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The Crowned Head
Of Broadway

Brian Stokes Mitchell continues
his reign with 'King Hedley II'

Daily News Feature Writer

The laugh lines have vanished from Brian Stokes Mitchell's face. Now, it's time to get serious.

A year ago, the imposing actor with the huge baritone was feasting on Broadway in "Kiss Me, Kate," the light-as-a-soufflé Cole Porter musical that earned him a Tony Award as Best Actor of the Year (the show took Best Musical Revival).

These days, Mitchell is savoring much heavier fare — the title role in August Wilson's "King Hedley II," which opens at the Virginia Theater tomorrow night.

As Fred Graham/Petruchio in "Kate," loosely based on Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew," Mitchell was the ego-driven actor-manager at the center of a dizzy musical comedy.

As King Hedley, Stokes (as he likes to be called) is just out of jail and mad as hell — an ex-con desperately trying to get his life back in order. Not only is he trying to find work, he is trying to find himself — none of which is easy in the part of Pittsburgh to which he has returned.

Forced by circumstances to live with his mother (Leslie Uggams), King soon discovers that he is still surrounded by too many memories, too many demons, too many temptations to make something positive of his life.

To veteran Wilson watchers, the surroundings may seem familiar. The characters here are ones the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright has written about before, in "Seven Guitars" and other works.

Indeed, "King Hedley II," set in the 1980s, is the continuation of the Wilson magnum opus that began with "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" in 1984 — a series of plays dealing with the black experience in each decade of the 20th century.

"I love the play, I love the part," Mitchell says. "It's lyrical, full of humanity, shows you life from the view of a few characters you learn to love and understand. I love how he takes a great theme and works it out with just a few ordinary people."

Cole Porter was never like this.

"I know the people in this show — some of them remind me of my father's family," he adds. "There's nobody I look at here that I don't recognize."

That may be so, but the rotting ghetto of the play is a far cry from the sunny climes that harbored the Mitchell family. Stokes' father, George, a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, was a civilian engineer for the U.S. Navy.

Stokes was born in 1959. The family moved to San Diego from Seattle when he was 5, but his family moved around the world, spending several years in Guam and the Philippines. He started acting in high school, worked for local theater companies and eventually went to Los Angeles, where he won a job on the TV series "Trapper John, M.D."

He had a brief Broadway debut in a 1988 musical called "Mail," winning a Theater World award for newcomers and meeting his wife, actress Allyson Tucker. In 1992, he replaced Gregory Hines as Jelly Roll Morton in "Jelly's Last Jam" — also at the Virginia Theater. Mitchell followed that up by replacing Anthony Crivello in "Kiss of the Spider Woman" in 1993 before originating the part of the aggrieved Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the musical of E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime" in 1998.

Many believe he should have won the Tony that year that went to Alan Cummings for "Cabaret."

Some of those same Broadway veterans are predicting that Mitchell will walk away with another Tony nomination next week, this time, for Best Dramatic Actor. A second win would be quite a trick in the space of a single year and he would be the first actor ever to win those awards in successive years.

"This is my first drama on Broadway," says Mitchell. "When I finished up in 'Kiss Me, Kate' earlier this year, I decided the next one I'd do would be a straight play.

"'Jelly' was the hardest show I've ever had to do. 'Kate' was second. This will be like a vacation" — the one he promised himself he would take.

"I was really looking forward to a vacation after 'Kiss Me, Kate.' A long one. But then my agent called. The good news was that they wanted me for this role in 'King Hedley II.' The bad news is that they wanted me right away. So here I am."

But some people would have trouble recognizing him.

Sitting in his dressing room, a visitor wonders why the actor insists on wearing a black derby. He laughs, removes the hat — and the reason becomes abundantly clear. Gone are the luscious locks he sported in "Kiss Me, Kate." He is completely bald — as slick as Michael Jordan.

Committed to the play through at least September, Mitchell won't have much of a chance to rest even then: It is expected that a deal will have been cut for him to star in "Kiss Me, Kate" in London.

But for now, Brian Stokes Mitchell is happy with his lot in "Hedley." It's good to be the King.

Original Publication Date: 5/1/01



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