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Ideal role

Tony-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell takes the lead, literary and figuratively, to play Don Quixote, the famous part he has always dreamed of.

By J. Wynn Rousuck Sun Theater Critic Originally published October 23, 2002, Baltimore Sun

 Tony Award-winning actor Brian Stokes Mitchell performs two rituals whenever he begins a play in a new theater. He burns sage throughout the building to drive out evil spirits. And before the first performance, he gathers the cast on stage and shares the history of the theater.

Observing rituals reinforces the actor's belief that his life has followed definite patterns. These patterns go all the way back to his birth, which happened to fall on Halloween, a holiday he believes is an ideal birthday for an actor.

"Isn't it fascinating!" he exclaims. "Being born on Halloween, when adults dress up as other people."

As to his two theatrical rituals, one has a personal component, and the other, professional. On the personal side, burning sage is a Native American custom, and Mitchell's heritage is part Native American, as well as Scottish, German and African-American.

Studying the history of a theater is purely professional. It's a way to connect with the actors who have performed on a particular stage before him. Mitchell has become so well-known for this practice that he was asked to write the preface for Playbill's updated edition of At This Theatre, released last week by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books.

At Washington's National Theatre, where Mitchell is starring as Don Quixote in the Broadway-bound revival of Man of La Mancha, two major Quixotes figure into the history he unearthed: Richard Kiley, who originated the role in this musical retelling of Cervantes' masterpiece, and Raul Julia, who played the wayward knight in the 1992 Broadway revival.

Both stars left big boots to fill, but Mitchell, who chatted enthusiastically in his dressing room before a recent rehearsal, isn't easily daunted. Consider his two best -known Broadway roles. When he played Coalhouse Walker Jr., a fictitious early 20th-century black revolutionary in the 1998 Broadway musical Ragtime, he was following in the footsteps of late Baltimorean Howard Rollins, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the 1981 movie. Three years ago, when he played Fred Graham, the egocentric actor-manager in the Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate, the footsteps were those of the legendary Alfred Drake. Mitchell won a Tony for his interpretation of that role.

The actor insists a pattern connects each of his roles, and Man of La Mancha is a good example. In this case, however, Mitchell made the pattern happen; he instigated the production.

In a way, it was exactly what an old-time actor-manager would have done. And the fact that Man of La Mancha composer Mitch Leigh saw him playing just that in Kiss Me, Kate may have helped clinch the deal. (La Mancha has a libretto by the late Dale Wasserman and lyrics by Joe Darion.) "He's a man of extreme grace, and it's not put-on. That comes through on the stage, and to deal with the quixotic notion, he's ideal," Leigh says.

Matinee idol

When Mitchell talks about Man of La Mancha, the 44-year-old actor leans toward the listener, his eyes sparkling fervently and his arms reaching forward almost as if he is trying to catch his words and hold them a moment longer before they dissipate in the air.

In an era when stardom usually is associated with youth and movies, Mitchell is the rare stage actor repeatedly described as a matinee idol. With his stately bearing, honeyed baritone and magazine-cover good looks, the 6-foot-1 actor certainly has the talent and appearance to merit this description.

To the despair of many fans, he also has a wife, actress Allyson Tucker, who has a small role in La Mancha. "I think he's a handsome man, but I see much more. [Being called a matinee idol] makes us both blush. It makes him blush absolutely," Tucker says of her husband, whom she met in 1990 when they were appearing in David Merrick's revival of Oh, Kay!

As Tucker's words suggest, Mitchell doesn't have a jot of matinee-idol attitude. Unlike the temperamental star he played in Kiss Me, Kate, he has a reputation for being a joy to work with. "They don't make them better. He's so generous of spirit," says his dresser, Geoffrey Polischuk, who also worked with Mitchell on Kiss Me, Kate. "Everything's light about him."

If Mitchell is feeling especially light and generous these days, it's because Don Quixote is a role he has longed to play since he was 17 and portrayed one of the musical's rough-neck muleteers at the Belleville Dinner Theater in California.

Mitchell was born in Seattle, the youngest of four children. His mother had been that city's first black woman police officer, and his father was a civilian electrical engineer with the Navy, a job that required the family to relocate frequently. Mitchell spent much of his early years in Guam and the Philippines. His peripatetic childhood established a pattern that he says was good preparation for an actor's life.

"Being sort of transient, you get to know people very well and then they leave your life or you leave their life - that's very much what the theater is about. You get close , and it's a very intense place that everybody is thrown into," he says. "Then you leave, and then the show's over."

When he was 14, his family settled in San Diego, and his older brother George, now a costume designer for theater and television, sparked his interest in theater. Mitchell began studying at the San Diego Junior Theatre, and while still in his teens, made his professional debut in the chorus of Godspell at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. After high school, he joined a repertory company and moved to Los Angeles.

There he won a role in Roots: The Next Generations and launched a TV career that has included seven years as Dr. "Jackpot" Jackson on Trapper John, M.D. as well as recurring roles on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Frasier and Crossing Jordan. Both of the latter shows asked him to continue this season, but for Mitchell, Man of La Mancha comes first.

At home in D.C.

Right now, the New York-based actor is comfortably settled in Washington, which he considers his "second theatrical home." The city fits into another one of his patterns. Mail, the musical in which he made his Broadway debut, tried out in 1988 at the Kennedy Center. He returned there last year, starring in the tryout of August Wilson's King Hedley II, his first nonmusical Broadway lead. And he was back again in May, playing the title role in the Sondheim Celebration's production of Sweeney Todd.

Mitchell says he's attracted to dark characters, and he sees a particularly strong link between Ragtime's fiery, justice-seeking Coalhouse Walker and the homicidal, vengeful barber Sweeney Todd. Optimistic Don Quixote, perpetually tilting at windmills, would seem to be the polar opposite of these characters. But Mitchell believes there's a connection here, too, particularly between Sweeney Todd and La Mancha.

Both shows, he says, are "about the amazing power of love and the transforming power of love also, although in Sweeney it takes a dark turn. [In Man of La Mancha], it's more of a virtuous love. It's about siding with the light side, to use New Age terms."

Mitchell's disposition certainly seems closer to sunny Quixote, whom he calls "the anti-Sweeney." But according to Jonathan Kent, the acclaimed British director of Man of La Mancha, Mitchell is "not necessarily an optimist. He's an idealist, which is different. Stokes [as the actor prefers to be called] is an extremely benign, affable man, but quite a private person."

Mitchell's wife, who knows that private person best, says, "I find him to be actually toward the dark side, with a childlike quality. He is drawn to darker roles. He's a brooder, contrary to what people see of him. He's very introverted and very quiet, not moody, always in thought. ... He appears more optimistic than I think he truly is."

Mitchell feels our current turbulent times are right for another look at La Mancha, which debuted in 1965. "That's the reason that I was so interested in doing it now," he says. "It was interesting, I find, that the show was written during the Vietnam War, another time of great disillusionment in the world."

Director Kent agrees. "All these plays find their own times to be reborn. All revivals are a conversation between the time and place in which they were written and the time and place in which they are being done," he says. "We are in dire need. Just as the '60s were a time of social upheaval and uncertainty, it's not a coincidence that we're doing it now."

Indeed, Mitchell might call it a pattern. And the show brings out another, broader pattern in the actor's life as well. Taking a cue from the title of the musical's most famous song, he appears to be a man for whom "impossible dreams" come true.

"That's the neat thing that I've found - that there are no impossible dreams," Mitchell says. "Who woulda thunk that this 17-year-old kid performing a muleteer at Belleville Dinner Theater in San Diego would someday be playing Don Quixote in this incredible revival on Broadway? I sometimes look at my life and I can't believe how fortunate I am."

Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun
 

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