Actor, director and writer Clarke Peters trained as an apprentice, learning the theatre from the inside out in his native America. In 1971, he moved to Paris, where he landed his first professional job in the Paris production of Hair. His musical theatre career continued to blossom with a three-month stint in a 1972 revival of Show Boat with the Royal Theatre of Geneva.
He landed his first job in the English theatre playing Sky Masterson – the first black actor to do so – in Guys and Dolls with Watford Repertory Theatre Company. His other early stage credits include I Gotta Shoe and Bubbling Brown Sugar.
For the National Theatre, he appeared in The Passion, Dispatches, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Mourning Becomes Electra and Guys and Dolls. Peters’ West End credits include Simply Heavenly, Driving Miss Daisy, Kiss of the Spider Woman, One Mo’ Time, Amen Corner, Little Shop of Horrors, Blues in the Night, Five Guys Named Moe (which the actor also wrote and for which he received a 1999 Tony Award nomination for Best Book of a Musical, when the show transferred to New York) and Unforgettable, the Nat King Cole Story (which he also co-wrote.)
Peters made his Broadway debut as Joe Mott in the London transfer of the Almeida revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, starring Kevin Spacey. He has also played Billy Flynn in Chicago in New York, Las Vegas and London.
His film credits include Freedomland, Head of State, K-Pax, Notting Hill, Death Train, Mona Lisa, Silver Dream Racer, Music Machine and Outland. Television includes The Wire, The Corner, Oz, Law and Order and appearances in numerous British television series including French and Saunders, The Professionals, Waking the Dead and Murder Most Foul.
As a director, Peters’ credits include Fascinating Aida, Blues in the Night, Blues for Mr Charlie, King – The Martin Luther King Musical and One Mo’ Time.
Peters is now returning to the West End stage to take the title role of Porgy in Trevor Nunn’s new musical adaptation of the Gershwins’ classic American jazz opera, Porgy and Bess, at the Savoy Theatre.
Date & place of birth
Born 7 April 1952 in New York City.
Lives now in
London, in the Queen’s Park area. I’ve been there for about ten years, with my wife and my son.
What made you want to become an actor?
Something in my bones - it’s what you’ve got to do. It was more films than anything else that got me interested in acting because I didn’t start going to the theatre until I was in my teens. My career began over here in Europe, but at high school - I think it was in elementary school even - we always had these amateur groups come in and perform plays that really caught my eye. It was the same people telling these wonderful stories each time, and I thought, I want to do that. My elder brother and I used to entertain each other with marionettes and things like that. We always had a thing about storytelling.
Why did you want to live in the UK?
Theatre in England is part of the culture. In America it’s a business, but for me it’s my life and I’d rather be in an environment where it’s embraced and not looked down. As an actor in America, people always ask “what do you really do?”, and this is what I really do, you know? I can come to a place where I can do what I enjoy without so many competitive egos and all of that nonsense. I know the business needs that, but sometimes when I see actors on screen, I think those aren’t actors. Anyone from Hollywood, bar Kevin Spacey and a handful of others, can’t cut it on stage – they were designed to be in front of a camera.
First big break
I think it was Bubbling Brown Sugar in 1978. I was the male ingénue. There were some minor breaks before that. Ned Sherrin got me on the platform, but I think when I jumped I jumped into Bubbling Brown Sugar.
The highlights have been Guys and Dolls, Driving Miss Daisy, Stretch, and the TV show I’m in in America called The Wire.
Porgy and Bess is my favourite, it really is. There isn’t anything else that can hold a candle to it.
Howard Davies, Richard Eyre, Antonia Bird and now Trevor Nunn. I think a good director has vision and really knows how to hold the reins on actors. We have a creativity ourselves, and you have to allow the actor to breathe and open up a dialogue but still keep to your vision. So the director can say “I like that, I’ll keep that… but don’t do that other thing”. A good director has to be a good parent in many respects, and a friend; you have to respect him.
My absolute favourite is August Wilson. He opened up a whole catalogue of experience for African Americans that has been picked up over the years and given us a lot of work as well. And if we’re talking musicals, Gershwin of course, and Kander and Ebb.
Favourite co-stars This is the third time I’ve been working with Nicola Hughes so I have to mention Nicola. Also Charlotte d’Amboise who played Roxie Hart in Chicago in New York.
What would you advise the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
They should start funding some of these smaller theatre companies. The rep theatres are the best way to learn the craft, doing a new play every two weeks with new audiences and a band of actors. These kids come straight out of drama school and can’t handle eight shows a week straight away, so that’s why rep theatre and smaller companies are so valuable. We need to get back to what British theatre used to be, when there was always good theatre out in the provinces. Times move on, and they should. But this is the wealth of England, theatre brings so much money to London. They should find a way to reduce ticket prices, too.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I might be Samuel L Jackson. The reason why is because I want to experience what it would be like to be the hardest-working actor in America, to be a full-time studio actor. But just one day, please, because I think if he didn’t have his golf, he’d be going out of his mind!
Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda. Everything else is transient but that stays at the top of my list.
Favourite holiday destinations
Lindos in Greece, I like it there a lot. I’m trying to talk my wife into going to Ghana. I’d like to spend a little bit more time there.
Favourite after-show haunts
I’m really not a bar guy these days. I did all that in the Seventies and Eighties. I’m more of a middle-aged kind of sloth now! I go to Century, my club, although last night I went to Ronnie Scott’s and I might revisit that again. But I really don’t like smoky places. My favourite after-show haunt during Porgy and Bess will probably be a taxi back home where I can be with my family and snuggle up to by wife and wake up to see my son.
Do you prefer working on stage or screen?
I like working! I’m an actor and that’s what I do. So if I have to change my technique for a film then I do that, and television is different yet again. But I think I’ve started from the root and moved out because I learned my craft on stage and moved into film from there. I think it’s easier and more legitimate for an actor from stage to move in that direction rather than a film actor wanting to go on the stage.
And do you prefer plays or musicals?
I’m beginning to like plays more simply because I’m getting older and musicals are strenuous. I think also maturity has brought me to a point where you want to express something emotionally in a play where the challenge is to convey it without having to take it to the state of music or dance. You want to reach those emotional heights and let people hear the music in their minds.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I would like to take a look at Emperor Jones… and everything that August Wilson has ever done! There seem to be a lot more plays that are dealing with the African community. I’d like to explore that and open up in that direction. Although, having said that, I still like the idea of being a Chinaman, so that notion also appeals, to take away the barriers of physical type. As for revisiting roles, I might like to go and do Othello again.
What changes have you noticed in the cultural diversity of theatre over the years?
It’s different on both sides of the ocean, but in the main there’s been a blurring of the colour bar. Cross-cultural casting is a good thing, but at the same time there are parameters that have to be set. You should probably stay true to ethnicity of some characters, otherwise it could get in the way of the story. But we’re a multicultural society now. The more that these avenues are explored, the more it’ll ease up any tension outside of the theatre as well. I think England has always led that in the Western world, much more than America, where there’s still that racial divide.
Why did you want to accept your role in Porgy and Bess?
What wasn’t there to make me want it?! The music, the journey, the story…. It’s an iconic piece that doesn’t come around very often, and it’s the first time it’ll be done as a musical. To be trusted with the responsibility to bring it to fruition as a musical from an opera is amazing.
How familiar were you with the opera before you accepted your role?
Not overly familiar, I only knew it from recordings. When Trevor did it at Glyndebourne, I wasn’t in the country. The film back in the Fifties was my introduction to it. When I got the job, I went to South Carolina to research who this man was because he was a real person, not just a made up character.
How would you describe Porgy?
He is a garrulous, mean man and not a sympathetic figure. They don’t need to be sympathetic with this old bugger at all. The man’s a cripple. For some reason, we look at crippled people and we feel sympathy just by sight. But how the individual deals with their disability determines the kind of empathy people will have. There was nothing nice about the man Porgy is based on. He was always picked on as a child. People would take things from him and he couldn’t catch them so he developed a very mean defence. He wasn’t helpless by any means. He was quite capable of doing many things. Porgy is an angry man whose heart is melted by Bess.
What are the biggest challenges of this production for you?
The stamina of doing eight shows a week is the hardest part, and there’s more singing in here than ever before, in spite of the fact that it’s no longer an opera. It still has that enormity of music, that quality of sound, and the drama on top of that. Rather than things being sung as an aria, which is exhausting anyway, this is exhausting because we’re doing things out of text which carries it into the songs. But it’s just perfect. I love the whole process. We have the best company that I’ve ever worked with who all have wonderful voices. It’s a lovely community of actors guided by Trevor Nunn, who’s visited this story many, many times. It was his idea to change it into a play with music so we really couldn’t ask for a better director.
Do you think Porgy and Bess is more accessible to an audience as a musical? What are the main changes?
It is most definitely more accessible now. I just hope that it’s accessible to people’s pocket books, too! The main changes are the complicated musical bits that have been taken out and put into dialogue. The things that were cut out have enabled Trevor to get it down to a two-and-a-half hour musical without losing the integrity of the plot, although the best known songs all still there. It’s like highlights from the opera.
With the plethora of musicals opening this year, what makes Porgy and Bess stand out?
It’s a classic, there’s no doubt about it. There isn’t another musical in town that has this good an orchestration and this talented a cast on stage. It all has such class about it, there’s nothing that can touch it. It’s unique.
What are your plans for the future? Anything else you’d like to add?
I would like to say an enormous thanks to everyone in South Carolina who’s helped us with all the research. In terms of future plans, I’m hopefully doing series five of The Wire, and planning to write another musical – but I can’t tell you any more about that at the moment.
- Clarke Peters was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Porgy and Bess starts previews at the West End’s Savoy Theatre on 25 October 2006, ahead of an opening night on 9 November.