If Brian Anthony Wilson looks familiar, it’s because you’ve seen him before—on television in “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” “Law & Order: SVU” and “Broad City;” and movies like Kevin Costner’s post-apocalyptic “The Postman” and the surprisingly great “Rocky” spinoff, “Creed.”
But don’t expect to run into Wilson at one of Olney’s restaurants or supermarkets. The veteran character actor may be starring in “Thurgood” at the Olney Theater Center through Aug. 20, but he’s a devoted family man who returns home to New Jersey between shows to spend quality time with his wife, a college professor, and their 9-year-old daughter. And the fact that he’s a working actor at all is something that still seems to fill him with surprise and delight.
“I didn’t take my first acting class until I was 23,” Wilson said, noting that he was focused on making it as an R&B singer. “I was singing with a band, The Perfect Blend, and I started taking voice lessons at The Freedom Theatre, this historically black theater outside Philadelphia, where I grew up.”
The curriculum required taking classes in acting and film, and Wilson said he “kind of caught the bug that way. I was in class for two weeks and I got thrown into a play—not because I was brilliant, but because they had fired two people and they needed a body; it was on-the-job-training.”
Soon it became his purpose in life: Wilson started acting part time, performing in a trilogy of August Wilson plays and auditioning for films while holding on to his day job making Oil of Olay and NyQuil for Richardson-Vicks. His corporate climb from factory worker to merchandise accountant ended when he was flown first class to a movie set in Tucson, Arizona, where Kevin Costner handpicked him for his first film role. Wilson “thought they were pulling my leg.
“That was the stuff of dreams,” he recalled. “I’ve been very blessed; you know, it’s feast or famine and I’ve been feasting for the last couple of years.”
“I’m sure a downward spiral’s coming,” he added, laughing, “but I’ve been very lucky.”
Indeed, since he officially became a fulltime actor in 1997 Wilson has been lucky—and busy. Of course, performing in a one-man show like “Thurgood” is a whole new level of busy.
“This is the most challenging role I’ve ever had,” said Wilson, who so far this year has played the title role in “Titus Andronicus” and Troy in “Fences” before taking on the character of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to serve as an associate justice of the Supreme Court.
“It’s very challenging to be on stage by yourself, to memorize all the dialogue—it’s no easy task,” Wilson said.
Adding to the challenge, he noted, is the idea that this larger-than-life law legend and civil rights pioneer lived from 1908 from 1993, a well-known figure of contemporary history who remains vivid in the memories of many.
“People have perceptions,” Wilson said. “People in the law community, people who knew him. I do feel a big responsibility for getting things right, making sure it’s true, it’s accurate, it’s right on the money with historical facts.”
Playwright George Stevens, Jr. has seen to those facts. His “Thurgood” premiered in 2006, with James Earl Jones in the lead role portraying the Baltimore native—son of a Pullman porter and a teacher, descendant of an enslaved grandfather and an African-born enslaved great-grandfather— who attended Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University alongside Langston Hughes and Cab Calloway and went on to Howard Law School. He was an ordinary man elevated by extraordinary times, a man who grew to accept his destiny, fulfill his potential and ultimately, change the world.
“Some of the things I do today are because he and a small amount of people took on what they took on,” explained Wilson, who noted that Marshall went from his private law practice to the NAACP in 1934 and spent a quarter of a century with the civil rights organization, representing clients and battling segregation. He became the executive director of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund when he was 32, arguing cases before the Supreme Court and moving up through the ranks of the country’s top lawyers to sit on the Supreme Court, appointed in 1967 by President Lyndon Johnson.
“There was a lot of stuff I’m ashamed I didn’t know that this man accomplished,” Wilson admitted. “He’s been gone for over 25 years now. Some people don’t remember who he was or exactly what he did—younger people, especially—so we have a responsibility to get it right.”
He noted that director Walter Dallas has been particularly keen on knitting together the facts of Marshall’s life and the feelings the great man experienced as he lived through a particularly meaningful and volatile period of American history. “Walter sees what I bring, then adds wonderful touches and flourishes to enrich the production,” explained Wilson, observing that the richness and complexity of Marshall’s character make him a compelling figure to watch —and to play.
“In some ways we’re alike,” the actor said. “I’m not any type of lawyer, but his sense of humor, his lust for life, his loyalty to family.
“He was kind of a ladies’ man, which I’m not,” Wilson added. “He liked to play a little hard, too; he liked his Wild Turkey. There were a lot of aspects to his character.”
And who better to capture those aspects than a character actor like Wilson.
“I tried to listen to his voice and replicate some things, but in the end, we’re trying to capture his spirit, his essence,” he said. “He was human, he was flawed, but he had this ability to go into a courtroom—and that’s where his superpowers were.”
“Thurgood” runs through Aug. 20 at in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Performances start at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 1:45 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets start at $45. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.