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‘Treme’ star lets conscience be his guide

Peters returns to the stage for ‘Whipping Man’

“I think I’ve always been drawn to projects with a social conscience. Then again, how can you be a black man in America and not be politically aware?’’ says Clarke Peters, who stars in Barrington Stage Company’s production of “The Whipping Man.’’ “I think I’ve always been drawn to projects with a social conscience. Then again, how can you be a black man in America and not be politically aware?’’ says Clarke Peters, who stars in Barrington Stage Company’s production of “The Whipping Man.’’ (Nancy Palmieri for The Boston Globe)
By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / May 30, 2010

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PITTSFIELD — “Lately, I feel like I’m an actor on a mission,’’ says Clarke Peters.

Well known as the Baltimore police detective Lester Freamon on the landmark HBO dramatic series “The Wire,’’ which shined a light on government corruption and the plight of inner cities, Peters has followed that up with a role as Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux in “Treme,’’ HBO’s new series from “Wire’’ creator David Simon, about New Orleans residents rebuilding their devastated city after Hurricane Katrina.

Throw in a recent turn as Nelson Mandela in “Endgame,’’ last year’s BBC film about the secret negotiations that brought about the end of apartheid, and Peters’s current stage role as a Civil War-era slave reared in the Jewish faith in “The Whipping Man,’’ which opens today at Barrington Stage Company, and you have a slew of socially conscious dramas that remind Peters of why he chose to become an actor.

“These are the stories that I want to be telling and need to be telling,’’ says Peters during a recent interview at the lakefront cottage where he’s staying during the run of “The Whipping Man.’’ “I’ve always wanted to do the kind of theater that I’m doing now with this play. In fact, my first professional acting job was in ‘Hair’ during the Vietnam War. So I think I’ve always been drawn to projects with a social conscience. Then again, how can you be a black man in America and not be politically aware?’’

Peters, 58, grew up in an artistic family in Englewood, N.J., and has lived in England since 1973. Sitting on his front deck, staring out across the placid blue waters of Pontoosuc Lake to the rolling hills beyond, the actor muses on what has been an intense couple of months.

Peters’s mother passed away in April, not long after the death of “Treme’’ writer and executive producer David Mills. Just a few weeks ago, cast and crew wrapped up filming for the series’ first season. So the time Peters has spent alone in this bucolic setting (his wife and youngest son are in London) has given him the space to ruminate on his recent roller coaster ride.

“I’m still in the throes of all of it right now,’’ he says. “But having watched my mother and listened to her, I saw a soul grappling with holding on to its human matter and having sort of hallucinations or conversations with her god. She wrote a living will, and there were times when she was suffering. But in respecting her wishes, it showed me something. It has to do with where we come from, who we are, why we’re here, and where we’re going. And how our actions impact not only your soul but also those people around you.’’

Peters finds such questions of life, death, and spirituality fascinating. It’s one reason he was drawn to Simon, the questioning but devout character he plays in Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man.’’ The drama imagines what transpires among three men — a Confederate soldier named Caleb DeLeon and two of his father’s former slaves, the grizzled Simon and the rebellious young John — as they reunite at the DeLeons’ ravaged Richmond mansion during the last days of the Civil War. The twist is that the DeLeons are Jewish, and the two slaves have also been raised in the faith.

As they await the patriarch’s potential return, the three men, at Simon’s insistence, share a Passover Seder in which secrets are exposed that threaten to crush the men’s shared faith, their futures, and the slaves’ newfound freedom.

“We perform a Seder. And I’ve got to say these words, this scripture during the meal. And they really resonate with me,’’ Peters says. “And so I’m thinking, well, if this is what’s happening inside of me, what’s happening inside of Simon, who’s had this his whole life? He’s not just defending the house. He’s defending that faith, too.’’

The play pivots on the paradox of Jews owning slaves, despite a faith that denounces their own bondage in Egypt. “Simon is constantly challenged by John on the question of what this faith does or what this faith means,’’ Peters says.

Peters has been a theater actor for more than 30 years, with plenty of high-profile credits. On the British stage, he’s played everyone from Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls’’ to Toledo in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.’’ Over the past decade, he’s also made his way to Broadway in “Chicago’’ and “The Iceman Cometh.’’ This summer Peters will be revisiting one of his earlier career highlights, “Five Guys Named Moe,’’ the long-running musical revue for which he wrote the book and earned a 1992 Tony Award nomination. For the show’s upcoming 20th-anniversary British production, Peters is revising the script and will be playing the down-on-his-luck protagonist, Nomax.

But as he prepares for “The Whipping Man,’’ he hasn’t been onstage in more than three years because of TV commitments.

“Quite honestly, if my theater muscle was strong, it would not be a problem,’’ Peters says, shaking his head. “But I’ve just come off of four years of tiny increments of scenes, learning dialogue and jettisoning it as quickly as I can so I can move on to the next scene. But onstage, I have to keep this whole arc of the play and the character in my head. I don’t like being away from theater that long. The muscles get atrophied if you don’t exercise them.’’

Peters seems to be shaking off the rust just fine. While the play’s director, Christopher Innvar, says Peters is still readjusting to the stage and elevating the physicality and volume of his performance, he gushes about the gravitas and dignity that Peters brings to Simon, as well as the actor’s deep emotional investment and humility.

“He’s always open to suggestion and game to try anything,’’ says Innvar. “That’s a great quality for any actor to have. You need to make mistakes in rehearsal because that’s how you find out what works and what doesn’t. So it’s wonderful to have someone of his immense skill who’s humble enough to say, I’m in your hands and I’ll try anything.’’

Peering out over the lake, Peters exhibits those same qualities — a spirit of wonder and curiosity and an eagerness to connect with others. Dressed in a bright yellow polo shirt, he laughs easily, breaks into song occasionally, and leaps toward the water when he hears the splashing sound of fish near the shore.

After nearly four decades in show business, Peters loves to joke that he’s finally become an overnight sensation. And while he used to lament the lack of quality roles for African-American actors, he says the variety of parts that now come his way has expanded. “I think it’s because I’m older,’’ he says.

“Of course, wisdom doesn’t always come with age,’’ he quips. “But it can look like that.’’

THE WHIPPING MAN

At: Barrington Stage Company, BSC Stage 2, Pittsfield, through June 13. Tickets: $15-$45. 413-236-8888, www.barringtonstageco.org