Lauded by the New York Times as “one of the most compelling classical stage actors of his generation,” John Douglas Thompson currently stars in August Wilson’s Jitney, which made its Broadway debut in January at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club, Jitney co-stars Harvy Blanks, Anthony Chisholm, Brandon J. Dirden, André Holland, Carra Patterson, Michael Potts, Keith Randolph Smith, and Ray Anthony Thomas.
Born in Bath, England, and raised in Montreal, Canada, and Rochester, New York to West Indian parents, who were part of the migration path from Jamaica to the United Kingdom, Thompson says his career as an actor might not have happened if not for a date. After college, where he studied business and marketing, Thompson moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where he worked for Burroughs Corporation (now Unisys), a computer, software, and service company. When arranging a first date with a Yale Medical School student, he decided to impress her with tickets to August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which happened to be playing at the Yale Repertory Theater across the street from where he lived. “I thought, ‘She’ll like me if I take her to this play, it’s intellectual, it’s art, it’s creative, and it’s imagination,’” he recalls. “We set up a time to go see this show, and she stood me up.”
Thompson went to the theater alone, and that night in 1986 changed the course of his life. Before Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Thompson had only attended one Broadway play, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. “That was my only theater experience, and I hadn’t seen any black people on stage,” he continued. “I had no idea that there were stories about black people on stage. When I went, I had no idea what the story was about. I was sitting there watching this fabulous, incredible story of black people, people who look like me, people who act like me, people who are members of my family. It was an epiphany for me. I was watching the story unfold and I was taken aback by the whole experience, watching all this nobility and grace onstage.”
“I knew right then that that’s what I wanted to do,” Thompson continues. “I wanted to do what I was watching; I wanted to be an actor. In that moment, that’s when the idea, the dream, the desire to want to be an actor came. I remember distinctly; I said ‘Oh God, if you’re watching, teach me how to do what I’m watching; make me an actor.’ It was a powerful moment. I always tell people I certainly built a career doing classic plays, like Shakespeare, but I became an actor because of August Wilson, for sure.”