Despite the fact that several “lucky numbers” keep appearing in his life, actor/director/ writer/educator Sullivan Walker credits his success to the strong family values of working hard, believing in oneself, and being persistent — not to luck.
He opens in “Two Can Play,” by Trevor Rhone at the Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick on Saturday, February 26. Rhone is one of Jamaica’s leading playwrights and a prominent Hollywood screenwriter. The production marks a return for Walker to the role of Jim, which he played 20 years ago when the comedy/drama debuted in New York at the Negro Ensemble Company. Well-reviewed and successful, the production was extended and toured the Midwest.
“Two Can Play” is a comedy, but a comedy with a serious message. It is set in a time of political unrest in Jamaica when a married couple surprise even themselves in their desperate efforts to leave the confusion and violence in their homeland and come to America. Walker says that when they think of the Caribbean, most people think beaches and palm trees, but the reality of the area discloses serious problems that have sprung from years of poverty, problems regarding jobs, education, and reliance on imported foods such as wheat. “Of course the Caribbean has a tradition of democracy, of peacefully resolving their issues, but from time to time things do spill over and sometimes they take to the streets,” says Walker.
The play is set in just such a time of unrest. Because of political infighting, a couple — Jim and Gloria, who have been together 20 years — has had to ship their children to the states illegally. Now they are not sure where they are or how they are. As the violence escalates, they decide that they, too, must leave — and tear themselves away from the country that they love. The play looks at the dynamics of and effect on their personal relationship under the strain — and the challenges the situation brings to their family values; their love for each other, their country, and their heritage; and the trust that holds them together as a couple.
Over the years, Walker thinks he has appeared in all of the major productions of the play at regional theaters throughout the country. As he revisits this role that is “dear to my heart” and that he knows well, he is surprised to discover the new understanding that the passage of years has given him as he delves even further into his character.
As we talk by phone on his day off from rehearsals, his mellifluous deep voice almost vibrates my phone. And Walker’s teaching background creeps in as he gives me a short history lesson on Caribbean politics. “What I like about the play is that it talks about some of the complex social and political issues still happening in the Caribbean, the instability in some of the islands like what is happening in Haiti now.” He also references the conflict in Granada: capitalism versus socialism. “The premier of Grenada was assassinated because he wasn’t Marxist enough,” he says. “Caribbean people are very passionate about their politics. Island people feel a strong sense of connection to their country.”
Love of home and culture are very evident in Walker’s own life. He was raised by his grandparents, Adam and Clementina Deacon, in their homeland of Trinidad, where Walker was born. He chuckles as he recalls what a stern disciplinarian his grandmother was. “I didn’t realize what she was doing at the time, but she basically taught me how to take care of myself.” He says she instilled in him the will to succeed and his sense of commitment to excellence, both survival skills that were invaluable when he first came to the United States in the late 1960s and knew no one.
His grandfather’s contribution was the perfect complement for the preparation of a young artist. “He was what you call a ‘Carib,’ a descendant of the original Indians of the Caribbean, part Caribbean and part African.” He was a farmer who lived very close to the land, owned considerable property, and grew a richness of crops. He also was rich in the cultural heritage that he passed on to his grandson. Grandfather Adam was a stick fighter, a dancer, and a drummer, all traditions brought to the Caribbean from Africa. (Stick fighting is part of traditional ceremonies that follow the harvest.) “I got an appreciation for this culture, which in turn gave me a strong identity: what I was worth and where I came from. By watching him, I learned,” says Walker. “I’m carrying on this cultural tradition through my work in theater, film, television, and my own writing.”
Walker fell in love with theater and performing as a young teenager. He says that he was always a good student, but rued the usual teen complaint that the girls liked the school athletes, not the young man who was “good in his books.” Acting opened up an avenue for him to gain some attention. During his last year in high school, they did “The Bishop’s Candlesticks” by William Saroyan. His performance in the leading role changed his fortune with his classmates and signalled an entry into the theater world. He went to see a performance of “The Merchant of Venice,” featuring all black actors. He was “riveted.” “That is the thing that turned me on. I’ve been hooked on acting ever since.”
In addition to theatrical training at the San Fernando Drama Guild, Walker attended Teachers in Training School and the University of the West Indies. When a television station in Port of Spain, the Trinidadian capital, sponsored “Scouting for Talent,” Walker entered a one-man presentation piece that he had written himself. First prize was a car; second, a room of furniture; third, a trip to New York. Here’s where luck played a part. He won third prize.
So, as a teenager “or maybe my early 20s” (he refuses with a laugh to nail down his age), Walker arrived in New York City in about 1969. By adding some courses at New York University to his teaching background, he supplemented his income to survive while he tried to find work as an actor. He performed in community theater in Brooklyn, wrote plays about the Caribbean experience, and taught acting workshops. These classes formed the basis of what is now an ongoing school, Caribbean Experience Theater. He feels that this is especially important for second generation immigrants who need to know about and appreciate their heritage and culture. He even mounted an all-black “Macbeth” with himself in the title role. “I had the nerve to try to update Shakespeare and set it on a Caribbean island with conflict between the local people (represented by Macbeth) and a colonialist (Duncan)
Walker’s persistence paid off and in 1976, he was cast in his first professional production, “Dream on Monkey Mountain,” by Derek Walcot at Center Stage in Baltimore, Maryland.
In 1988 he was cast in the recurring role of Dr. Jim Harmon on “The Cosby Show.” “Playing Cosby’s best friend was important to me and to folks who come from my region of the world. They don’t see themselves often on television and when they do, it’s about crime or something like that.” He says that learned a lot from Cosby’s comic timing, which allowed him to stretch his own comedic muscles. Most of his previous work had been as a dramatic actor.
Walker made his Broadway debut in 1992 as an unforgettable character, “Hambone,” in the August Wilson play “Two Trains Running.” As is the tradition with Wilson plays, Walker traveled with the production along its development trail, beginning at Yale Rep and including stops in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Minneapolis. At first his character had only two scenes and died before intermission. “August came back one evening after a performance and said, ‘You know, the audience misses you, so I think I’m going to have to write you a couple more scenes.’”
Other stage work includes the national tour of Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold and the Boys.” But television lured him to move to Los Angeles, where he has lived for about 15 years. His television work includes the series “Where I Live,” the “Jamie Foxx Show,” “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” the soap opera “As the World Turns,” and “The Pretender.” Last year he appeared in an episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
His film credits includes “The Firm” with Tom Cruise, in which he played Barry Abanks, the wealthy friend of Cruise’s character who owns a restaurant and bar. The fact that it was filmed in the Cayman Islands was a plus for Walker. He was only in the last scene of “Crocodile Dundee,” but Walker says it was “so memorable that people do stop me on the street, recognizing me as ‘The Tall Man.’”
Walker is not married, but he does have a grown daughter of whom he is exceedingly proud. She is thinking about acting but her father would rather see her go to graduate school. He voices the American immigrant credo: “This is a country where you can be as many things as you want to be if you are prepared to make the commitment and do the work that is necessary. I believe in hard work, giving things a shot. I don’t think one should mope around bewailing one’s misfortune. To me, the glass is always half full.” Walker has two sisters, one a Trinidad police officer, the other, the mother of three here in the states. All are college graduates.
Walker says he is happy to be back East and hopes to focus some time on the theater school that he founded in Brooklyn as well as investigate the possibility for a production of his play “Two Soldiers at a Crossroad.” Set in the Caribbean at a time of political transition when a revolutionary movement lead by black power proponents, trade union members, and college students faced suppression by the government. The “Two Soldiers” of the title are on opposing sides when the revolutionaries try to affect a coup, and government troops are charged to eradicate this resistance. As Walker tells his story, there is a point when these two soldiers come to the realization that they are killing their own people, do an “about face,” and refuse to follow orders. This may just be the right time for this production.
After all, the number two has popped up at a number of important turns in Walker’s life — “Two Trains Running,” “Two Can Play,” “Two Soldiers at a Crossroad.” When I call this to his attention, he laughs, “Maybe I’ll have to play that number.”
Two Can Play, Saturday, February 26, through Sunday, March 6, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-545-8100.