By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Senior Contributing Writer
If you’ve been to the theatre in Pittsburgh in the decade or so, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Wali Jamal Abdullah on the stage. Smooth and natural, can do a thousand different things by shifting his tone of voice and is able to turn farce to tragedy on a dime. He’s been in productions by Kuntu Repertory, Bricolage, Quantum, Pittsburgh Playwrights and many others.
He has also performed in all ten of the works that comprise August Wilson’s ‘Pittsburgh Cycle,’ as well as taking to the stage in ‘How I Know What I Know,’ Wilson’s autobiographical one-man show penned in 2003.
With the adaptation of Wilson’s peerless, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom dropping on Netflix next week, Abdullah sat down with the Current to talk about growing up in Pittsburgh, a life in the theatre and, of course, life inside the works of August Wilson. This is his story, as told to Pgh Current Senior Contributing Writer, Jody DiPerna.
I first got the acting bug in 7th grade. I grew up just above the Southside, around Mt. Oliver, a housing project called St. Clair Village. It’s gone now. But I would catch the bus and go down to the Southside for school. It was in 7th grade, I was 11 years old and I’ll never forget it. I was going to St. Adalbert’s on 15th Street on the Southside. I had no idea that years later I would be performing a couple blocks away at City Theatre. But anyway, at St. Adalbert’s, my language arts teacher, Miss Cavalieri decided to have us read a play. We read a play version of ‘The Invisible Man’ (based on H.G. Wells’ book.) She had me read the part of Griffin, who was the scientist who turned himself invisible.
I had no idea of the definition of the word irony, or any idea of the man named Ralph Ellison who wrote a (different) book called “The Invisible Man.” I was the only Black kid in this school. Sure, I was aware I was the only Black kid in the school all the time, but it wasn’t a big deal. It really wasn’t. I just looked at it as, I get the lead. I’m reading the main character!
I just thought, it’s me! Eleven-year-old Wali.
I didn’t do crap for years after, because there wasn’t any venue. I went to the Army and when I got out of the Army, I still wanted to be an actor. I really did. I always did. I never didn’t want to be an actor. There just weren’t any opportunities. I did extra work in films. I did a lot of stand up comedy in some seedy places, some tough, tough places.
Then, in November, 1998. I went into the Kuntu Repertory Theatre to auditions. I was schmoozing, I was on. I was used to working a room. So I’m working the room and the director is out there — I didn’t know who she was. She comes to me and I’m making these people laugh over here, and she’s like, “Do I know you?” I’m like, “Yeah, baby. We go way back. What you got here.” She said, read this and I’m going to call you in.
I went in there and read that stuff. Dr. Vernell Lillie (the founder of Kuntu Repertory Theatre) was there. She said, Child, where have you been? I walked out with the lead role. I’ve been at it ever since. Non-stop. Full speed ahead, no brakes.
We were in the middle of rehearsal and Dr. Lillie is asking me about, what have you been doing? where have you been? I said, I’ve been looking for this, to tell you the truth. I’ve been looking for this, I just didn’t know how to find you guys. I never even saw a play.
It just so happened that they were planning to go to Baltimore to see ‘Jitney.’ It was so awesome. I’m sitting there and they’re teaching me blocking while we’re watching ‘Jitney.’ It was this tutorial while I’m sitting there. I’ll never forget it. They were giving me ins and outs and I was just flying.
Around March, 1999, Mark Southers had the August Wilson Reading Roundtable at his house and had arranged for us to read ‘Jitney.’ He let August know and August said, can I come and read? So, two months after my first time setting foot on stage, I’m sitting right next to August Wilson reading a part in ‘Jitney.’ He read the most rambunctious part in the play, Turnbo, the busybody. The one that’s in everybody’s business. He was perfect. Oh, he was dastardly.
That play — it’s real people, talking real stuff. Nobody’s axe is being ground. It’s real people, living real life.
August Wilson does have his focuses. In his plays you will find constants. You will find family. You will find love. And you will find death. Those three constants — and most of all — dignity. August strives to present characters who have dignity and are willing to die for it — for their principles and their dignity. It doesn’t matter how you might find that person: that person has dignity.
Like, in ‘Two Trains Running’ Hambone — he only has two lines, “I want my ham.” “He gon’ give me my ham.” Those two lines. I would love to play that character. He died in pursuit of that ham. That was his dignity in life, that he wasn’t going to let you cheat him like that and he would just let it go and accept it.
In ‘How I Learned What I Learned,’ it’s explained when his [August’s] mother had won a new washing machine. They found out she was Black and they wanted to give her some certificate to the Salvation Army and she said no. That was about that dignity. She said something ain’t always better than nothing. Not going to just take that, when I got this coming.
That’s how it is in all of his plays.
Another thing I love about August — there are characters who don’t know exactly how things work, but they just look at the right and the wrong of it, where it concerns them. Like Floyd in ‘Seven Guitars.’ He was going down there to get the money that he had coming from him from working at the workhouse, but he didn’t have the piece of paper. He was incensed that they wouldn’t give him his money he had coming to him because of this piece of paper. He’s looking at the right and the wrong of it, and not the procedural part of it. It’s so messed up that sometimes such crucial things can come down to a piece of paper. That piece of paper finds itself in a few of August’s plays.
Another thing in all of his plays is an older Black man giving advice and counseling a younger Black man, whether successful or not, the attempt is there.
[In the Pittsburgh Playwright’s production of Ma Rainey in the fall and winter of 2018, Abdullah played Toledo, the older pianist in Ma’s band who tries to counsel the younger Levee. In the film production Toledo is played by Glynn Turman who starred in the Kuntu Repertory Theatre production of ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ in 1984.]
What to even say about the guy playing Toledo — Glynn Turman. He’s been one of my favorite actors since he made this movie called ‘J.D.’s Revenge.’ It’s from 1976, disco times, floppy hats, bell-bottoms. I know he’s going to tear it up. Nobody can do it like him.
The obvious other reasons I’m looking forward to this production — Chadwick Boseman’s final performance and Viola Davis outdoing herself once again. As if you ever thought she could, but there she is doing it. We thought Rose was the top in ‘Fences,’ but there she is as Ma. I’ve seen three different women play Ma in performances and, ooooh, nothing comes close to Viola. Those are the first two reasons.
Another reason is for the dialogue, for the screenplay, the adaptation from Ruben Santiago-Hudson. This is a man who definitely knows how to encapsulate August’s writing for the screen. If you haven’t seen ‘Lackawanna Blues,’ see it. It’s so Wilson-esque. You would swear August Wilson wrote that. It’s the Wilson feel, but it doesn’t take nothing from Wilson. It’s just that feel, it’s that feel.
And, ‘Ma Rainey’s’ is picturesque. It is magnificently the 1920s in all it’s roaring regalness. They’ve taken this play and made it into a biopic. This movie feels bigger than ‘Ragtime.’
Wali Jamal Abdullah can be seen in the Quantum Theatre production of ‘Wild’ available to stream until December 13th. He will reprise his role in Wilson’s ‘How I Learned What I Learned’ for the August Wilson Society in March 2021.