Q&A With Chicago Stage Actor James Earl Jones II

Jones will star this spring in the premiere of Carlyle at the Goodman Theatre

By Fred Cummings

From the Spring 2016 Issue ofClef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

Having a name like his, Chicago actor James Earl Jones II knows a thing or three about filling big shoes. Of course, Jones has an advantage in the fact that he’s got pretty big "feet" to go along with them.

The actor just swells with talent. Accomplished on the live stage, Jones also has the voice of an opera singer, because…well, he is one. That voice has taken him to major musical theater productions in opera houses from Chicago to San Francisco. He’s made the rounds of Chicago’s most prestigious theater companies, starring in area productions like Shrek (Chicago Shakespeare Theater), Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting (Lookingglass Theatre), A Civil War Christmas (Northlight Theatre) and The Secret Garden (Court Theater), among a host of other high profile productions. He’s toured nationally with The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and he’s made television appearances on The Poker House, Chicago Fire and Empire. He’ll star this spring in the upcoming Goodman Theatre production of Caryle by Thomas Bradshaw. He playsed the title character in the theater’s New Stages workshop production of the show last season and scored raved reviews.

I had the chance to pose a few questions of the actor and got a hint of the charm he’s imbued into every performance he’s made his own. Perhaps that’s part of what makes him such a sought-after performer, and maybe why you shouldn’t miss a chance to see him in a role that was made just for him to walk in, big shoes and all.

Your stage career has included work with a widely diverse slate of Chicago’s great theater companies. What exactly do you think characterizes Chicago’s unique theater scene and the audiences that love it?

What makes Chicago's theater seem so very unique is that there is no pretense. There is no gloss. There is no smoke and mirrors. What you see is what you get. Chicago actors dig in and aspire to create. We are passionate, we are storytellers, we are truth… And it's the same with the audiences. Occasionally, there are out of town actors who perform in Chicago, but for the most part, we are local, tried-and-true. That's what makes it so great—that our audiences are inspired and excited to see people from their own backyard on that stage, bringing stories to life.

Don't get me wrong. I've seen theater in other cities. And some of it is really amazing. But what I've noticed too often is that there is a lot of fanfare and pretense behind the show. It is far more focused on the razzle-dazzle and less about the core of who we really are as people. That's what's so awesome about the audience and actor dynamic in Chicago. People want to see reflections of themselves on stage. And Chicago does that better than any city in the world.

Tell me about that famous name? What challenges have you seen in navigating what is now a very prolific career with the name of one of the most iconic figures in theater and film?

Well… My birth name is James Earl Jones II. I was named after my father, not the older actor. Although we are related. He is my third cousin.

I have to say that there have been challenges in my life to be sure. But I can only be me. Many times, people ask me if I'm his son. Often times, people compare my voice to his. But I'm used to it. I'm certainly not taking any work away from him, and he's not taking any away from me (laughs). Whatever obstacles or opportunities may come my way, I accept them as they are.

What were the earliest inspirations that led you to pursue a career in acting?

I've always loved singing & acting. I never thought that I was going to take it seriously, though. My music teacher, Mrs. Glass, at Decatur Classical Elementary encouraged me to sing…I first got started singing with the All-City elementary youth chorus in fourth grade. Did my first play in 2nd grade in Skokie at a little theater called Upstage Downstage. Part of why I got involved in acting and singing also surrounded the fact that I suffer from Tourette's Syndrome. It was a way for me to focus on other things and not be so consumed in my random physical actions. I spent most of my young life aspiring to be a doctor. My sudden change to becoming an opera singer happened almost overnight….It wasn't until I got into college that I realized how passionate I was about performing.

Being a vocalist also widens your range a bit for live theater performance. Tell me about the doors that that voice has opened up to you that you, perhaps, might not have had without it.

Being an opera singer, being a singer at all, has allowed me the opportunity to perform in amazing shows with wonderful people, performing with the Lyric Opera Chicago, San Francisco Opera, national tours as well as some of the amazing musical theater houses in Chicagoland area.

Do you have a dream role?

Well… to be honest, Carlyle is a dream role. The thought of having a role that is tailor-made to me, is a dream role. I would love to play Sweeney Todd, as well…There are others to be sure. But that is one that I'm interested in doing very much, very soon.

If you had not pursued a career in the arts, what would you have loved to do most?

If I wasn't a performer, I would probably be doing public speaking, working with children or both.

What’s your most awkward moment on the stage?

Some of the most awkward moments onstage are when people miss their cues and aren't on stage. However, it is hilarious! Most times the audience doesn't know it, so it's not a huge imposition. But those moments are the best.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure away from the live stage?

Movies… I love movies! I also love writing random songs with my daughter, Semaje. We just pick a subject and write entire song. She's awesome. Who knows? She might even follow in my footsteps.

You can see Jones star in Carlyle running in Goodman’s Owen Theatre at their home in downtown Chicago April 1 – May 1, 2016.

Chicago stage actor James Earl Jones II. Jones will star in the title role in the premiere of Carlyle by Thomas Bradshaw at Goodman Theatre this spring (photo courtesy of Goodman Theatre).