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John Douglas Thompson in rehearsal for "Tamburlaine." (Photo by Gerry Goldstein)
John Douglas Thompson in rehearsal for "Tamburlaine." (Photo by Gerry Goldstein)

'Tamburlaine': The Newest Portrait in John Douglas Thompson's Gallery of Great Men

A seldom-produced Elizabethan epic storms a Brooklyn stage, and its lead actor John Douglas Thompson reflects on the value of Marlowe and the universality of the classic roles.

BROOKLYN: When was the last time you saw a four-hour play? Probably not recently, considering the proliferation of 90-minute one-acts. But through Dec. 21, Theatre for a New Audience is defying that trend by bringing back a durational classic: Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Parts 1 and 2. The play will be presented in one four-hour set with a 30-minute intermission. John Douglas Thompson, a TFANA mainstay, plays the title fictional conqueror—based on the real-life 14th-century Muslim emperor Timur the Lame—whose rise to power as the Prince of Persia (and ruler of three quarters of the known world) and subsequent fall from greatness is documented in Marlowe’s saga.

The new production features 19 actors in 60 roles. Former Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Michael Boyd is at the helm of the production, having edited the once two-part play into a single three-and-a-half-hour evening. Call it un-divide and conquer.

Below, AT caught up with Thompson before tech rehearsal to discuss rediscovering Marlowe, how he has never seen a production of Tamburlaine, and his affinity for larger-than-life characters.

This play is three and a half hours and your role, in particular, comes with a number of grand monologues. How have you been prepping physically for it?

I would like to think that some of the classic roles I’ve played in the past—Richard or Othello or Macbeth—have been good training to tackle this role. In addition to that, I’ve just finished performing Satchmo at the Waldorf, a one-person play, which also was certainly good training, at least for the length of performance and something very verbose with lots of words and character changes. The stuff I’ve done in the past has really helped in approaching and tackling the role of Tamburlaine. And I’m thankful to have gone through some of those roles because I feel like I’m on terrain that’s familiar.

It’s like training for a marathon.

Yeah! It’s like training for the Olympics, but then once it starts, it’s every day for five weeks [chuckles], not just for a two-week period like the Olympics.

In an interview you did for our December 2010 issue, you said Tamburlaine was one of the roles you want to eventually play. So I guess this is one off the bucket list?

[chuckles] Yeah, this has been on the bucket list for a little while. When I did that interview, I think it might have been the last time I did a classic play. I think I was getting ready to start King Lear with Sam Waterston playing Lear at the Public. Since that time, I’ve devoted most of my efforts to contemporary works: Satchmo, and a show I did at the Mark Taper Forum, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson.

Your first August Wilson!

That was my first August Wilson. As a matter of fact, that was the play that inspired me to be an actor, seeing that play almost 20 years ago. So it was wonderful to go full circle and to get the opportunity to play the role I was so moved by, in a production that Phylicia Rashād was directing.

So I’ve been wanting to get back to the classics for the last three, four years, and Tamburlaine has been there as this looming play and role, and so I’m glad to finally get the opportunity to do it. To be honest with you, I don’t think I could approach it anytime but now, having the classic works I have done behind me, and playing those particular roles. Everything happens in the right time, in a sense.

When did you first encounter Tamburlaine

I had always heard about it in drama school. It was this Holy Grail. People would talk about this play but they had never seen it; they would talk about the language and the role. Often people would say, “John, that would be a really good role for you!” So I’ve always been hovering around this particular play.

I had initially wanted to get to the source of Shakespeare, in a way—to find out what inspired Shakespeare. Christopher Marlowe wrote Tamburlaine before any of Shakespeare’s plays, and Marlowe is considered the father of blank verse. I could imagine Shakespeare sitting and watching Tamburlaine and being inspired by it, because in the play, you see many resonances and reflections to Shakespeare; you see it in some of Shakespeare’s plays, in some of Shakespeare’s scenes, and Shakespeare’s characters. You see the source and the inspiration that the play Tamburlaine must have provided for Shakespeare as he began to work on his craft.

I also felt that there was this incredible complexity of the play, from Part I and Part II, and the growth of this man—the evolution of Tamburlaine from a shepherd to an emperor to a man with a family. And also his still wanting to be a ruler and an emperor and pass that onto his son. Most characters that I play—and this is really important—most classical characters I play, I was finding them at the height of their power, in a sense. Like Othello: When you meet him, he’s already at the height of his power. Same thing with Richard—you kind of catch him as he’s moving up the ladder towards power.

With Tamburlaine, he does start off as just a lowly shepherd. The arc was fascinating to me; it’s a fuller arc than I’ve been accustomed to playing. And the dazzling verse in the play, particularly what Tamburlaine gets to say, I really wanted to test myself and to see if this is something that I could do. On one level, it’s overwhelming and daunting, but it’s also spectacular.

The things he gets to say—to a certain degree, I was thinking, “Wow, some of this is better than Shakespeare, because it’s so raw and the ideas and the images are so powerful and so strong.” It has such a pulse and such a velocity that I haven’t encountered before!

Tamburlaine has some beautiful speeches in the play, but he’s very ruthless. What was your basis for this character?

In some ways, he’s ruthless and in other ways he’s beautiful and caring and loving. He’s a combination of all things. The major story in the play is the rise to power and then the limitations of it, and what happens to a man who comes from the underclass and rises to rule? What are his temptations, what are his desires, what does he want to accomplish now that he’s in charge?

I try to look at some inspirations that were factual. I tend to draw on the image of [the boxer] Jack Johnson: how he defied all expectations, and his meteoric rise to fame, and his domination of this sport and of that world at the time. And his charismatic personality and how he broke all the rules. There’s a lot about the characters I play that are too big for the world that they live in. I’m not talking about in size, in physical size, but in mental size, in imagination and what they intend to accomplish in the world—they’re just too big. They’re like Greek heroes, like Titans. They come from another world and they don’t quite belong here.

“There’s a lot about the characters I play that are too big for the world that they live in. I’m not talking about in size, in physical size, but in mental size, in imagination and what they intend to accomplish in the world—they’re just too big.”

You look at figures like Paul Robeson or Jack Johnson, who combine a mental and physical and emotional power and grace to all the things that they did. I find that Tamburlaine is of that size and of that stature. There are also many Greek characters, or someone like Beowulf, that can provide inspiration, because he’s so uncommon to the rest of mankind; you have to find something outside of you to provide inspiration in playing it.

You seem to be attracted to these powerful figures in the roles that you play. Is there something in you that’s attracted to power and wants to rule over three quarters of the world?

[laughs] No! Someone talked to me about just the nature of playing these classical characters and why I like them, and my response was: The breadth of their humanity is fascinating to me, it’s larger than life. And perhaps in the text, the classical text, the blank verse, the poetry of it, seems to be the highest thing you can achieve, as far as a life.

One of the other reason for doing Tamburlaine is there’s been a lot of Shakespeare in New York, and I hope that New York audiences will take to Marlowe and kind of realize what Shakespeare was drawing from and say, “Wow, here’s this playwright who wrote five plays that were really incredible and this is his first one.” And Tamburlaine back in the day was a major hit, so much of a hit that he had to write Part 2!

We have this familiarity with Shakespeare; we can’t look at it without looking at it through the lends of Shakespeare. But it’s actually the other way around: We have to look at Shakespeare through the lens of Marlowe. If Marlowe had not died at 29, it would be Shakespeare and Marlowe really creating work and pushing each other. It wouldn’t have just been Shakespeare who would have dominated; Marlowe would have been up there, too.

You’re one of few actors of color who consistently play leading classic roles. What advice do you have for young actors who are looking to expand, and look beyond typical roles for actors of color, such as Othello and—

—and Caliban. Wow, that’s difficult question. One of the only ways I could answer that is the first play that I saw, certainly one of the first plays, was Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at Yale Rep. I saw these black actors onstage as a representation of the nobility of all of my race, and it was so moving and so inspiring. I did not know that this kind of thing existed, and it was like walking into a beautiful temple. So that level of emotional connection was my standard for theatre. And I always thought that, as an African American, there is a great deal of my life, my past, my nobility that can exist on the American stage. And then I began to seek out roles that spoke to me in that way, and those roles happen to be classical, some of them contemporary. And I knew that I didn’t want to just stop at someone like Othello. I wanted to go beyond, I wanted to play Richard, I wanted to play Macbeth, I wanted to play Antony.

My only advice is follow your intention, follow your dream and realize that these classic plays are universal and there’s something in them for all of us. I want to see more of these lead roles played by women. I want to see Hamlet as a woman, I want to see Richard as a woman, I want to see Macbeth as a woman. I think that would be fascinating and teach our culture so much. My suggestion is to look at these roles as universal representations of our own humanity, which means anybody can approach them.

“I’ve tried to put together a scope of a career where I could be the target, not the arrow.”

And I also feel like as an actor, you want to ask for those roles and let people know you want to play those roles. If it means saying no to Othello and no to Caliban and no to Aaron in Titus Andronicus—that’s what you have to do. I’ve tried to put together a scope of a career where I could be the target, not the arrow. That’s a big difference. I’m not shooting at something; I’m trying to give people a big target of here is an actor that enjoys working on the classics so let’s give him the roles that make up the classical canon.

I hope I can be an inspiration to other African-American actors who like to do the classics. That’s one of my goals, in a sense, to turn more people onto it, not just audiences, but other young actors who perhaps haven’t seen a black Richard III or a black Antony or a black Hamlet, and wondering where their place is, or how can they do this work if they can’t see themselves in it? So I’ve been trying to put myself in the work so those actors can show up and see it, and know that they belong. That’s really important to me.

When I first started out, I didn’t see many black people doing Shakespeare. As a matter of fact, I can’t remember an African American in a Shakespeare production I had seen when I first got out of school. So I knew what my target was: to play those great classical roles, that I would hopefully make unbound by color but just what you can bring to it.

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