When we last interviewed Ricardo for August Wilson’s Radio Golf in 2020, he told us it was a personal mission of his to appear in every play in August Wilson’s Century Cycle, whether in a full production or a staged reading. With Gem of the Ocean, he’s reached that goal…but he’s already established another one.
“I actually want to go on stage and actually be in all of the [American Century Cycle] shows, which is different than doing a reading, so I’ve technically still got a few to go,” Ricardo said.
In 1987 at Trinity Rep, Ricardo portrayed ambitious trumpeter Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom opposite Barbara Meek as the titular character. A few years later he’d play Jim Bono, friend of the former Negro League baseball player Troy Maxson, in Fences at Trinity Rep. Ricardo appeared in three other productions of Fences outside of Trinity Rep, both as Bono and Troy. In Trinity Rep’s 2000-01 Season, Ricardo played the family patriarch Doaker in The Piano Lesson, and returned 20 years later as Elder Joseph Barlow in Radio Golf.
At various points in his life, Ricardo’s participated in staged readings of the remaining shows: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Seven Guitars, Two Trains Running, Jitney, and King Hedley II. Ricardo said there are some shows he’s more interested in being in a production of than others, though when asked what his favorite Wilson play is, Ricardo said it tends to be whichever one he’s working on at the time. He’ll always have a soft spot for Ma Rainey for being his first Wilson show, Ricardo noted, but all of the plays in the American Century Cycle offer an unapologetically Black perspective rarely seen in American theater.
“Wilson presents the authentic African-American experience, and his plays don’t try to be accommodating to the Eurocentric way of doing things,” Ricardo said when explaining his love for Wilson’s work. “They give Black actors an opportunity to be their authentic selves because the characters are so open and accessible, and believable and conflicted and troubled, and hopeful. Everything that makes up the Black experiences are presented in these plays, but they present all kinds of challenges.”
These challenges, Ricardo says, include the rhythms of Wilson’s words. He told us that just as actors learn how to “speak Shakespeare,” actors must also learn how to “speak Wilsonian.” Ricardo said that unlike Shakespeare, where actors are traditionally expected to be formally trained, understanding Wilson is more like improvisational jazz.
This can be a challenge. “But as an actor, who doesn’t want to challenge?” Ricardo remarked.
With Gem, Ricardo continues to admire Wilson’s writing, but he’s most excited for the team he gets to work with on it. He reunites with resident company member Joe Wilson, Jr., with whom Ricardo shared the stage in Radio Golf and was directed by in 2021’s A Christmas Carol. Director Jude Sandy and actor Dereks Thomas also worked on Radio Golf, so Gem of the Ocean is something of a reunion for the four men.
Rose Weaver and Ricardo started their work in the Wilson canon together in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, when Rose played Ma Rainey’s lover, Dussie Mae. Ricardo last worked with Rose at Trinity Rep in The Piano Lesson, where she played his character’s niece, Berniece. Ricardo can’t wait to collaborate with the Gem cast and crew, explaining that he enjoys that everyone has input as the show takes shape.
“Part of the journey is not knowing where you got to end up, except that you’re going end up doing something magnificent,” Ricardo remarked.
Outside of August Wilson work, Ricardo’s kept himself busy. This winter he appeared as Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol at Trinity Rep.
“I’m at a point in my life where it has to be something important with a real value for me to go on stage,” Ricardo said. “When you’re younger, just having a job is important, but now you want to do projects you’re totally invested in. With A Christmas Carol, Joe approached me about a way of doing the show and playing Marley that I found very interesting and compelling. And I think we were able to execute a vision that was worth doing, because we got to redefine Marley and redefine Black people in the world of A Christmas Carol.”
As founder of Mixed Magic Theatre in Pawtucket, Ricardo continues to be involved with the organization, where his son Jonathan is currently artistic director. Due to pandemic uncertainty, Ricardo isn’t sure what the theater will produce next, but he’d like to soon present a play he wrote, The Trial of Frederick Douglass. The play follows Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and John Brown as they’re brought back from the dead and they put each other on trial.
Mixed Magic’s mission is to bring diverse stories to the stage. But Ricardo said Mixed Magic wants to foster diversity behind the scenes too. He suggested the future of Mixed Magic lies in training the next generation of Black theater professionals – not just actors, but designers, stage managers, and theater personnel – who are underrepresented in Rhode Island and nationwide. He wants young Black people to know that theater can be a great career option, on or off stage.
“We have to find ways of making sure that that as we come out of COVID that [theaters] don’t become so interested in rebuilding audiences that certain audiences get left behind, because they’ve been ignored in the past and they’ll be ignored again,” Ricardo remarked. “I’m determined not to let that happen.”
Mixed Magic Theater will hold readings of two other August Wilson plays in March: King Hedley II and Seven Guitars. To learn more and purchase tickets, visit www.mmtri.org.