Clarke Peters and I had a conversation before a matinee of The Royale the other day, and here are a few things we didn’t talk about: the book he wrote for the hit London and New York musical Five Guys Named Moe, for which he received a Tony nomination; the revues he wrote with the multi-faceted man of the London theatre Ned Sherrin; and the arm-long list of acting credits in everything from Chicago on Broadway to Porgy and Bess and Chess in London, where Peters has a home. And those are just a few of his theatrical credits – the film and TV work is equally impressive.
So what did we talk about? We discussed the construction of Lincoln Center. “My father,” Peters said, “was one of the draftsmen on the project. I remember we had a model of one of the buildings, the Metropolitan Opera House, in our basement.” (Peters grew up just across the Hudson from Manhattan, in Englewood, New Jersey.)
The first Lincoln Center production Peters remembers seeing was in the Juilliard Building. “But the entrance,” he recalled, “was on 66th street, not on 65th street, as it is now.”
It is on 65th street that Peters has been spending time the past few months, for that thoroughfare leads to the stage door, and main audience entrance, to the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, where The Royale is playing.
“It’s been a great experience,” Peters said. “We have a wonderful ensemble, and a play that concisely represents different points of view. It’s been a chance to learn about the politics of the time” – a century ago, when a boxer, based on Joe Johnson, encountered obstacles on his way to the heavyweight championship.
Peters praised the way that Marco Ramirez, The Royale’s playwright, reflects not only the politics of the early 20th century but the politics of 2016. “I find that certain lines in the play may have additional resonance during a performance if I’ve seen something on the news that day – something that a candidate has said.”
As for how Peters’ character, Wynton, has developed over the course of the run, the actor said, “I’ve become more aware of how he is acting not just as a coach of boxing but as a mentor to Jay” – the champion – “in a political and social sense as well.”
Talk of social issues inevitably led to “The Wire,” the HBO series, set in Baltimore, which has legions of seriously devoted fans, of which I am one. Peters said: “I get email messages and Facebook postings in which people say, ‘Baltimore is just like Glasgow’ or ‘Baltimore is just like Barcelona.’” He added: “Baltimore and the U.S. have a different history than those places, but questions of corruption and policing and poverty share things all around the world.”
In both “The Wire” and “Treme,” another HBO series associated with producer David Simon, Peters had as a colleague Wendell Pierce, who last appeared at LCT in a production of Broke-ology – not to mention as Clarence Thomas, this past weekend, in the HBO movie Confirmation.
“Wendell grew up in New Orleans,” Peters said. “And he comes from a collection of people who were very involved in their neighborhood. He has a sense of generational responsibility in the black community.”
The Royale, said Peters, also has historical continuity as a subject. “This play speaks to heroes and how they are remembered, or not remembered, through the generations. And it does so in a sometimes subtle way.” He added: “Someone I know who saw the play said afterward, ‘I got what the issues were but I didn’t feel I was being beaten up by them.’ This play is very much about race. It also transcends race and gets to the humanity of the story.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.