Actor-director Akin Babatunde [pronounced ah-KEEN Bah-bah-TUN-day] has been a pioneer in North Texas theater. He was the first African-American, for instance, to direct for Shakespeare Dallas. KERA’s Jerome Weeks caught up with him directing the show Spunk at the WaterTower Theatre. These days, whatever else he may be doing, Babatunde has been playing a different role – that of mentor.
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He wasn’t born with the name Akin Babatunde. He was christened Calvin Royal 62 years ago in New York. As a young actor at the National Black Theater in Harlem, he and his brother Obba were doing some research with the storeowner at a nearby African shop. The storeowner declared the two brothers must be from the Babatunde tribe.
“And we said, ‘Yeah, right,’ ” Babatunde recalls. “So we started reading the little books there, and I said, ‘You know something, brother dear, I think there’s something to this. Maybe we are from that tribe.’ “
Babatunde’s a Nigerian tribe. And the name is a Yoruba word meaning “The father returns” – it’s a statement about an ancestor’s legacy passed to the next generation.
“And I found,” says Babatunde, “that in my life, that’s really what I’ve become: a mentor.”
Actress-singer Liz Mikel is proof (left, with Kevin MacIntosh, photo by Karen Almond). She can’t count the number of times she and Babatunde have worked together –at least two dozen shows since 1989 when he gave her first professional role, casting her in Blues in the Night at the old Dallas Repertory Theatre. In rehearsal, Babatunde told Mikel – a sizable woman – to jump on a bannister. She was to sing her number while walking on it like a tightrope walker.
“And I said, ‘Okaaay,’ ” Mikel says. Then he told her to kick her legs and go into a split. “‘Okay.’ I just didn’t question it, and I haven’t questioned him since. I know that I’m at this point in my career because of his belief in me and his direction. I truly believe that.”
Mikel has starred on Broadway, had a supporting role in the TV series, Friday Night Lights. She’s a member of the Dallas Theater Center acting company, and these days, she can be heard every Monday evening, singing at the Balcony Club in Lakewood.
Babatunde can’t take credit for all of that. But he’s certainly responsible for getting the two of them to Paris. In the late ‘90s, Babatunde collaborated with Dallas music historian Alan Govenar on the show Blind Lemon Blues. It’s a musical biography of Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Dallas street musician who became the father of Texas blues. Babatunde co-wrote the show, directed it and occasionally starred in it (below) – as it tried out in Dallas, toured Europe and played off-Broadway. Mikel, who was in the show, recalls the warm embrace of Paris, the kind many African American artists have found there over the years. People in the street knew her name, waiters offered her champagne. “I’m ready to go back, needless to say,” she says with a laugh.
Babatunde recalls an even grander welcome for him in Austria two years ago. He directed the play, Black Pearl Sings! for Vienna’s English Theatre. He had been the musical director for the show (with Liz Mikel starring) at the WaterTower, and playwright Frank Huggins liked what he’d done. So he suggested Babatunde to the Viennese. When Babatunde went to the splashy opening-night party, one of the actors explained that if the show hadn’t gone well, Austria’s wealthiest theater patrons simply wouldn’t be there. So they were present to celebrate him.
“It was like something out of Hollywood,” he says. “It was one of the most amazing, fulfilling, rewarding experiences, to be overseas and to receive that kind of respect.
“But then you come back, and you look for your next job.”
Babatunde has been in North Texas for a quarter-century but hasn’t acted on a local stage in three years — not since he nearly stole the show in Dividing the Estate at the Dallas Theater Center. He played the wealthy Texas family’s aged servant who was bossy and fussy and so old, he kept napping on the couch — until, at last, he didn’t wake up.
On the other hand, Babatunde has been directing. He just finished staging Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Jubilee. In a few months, he’ll be in New York, staging another Alan Govenar play, called Texas in Paris. And now there’s Spunk at WaterTower Theatre – once again, with Liz Mikel. The play’s an adaptation of three short stories by Zora Neale Hurston – all of them, as the song says – “told in the key of the blues.”
In becoming a mentor to other theater artists, Babatunde’s had some role models of his own, enriching his life or changing it. His original mentor was George Houston Bass, the personal secretary of Langston Hughes. Hughes, like Zora Neale Hurston, was part of the Harlem Renaissance in the ‘30s. The two friends even wrote a play together in 1930 called Mulebone — and they fell out over it. At one point in Bass’s paper-strewn office, the Brown University professor handed a pile to Babatunde. It was a manuscript of Mulebone — long before the play had been published or produced by Lincoln Center in 1991.
“So my relationship with Zora goes way back,” he says. Bass also was indirectly responsible for getting Babatunde to North Texas. He got the actor an artist-in-residence position at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. And that’s how Babatunde met Adrian Hall, the former artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center, who founded the Trinity Rep in Providence. It was Hall who brought Babatunde to Dallas – to integrate Hall’s acting company at the Theater Center.
“My life,” Babatunde concludes, “has been touched by rich mentors.”
And now, that role is his.