Who is POPS?... with Kevin Jones.
February 27, 2018
Artists Rep audiences are familiar with Kevin Jones’ work as director of We Are Proud to Present… in 2016 and The Motherfucker with the Hat in 2014. In addition to being a Resident Artist at Artists Rep, he is the Artistic Director of the August Wilson Red Door Project – a company whose mission is to change the racial ecology of Portland through the arts. A few days before rehearsals began for Between Riverside and Crazy, Luan Schooler (Director of New Play Development & Dramaturgy) sat down with him to talk about his thoughts on the play, his character Pops, and the commonality between this project and his work at the August Wilson Red Door Project.
Luan Schooler: You’ve been excited about Between Riverside and Crazy for a couple of years now. So, what was it about this play that particularly excited you?
Kevin Jones: Well I’ve been a big fan of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ work since Jesus Hopped the A Train. To me he’s the best thing since August Wilson. His characters are murky, gloomy, gritty, dishonest and obscure. August Wilson celebrated common, everyday working class black folks, while Stephen celebrates all of us by insisting that we see the ugly, because the ugly is necessary. I also love the character of Pops because he feels like a contemporary August Wilson character. The rhythm of Pops’ language is very reminiscent of August Wilson’s lexicon. To tell you the truth, the prospect of playing Pops scared me at first. I’m still a little scared, but it’s a healthy fear. I also love the twist in the story. At the beginning it seems predictable, but the twist took me by complete surprise.
LS: So what is it about Pops that engages you so much?
KJ: He is me in a lot of ways. I’m not a cop like Pops is, but I can relate to the regret he has in his life. As an African American man he is still trying figure out what’s next, and if it’s worth it to keep going. He lost his wife, he almost lost his own life, and with that he’s lost his motivation. He could spend more time on the important things in his life, like his relationship with his son and old friends, but he doesn’t. He has the chance to start that journey of redemption, but he’s not willing to do the deep psychological work it would take because he’s resentful and angry. There was a point in my life where I could relate to that anger, and I still wonder what’s next for me like Pops does. I can also relate to his excitement about his “could-be” grandchild and the hope it brings him. I have a grandson who I’m in love with and sometimes I just want to lose myself to that. I also relate to the way Pops talks, as I mentioned earlier. It’s music to my ears because it’s what I was raised with in New York. When I first started messing around with the lines, I found they were so hard to remember. There’s double negatives all over the place and he’ll start with one point of view and then kind of go in a different direction. But when I relax and remind myself that I know this language, it feels like home.
LS: Are there aspects of him that you find very challenging to get a hold of?
KJ: Yes, definitely. Pops is a very angry and hopeless man and that’s a challenging thing to get a hold of. When I was younger I had that more in me, but as I get older I let the anger roll off. Pops is still on edge and ready to tear somebody’s head off, but at the same time he’s hopeless and depressed. It’ll also be interesting to tap into his mentality as a police officer. One thing I’ve learned about cops, because we’re [August Wilson Red Door Project] developing a show about cops right now and interviewing police officers all over the country, is that some of them are very close to being a criminal themselves. You have to have the mind of a criminal to be a good cop. They hang out with criminals, and they hang out with people who hang out with criminals, and they hang out with people who put criminals in jail. In the play, you can see how Pops has sort of developed the mind of a criminal. Pops is always plotting and thinking and never shows his hand. So there’s this part of him that is very much a criminal – ruthless and in some ways calculating. I find that challenging to make believable (wink wink) and accessing that part of him is going to be fun. He’s also agoraphobic…he doesn’t leave his house. So, that’s another place where my research comes in and where I am trying to explore and understand him better.
LS: We touched on this a little bit, but can you talk about how working on Hands Up has given you insight into Pops?
KJ: The journey of Hands Up stared with the desire to do a show about police profiling that will help bring attention to something that’s been going on in our country for many years. Now here we are, almost two years later, and we’ve done over 50 shows in front of 10,000 people. The thing we didn’t expect was how much we’ve connected with the police through the process of creating this show. If I didn’t do Hands Up and spend so much time in their world, I’d never be able to see it from a different perspective. When I think about doing Between Riverside and Crazy, I have to believe that it provides me insight on some level. A secret hope and wish for me is that cops will come see this show. I think the last scene in Act I is very powerful. The self-hatred and the pain that’s depicted is so real. I’ve talked to cops who share that very lonely place.
LS: You’re a busy man, and you have turned down other roles. What’s that “secret sauce” that made you want to take this role?
KJ: It feels like the right time. For a while at the beginning, I was thinking of ways to get out of it because of my busy schedule. But on a personal note as an artist and an actor, you just have to get back in the game. I felt that given the climate in our country around police profiling that this was an important role to take on. I thought it’d be a great opportunity for me, August Wilson Red Door Project and Artists Rep to explore a relationship and market it to our audiences. There’s so much more to be explored with the dialogue around police profiling. And of course, I’m excited to be working with Adriana and I’m excited to work with the cast and Artists Rep. I worked with Bobby in Radio Golf years ago and directed Val in The Motherfucker with the Hat. I had a great experience with all of them and have wanted to work with Ayanna for a long time.