Fast Chat: 'Whipping Man's' André Braugher
Two-time Emmy Award winner André Braugher has a lot to talk about these days. First there's the new play, "The Whipping Man," an intense and curious drama about a page in history few know about - Jewish slave owners in the Old South who converted their slaves to Judaism. Braugher plays Simon, a former slave and devout Jew. The tale, by first-time playwright Matthew Lopez, opened Off-Broadway earlier this month at the Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center, and the limited run has just been extended to April 10.
Then there's "Men of a Certain Age," a winning, if hard-to-define (dramedy? comic drama?) series on TNT, created by Ray Romano, and starring Romano, Braugher and Scott Bakula as buddies waging battle with middle age. Braugher received his sixth Emmy nomination last year for his work on the show, which recently finished its second season.
He'll talk about his film debut ("Glory"), other screen credits (like "Thief," for which he won an Emmy) and a slew of Shakespearean stage work (like "Henry V," for which he won an Obie).
But please don't ask him about Det. Frank Pembleton. The stoic, moralistic figure in NBC's critically acclaimed "Homicide: Life on the Street," which ran for seven seasons in the 1990s, may be Braugher's most memorable role. It earned him his first Emmy, and lots of fans (reporters included) who loooove to ask him about those days.
He recently spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio just before curtain time.
Had you ever heard about Southern Jewish families owning slaves?
I didn't know anything about this part of history. Most young playwrights write about . . . their wacky family. You know what I'm saying? But Matthew came upon this convergence of Passover, Lincoln's assassination and the destruction of Richmond, all occurring on the same weekend. I felt I had to be a part of it. I've done a lot of research - I referred to books, historians, psychologists, rabbis, to get as much perspective as I can.
Well, you've got the Hebrew down. But not many seders sound like the one you conduct onstage. It's part seder, part revival meeting.
Simon's lived in Richmond, a metropolis, the center of the Confederacy, filled with Protestant Africans. These are the people he comes in contact with every day. So he has that revival spirit in him. There's a Protestant world and a Jewish home. And these two, they mix.
You've done a lot of Shakespeare. Why do you think you're so well suited for classical roles?
I'm not sure I'm well-suited, it's just what I'm cast to do. The Juilliard School trains you to be a classical actor. I got my first actual job down at the Public Theater in "Coriolanus," with Chris Walken back in 1988. Ever since then, I've done a lot of Shakespeare. The roles are incredible - but I did feel, here I am . . . yikes . . . 20 years on from school, it might be time to do a modern play. So here it is, my first.
You can actually talk to the playwright. Get feedback. Can't really do that with Shakespeare.
No. Dead authors . . . no. [He laughs.]
So . . . I gotta ask about "Homicide," and Frank Pembleton . . .
Oh, no. God, no. No questions from the '90s. I've done so much stuff since then, I just . . . sometimes I have to call out a Pembleton moratorium.
What would you rather talk about?
"Thief." It was an incredible miniseries about reconciliation between a father and daughter. I thought it was quite affecting. But it didn't get picked up - that's just the way it is in this business. Things come, things go. We mourn . . . then we try to find what will fulfill us next.
Which for you, now, is "Men of a Certain Age"?
Yes, that show has a lot of life in it. It's something you don't see on television very often. Middle-aged people have been banished from TV. But now we got a little taste of it, and I'm lovin' it.
So things have turned out nicely for a guy who went to Stanford University thinking he was pre-med.
Right, but in your first year, everyone says they're pre-med. I went off to be an engineer, but got the theater bug. Back in 1980, there weren't many people you could point to and say, "Here's a successful career for a young African-American man." But it worked out.
Do you feel like you're a role model now?
I have no idea. . . . If I am, terrific. But . . . other people can think what they need to. I'm just me.