Tyrees Allen has returned to North Texas to act for the African American Repertory Theaer in DeSoto. In Los Angeles the past 20 years, Allen has appeared in more than three dozen TV series such as CSI: Miami and Law & Order. KERA’s Jerome Weeks asks Allen about his return to the stage – and what has changed.
Tyrees Allen acted on North Texas stages for nearly 15 years – before he left for Los Angeles in 1994. He‘s played recurring characters in such TV shows as Alias and The Practice. In the ABC series, Women’s Murder Club, Allen played Warren Jacobi, Angie Harmon’s detective partner. In one scene, he confronted her after she messed up, building up to a fine tirade: “You want to work yourself into the ground, fine. Hell, you want to have sex with your ex-husband who happens to be our boss and pretend it didn’t happen, fine. I might think it’s sad and stupid, but that’s your business. But this – this is my business.”
Allen says that the entire scene was shot in just two takes, even though the guest director had planned on three hours. Allen recalls, “I said, ‘Look, man, all you gotta do is do my close-up, do hers and let’s get out of here.’ He’s like, ‘Are you serious?’ I said, ‘C’mon man, I’m from the theater, baby!”
Allen may be from the theater, but he hasn’t done a lot of theater lately. On Broadway, he enjoyed a run in the hit Elton John musical Aida. He also appeared in Shakespeare’s Henry IV with Kevin Kline and Ethan Hawke. In LA, he played Colin Powell opposite Keith Carradine as President George W. Bush in Stuff Happens. That’s playwright David Hare’s controversial drama about the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq.
But that’s pretty much all of Allen’s theater work the past decade. Then Regina Washington, founder of the African-American Rep in DeSoto, asked him to take on August Wilson’s drama, Fences. Allen says he wants to support African American Rep. It’s the only company in the immediate Dallas area devoted to black plays and actors. But Troy Maxson, the lead character in Fences, is a demanding role. It’s the black equivalent to Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman: The role powers the play. Twenty years ago, Allen played Troy at Stage West in Fort Worth. But he says that doesn’t mean much now, when he’s climbing back onstage.
Allen: “It’s just not easy work anymore. You know, you got to get your legs back. You got to get your confidence back. And you know, listen, I’m not as young as I used to be. So — .”
Weeks: “But this role would seem to fit you like a glove.”
Allen: “Oh it does. It does fit pretty well. But the last time I did it I was – 38? And I remember I gained weight to play him, and I shaved my head, just so I could have some gravity. But now it’s just so much more present in me. So many parts of it, I don’t have to act.”
Fences is set in the 1950s. Troy Maxson had been a great baseball player in the old Negro League, but the color barrier meant he never had a chance to break into the majors. As Troy’s friend, Jim Bono, tells him, he was born too early: Jackie Robinson hadn’t come along yet. So instead, at age 53, Troy has settled down — uneasily — with a family and a job as a garbage collector.
But he still bristles at frustrations, old and new, domestic and racial. As in the opening lines of Fences, when he and Bono discuss an incident that had occurred earlier that day on the job. Bono worries that Troy may lose his position for challenging the traditional segregation in the garbage business. “I ain’t worried about them firing me,” Maxson declares. “They gonna fire me because I axed a question?That’s all I did. I went to Mr. Rand and axed him, Why you got all the white mens driving and the colored toting? What’s the matter?Don’t I count?”
Allen understands Troy’s frustrations. Many actors, Allen’s peers, left Dallas in the mid-‘90s. Many had moved to town because of the Theater Center’s hiring of Adrian Hall as artistic director. But then the administration changed. So did the economy. Professional, Equity companies like Stage No. 1 folded. Lucrative commercial work dwindled. But Allen also felt that – as a black actor – he was being denied roles he deserved.
“Yeah, I did leave Dallas out of frustration,” he says, “because I wanted to work. But regardless of all the stuff that wasn’t so great, it was an exciting time to be in Dallas. I mean, Adrian Hall was coming to the Theater Center. Dallas, the TV series was being shot. There were, what, eight or nine Equity theaters? I look back at it now and I think, Boy, that was really a special time. I wish that I would have had the head that I have now – because my path may have been easier.”
As for what his increasing years have done to change his portrayal of Troy Maxson, Allen says, this time, he’s not pushing Troy’s rage. It’s there. But he also looking for moments of tenderness.
“You know, there’s that line he says, ‘I give you my blood and my sweat. I ain’t got no tears. I done spent ‘em.’” Allen says. “I don’t believe him.”
Tyrees Allen’s famous entrance in Robocop
In 1987, Robocop started shooting in North Texas, and a number of local actors found work, including the late Spencer Prokop in a choice, comic turn as the silent gas-station attendant. Tyrees Allen had a role as one of the police officers in crime-ridden ‘Old Detroit.’ His first scene — in fact, the first scene shot in the entire film — was in the police locker room, filmed in a Dallas school. When the newfangled cyborg police officer, played by Peter Weller, arrives, all the half-dressed cops stop what they’re doing to gawk.
Allen swears he was told, possibly by an assistant director or a.d., that when the director, Paul Verhoeven, shouted “Action!,” that was his cue — for something unexpected.