W. Jerome Stevenson Talks Playing Pulitzer & Shaping Community
It didn’t take long for W. Jerome Stevenson to feel at home playing Joseph Pulitzer in Lyric’s production of Newsies. Stevenson, like his character, carries a great deal of influence in the community he serves. While Pulitzer was a prominent New York City newspaper publisher in the 1890s, Stevenson has led The Pollard Theatre in Guthrie, Oklahoma for nearly 20 years.
Newspapers certainly played a crucial part in guiding our culture through much of the last century. Wielding the power of a different medium, Stevenson believes theatre can similarly influence the public narrative. “I love theatre as a vehicle for connecting people in the dark,” he said.
Stevenson is a frequent collaborator with many other area theatres, including CityRep, Shakespeare in the Park, and, of course, Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma. Stevenson began his work at the Pollard shortly while studying at Langston University.
After two years attending Langston and working on shows at the Pollard, Stevenson began auditioning in Dallas, pursuing work in the entertainment business and supporting himself with jobs like voice-over work for barbecue commercials. “Somebody said to me, ‘Don’t worry about the timing of the degree. Get you some practical experience because you want to build relationships.” After a few years, the Pollard invited him to return for a show, and he stayed to finish his degree at Langston.
Upon graduation, Stevenson had plans to go work elsewhere. “I was about to go and work on a cruise ship, begrudgingly. I was packing up my things in a little apartment in Guthrie. And they asked me to come in for a meeting with the board of directors.” At first, he didn’t know he was being considered as a candidate for the soon-to-be-vacated Artistic Director position.
“They felt I’d given good answers about what the Pollard might become. At first, I thought, ‘Oh, no, you’re asking the wrong guy. I don’t know anything about any of that stuff.” But his desire to stay here in work in Oklahoma, paired with the prospect of creating opportunities, led him to accept the job.
Growing up in Oklahoma, Stevenson experienced that familiar push towards athletics and away from performing. “At that time, if you had a certain look–if you were physically strong in any way, you were expected to play football or basketball. Football is cool, but it’s not the only thing that’s awesome. A lot of people made me feel like art in Oklahoma was somehow feminine, or maybe more to the point, ‘coastal.’ Being an artist wasn’t rural, particularly in the African American community.”
The biggest misconception was that working in the theatre would not lead to a paying job. However, Stevenson explains, “I had teachers who supported me, who said that going into acting might elicit a negative response from my parents. ‘It’s going to seem weird, but see if you like it.’ And I loved it.”
Even though Stevenson calls the Pollard home, he’s always been interested in the benefits of collaboration. “It’s nice when you’re comfortable with the people that you work, with because they can push you and they know what your strengths are. But it’s inspiring to get away and go somewhere where your level of responsibility is different. The talent pool in Oklahoma is so rich, and working with other theatre artists is deeply satisfying.”
“It’s a little like rubbernecking, you know, with your jaw dropped. Because you’re so impressed with how creative minds work–people like D. Lance Marsh, and Matthew Sipress, and Ashley Wells. Watching them work reminds me of why I do this. It’s about creativity and finding the solutions that don’t necessarily come from having big budgets.”
When Stevenson auditioned for Lyric’s summer season, playing Pulitzer was not at the center of his radar. “Obviously, the real Joseph Pulitzer was not black. So I thought it was cool when they offered me the part. I knew it would be a good role for me vocally because the music is right in my range. But even today, people of color are not often considered for roles that weren’t written specifically for them.”
“Even if the audience is thrown for a minute by how I look, I hope the show is so good that we draw them back in. There may be a percentage of people who say ‘No, he can’t look like that.’ But hopefully, we can show them that, yes, it’s okay.”
Now that Stevenson is walking onto the Lyric stage every night as Pulitzer, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part. Pulitzer’s storyline is far from heroic in Newsies, but Stevenson discovered that the character still a redeemable guy. “He’s not the villain that needs to be pushed off a cliff or into hot lava. He’s the villain that just needs help coming around.” To avoid spoilers, we’ll leave it at that.
Stevenson has been strategic about choosing the material to produce, and how the stories guide the actors and audiences into new experiences. When he started, the Pollard was a large resident company, trying to build a brand as the American version of the big British music hall. Stevenson worked with many incredible artists during his early days with the company, and also got the chance to see how different material resonated with Oklahoma audiences.
After joining as Artistic Director, Stevenson envisioned a slightly different direction for the company. “For Pollard, the story is everything, and you have to find a path towards mutual understanding with your audience. That’s not always an easy thing to do. We try to bring together an audience that the Pollard hadn’t always engaged so we try to introduce contemporary pieces as well as those classic warhorses that audiences know and love.”
One famous play he wanted to produce was The Laramie Project. But Stevenson knew there was groundwork to be laid before mounting a show about Matthew Shepherd’s murder in a rural community. He decided to take small steps over the course of several years, introducing audiences to LGBTQ+ characters. When the time came to produce Laramie, he wanted viewers to see the story with the right context. In 2008, Stevenson finally got to see The Laramie Project on the Pollard stage, as a co-production with CityRep.
“When we told our boards that we were going to collaborate on Laramie, neither of our boards balked at it. They saw it coming. My board is in the middle of Guthrie. And you’d assume they would be resistant to this kind of play but they are such amazing advocates for the arts and what it can do to help a community grow. It’s truly is amazing to work with them toward this mission of inclusion. It just takes patience and lots of little incremental steps.”
– Rodney Brazil, Arts Blogger