FROM THE ARCHIVES: A Brief Meeting with Arthur French
This interview with the late actor was originally published in December 2006.
Arthur French may not be a household name. But any theater critic or theater goer who has haunted the black boxes of Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway for the past three decades is familiar with this actor’s work.
Arthur French first made his mark as an original member of the Negro Ensemble Company, which was headed by Douglas Turner Ward. There he performed in plays such as Lonnie Elder III Ceremonies in dark black men and Joseph A. Walker’s The Niger river. He sometimes makes his way to Broadway, making his Broadway debut in Melvin Van Peebles’ Ain’t supposed to die a natural death and appearing in several Circle in the Square productions. But the small stages were more often his home, so much so that the Obies Awards Committee, which honors the Off-Broadway theater, honored him for the excellence sustained in 1997. Currently, the French are enjoying one. of his most brilliant acting opportunities in recent years. , playing the role of philosopher Holloway in the Signature Theater Company’s acclaimed cover of August Wilson’s play Two trains running. The New York native spoke to Playbill.com about living in the upscale neighborhoods.
You are still working, it seems, but Two trains running is one of the most high-profile plays you’ve performed in quite some time. How did it happen?
Arthur French: Old fashioned. I just auditioned. I have been there three times. They let me know at the time, in June, that they were going to do it, which was good, because it gave me a lot of time to read the script.
Have you seen the original Broadway production?
AF: It’s one of August Wilson’s productions that I’ve never seen and never read. I’ve seen most of them. And I was the understudy for the original Ma Rainey’s black stockings. At Brooklyn College, as a guest artist, I did Seven guitars. But this particular room, I haven’t seen it. It was good because I had no preconceptions except that I knew I wasn’t Roscoe Lee Browne, who created the role.
Do you know Roscoe?
AF: Yes, I know Roscoe. I last saw him at the Lloyd Richards Memorial. Roscoe is very special. Roscoe is Roscoe. If I had seen her performance, I probably would have been too terrified to approach the role.
When you were a liner Mom Rainey, have you already been able to continue?
AF: Of course it does. I under-studied two roles, and was able to continue in both. When an actor left, I took over the role of Slow Drag. It was August Wilson’s first Broadway play.
He had just started. Do you have any memories of Wilson?
AF: When you are an understudy, you are part of it, but you are a second-class citizen. He wrote a lot and spoke mostly to Lloyd.
What about Lloyd Richards?
AF: Lloyd, I knew that for a long time. When the Negro Ensemble Company started many years ago, he was a teacher there. He was part of that original company – he was teaching. Of course, it was already someone I knew. I worked at the O’Neill Foundation when Lloyd was running it; I worked a few summers. He was a calm man. He’d tell you something about what you’re doing, and you’d say, “Well, that’s simple. Why didn’t I think about it? It’s obvious, but it never occurred to me! (Laughs) It was his genius.
I’m so used to seeing you in little productions below 14th Street. Does it seem strange to you to take the metro so far north?
AF: (Laughs). Well, the air is a little different. It’s nice on 42nd Street, even though it’s 42nd Street between 10th and 11th. I don’t go much in this area, but it is a great theater. I saw a lot of things at Signature. I have read here, but this is my first time working here. It’s interesting. I saw Seven guitars when they did it last fall, and it was different from the original. It got me in there Seven guitars much more world than I remember being brought up with the original production.
When did you start in the business?
AF: Oh, my. I started taking acting lessons in 1960. You’ll have to promise not to write that. People will know how old I am.
Well, I was going to ask you how old you are, anyway.
AF: I’m not saying anything anymore. But when I say in the play that I’m 65, I’m not really lying. (Laughs.) I have my white Metrocard, I’m telling you. I never thought that acting would be my career. I had a job with the Department of Social Services. Acting was just a little something that I did because I liked it, and it kind of took over. I didn’t have much to do with it.
When did you know this would be your career?
AF: I made a showcase called Raising Hell in the Son, which was a takeoff on A raisin in the sun. It was raining heavily one night, and we were about to go home, and three people walked in. We did it. One of these people [in the audience decided to] produce it and he [transferred] Off-Broadway at the Provincetown Playhouse. It was kind of a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney story. When I received my Equity card I thought maybe I could do it. But it took a long time. It was a whole new idea. I had never thought of it in those terms. Then I guess the most important thing that happened was that the Negro Ensemble Company asked me to become a member. I still had my job. I left in 1971 when Ain’t supposed to die a natural death was done on Broadway, and I got into that cast. At that point, I couldn’t keep the job and rehearse the show.
What was it like working with Melvin Van Peebles on Ain’t supposed to die?
AF: Melvin at that time was very sexy. He came to the first rehearsal and said, “Okay, I’m going to work on the music. We really haven’t seen much of it. Gilbert Moses, the director of this, was really the person who put it all together. A lot of it was improvisation, building relationships between people. Gil had done something like that, with a play by LeRoi Jones, which had an eight-page play. Gil had experience in creating bigger scripts. Melvin was very supportive of me. I remember they kicked us out of the Barrymore Theater because of the low attendance. At that time, it took $ 10,000 to move a show. And he come up to us and said, “I’m going to put my money where my mouth is. We are going to move to another theater. I’ll put the money in place. I have always been impressed by it.
You also appeared in Death of a salesman with George C. Scott.
AF: I had previously worked with George at Circle in the Square. He had made a production of All of God’s Chillun have wings. And I had also worked at Circle in the Square in The ice man is coming. So that’s where I met him. For Death of a salesman, in which he played Willy Loman, he wanted the next door neighbors to be black. We spoke to [Circle in the Square Managing Director] Paul Libin, and they’ve had a lot of back and forth about it. So we did that. In fact, I worked with George another time, in Design to live.
Were you close to him?
AF: I got closer in the sense that, during All of God’s Chillun, when I first met him, he liked to play chess. So in our free time we played. He didn’t always watch the show. He was playing chess. And I told him a story about how I was a student and … you know they used to line the house at the theater sometimes. So me and a few friends went to this room called The wall. There was a guy in it, he was blond, with blue eyes, rather muscular, very handsome. And when we came back to discuss this play, the only thing we talked about was George C. Scott. I didn’t know who he was and we didn’t go to see him, but he made that kind of impression.
You live here in New York, don’t you?
AF: Yes, I was born here. Born in Harlem. I have lived here all my life. F. Murray Abraham said: “One day we will be the only two actors left in New York. He was never going to leave, and I was never going to leave. So far, we’ve both made it through.
Have you ever thought about retiring?
AF: Yeah. I think I’m thinking about it right now. (Laughs.) But now — I don’t know if I’m the only guy that’s as old as me and can still walk — I’m getting calls. Maybe I’m the only guy like me that’s still around.