Before Sterling K. Brown found fame as Christopher Darden in FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson” and Randall on NBC’s “This Is Us,” he had a breakout role on stage in “Topdog/Underdog” Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ 2014 opus, “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3).” And now Atlanta-based actor Evan Cleaver has his turn with the Atlanta premiere production at Actor’s Express.
Classical in its inspiration, the intimate three-act play takes a page from Homer’s “Odyssey” and applies it to the Civil War. Cleaver portrays Hero, a slave who must initially decide between leaving the woman and the people he loves to join his slave master in the Civil War in promise of his own freedom. In the second act, he is in the thick of war and forced to ponder what freedom might truly mean. By the third act, anticipation of his homecoming, dead or alive, prompts even bolder conversations on love and freedom.
“Suzan Lori-Parks is one of my favorite playwrights, and the role of Hero is the biggest challenge and responsibility I’ve had to date as an actor,” Cleaver says. “I had an acting teacher, Fran Bennett, who told me ‘play every character with the same respect that you want someone to play you,’ and that’s particularly true when portraying a man who is dealing with the mental and physical ramifications of slavery.”
Cleaver has prepared well for the moment. At the historically black Dillard University in New Orleans, he was a star of stage and the basketball court. Thanks to ample opportunities in theater as well as film and TV in the Big Easy, Cleaver was able to pursue his craft until Hurricane Katrina in 2005 derailed that train. After regrouping in his native Kansas City, Cleaver decided to brave it all in L.A., pursuing his craft further at CalArts, where Don Cheadle, whom he admires, also studied. Corey Hawkins, known for “Straight Outta Compton” and “24: Legacy,”was one of his classmates before transferring to Juilliard.
He returned to Dillard as an instructor before being encouraged to move to Atlanta, where he says his career has really thrived. “This market is rich with theater, and the film and TV industry is buzzing and the buzz is getting louder,” he says.
In the four years he’s been here, he’s worked quite a bit, appearing in “In Love and Warcraft” at the Alliance Theatre,“Grand Concourse” at Horizon, “Macbeth” at Theater Emory and Actor’s Express’ “Stupid (expletive) Bird.”
“I’ve been really fortunate,” he says. “The theater community has been generous and welcoming. That is not something that is found amongst actors all too often, but this theater community welcomed me.”
For “Father Comes Home From the Wars” director Martin Damien Wilkins, who contributed to a production of the play in Charlotte, N.C., and was an assistant to the prolific Charles Randolph-Wright on “Motown: The Musical” for Broadway, Cleaver was an obvious choice.
“The character’s name is Hero, and I think I needed a leading man type,” Wilkins explains. “Hero is not immediately introduced at the top of the play, but we learn quite a bit about him. So what I wanted was the kind of actor … that the moment he walked on stage, the audience believed ‘oh, yes, that’s Hero’ and I think Evan has all those qualities. In fact, when he walked into the room, my initial feeling, before he even started to audition, was ‘that’s Hero.’”
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“Father Comes Home From the Wars,” which runs three hours with two intermissions, is further bolstered by its strong ensemble as well as an unexpected element.
“The audience becomes the final character in the play, and they function as a Greek chorus similar to ‘The Odyssey,’” Cleaver says. “There are people who are more than happy to tell me what they think I should or should not be doing at any moment of the play, which I love, because, one, it means they’re engaged, two, they are actually, whether they like it or not, functioning like a chorus, and, three, it helps me as an actor drive and it gives me something to push against or push with depending on what moment of the play we’re in.”
And Actor’s Express’ cozy space only amplifies that intimacy, especially since Parks, notes Cleaver, has moments “where the actors (talk) directly to the audience.”
“Taking on a three-part Civil War drama/romance is a tough task,” Cleaver admits, “but that’s why I’m embracing it.”
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