It’s been quite a year-and-change for Brandon J. Dirden, an Obie award winner whose previous projects for Red Bank’s Two River Theater Company include August Wilson’s Jitney, and Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, in which he starred alongside his brother Jason. The 35-year-old actor made a big impression on Broadway – as Dr. Martin Luther King, no less – in the Tony-winning smash All The Way. A role on the FX series The Americans found him becoming a regular presence as FBI Agent Aderholt – and somewhere along that timeline, he and his wife, actress Crystal Anne Dickinson, became the parents of a baby boy.
When Dirden returns to Red Bank this weekend, he’ll be reuniting with his Jitney director — Tony winning actor (and August Wilson authority) Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who also steered Dirden to that Obie in a 2012 production of Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. The vehicle for their collaboration this time is Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine – an original script by Santiago-Hudson that stands as the second of three shows making their world premiere on Bridge Avenue this spring.
Merritt Janson co-stars as Judith, a well-to-do Manhattanite whose encounter with homeless-shelter staffer Zeke (Dirden) sparks an Upper West Side dinner party invitation that “brings an unlikely group together, spawning a passionate and explosive debate on America’s relationship to race.” Andrew Hovelson, Roslyn Ruff and Charles Weldon complete the cast, and the Drama Desk at redbankgreen caught up with Dirden as Your Blues prepped for its first preview this Saturday, April 11. Here’s a condensed version of the interview.
redbankgreen: The last time we caught up with you, you were playing Martin Luther King himself, sharing the stage with Bryan Cranston, Michael McKean, John McMartin, and we have to say it was a dynamite portrayal. This was no walking monument; there was a swagger to your King, and a sense of him as a real navigator of people and politics. But as plum a part as it was, it surely couldn’t have been easy to step into…
BRANDON J. DIRDEN: It was daunting, but there was also a freedom to it. We had a great director, who gave me permission to make me a part of King. He said that we weren’t looking for an imitation, that it’s our own take, and to give a sense of King as master politician, someone with the ability to galvanize different factions of the black movement toward a common goal. The audience also endows you with what they think he was. I like to think there’s a part of all of us that’s hungry for justice, willing to put our life on the line.
We should mention that one of your castmates was a Red Bank local, Bill Timoney.
Bill was a great help. He originally came on to help with the lines, and then became part of the cast. The play really bloomed at that point, between [the previews in] Cambridge and Broadway.
Another exciting thing that’s occurred for you in the past year was your own recurring role, in THE AMERICANS.
I’m in most of the episodes this season, and I understand I’ll be back next season! I got very lucky with this series, and it’s actually a great time to be working in TV. It’s an actor’s show, one that takes a lot of trust from the audience, and maybe a little different than most of what you see on the FX channel, lthough it does have its moments. It’s like a load of dynamite with a fuse that’s ten miles long. The pacing is laid-back, but you know there’s gonna be an explosion at the end.
Actually, we are gathered here to talk about YOUR BLUES AIN’T SWEET LIKE MINE, which is the third Two River Theater project that you’ve appeared in over the past three or four years. Unlike Dr. King, your character here in this play that no one’s seen before is a total unknown quantity to the audience. What can you tell us about him?
I play Zeke, an advocate for the homeless who works at a soup kitchen. He comes to Judith’s home too pick up a clothing donation, and things get interesting from there. He’s kind of a ‘walking outburst,’ one who knows his history, knows about things like the Harlem Renaissance. He was once a well-to-do corporate gentleman, a man who was on top of his game, and who now has nothing to lose, and no fear about speaking his mind.
In a world that’s become so politically correct, I’m not sure how many of us have the courage to be as honest as Zeke. And I should mention that Judith has her own motives, too. As it turns out, this isn’t all just about a bag of clothes.
It’s also another chance for you to work with Ruben Santiago-Hudson, to pick up a collaboration in which you guys have made some beautiful music together. Since this is a brand-new play, is there a sense that Ruben might have fashioned the script with you in mind?
Ruben actually started this project 15 years ago, and only recently brought it together when he talked to (Two River artistic director) John Dias about it. So while he might have ‘tailored’ it for me, it wasn’t ‘fashioned’ for me!
I’ve had the good fortune and blessing to know Ruben over the years. There’s a piece of every playwright in each of the characters they create, but as a playwright he doesn’t assume he knows everything about these people. As a director, he surrounds himself with a community of artists whose input he respects and seeks. He’ll defer to you, ask you what you think about something. So I’m happy to be part of a group of people that he’s worked with repeatedly through the years.
Well, one of those select people is Roslyn Ruff, who was Coretta to your King on Broadway, and who co-starred with you in Ruben’s JITNEY. You’ve worked onstage with your wife, with your brother, but the scenes you’ve played with Roslyn almost add up to a sort of family relationship in themselves.
This is my fourth show with Roslyn. She was my wife in All the Way; she was my lover in Jitney, and we were brother and sister in The Piano Lesson. She’s fantastic, we work so well together. But our relationship in this play is the complete opposite of anything we’ve ever done together, as you’ll see. An entirely different angle.
Two River is using the element of music as way to promote this play, with downloadable playlists of vintage blues and jazz, and a phonograph record logo. It’s something that’s in the air, here in the town that gave the world Bill Basie. In this play, which appears to come freighted with a fair degree of tension and discord, would you say that music is used to soothe the savage beast, so to speak?
Music binds these characters. You feel its presence everywhere in this play. It’s part of Ruben, part of our cultural DNA, and we talk about Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker. Whenever I’m in Red Bank I love walking past the Count Basie Theatre. I love that sense of history, that connection to one of the true American art forms.
You know, after all this talk of career milestones, we failed to bring up the fact that, last we asked, your wife Crystal was close to giving birth…
My son Chase just turned one year old — he’s quite the guy, and unfortunately he just might follow us into the family business.
Having Chase in our lives has actually made my work feel more important. He was born while I was doing All the Way, you know, and the very first time that I stepped out on that stage after becoming a father, I knew then what Dr. King had to give up to accomplish what he did — that time that could have been spent with his children at home. It really grounded everything for me, and it just kind of reinforced the fact that as actors, we’re here to be storytellers. We’re here to make the world a better place.
Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine goes up in previews on Saturday, April 11; opening on Friday, April 17 and running through May 3 with a mix of matinee and evening performances. Tickets ($20 – $65 adults) and details on special performances can be obtained by taking it here.