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Standing Ovation

Johnathan McClain on James Earl Jones in 'Fences'

Johnathan McClain on James Earl Jones in 'Fences'
Photo Source: Photo Fest
In 1987, I was 16 or 17 and fancied myself quite the young actor, ready to take over the world. Then I saw James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson in August Wilson's "Fences," and I thought, "Oooh. Damn. I've been doing it all wrong." In addition to being an acting master class, his Broadway performance was utterly and completely amazing. Viewing it was like watching a volcano erupt or standing in the path of a tornado. The sheer size of the work far exceeded the already impressive man himself. I don't think I've ever, before or since, seen that much complicated human experience rolled up into one character.

Jones didn't fill every scene with intention, or every beat, or even every line -- the guy filled every single breath he took with clear and recognizable intent. I don't know how he managed eight shows a week. The depth and honesty of what was happening in his work left me feeling exhausted when it was done and all I did was watch. This might sound like hyperbole, but I kid you not -- thinking about it now I get choked up. This emotion doesn't come from a place of sorrow -- although it is a heartbreaking role and play -- but from thinking about how damn beautiful it was. I suppose it's my favorite performance because I can credit it with being the one that inspired me to reach for the next level -- and the next, and the next -- in my own work and also the one that taught me the difference between "performing" and being.

I had a chance to meet Mr. Jones a couple of years later at an event of some kind. I shook his hand and told him I had seen his performance in "Fences" and how moved I had been. He looked at me with a bit of surprise and said as genuinely and humbly as could be, "You saw that?" I smiled and said, "Yes. Yes, I did." And he said (and I'm not making this up), "And you liked it?"

I kind of laughed, but then I realized he really meant it and really wanted to know. In talking with him, it seemed like even after all the accolades, and the Tony Award, he still had no idea whether or not he had done "good work," because it had not been in his control. He just got out of the way and let the truth pass through on its way to the audience, which is the bravest thing an actor can do.

John Patrick Shanley once wrote that if you can do that -- get out of the way -- you don't have to worry about making art; it'll be art. While art is subjective, that performance I saw on that stage 25 years ago has lingered in my memory and sure as hell feels like art to me.

Johnathan McClain can be seen as the lead on TV Land's "Retired at 35."

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