Jeffrey Wright: The Actor as Artist

By Arnold, Gary | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 18, 1996 | Go to article overview

Jeffrey Wright: The Actor as Artist


Arnold, Gary, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Born and raised in Washington, Jeffrey Wright has spent the last eight years in New York City, sustaining an acting career that has thrived most conspicuously in collaboration with theater directors George C. Wolfe and Joe Dowling.

As a member of the cast in Mr. Wolfe's production of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," Mr. Wright won the 1994 Tony Award for "best featured actor in a play," a euphemism for best supporting actor. He added two other critical prizes for his performance as Belize, the outspoken male nurse of the imposing villain of "Angels," the late Roy Cohn.

Mr. Wright joined the cast of a subsequent Wolfe production, "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk," when that acclaimed musical panorama of black history moved from off-Broadway to Broadway. He plans to remain with the show at least through the fall, giving local friends, acquaintances and boosters adequate time to catch up on their next trip to New York. "Noise" remains a stirring fixture at the Ambassador Theater on West 49th Street.

Mr. Wright was granted a two-day furlough recently to celebrate his mother's birthday and do some hometown promotion for "Basquiat," his first substantial movie showcase. He plays the title role in this New York-based biographical feature, now at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

Painter Julian Schnabel makes a problematic film directing debut by recalling the meteoric career of a doomed, controversial colleague, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Discovered in the early 1980s as a "graffiti artist" and adopted to some extent by the Andy Warhol apparatus, Basquiat enjoyed a substantial vogue but died young and terminally addicted, succumbing to a heroin overdose in 1988 at the age of 27.

Mr. Wright's close-cropped hair provides an immediate separation of actor from movie role. As Basquiat, it was necessary to balance a prodigious set of dreadlocks.

"They weren't troublesome at all," he comments. "I cut my own about five years ago, so I pretty much remembered the sensation. The hair actually helps you to reproduce some aspects of his appearance that can't be duplicated by props. Watching the video documentation, I was concentrating on physical movement and felt that his odd head movements were all related to balancing this elaborate head of hair."

According to Mr. Wright: "I was an admirer and had soaked up stories and conjecture about Basquiat that still circulate. I especially like the large-scale canvasses. I think you see what's lost toward the end of his life, when the color vibrancy and illustrative playfulness seems to disappear and the drawing is kind of needle-thin. I think those are more heroin-driven than Basquiat-driven."

One detects a lingering conflict of agendas and intentions between Mr. …

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