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Finding His Way

From The Baltimore Police Department to Local Stages, Actor Jefferson Russell Has Always Sought Where He Needs to Be

Photographs By Christopher Myers
Jefferson Russell As Citizen Barlow In August Wilson'S Gem Of The Ocean At Everyman Theatre.
Russell holds a photograph of him and his parents taken at his graduation from the police academy in 1989.
Russell Sits Backstage At Everyman Theatre.

By John Barry | Posted 4/23/2008

At 11 a.m., the New Wyman Park Restaurant at 25th and Howard streets is buzzing with the late breakfast/early lunch crowd. Line cooks fling hash and flip burgers, waitresses are hassled. A wiry, middle-aged line cook who identifies himself as Purnell gets asked if he knows Jefferson Russell. "Jefferson Russell--," he muses. "Oh, sure. He's been going here for years."

Did he know that Russell was an actor? "No, I didn't," he says. "Not until I saw his picture in The Sun. He works at . . . what is that place? Everyman Theatre."

The New Wyman isn't the first place a stage actor would go to get recognized. And that's perfect for Jefferson Russell. He's squeezed into the corner of a booth, negotiating a full-sized breakfast platter and skimming a book about August Wilson, author of Gem of the Ocean, in which Russell currently stars at the Everyman.

As Purnell notes, Russell's cover was blown last December when The Sun interviewed him for its "Five Things I Have to Have Now" series. In it, Russell revealed he was a local actor and an ex-cop. His list: a book of common prayer, a photo album, a Batman comic-book collection, a role in a blockbuster movie, and a new car.

"No one would know if it hadn't been for that article in The Sun," he says, a little ruefully. He just never bothered to tell anybody at the New Wyman Park. "I guess it's not in my genes," he says. "Now some of them call me `Hollywood' or `Denzel.' But they wouldn't know otherwise." But he does say that many of the people here know him as a softball player; he plays in a citywide church league on Saturdays at Druid Hill Park.

Russell, 41, spent four years patrolling Baltimore's Eastern District, and it's easier to imagine him as a cop than an actor. He's big enough to inspire a little fear, but as police officers go, he looks like the type who would give you a second chance. His barrel-chested physique serves him well in his latest role--the millworker and laborer known as Citizen Barlow--while the earring on his left lobe indicates that his days in uniform are over. His low-key nature is his own, inherited from his father, Bruce Russell Sr., a Baltimore orthopedic surgeon.

"I'm not saying he's anti-social," Russell says of his father with a chuckle. "But . . . he likes to stay at home and read a lot." His mother, Alice, was the more outgoing one. Neither one, he says, had anything to do with theater or law enforcement. Nor did either one of his siblings. So how did he end up onstage?

Since Russell didn't take on acting as a full-time profession until age 31, it's a tough question. And it's one he answers at his own pace. There are some actors who are bursting to tell their stories, but Jefferson Russell isn't one of them.

Ask Russell how he caught the acting bug, and his answer quickly veers off the beaten track. He was born in Baltimore and grew up around Roland Park. He graduated from City College in 1984. ("I think it's important to note that I attended Baltimore City public schools," he interjects.) And then he headed to Hampton University in Virginia, a historically black college, where he admits to being a little lonely. "I was even considering heading back to Baltimore," he says.

Then his mother told him to try out for a play. He went to his first audition and, to his surprise, got the role--Hope, in a one-act play titled "In a Mirror Darkly." He did pretty well, too. The college took the play to the National Association of Dramatic and Speech Arts competition--a contest among historically black colleges--in Chicago.

His story gets local-actor conventional for a while then. He spent the rest of his college years acting in plays, gradually getting better. Directors and teachers encouraged him; he says he "found things that he didn't know existed"; he hung out with the acting crowd. And then he got his bachelor's degree in sociology/criminal justice and became a Baltimore cop.

Pushed to explain, he shrugs. "I loved sociology," he says. "I don't know. I was always interested in law enforcement."

If you catch Gem of the Ocean during its last week, you'll see his police experience it at the very bottom of Russell's résumé. First there's the 10 years of acting experience at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, African Continuum Theatre, Rep Stage, Everyman, the Kennedy Center, and elsewhere. Although he did have a brief gig on The Wire--in the first episode of Season 1--Russell's career has been almost wholly onstage. Buried at the bottom you find, "an officer in the Baltimore police force and Juvenile Justice counselor."

Russell joined the force in 1988, at 22. He says he was thinking vaguely about law school but opted for the police academy. He graduated in March 1989. He looks back wistfully at the early promise of the administration of Baltimore's then-mayor, Kurt Schmoke, the city's first elected African-American mayor.

"I felt that something was going to happen, some big changes," Russell says. "I felt that I wanted to come back. I look back now and think about my mind-set." He pauses, as if he's wary about self-advertising. "I don't want to sound like, you know, `I'm giving back.' It was a pure thing, though. I wanted to come back and work for my city, to see if I could be a catalyst for change."

In 1989, the Schmoke administration had to deal with numerous problems. "George [Herbert Walker] Bush was in office, you know, the whole War on Drugs and all that, crack and stuff," Russell says. "It was just getting into the community. It was relatively new at that point. You know, [police were] outnumbered, outgunned, and all of that. I loved the job, but there was a lot of politics, a lot of bullshit."

He sounds like he'd rather get to the acting part, but he continues gamely. When he does, though, he sounds more like a community organizer than an ex-cop. "I loved being out on the street, working with people, talking to them," he says. "I worked over in East Baltimore, around Greenmount and Eager [streets]. There were a lot of fucked-up situations, but I thought I wanted to be a small part of the solution. I'd just come from college. I really wanted to help people."

His police life, however, was being defined by the drug war as crack flooded Baltimore's streets. "You wonder how the drugs got out there," he says. "To me it was raising questions. . . ." He trails off, sounding like there's a can of worms he doesn't want to open. "I worked with some [cops] who liked to knock heads, jack people up in the alley. But those were everywhere. I saw things that were disturbing, but I tried to do my part. You saw The Wire. It had it pretty much down."

And like some of the officers in The Wire, Russell had a double life. By night, from midnight to 8 a.m., he was on patrol. By day and evening, he was rehearsing and performing in plays at Baltimore's Arena Players on Martin Luther King Boulevard, the oldest continuously operating African-American community theater company in the country. He took the night shift so he could act.

"At first I did it when my schedule allowed," he says. "Then they were asking people to do permanent midnight shift. I did that for a year and a half, which was crazy. But I did it so I could do more around Arena Players."

Russell left the beat in 1992, partly because he began to care for his mother, who had terminal cancer, and also because he was noticing that as the drug wars increased, the force was locking up younger kids. He wanted to work with them. "I was thinking about teaching," he says. "But teaching is a calling, and I have yet to get the call. But God bless the teachers."

Instead, he worked for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services from 1993 to '97, at an office in Prince George's County. There, as a probation officer, he investigated family and social histories that would determine courses of action for juveniles in the program--"whether they would receive in-patient/out-patient treatment, counseling, or detention," he says. He encountered many frustrations there as well because of a bureaucracy that halted progress. "[There was] lots of racial politics," Russell says. "I was one of--let me say this: There were not very many black male probation officers. [And] PG County is serving the same demographics as Baltimore."

It discouraged him. "They had one black male, a supervisor, when I started out there," he says. "The change was very slow." And once again, the paperwork was making it tough. "You've got so many hoops to go through within your agency. All the bureaucratic bullshit, all the egos, supervisors, and area directors covering themselves, because, you know, politically you're working with kids, and there's a lot of liability. Supervisors were more interested in pleasing judges as opposed to providing services. I got sick of it."

The final straw was a single case. Russell was busy researching a juvenile's case history, while the supervisor was calling him to account for taking too long to turn in his recommendations. "I was busy trying to find out about his home life," he says. "They were concerned about the report getting in late. So I went into my supervisor. She asked, `What are we going to do?' I said, `Well, I don't know what you're going to do.' I just laid my resignation on the table."

The bitterness still lingers. "I was ripe and ready to go."

He'd been performing regularly at Arena Players, and Russell decided that he was going to try to be a professional actor after leaving juvenile justice. It was relatively late in his life--he was 30 in 1997--but a brief trip to the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., persuaded him to take the leap. "I was down there for a reading, with my girlfriend at the time," he says. "We were immersed in the art and the love that these people had for their craft. It's unbelievable how supportive and nurturing the experience was."

The year in limbo wasn't easy. For younger actors, starving and living hand to mouth may be a rite of passage, but for Russell, after years on the force and with Juvenile Services, it was a difficult pill to swallow. "I was accustomed to getting up for work at the same time every day," he says. "I was depressed. I wasn't clinically depressed but I was certainly blue. I knew I couldn't keep my apartment for long. I was basically staying with my girlfriend, Tennelia, and her mother in Edmondson." He smiles. "God bless my family and friends."

He is also grateful for the Baltimore-set NBC TV show Homicide: Life on the Street, which gave him his first serious check. The episode was titled "Fallen Heroes," and he played parole officer Eugene Richmond. "I was getting older," he recalls. "I had sent my résumé and head shot to Pat Moran. They kept calling me in. I knew something was going to happen. Finally, I got a role in 1998." It was a small role, he concedes, but the pay was decent. "I decided, hey, there's money out there. It was affirming."

For aspiring young actors in the Baltimore-Washington area, Russell says that you're on your own: "Down here in this market, you make your hustle."

On the upside, the local situation gives actors the chance to job hunt without the agents that are needed in New York. "It really is only as good as you make it," he says. "You're talking New York or L.A., you need somebody to open those doors for you." He started doing the circuit in Washington--including the African Continuum Theatre--and participated in staged readings in Philadelphia and New York, "just to gain exposure, just to make sure that people were getting to know my face."

Just as community work was a driving force in his law-enforcement choices, it remains so in theater. Unlike many professionals, Russell hasn't cut his ties to community theater. He repeatedly cites Arena Players as a primary influence and singles out Arena's founder, Samuel Wilson, who passed away in 1995, as instrumental to his development. Even after getting his equity card, he has tried to maintain his involvement "as best I can." In the summer of 2006, for instance, he worked as an assistant to the director for Joe Turner's Come and Gone at Vagabond Players, a community theater in Fells Point.

"I have a lot of respect for those people--they work during the day," he says. "Down at Arena Players, there are a lot of teachers. The people who started Arena Players were all teachers. They would work during the day and go to the theater at night, you know--either they're acting and/or directing and/or putting the set together, or doing the technical aspect. What I learned from that is the ensemble paradigm. That's where I come from--where everybody is involved. You do that at community theater because, at Arena especially, there's a limited budget."

That grass-roots attitude, he says, has helped him in police work and professional theater. "You've got to work with others--I bring that attitude to professional theater," he laughs. "And I've noticed at lot of times that ain't always the case."

One of Russell's earliest mentors and directors was Donald Owens, the current artistic director of Arena Players, which is now in its 55th season. While recalling Russell--"who's one of my favorite people, but he knows it"--Owens also emphasizes that Russell isn't the only one who's made the transition from community to professional stages from Arena. "You've got to understand, this isn't a fly-by-night operation," Owens says. "At one time, this was the only place where black actors could work."

Owens lists a few: Tracie Thoms, Damon Evans, Penny Johnson, Tiffani Barbour. "They may not all be big names, but they've found work," he says. At present, the Arena is undergoing renovations, but the next production, opening April 25, is The Church, a drama about megachurches.

Since Russell first performed at Arena in 1988--when Owens acted with him in a production based on Alan Paton's 1948 novel Cry the Beloved Country--the company has had to contend with what most theaters in the area face: a decline in young audiences. "The community changes, and so do we," Owens says. Arena hosts comedy shows, spoken-word events, stage performances, youth theater, and regular community theater. Admittedly, times are tough. "The subscription rate is drying up," Owens says. "Younger audiences can't commit to being subscribers."

But he's sure that Arena can weather any difficulties. "Some times are not as hard as others, financially," Owens acknowledges. Then he chuckles. "I wouldn't ever say they're ever great."

And as an actor who has played roles in theaters across the spectrum, Russell delicately touches on a problem inherent with local theater in this city and elsewhere. "Baltimore is a city of community theater," he observes. "Which is wonderful. It's still sort of . . . it's getting better, but it's still [ethnically] segmented."

He isn't sure what to do about it, especially since, despite their best efforts, theaters relying on subscription sales have a tough time reaching out to the African-American community. Regional theaters in Baltimore and Washington make serious efforts at community outreach, but they have a long way to go. "You look at some of the materials some of these theaters send out," Russell says. "They'll have material like Arsenic and Old Lace or Death of a Salesman. All the actors on the pamphlets are white. The outreach programs, though, you see all the kids. . . ."

A little regretfully, he says that in an era when theater increasingly depends on subscription audiences, the divisions are formidable. "Part of it is the patrons," Russell says. "They have to please them, that's the reality. They have to appeal to those who are buying the subscriptions, those who are coming to the theater. The flip of that is that there is a young audience of theatergoers, they may not know where they're at, but you do something to appeal to them, to reach out to them, they will come.

"I truly believe that. In some circles, that's radical shit. People don't want to address that or talk about that. Now I have to be careful about what forum I'm going to bring that up in," he laughs. "I don't want to shoot myself in the foot, you know."

It's a disconnect that August Wilson, the playwright of the production in which Russell presently co-stars, felt acutely, and which memorably boiled over in several debates in the late 1990s with American Repertory Theatre's artistic director, Robert Brustein, over the integration of the stage. In those debates, while Brustein argued for general integration, Wilson argued that black theater has a unique role in African-American culture that could not be accommodated by subscription-based, colorblind theater. Wilson articulated this in an oft-quoted 1996 speech at the Theater Communications Group conference : "We want you to see us. We are black and beautiful. We have an honorable history in the world of men. . . . We do not need colorblind casting; we need some theaters to develop our playwrights." The controversy has outlived Wilson himself, who died in 2005.

Russell has one more co-starring week of Wilson's Gem of the Ocean at the Everyman ahead of him. The Wilson book next to his plate indicates that he's still pondering what the play means to him. His character, Citizen Barlow, is an African-American fleeing the South for Pittsburgh, only to find that his journey has just begun.

"What I get is that this guy Citizen is looking for his own redemption, he's a good man caught up in a messed-up situation," Russell continues. "He starts a chain of events that goes all wrong. He's on a spiritual odyssey that he doesn't know. He wants [Aunt Ester] to make him right, and she's telling him he has to seek it himself. As Ester tells him, God has room for everybody. He doesn't recognize it. He's scared. He's desperate."

As Russell begins an extended, passionate discussion of what exactly that journey involves for Citizen Barlow, he increasingly sounds like he's talking about his own journey. "Sometimes what [Wilson's characters] are looking for is what's in them," he says. "It is within. But [Barlow] has to fully embrace his history in order to get the full redemption. It's well within him. That's a common theme with August Wilson. And for black folks in America--having an understanding that we are Africans in America--his plays tie together what our tradition is, and what our place here is."

Russell also feels that there are a few new playwrights on the horizon who might soon attract a younger crowd. "There's a gentleman, David Emerson Toney, he's an actor also," he says. "Everyman is going to be doing his next play--it's called Soul Collector. He also wrote this play, a piece called Kingdom, which he calls an `urban meditation for Richard the Third.' It takes place in a 1960s Cleveland barbecue joint. It's about these three brothers. It's really fascinating. He's an outstanding writer. He's someone to watch out for."

By the end of this interview, Russell, if he ever had a shell, appears to have crawled out of it. "That's less painful than I thought it would be," he says, a little surprised at his own extended responses. Then he calls for a check. And Russell, on a day off from performing, has another audition to go to. (After this interview, he passes on that he got the part: as Bennie, in Second Line, a two-person play by Seret Scott, in October at Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington.) He gathers up the book and heads back to his Charles Village apartment. Russell says he understands that his slightly exotic résumé may be a little striking--his mother persuaded him to include it in program bios--but he hopes that, at the least, it may explain what keeps him going as an actor in Baltimore.

"I've always felt I'm doing what I was supposed to be doing at the time," he says. "Earlier, I was supposed to be there in East Baltimore, as a policeman, being who I am, being the son of Bruce Russell and Alice Russell. That's how I make a difference. It's the best way I can make a difference. To be who I am, coming where I come from, there are different ways of paying your dues, and we all have our different definitions of what that means."

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