Chuck Cooper on playing 1 of his 'toughest' stage roles

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — It takes some work to find something that Chuck Cooper hasn't done on Broadway.

Dramas? Sure. Musicals? Of course. Shakespeare? Naturally. Comedies? Certainly. What about Neil Simon? Stephen Sondheim? John Kander and Fred Ebb? Tony Kushner? Yes, yes, yes and yes.

So it takes time, but there turns out to be something: roller-skating.

Oh, of course he's tried, but it wasn't meant to be. Cooper hoped to win a spot in the 1987 production of "Starlight Express" but called it the "worst audition of my life."

Informed beforehand that roller-skating skills were needed, he naturally bluffed and said he could handle it. Then he quickly found a rink and "managed to get to a skill level where I didn't fall so quickly."

At the audition, he had to sing on skates, but when he did, he started slowly inadvertently rolling — directly into the casting director's table.

"I can't stop and I'm singing this song. What stops me is the table," Cooper says now. "I was like, 'Well, I guess I didn't get this job.'"

Cooper's career kept rolling and he earned featured roles in "Chicago" and "Caroline, or Change," and a Tony Award-winning performance in "The Life."

But his latest job — in the new musical "Amazing Grace" — is one he calls "one of the tough ones." Cooper plays the manservant of the slave merchant John Newton, who wrote the famous hymn. He says generations of slaves "speak through me."

"I feel a particular range of emotion and responsibility about it," he says. "I want to respect the ancestors. I want to grieve them. I want to celebrate them. I want to do all of that with honesty and dignity and courage and selflessness. I want to get me out of the way."

Cooper has been with the show since it was in Chicago last year and has watched as society urgently discussed the legacy of slavery and President Barack Obama even sang the hymn at a funeral.

"It's amazing to me to have the zeitgeist of being in a theatrical piece on Broadway that is so attuned to something that is going on in the culture so viscerally," he says.

"There's a direct line straight back to this thing that we're presenting. Finally, the pink elephant in the room is there," he adds. "We're the pink elephant."

Director Gabriel Barre says he's relied on Cooper's input and intellect to help shape the story, in which he knew couldn't pull punches but also had to avoid assaulting the audience.

"From improvising scenes — and some of those improvisations making their way into the text — to helping us see possibilities for the character to turn this way or that, he's been great," Barre says. "His devotion to the piece has not only inspired us but it has inspired the rest of the company."

Cooper, who trained at Ohio University and is married to playwright Deborah Brevoort, has three children, two of whom are actors. Not surprisingly, his father was an actor at Karamu House, the oldest African-American theater in the United States.

"It's in my DNA," he says.

In a way, his latest Broadway show is, too. Cooper, which is a name derived from barrel-makers, recalls the time he was on vacation in Jamaica and visited a historical plantation.

On one wall, he spotted a replica of an advertisement: "Wanted to purchase: One or two good Negro Coopers to live in the country on a plantation for which immediate payment will be given."

It was a shock to see, a vivid reminder of the past and one he has returned to today. He hopes audience-goers — black and white — will come to see "Amazing Grace" and begin the process of reconciliation.

"It is my hope that people will go on this journey and, as a result, will search themselves and find out where in themselves they are stuck. You cannot live in America and not have some kind of a racial sticking place," he says. "The only way through it is through it."