ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Chuck Cooper Stars in August Wilson Play at Two River Theater in Red Bank

By Susan Wallner
State of the Arts

Chuck Cooper in Two Trains Running. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Actor Chuck Cooper met playwright August Wilson once. “I have to confess, I was totally star struck, totally tongue-tied,” laughs Cooper. “But I did get to meet him. I did have that wonderful, wonderful privilege.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright died suddenly at the young age of 60 in 2005, but his legacy lives on, especially in The Pittsburgh Cycle, ten plays about the black experience that have become mainstays of American theater. Chuck has so far been in four of these plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century. He hopes someday to do the entire canon.

The North Bergen resident is a Tony Award-winning singer and actor. Cooper teaches master classes for singing actors and is a Beinecke Fellow at the Yale School of Drama. He starred in a recent production of The Piano Lesson off-Broadway and last year’s production of Jitney at the Two River Theater Company in Red Bank. Both of these productions were widely acclaimed and had extended runs, and both were directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. The two are together again as Santiago-Hudson directs Two Trains Running at Two River, starring Cooper as the restaurant owner “Memphis.” Two Trains Running is the Pittsburgh Cycle play that takes place in the 1960s, and it shows the tension between an older generation determined to hold on to what they’ve struggled for and a younger generation being swept along by new notions of black power.

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August Wilson’s Two Trains is running at Two River Theater in Red Bank from February 2, 2013 – March 3, 2013. Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

Cooper says it’s almost like Santiago-Hudson was born to direct August Wilson. Santiago-Hudson “grew up in a boarding house, and the characters that came into that boarding house and the many people that he met in his youth are the people that August writes about.” In addition, Santiago-Hudson was mentored by Lloyd Richards, the legendary actor/director who staged the original Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in 1959, and who first introduced August Wilson to Broadway with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 1984.

I spoke to Chuck Cooper during rehearsals for Two Trains Running. He said that one of the great things about August Wilson is that “he has given African-American actors a body of work that they can work their entire careers –- from the time that they’re young men to the time that they’re old men.” He acknowledges that Wilson wrote fewer women’s roles, although the ones that he did write “are great.”

AUDIO PODCAST: Listen to Susan Wallner’s full interview with Chuck Cooper for The Jersey Arts Podcast.

Chuck Cooper is well on his way to his goal of acting in all ten plays of the Pittsburgh Cycle. Catch him in Two Trains Running through March 3 at Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, New Jersey. For tickets, visit www.trtc.org.

Susan Wallner is an award-winning producer with PCK Media. She is a long-time contributor to State of the Arts, now airing on NJTV Sundays at 8 pm and Thursdays at 11:30 pm.