part of protecting his private self is not talking about his. He did allow, later, however, that his favorite "Othello" was opposite Julienne Marie (without ever mentioning that this Desdemona was his former wife.) "That was a production when all three of us were getting a hold of something."
Jones' interim stage and film roles have been as diverse as that of a garbage man in "Claudine," a president in "The Man" ("a role I wasn't horribly proud of - it was a TV show palmed off as a movie"), and two Kings - King Lear and King Claudius in Hamlet. He's played a variety of characters, many of them usually considered as white. His last Washington appearance was as Lennie, the slow-witted giant in John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." He was the voice of Darth Vader in "Star Wars," a role he doesn't like to talk about.
As is his wont, Jones conducted his own research to understand the character and style of the man he is attempting to personify; listening to Robeson's recordings, reading his book, "Here I Stand," and "everything else on the subject I could find.
"I see Robeson as an alone person and, in a tragic sense, a lonely person . . . like when, what's his name, Samuel Rosen, (saw) Robeson coming out of the locker room after a football game, all alone . . .
"It's not that Paul didn't have fun moments in his life, but as a drama it is essentially a tragedy.
"I consider Robeson as gifted a human being as all the saints in heaven."
If this sounds like hero worship, Jones insists he doesn't believe in heroes. "Heroes are like gods. It takes some of the problems and the right to define yourself off of yourself . . . the only religion I have is the value of other people. That comes before God, and any worshiping I have within me I'd rather spend it on people."
One reason he's holding so steady through the trials and tribulations of this troublesome production is his own insulation.
"I listen to three opinions - my producers, my director and the writer. I don't read reviews. I don't even read interviews. I save them all because I value them but I can't read them until this production is finished, either completed in terms of what we want to do with it or else it's over altogether.
"The first time I ever tried 'Emperor Jones' it came under attack by the NAACP. Then I did a production on TV with Gene Hackman called 'Neighbors' and it came under siege by the NAACP and was killed. It was knocked off the air . . . But I'm not a missionary, I'm a mercenary . . ."
His voice is low and controlled and he talks freely, but he stands up and paces when the questions return to the private man, and he adjusts the tuxedo shirt as if it is armor. It is the stance of a man who has been hurt by his candid comments and who has perhaps hurt others. He steers the subject on to a more general topic.
"My father gave me some advice once when I was doing 'Othello' about the fourth time. He said you look at Othello and you decide what his basic nature is . . . you try to shape your life temporarily around that basic nature . . . that is, if your life is very different from his. If you are a rowdy person or more of an Iago, but you are being asked to play Othello, then you've got to behave in a way that a man as great as Othello would behave, so as not to be quick tempered and irrational as you might be. I try to keep myself open. I cannot be Paul Robeson or Josh Gibson or Jack Johnson. But I can allow myself to experience what the playwright has set out to show about their life experiences."
After Robeson, he'd like to do some other "large people - gigantic heroes"; Heronimo of "The Spanish Tragedy"; Lear again.
But most of all, JOnes is ready to become a father. "Am I ever ready. I think I've got something to offer, for it is a one-way, giving street. I think I'm not totally satisfied with my life and my achievements, but I'm content. I can now say, OK, I can give something of what I've got to someone else.
"Contentment sounds like a cop-out to most industrious people. But that's the word that's the end of the rainbow as far as I'm concerned. I don't believe in happiness. Even our Constitution defines it as something to pursue. When I felt content with myself, I felt I could be a father, a parent; I could even be a better friend."
Dorothy Butler Gilliam is the author of "Paul Robeson, All-American," which is to be published as a paper-back by New Republic Books on Feb. 7.