What’s his secret? Kevin Douglas, 37, plays a bellhop 20 years his junior—very believably—in Lookingglass Theatre’s Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting. “Must be the water, laughter, and prayers,” he says.
Clancy Hope, the bellhop, is the only non-celebrity in playwright Ed Schmidt’s imagined 1947 hotel-room confab, right before Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier. The rest are big hitters: the ballplayer himself, Joe Louis, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Paul Robeson, and Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey.
But there’s something especially poignant about Douglas’s character, who’s a barometer of the room’s shifting moods, the representative of generations yet to come, and the comic relief. In this riveting production of a play that’s not really about sports, Douglas does a fantastic job at all of the above.
“We talked, the playwright and Nicky [director J. Nicole Brooks] and assistant director Marti Lyons,” Douglas says. “We discussed this—not going too sitcom-y. We needed to make it important that this character is there, to make sure he’s the everyman.”
Part of the interest of the play lies in seeing what’s behind the facades the characters erect, consciously or unconsciously, for the white man’s benefit.
“A lot of the time we use the 2012 sensibility and don’t think about how it had to be back then,” says Douglas. “Like with Bill Bojangles, for example. You’ve got to smile, work for your tip.” When Mr. Rickey leaves the room, he says, Brooks told the four actors remaining onstage, “The white people have left—be yourself. You boys are just hangin’ out.” The outburst that follows gets one of the show’s biggest laughs.
Douglas says he and Brooks have wanted to work together again ever since he performed in Lookingglass’s 2007 staging of her Black Diamond. “She lets me play and explore and do my thing.” An example? When Clancy first enters the room in Mr. Rickey, “The trays that I carry in… we didn’t have a real door in rehearsal, so I needed to mime. She told me, ‘You need to knock four different times, four different ways.’”
“I’m like this little kid coming in—she helped me find the energy of a 17-year-old seeing all these celebrities. She asked me to think of the kind of people I would connect with now, people I admire. Eddie Murphy, Bob Marley, and Don Cheadle were on my mind pretty consistently.”
Douglas—whose wife, Tamberla Perry, is currently performing in the Goodman’s Race (“She’s fantastic!” he says)—is also a writer. A member of MPAACT (MAAT Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre), he cowrote two of its Blaxploitation sketch-comedy shows.
Also a Lookingglass artistic associate, Douglas is developing a script for that company. “It had its first-draft reading yesterday,” he says.
Describing it as a comic play with music, Douglas adds, “It’s about vaudeville, the racial makeup of vaudeville. Two brothers travel to New York, where the main vaudeville circuit is.” He’s focusing on the period “from 1900 to 1910, when film was starting to come in.”
“There were so many different types of acts back then. There were typists, who’d get up onstage and do a certain number of words per minute. This guy would drink a gallon of kerosene, then regurgitate it and light it on fire. They would juggle napkins!”
“It was like, ‘OK, I’m breathing—put me onstage.’”