Spotlight On: Joe Wilson, Jr.

Art Is Not a Luxury Item

For the 26th National Conference in Washington DC, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowships and the Leadership U[niversity] One-on-One Program, the Rising Leaders of Color, and the four finalists for the Alan Schneider Director Award. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we are excited to continue to host the Spotlight On Series throughout the spring leading up to the conference.

TCG: When was the moment that you decided to become a professional theatre actor?

Joe Wilson, Jr.: I don't think there was a singular moment that made me want to be an actor, but rather a series of experiences. I discovered that art-making was a process that made me feel good about myself. It gave me confidence about voicing my place in the world. I participated in speech and debate competitions in high school and I took my first 'real' acting class my senior year of college, in hopes of getting an easy "A". I didn't want to screw up my chances of getting into a top law school. I eventually wanted to run for office. I wanted to be governor of Louisiana. That didn't happen, though I played the fictional Willie Stark in All The King's Men at Trinity Repertory Company, where I am in my 11th season as a member of the acting company. After I didn't go to law school, I continued my “training” at the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater program where I received my MFA in Acting, (emphasis on training, in quotes, because even as a student in a professional training program I was unsure if I wanted to be a professional actor).

Getting a degree was about having the piece of paper. It made my parents happy. My mentality being that I could always teach and I am happy to say that I have taught quite a few students during my career as a professional actor and it has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career. Satisfaction comes not only in training theater students, but teaching all who are interested in working in collaboration. I love sharing the power of the creative process as a practical means of sparking social change.

TCG: What is one conversation you would like to have with other actors to address an obstacle facing the acting profession? What would you say to other actors about this issue?

JW: Maybe because of fear, or insight, or luck, I decided to start my post graduate school life as an actor in the same city within which I had just spent 3 years earning my degree. I resisted the temptation to have my success defined by other’s perceptions, particularly those who did not have a knowledge about the business. I had to ignore the fears of my family, and follow my heart. I know that sounds cheesy, but that' s really what I did and what I would advocate others to do. As I learned, my attitude would teach my parents and those that loved me that how one chooses to make a life as an art/theater maker takes many forms and shapes. It is as varied as the individual artists themselves, many who work as actors, teachers, volunteers, mentors, and activists. Staying local, with an eye on the national trends and international inspiration, gives me the confidence to build a community within less product/profit driven markets. Making a life in the regional theater gives me the ability to do all the things that feed me as an artist and as an activist within my community. Making art locally has provided me access to centers of dialogue and consensus building. Artists must carve out their own path. For me this is what works. But success is as you define it. I would say just make sure to create a sustainable plan and remain flexible. Place yourself in environments that encourage risk taking, and that maximize your opportunities for success.

TCG: What was a moment in your career as an actor when you felt connected to a larger community, either locally, regionally, nationally or internationally?

JW: I am living that moment now, because of the generosity of the Fox Foundation in naming me as a fellow in Distinguished Achievement. A main component of my fellowship activities has been to find ways in which I could deepen my engagement within my community. Art making is in itself a revolutionary act. I have always been very passionate about the idea that art is not a luxury item, but a practical way of providing a space for conversation, debate, and the creation of solutions to challenges that plague our individual communities. I believe that theater makers have to be at the center of these conversations. Trinity Rep has been great in supporting my efforts of building bridges between the work we do, and the people we want to see it. This institution prides itself on being a public square, or a place where people come to, expecting to be engaged, challenged, and informed.

My fellowship is specifically supporting my efforts to develop a play about the life of, and featuring the music of, Billy Strayhorn. In their efforts to support me as playwright, my host/home theater sponsored my participation in the Every28Hours Project. The theme of this project was to explore the ongoing effort to build community after the events surrounding the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown, and the ongoing issues of African-American deaths at the hand of police officers, security guards, and vigilantes. This event was co–produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the One-Minute Plays Festival. I joined playwrights from around the country gathered in St. Louis/ Ferguson for a one-week residency. During this time our national partners, along with local artists generated a series of one minute plays that were produced in that community. These plays were inspired by conversations with activists, political leaders, police officers, concerned citizens, and most importantly, with the young people of that community. One of the most moving experiences was the conversation I had with students from Normandy High School. Michael Brown, the teen killed by police in Ferguson, graduated from this school a short time before he was murdered. A year later, these young people were still angry, afraid, and confused. But they were also generous of spirt, and hopeful for the future. The discussions with these students inspired the play that I ultimately contributed to the festival. Upon my return to my host theater, I produced a presentation in Providence of the work that was developed in St. Louis. This event at Trinity Rep was a smashing success, filling the theater to capacity and overflowing to the lobby where a crowd watched the performances on closed-circuit television. Not only did this project bring together a large cross section of our community unlike anything we had seen in Providence, but it opened a much needed dialogue about race relations. I am now preparing to produce these plays again in October 2016. In addition, I am launching a new initiative which will involve our local universities and encourage them to provide the space to have their own discussions that center around race and inclusion. Trinity Rep and the One-Minute Plays Festival will be partnering in the process of developing and producing these plays that will come to represent the unique challenges within the academic communities of Rhode Island and Southern New England.

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Joe Wilson, Jr:
Born in New Orleans, LA, Wilson holds a BA in Political Science from the University of Notre Dame, and an MFA in Acting from the University of Minnesota/ Guthrie Theatre training program. He lived and worked in Minnesota until moving to New York in 2000, where he was soon cast in the 2000 Tony Award-nominated production of Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway. He worked in New York City for 5 years on and off Broadway as well as regionally. Wilson is in his 11 season as a member of the Acting a Company at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, RI. He is also honored to be a Round 9: Fox Foundation Fellow for Distinguished Achievement, administered by the Theater Communications Group in NY, New York.

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Photo Credits

TOP: Photo by Mark Turek

ABOVE: Photo by Anne Harrigan

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