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Hill Harper channels a dissatisfied deejay in Our Lady of 121st Street
Although the priest taking Rooftop's long-overdue, long-winded and profanity-peppered confession in Our Lady of 121st Street eventually cuts him off, Hill Harper can't get enough of the character's street poetry. The actor was in Vancouver shooting his TV series The Good Doctor when his agent suggested he send in an audition tape to Phylicia Rashad, who's directing the current Signature Theatre Company revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis' 2002 play. "The minute I read it, I knew that Stephen's writing was so good and multilayered that I just had to do it," says Harper. He was also excited at the prospect of working with Rashad, a prior costar (Blue at the Roundabout Theatre Company; the movies The Visit, For Colored Girls and Loving Jezebel) and an old friend.
Fittingly, old friendships are at the heart of Our Lady of 121st Street, in which a motley mix of former Catholic school students reunite at the Harlem wake of their one-time teacher, Sister Rose. Although Rooftop left the rough neighborhood years before and has become a well-known L.A. radio host, he brings a lot of baggage home with him -- and not just the kind he picked up at the airport.
The 52-year-old Harper was raised in Iowa and attended Harvard Law School (where he met Barack Obama) before relocating to L.A. to try his luck at acting. For the past quarter century, he's worked steadily onscreen, notably nine seasons on CSI: NY. So it would seem, aside from the move West, that Harper and Rooftop have little in common.
But Harper quickly dispels that notion. "Despite my background, I already understood a lot of the character," he says. "I know people who were and are worse off than Rooftop ever was as a child. More importantly, I am just as comfortable being in the 'hood as I am being in the White House. Or, to put it another way, Rooftop is in me as much as Barack Obama is."
Yet Harper didn't just rely on instinct. He did a lot of research to craft the character, and even spoke with This Is Us star Ron Cephas Jones, who played Rooftop in the show's original LAByrinth Theater Company mounting. "Ron was happy to talk about his take on the character and gave me some generous insights into him," says Harper. "But he absolutely encouraged me to find my own ways to express all the fears, pain and guilt that make up Rooftop. He's clearly a man who has lost touch with himself."
In addition to honoring Sister Rose, Rooftop has ulterior motives for returning to the roost, including the chance to reconnect with his ex, Inez (played by Quincy Tyler Bernstine). But Harper believes Rooftop's loquacious confession is the character's come-to-Jesus moment. "He knows something needs to shift and change for him to go on living," he says. "Down deep he's unhappy and afraid, despite the success, the fame, the limo. There's a void in him that has to be filled somehow."
So does Rooftop forge a new path, fall back into bad habits or jump off the George Washington Bridge, as he threatens to do? Guirgis' script doesn't offer any definitive answers. But you do hope that Rooftop and his cohorts will somehow continue to find their way, and maybe even a little joy. "The audience sees this vibrant peacock," says Harper. "But Rooftop's clothes don't match his actions or the man he is inside. As he says in the play, he's afraid he will never be the person he thought he would be when he still had the time."
To read about a student's experience at Our Lady of 121st Street, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Brian Scott Lipton has been covering theatre and the performing arts for 30 years. Follow him on Twitter at @bsl1436. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Hill Harper and John Doman in Our Lady of 121st Street. Photos by Monique Carboni.
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