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Many remember him as the English butler Geoffrey on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” But long before his best known television role, Joseph Marcell trained as a stage actor and performed as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He is currently the lead in King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s most tragic plays, at the Folger Theater. He joins us to discuss the role and his Caribbean roots.
- Joseph Marcell Actor; King Lear at the Folger Theater
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast it will be Your Turn to set the agenda, revelations of surveillance of cell phones here in Washington, the Scottish independence vote happening today or the debate over whether parents should or should not hit their children. Let us know what is on your mind.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, television viewers recall him as the stiff upper-lipped butler Geoffrey on the television series "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." But long before his turn on that popular television show, he was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Theater Company in London. The classically trained actor is currently appearing as the lead in "King Lear" at the Folger Theater here in Washington. He joins us to discuss that role, his career and his roots in the Caribbean.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe're talking of course about Joseph Marcell, currently playing the lead in King Lear at the Folger Theater. He joins us in studio. I should mention that the Globe Theater production of "King Lear" at the Folger here in D.C. through Sunday, September 21. If you miss "King Lear," well, too bad for you. "Julius Caesar" is next up at the Folger. Joseph Marcell, so good to meet you.
MR. JOSEPH MARCELLHello. Good afternoon. Thank you.
MR. JOSEPH MARCELLGood afternoon. Thank you so much for joining us in studio. If you have questions or comments for Joseph Marcell, give us a call, 800-433-8850. Do you enjoy Shakespeare tragedies? Have you ever seen a performance of "King Lear," 800-433-8850? If you've seen this performance, what do you think of this? You can shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We mentioned the "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" for which you are so well known. That show ran in syndication for a long time, probably still on the air. Did you expect it to be so popular, so long-lived?
MR. JOSEPH MARCELLWell, no. I knew nothing about it. I knew nothing about Will. They flew me in from London to meet these people that were making a television series. And I met this young man who was just marvelous. I met this man called Quincy Jones and we made a presentation. I went back to England to work for the BBC. Working on now a play called "Mad Men and Specialists." And then I was told it was a series and then I came to America and the rest, as they say, is legend.
NNAMDIDo people -- you know, it's fascinating here in the background to these things because people see you and they think, well, from the very moment you auditioned, this was your life, when in fact you had other things to do and came back. Do people still ever call you Geoffrey by mistake?
MARCELLYes. Call me Geoffrey. You know, Geoffrey, the overnight success of 40 years, yes.
NNAMDIExactly right. Fascinating. go ahead.
MARCELLThere's an interesting part in "King Lear" where Lear is just beginning to realize his mistake. And he turns to the audience and says, does any here know me? And four times out of six somebody will go, Geoffrey. And of course, you know, this is the wrong time, love, but, yes.
NNAMDIYou know, what I found most familiar to you in the play was not your face as much as the way you walk. That's what stuck with me from watching you on television. I could identify you walking down the street looking at just the way you walk. But that's a whole other story. People know your television work well but they may not know that you're a classically trained actor who spent a great deal of your career on stage. What is it that attracted you to classical theater?
MARCELLIt's an interesting story in that it was totally unexpected by me or by my parents or anybody. I was training to be an electrical engineer. And I was down in South Hampton doing some industrial training. And I'd come home on the weekends, take my washing home and my mother would wash and iron and I'd have fresh clothes for the beginning of the next week. So I'd come to London and on a Friday night my friends would pick me up. Sometimes I'd drop my bags off at home, sometimes I'd just carry my bags and we did what young men did at that time, you know.
MARCELLOh, yes. WWWS. And so we walked across Waterloo Bridge into the Strand. And at the old Rich Theater there was something at the time called the World Theater Season at the Royal Shakespeare Company. And the negro ensemble were presenting an entertainment called Black New World. And I had never seen huge billboard posters of black actors, of black performers, of -- I mean, there were black actors and performers but, you know, there were not many in major roles.
MARCELLAnd my friends and I decided, well, we'd go to see this. So we paid two and sixpence which was, at that time, I supposed would be about 50 cents -- 25 cents probably. Went upstairs, sat in the nosebleeds and watched this thing. And that was my road to Damascus. And from then on, I mean, I got my high national diploma for -- this is it, I'm going to become an actor. Forget degrees and all that stuff.
MARCELLAnd I went to drama school at the Central School of Speech and Drama in northwest London. And decided to make a living as an actor. And there'd never been any actors in my family and my father was not too pleased about it. He didn't talk to me for 15 years.
NNAMDIWhat? My electrical engineer has become -- has joined a profession with no prospects whatsoever.
MARCELLExactly. You know, the son of an immigrant. We've come to this country, we've come to make ourselves, you know, to make a better life and you want to be an actor? Garcon.
NNAMDIIt's so fascinating because I'm thinking that when I read Sidney Poitier's autobiography, he had a similar experience. First time he walked into a theater and saw this he said, this is what I want to do. Tell us a little bit about this production of "King Lear." It's perhaps Shakespeare's greatest tragedy. What resonates for you about the play?
MARCELLYes. It is a time in my life where I'm at a certain age and I'm beginning to think of growing, I don't know, tulips or daffodils or something or even tomatoes or zucchini or something. And I have a son and a daughter. I have a son who's 36 and a daughter who will be 26 in December. And I am thinking that perhaps I need to do something and prepare for whatever contingency comes at this age of regular maintenance that we need at our age.
MARCELLAnd what resonates with me and King Lear is the fact that fathers and their children, there is this gap, this gap of understanding, of recognition that cannot be expressed until it is experienced by the children. And that is what hurts the most. Lear could never explain to Cordelia, Regan and Goneril what it is to be a king until Regan and Goneril experience it for themselves and understand, gosh, that's what my dad meant.
NNAMDIBut you have been familiar with King Lear for 40 years. Does it now resonate with you more than it did decades ago?
MARCELLIt hurts much more now. Decades ago I could play better than anybody I'd seen do it. You know, I knew how it ought to be played, you know. I mean, how could he say -- you know, how could he break a line like, oh reason not the need? Now I'm doing it. Oh, I see. It is...
MARCELLYes. It isn't quite as easy as that. It isn't because you have forgotten what calmness, what leads to that moment of reason, not the need are basis beggar. And it's all -- it's learning about life and experience and poor old Lear, just a man out of his time. Times had moved on and he hadn't moved on with it.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Joseph Marcell. He's currently playing the lead in "King Lear" at the Folger. You may be familiar with him as the role of the butler on the television series "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." If you have questions or comments for Joseph Marcell, call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDII was fascinated that there are only eight actors in this production. It felt like a cast of thousands. I find it interesting for another reason. The actors are all musicians. And the show even opens and closes with a song. What was the idea behind adding music?
MARCELLWell, the idea is that the end music is a jig. And there was always -- in Shakespeare's productions at the Globe there was always a jig at the end of the play. The first, the opening music is a way of making our audiences comfortable, making the better heeled members of the audience comfortable, make the poorer members of the audience comfortable. But most of all it breaks the ice. It allows your audience to understand that this is not an art gallery. You have not come to look at paintings. You have come, whether you like it or not, to be participants in a shared experience.
NNAMDILet me tell the audience here, ten minutes before the show starts, Joseph Marcell ambles out onto the stage looking like he's a stage hand, fiddles with a few things, goes back. Then after that, other members of the cast come out and then start mingling with the audience, greeting what seemed to be old friends in the audience. and just generally talking.
NNAMDIAnd then after doing that for about six or seven minutes, they saunter back onstage and break into song. It was fascinating. It made us feel a part of the audience. The second thing that happened is that you announce that the houselights will not be dimmed for this production. That the lights will be on all of us so that not only will we be able to see the performers, the performers will also be able to see us. What's the point there?
MARCELLThat is the point of the shared experience, the shared moment. Because we make a point of communicating with every member of the audience, if such a thing is possible, so that I need to see the whites of your eyes when I say, I don't know, oh, let me not be mad. I need to share with you how impossible it is to understand what is happening to me. Goneril needs you to understand when she says, pluck out his eyes, that you know that she has a violence in her that is a reflection of her father. All these things.
MARCELLIf these things are shadowed by the lights, then what you're doing is you're simply watching. But if I'm looking at you, you become part of it. You begin to somehow empathize with my predicament.
NNAMDIBecause my past experience as an audient, a member of the audience is that I know that when the actor is looking in my direction, he or she cannot see me. However, this is the first performance I've been to where I know that when you're looking at me, you can see me. So I become as a member of the audience a part of the emotion that's taking place in this scene because I am, well, so to speak, in it.
NNAMDIYou play the lead. You're the only black actor in this production. What was the thinking behind the casting?
MARCELLLet us say that I had got to the age where nobody else could do it but me. No, that's not quite true. The Globe is what it is. The clue is in the word the Globe. It represents the globe. So we have a black actor, a non-white actor. We have an actress from India. We have an actor from Scotland. We have an actor from Germany. Last year we had actors from New Zealand. The play represents the globe, the casting represents the globe.
MARCELLNow there are certain skills that are required. If you -- you know, it doesn't matter. You may come from Alaska or you may be an Inuit but if you can't play, I don't know, the tambourine then you can't be in it. But, no, that's...
NNAMDIEvery member of this cast is multitalented.
MARCELLBut, yes, it represents the kind of the multiracial makeup of England, yes, of Great Britain, I should say.
NNAMDIHas it always been thus for you? You were a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. In addition to this production of "King Lear" you've done a number of Shakespeare plays. Some actors see traditional Shakespeare as limited in terms of roles for actors of color, especially in the past when nontraditional casting was less common. Has that been your experience?
MARCELLI suppose you could say, I don't know, "The Prince of Morocco" and in "The Merchant of Venice" and "Othello." But...
NNAMDII was there.
MARCELLYes, it has been. But that's what progress is about. That's what we've all been fighting for in every country in this world. And we're beginning to make some progress. And we are lucky that the people we have grown up with are in decision-making positions. And they are making those decisions which allow us to -- I don't know, to blossom as artists.
NNAMDIHere now is Christina who is calling from Washington, D.C. Christina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISTINAHi, Kojo. Hi, Mr. Marcell. I'm calling in because I have a little story to tell you that ties in your Shakespearean acting and your fame on American TV. I think it was about 20 years ago -- you might know better than I did -- you played a -- I think the part is called the friar or the priest in "Romeo and Juliet" at the Lansburgh Shakespeare Theater. And I saw you -- I saw the play and you were great. And then I saw you walking in metro center towards Hecht's Department Store, you know, Hecht's before it became Macy's.
CHRISTINAAnd thought, oh, that's the guy from "Romeo and Juliet." He was so good. And I think you were the only black actor then too and I'm black too, and I thought, oh, I'm going to tell him how great I think he was.
NNAMDIDid you recognize him by his walk?
CHRISTINANo. I recognized him by the -- from the play. And I thought I knew he looked familiar but I didn't think about the "Fresh Prince." So I started walking towards you and you sped up a little bit. And I just thought it was because you wanted to cross the street.
NNAMDIStalker, stalker alert. But go ahead.
CHRISTINAI know. So I walked toward him and I said, oh, I loved you in "Romeo and Juliet." And you turned to me and you said, oh, did you see that? And I said, yes. You were great. And you said, thank you. And then you walked away and I thought to myself, now why else would he think I knew who he was? So I walked into the department store and a lady and her son came rushing over to me and they said, is that Geoffrey from the "Fresh Prince?" And I thought -- I thought for a second and I said, that's why he looked -- I said, oh yeah, yeah, it was. And before I could even finish, they ran away from me to catch you.
NNAMDIStalker alert, stalker -- another stalker alert. That's happened to you...
CHRISTINAAnd I thought to myself, oh my gosh, I blew his cover. Now these people are going to, like, chase him through Hecht's looking for him. And I thought about that many times because I felt so badly. I thought, you know, probably people always think he's Geoffrey from the "Fresh Prince" and...
NNAMDIDo you mind that, Joseph Marcell?
MARCELLNo, I don't mind it at all. The problem with that is that of course people think that's -- well, most people think that's what's in your mind. But I'm actually trying to buy some toothpaste or, you know, I'm going to the launderette, you know. I'm doing something normal and menial and that's what's in my mind. So of course I forget. But sometimes it really is -- it is the most validating thing that people see you in other things. They see you live or they see you on television and somehow they don't conflate both things into one. It becomes, you know, oh yes, you did this television and now you're doing a play at the etcetera, etcetera.
MARCELLAnd I thank you. I was so scared that this story was going to turn into something that I said something impolite. You don't know how much I was shaking in this chair here. Thank you very much.
NNAMDIWell, fill us in about how many impolite things you've said to people during the course of this fairly long career. Here in the United States you're considered a British actor. Is that how you're considered in Britain? And what do you consider yourself?
MARCELLOh my, that's the hard one. That's the hard one. Well, of course I'm a British actor. I'm not an English actor but I'm a British actor.
NNAMDIWhat's the distinction?
MARCELLDo we have time?
NNAMDINo, no, no. Go ahead, please.
MARCELLI'm also a West Indian actor. I'm also an actor of Caribbean descent. I'm also a non-white actor. I'm also a black actor. I have all these, you know, kind of categories that I fit into. But in the end I am a British actor because I represent the country that has been my home for a long time. And I have a certain responsibility. However, last August we were in -- we took "King Lear" to St. Lucia. And the noble laureate said, you know, you are a St. Lucian and don't you forget it.
NNAMDIYou're of course talking about Mr. Walcott.
MARCELLYes, I am.
NNAMDIHe's talking about the great St. Lucian poet. Might you -- he saw the play for the first time in St. Lucia?
MARCELLYes, he did.
NNAMDIYou spent the first nine years of your life there. Tell us a little bit about that. Do you remember very much about it at all?
MARCELLOh, a lot of it has been romanticized, yes, but I remember a lot of it. It was wonderful, just marvelous. We weren't poor but we weren't rich. The only way I can express what I want to say is that I had never seen trees without leaves on them. Nude trees. So when we arrived in England, my family and myself, and I was the oldest child and my brothers and sisters weren't born then, I could not believe that there were trees without leaves.
MARCELLSo my view of the Caribbean is verdant and a representation of paradise. I had fun. I remember the sea, the warm seas. I remember the fresh fish. I remember my mother shouting at me for being -- for doing something terrible. I remember most of it. But, yes, most of all I remember I was happy.
NNAMDIYou're suggesting that you haven't been happy since?
MARCELLI'm happy now.
NNAMDIAre you interested in doing more television or movies or do you see yourself still primarily as a stage actor?
MARCELLWhoa, now that's a hard one to answer, Kojo.
MARCELLExactly. And I have to answer it this way. I sell to the highest bidder. That's the only way I can express that.
NNAMDIIt's a living.
MARCELLIt's a living.
NNAMDIKing Lear is a Shakespeare Globe Theater production that is touring. Where has it been? Where are you headed next?
MARCELLOkay. We've been -- we've done most of Europe and part of the Mediterranean. We've done Malta and Turkey. We've done Austria. We've done Germany. We actually played at Hamlet's Palace in Denmark, Elsinore or Helsingborg. We've done St. Lucia and we've done London and most of England. We opened in Washington two weeks ago. And it is the most amazing opening any play could wish for.
MARCELLAnd we leave here on Sunday. Then we go to Philadelphia. From Philadelphia we go on to New York, then on to Boston and to New Mexico and California and Seattle and then back to California and then back to London.
NNAMDIJoseph Marcell. He's currently playing the lead in "King Lear" at the Folger Theater. It's there through Sunday, September 21. So glad you could get up and come here because the role you play until about 11:00 every night is both, I’m sure, emotionally and physically taxing. So thank you for showing up...
MARCELLBana, I'd have done anything to come here, you know.
NNAMDIThis -- let me tell you something about this bana here. That's -- we're talking in Guianese lingo. Joseph Marcell, thank you so much for joining us.
MARCELLThank you, sir.
NNAMDILater in the broadcast it's Your Turn to set the agenda, revelations of surveillance of cell phones in D.C., the Scottish independence vote happening today or the debate over whether parents should hit their children. Start calling now, 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. It's going to be Your Turn. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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