Kenneth Hopkins, Jr. didn’t think seriously about a career in acting until his freshman year in college—but looking back he realizes that growing up as one of seven siblings in Flint, Michigan prepared him for life on the road.
“Oh, yeah, we had some good times,” said Hopkins, 31. “Never a dull moment.”
Raised by supportive parents with art, music and creative activities, the actor said he and his brothers and sisters battled to make each other laugh. “We’re all performers,’ he added. “I’m just the one who tried to make a career out of it.” And in the pursuit of that career, he has spent nearly the last year in the company of a brand new but equally close-knit “family” of performers, one of the 10 touring actors comprising Olney’s National Players—Tour 68.
Hopkins stepped into the program early, replacing an NP68 actor last season, so he already had a taste of the tour and its travels. Now it’s time for NP69, and he and a new set of Players are up to speed after three months of rehearsals and ready to open their three-production program at Olney Theatre before taking the new shows on the road. That means they’ll clock more than 20,000 miles, bringing “Othello,” “The Great Gatsby” and “Alice in Wonderland” to audiences all over the country.
“The traveling was great,” said Hopkins. “It helped open my eyes to how big America is—and how beautiful.”
He loved the gorgeous expanses he saw out West, and the thrill of performing in places he’d only heard or read about before. “I was amazed at how 10 people could take three shows to these different venues with different stage sizes and capacities,” he marveled. “We’d build our own set, perform the shows, of course, and then we’d load the truck; we’d do all the driving—one self-sufficient company.”
Even the best of friends, he pointed out, don’t live, work and travel together constantly, but Hopkins said he enjoyed the unique rhythm the company fell into as they toured the country.
“Living with nine other people for a year’s time, the different ways you get to know these people: it’s very intimate,” he said. “In National Players, it’s all day, everyday—and that’s interesting.”
National Players has been interesting for a long time now. Founded in 1949 by Father Gilbert V. Hartke, OP—then the head of the drama department at Catholic University of America—the company cherishes its legacy as America’s longest-running touring theater company. In its quest to bring live productions and theater education to communities of all sizes in all corners of the country, National Players has performed for nearly three million audience members in 43 states, and created opportunities for hundreds of young actors like Hopkins. Sure, he’s a seasoned artist and educator with a BFA from the University of Michigan-Flint and an MFA from the University of Houston, but being a part of this traveling company has added new dimensions to his career—and to his life.
“It’s lovely to have lifelong friends now, people who, for better or worse, we did this tour, and they’re forever imprinted in my memory,” Hopkins said, adding that he loved sharing music mixtapes with his fellow actors (Hopkins brought his beloved jazz, and he developed an appreciation for bands like Talking Heads and Artic Monkeys in turn) and covering for each other through sickness and injury. “The camaraderie we’ve built is great; it’s real personal sometimes, too, and it’s good to be there to support each other.”
On the road, the Players become family. During these first few weeks on the stage at Olney Theatre, however, they start to become a company.
“The key word is ‘identity,’” Hopkins said, when asked for the ways that “Othello,” “The Great Gatsby” and “Alice in Wonderland” mesh thematically. “’Alice in Wonderland’ has to go through an identity crisis: what it’s like to grow up and live in a world accepting change.” Alice tries to hold onto her ideas of who she is as chaos swirls around her; Hopkins remarked that “you can unpack that how you want, for instance ‘change’ being how we deal with race in this country, what has changed and what has not…leading into ‘Othello’ and even ‘The Great Gatsby.’
The actor explained that even as Gatsby deluded himself, trying to “rewrite history and erase time” to win Daisy, the character of Meyer Wolfsheim (played by Hopkins) is the ultimate outsider, bearing not just the brunt of prejudice and anti-Semitism, but being called out as a gambler, gangster and bootlegger.
“He’s one of the wealthiest characters in the play, but he’s still stereotyped,” said Hopkins. “A lot of the upper class indulge in prohibited alcohol, but Wolfsheim is under constant watch by the authorities. He can’t enjoy his wealth the same way; he doesn’t have the privilege to live openly.”
And, finally, Othello: the military man back from the field of battle whose insecurity allows the whispers of a false friend to deceive him. Hopkins plays the title role in “Othello;” which will be performed outdoors on the Olney campus’s Root Family Stage as the National Players’ traditional free Shakespeare offering. (Tickets are free, but must be reserved ahead of time.)
He said that director Jason King Jones has reimagined Shakespeare’s tragedy as a contemporary meditation on war and deceit as well as bigotry and identity. And Hopkins sees Othello not as the controversial “enraged black man” of past productions, but as a more nuanced, more human character whose experience with war and loss contributes to his downfall.
“I think he had total control of his emotions. It’s just his perspective,” he said. “He’s naïve, and Iago is very crafty—Othello’s being tried by Iago at his weakest moment. There’s a lot working against Othello that I think goes unnoticed.”
Hopkins said that he can identify with the pressure Othello is under—and he’s determined to showcase the love at the root of the tragedy, instead of laying blame.
“Othello does fight for Desdemona’s trust,” he said. “My Othello, I embrace him with the love of Desdemona and I don’t give up. Every step of the way, until the end—even after it ends, for some of us—we try to pick up the pieces, or we sacrifice pieces and say, ‘We can just have this shattered glass instead of the vase that we had. If we can just keep this together, I’m fine with that.’”
It’s a message of love in a time of war and uncertainty that Hopkins hopes will resonate as he brings it to audiences across the country, with nine fellow actors who are about to become his family.
National Players presents “Othello” on the Root Family Stage at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 2 and Sunday Sept. 3. Admission is free; tickets can be reserved at www.olneytheatre.org or by calling 301-924-3400. National Players will perform “The Great Gatsby” Sept. 20-24 and “Alice in Wonderland” Sept. 13-27 on OTC’s Historic Stage. Tickets are $20. For dates, times and tickets, visit www.nationalplayers.org or call 301-924-3400. View “Othello” on CultureSpotMC here.