“All rise” is the usual cry when William T. Newman Jr. makes his entrance, because usually, Newman is striding into court as chief judge of Arlington County’s Circuit Court. For the next several weeks, though, the 66-year-old will be making his entrance onstage with the respected small local company WSC Avant Bard as Oedipus in “The Gospel at Colonus.”
Acting is hardly a whim for the Arlington-raised lawyer. It’s what he studied at Ohio University, where he got a bachelor of fine arts in a conservatory-like program, and it was onstage in the early 1970s that he met his future wife, entrepreneur and BET co-founder Sheila Johnson. Both were cast as replacements in the Negro Ensemble Company’s Washington tour of “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men,” more than two decades before they unexpectedly crossed paths again in 2002 as Newman presided over Johnson’s divorce from her first husband, Robert L. Johnson.
“I’ve been encouraging him to get back into his acting,” says Johnson, whose brief fling with theater ended with “Ceremonies,” “because I know he loves it so much.”
It’s tough to moonlight onstage, though, when you’re maintaining a full-bodied legal career.
“I’ve sort of learned the job now,” Newman says with an easy smile, sitting in a dressing room of Theater II in the Gunston Arts Center. (The county-run complex includes an elementary school that was a whites-only junior high school when Newman arrived for a week as a student during the area’s integration years.) “The hardest part is rehearsal. Once the show is up, you show up, do it for two or three hours, you’re out of there. It’s not a problem at all.”
“It’s safe to say it’s been awhile since he’s had a role off book this big,” says Tom Prewitt, WSC Avant Bard’s artistic director. “Off book” means with lines memorized: Prewitt recently saw Newman reading as Oedipus and Othello in one-night shows with the audio troupe Lean and Hungry Theater, and his ears pricked up. “I was impressed with his command of the stage — his presence — and his command of the language in both cases,” Prewitt says.
Chatting in the dressing room, Newman looks less like an actor than an inside-the-Beltway power player. The suit and tie come across as natural, dapper, not ostentatious, even with monogrammed initials just visible on the French cuffs.
He does sound the part, though — judge and actor. The voice is resonant. The statements are sure. He does not hem and haw. You understand when Johnson says he’s an authoritative judge, and when she adds that a better sense of drama might help certain advocates who don’t tell their clients’ stories well. (“I think every lawyer should take acting classes,” she says.)
Newman got stage work right out of school, heading to New York, and making appearances in off-Broadway showcases and on the NBC soap “Somerset.” He auditioned for the Negro Ensemble Company’s “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men” and didn’t get in, but got called when the troupe needed performers for its D.C. tour. He earned his Equity card — has always kept it — and began picking up local acting gigs, including several shows at Arena Stage.
Still, it didn’t take long for him to decide to enroll in Catholic University’s law school. “I grew up here, where every other person’s a lawyer,” Newman explains. “It was always if I wasn’t going to be an actor, I was going to be a lawyer.”
It was a major choice, and it helped him mend a fence. His father, a federal employee as a special police officer with the CIA, had urged his son toward law.
“I’m glad I didn’t go back to New York,” Newman says, “because that next year my dad did die, the first year I started law school. And he was happy, because I had made that commitment. And when he died, I said, ‘I’m going to see this through.’
“But hold on,” he adds. “While this was going on, I would still be doing shows. I remember walking out of torts class, and everybody saying, ‘You’re crazy.’ I was in a show at Arena at the time. That’s when I was doing ‘Julius Caesar.’ ”
In the 1980s, Newman built a law practice, took up politics by successfully campaigning twice for a seat on the Arlington County board and, by 1993, was appointed to the court. “I’m a grinder,” he says. “I’m going to make it work. If it means I’ve got to stay up all night to get it done, I’m going to do it. Because I don’t want to stand up in front of a bunch of people and look like a fool.”
Meantime, Newman kept his hand in as an actor. He signed up for acting workshops. Took gigs as a public speaker. Did voice-over work. He participated in readings for fundraisers and for companies wanting to hear scripts out loud; in 2010 he even appeared in the play “Sanctified” at the Lincoln Theater. He would have done more, but it couldn’t quite compete with his first priority.
“There’s a learning curve to being a judge, and it was just very problematic to figure out time to do that,” Newman says. “But I would always go to auditions, even knowing that if I got the role I couldn’t do it. Just to keep sharp.”
draws a more pointed picture, noting that Newman would go to auditions not just in the District, but also in Richmond and New York. The past few years he has done radio broadcasts of “Othello” and “Oedipus” with the audio troupe Lean and Hungry Theater. He also had a preacher’s part in the movie “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” that was exciting to perform but that blips by quickly in the film.
“Even Oprah said, ‘Who is that guy up there?’ ” says Johnson, an executive producer of the 2013 project. “She thought it was the preacher of the church we were shooting in.”
Details of the Newman-Johnson romance are irresistible: They had not seen each other between their long-ago acting encounter and the day of Johnson’s divorce. Newman wasn’t even the scheduled judge; he stepped in when a colleague had a conflict. Someone told him the splitting couple hoped he could take the bench early.
“I said, ‘Who the hell are these people?’ ” Newman recalls. “Judges take the bench when they take the bench.”
His tone changed when he saw the names in the file. He offered to recuse, but it wasn’t necessary. Johnson asked to approach the bench after the proceedings, and a few weeks later she invited him to an event. Newman pondered the invitation and wondered who to bring. His mother, who recalled how fondly Newman had spoken of Johnson years before, advised him to go on his own.
“You never know,” she said.
Their 2005 wedding was handled by the same planner used by Donald and Melania Trump. “It’s got to be the wedding of the year and then some for Virginia,” Gov. Mark R. Warner said at the time.
Newman and Johnson seem in sync about his apparent next act whenever he retires from the bench. Ramping up the acting makes sense to their friend David Dower, co-artistic director of Boston’s ArtsEmerson and a former associate artistic director at Arena Stage.
“I’ve never heard an ounce of regret,” Dower says of Newman’s acting impulses. “I think the law career has been very powerful in his life, and very rewarding. So there’s not been a sense that he’s been sidelined as an actor. And in terms of appetite, I think he’s been preparing for the time when he can spend the time. So this is it.”
Newman is already committed to the August Wilson play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in June with the Tysons Corner troupe 1st Stage. A “Gospel at Colonus” castmate is asking Newman about a project for next year.
“I think it’s good he’s building his portfolio,” Johnson says. “And he needs to get an agent.”
Is he going to?
“Is he going to?” Johnson repeats. “As his wife telling him he needs to get an agent, he’d better.”