"People who know me in theater don't know I'm in politics. People who know I'm in politics don't know I'm in theater," Bean tells me with a laugh. The laugh is partly at my expense. After all, I'm a perfect example of his observation. I've followed Bean's theatrical career for decades, without ever suspecting he had a consuming interest in, and involvement with, the electoral system.
And yet, the signs were there. How strange, for instance, that City Council President Oliver Thomas appears regularly on the Anthony Bean stage. Over the years, Thomas has performed with admirable poise and honesty in shows like Two Trains Running, King Hedley II and No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs. That last play, it should be noted, was nominated for four Big Easy Entertainment Awards and won three including Best Drama. Clearly, Thomas is not onstage as a publicity stunt. He is an authentic part of the team.
Nonetheless, a City Council president acting in plays is pretty unusual. In many strange-seeming events, of course, there is more going on than meets the eye. Not only did Bean and Thomas know each other from high school (they graduated in the same class at Joseph F. Clark school), but Bean's political organization supported Thomas in both of his successful bids for public office.
Well, hang on to your hats, folks. The apotheosis of this unusual conjunction of the limelight and the hustings takes place this weekend with the opening of Joe Turner's Come and Gone by the late August Wilson. For Oliver Thomas will be playing the male lead in this critically acclaimed drama.
One of the big questions since Katrina is, how drastically has New Orleans changed? Well, maybe not as much as you might think. The City-Council-president-as-actor phenomenon is reminiscent of a similar quirkiness in public office. Shortly after I arrived here in 1973, I did a story about Frank Minyard, the coroner. After I had spent days in a grisly autopsy chamber, Minyard invited me to Al Hirt's Bourbon Street club, where the trumpet-playing coroner wailed away on the bandstand and led a second line. So the City Council president taking the lead role in a stage play seems proof that the eccentric soul of the Big Easy has survived the storm intact.
But back to Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Wilson, who died on Oct. 2, 2005, is generally considered one of the major American playwrights. He won two Pulitzer Prizes for drama and many other honors. Joe Turner is part of Wilson's 10-play cycle about the experience of African Americans in the 20th century. This particular work tells the story of an ex-con traveling with his young daughter to Pittsburgh in 1911.
"Wilson is our Tennessee and our Shakespeare," says Bean. "No one before him captured the experience of Africans in America quite like he did. For this show, I'll be using what I call Our Wilson Ensemble."
"Our Wilson Ensemble" is, of course, an ironic overstatement. But, in fact, Bean has produced and directed an impressive series of Wilson plays. In fact, his interest in Wilson's work runs so deep, he says, that he was given the rights to produce King Hedley II in 2004 before the script was officially released for public performances.
Bean has, indeed, tended to use the same core of actors in many of the Wilson dramas. For instance, those classy veteran troupers Gwendolyn Foxworth and Harold Evans played major parts in King Hedley II (along with Oliver Thomas). And they will both be back this time out. Another classy veteran trouper, Karen-Kaia Livers, will be a first-timer in Bean's Wilson Ensemble.
But, one might wonder, what are the particular problems that arise when you cast a City Council president in a play? Well, for one thing, you're dealing with a very busy man. That problem, Bean reports, was increased exponentially by Katrina. For instance, Thomas had to miss some rehearsals because he was off on an official fact-finding trip to Holland, studying the world-famous Dutch flood-control system.
Well, OK, no big deal. Everyone misses a rehearsal now and then. But -- forgetting those sorts of little inconveniences -- tell us, Mr. Bean, what's it like trying to direct a City Council president?
"Nothing to it," he replies. "Look, Oliver is 6-foot-4 or so, but you never saw anyone take direction like him. He's so good-natured about it, sometime I forget who it is I'm shouting at."