From a new Broadway show to upcoming film projects, one thing’s for sure: don’t ever underestimate Blair Underwood! Blair, who grew up in a military family, is bringing his own background and passion to A Soldier’s Play, which is currently in previews at the American Airlines Theatre. Directed by Tony Award winner Kenny Leon, the Broadway debut of A Soldier’s Play features a powerhouse ensemble cast starring Blair alongside veteran David Alan Grier and Jerry O’Connell with former NFL great Nnamdi Asomougha.
“A Soldier’s Play takes place in 1944 in Louisiana, at a time when there were only five black officers in the army,” explained Blair. “My dad was a general in the Vietnam War in the ‘60s, and it was still rare to have African American officers. I have quite a unique perspective of my people and the culture and honor and duty that comes from that specific upbringing in a military family and growing up on military bases.”
Though he is perhaps most well-known for his on-screen roles in shows including LA Law, Quantico and City of Angels, Blair began his acting career with live theatre. This ambitious actor, who began studying drama in junior high school with his teacher Mrs. Warren in Warren, Michigan, continued doing plays upon moving to Petersburg, Virginia. He eventually started doing local dinner theaters where he was paid $75 a week. “I thought, not only do I get to do this but they’re actually paying me – I can’t believe they’re still paying me to perform!
“I love storytelling and exploring different worlds and cultures and characters and time frames in history and even in the future. You can transport yourself anywhere, whether it’s telling stories by a campfire or escaping through a book or movies and television. Storytelling is at its finest when you can do it in a communal way, in a theatre, where the energy in that room ebbs and flows and we all feel it at the same time. It’s magical. It’s what I love and have a passion for. I also love film and television for different reasons. You do the work, you tell a particular story, but you’re committed to film for life. It will live on way past my lifetime, and you can look back and see how young you looked!”
In addition to appearing in various productions with theater companies in Richmond, Virginia, this now A-list actor went to Carnegie Mellon, where he studied theatre and received a bachelor’s in fine arts. Blair, who is back in New York for the duration of A Soldier’s Play, first moved to Brooklyn in 1985 until a job brought him out to Los Angeles.
Though he’s been involved in both theatre and film, A Soldier’s Play seems fated to have found its way to Blair, who found about it after receiving a text from his manager saying that director Kenny Leon wanted to speak with him about a new show he was doing. “He told me it started off as an off-Broadway play at the Negro Ensemble Company and became so popular that it was turned into a movie called A Soldier’s Story starring Denzel Washington and a young man named David Alan Grier. I had seen the movie and I loved it, but I had never seen or read the play. I respected the story and the writing of the play, which had won a Pulitzer Prize. I was most interested to see the context of the theatrical production, which features 12 characters: nine African Americans and three Caucasians.”
This dedicated performer also said that while more progress can still be made, theatre has become much more diverse. “I’m not sure why it’s taken 35 years for this show to make it to Broadway, or why the Roundabout Theatre Company stood up and made it happen, but I’m glad they did. They also have another play coming up called Caroline, or Change. We’re a diverse people and a diverse culture, and Broadway is the epitome of the world stage theater, so I get excited about this; it’s encouraging to see.”
Playing Captain Richard Davenport in A Soldier’s Play has definitely struck a chord for Blair, who drew on his own experiences growing up in order to portray his character. “I dealt with coming from a military family, so I came with that vantage point and perspective, as well as the highs and lows of the black American solider and the soldier in general and in particular during World War II. Working on this with Kenny just made sense. I found the experience and this role to be much deeper than what I had anticipated. It was about uncovering and delving into the character and his mindset at the time – being able to find the honor and representing yourself and your race and your culture by fighting for your country in a pursuit that would somehow humanize you in ways that people didn’t see in this country at the time. Being a young child, growing up on military bases, I would watch my father be a father, but then he left our home, and I would see him become this military officer facing the world. The trap sometimes of playing military personnel is to play the rigidity, the precision, the barking orders. Our job as actors is to create underlying emotions of the characters in that story as well as the relevancy of these people. I took my own personal experience to defend the human being, the character, and to see what makes this guy tick and think and feel and hurt and make him a living, breathing person in 1944. The first time you see him, he’s very casual. The captain is also the narrator in the play who sets up the story, and there are three different monologues to tie it all up. I saw him telling a story very casually. He’s smoking a cigarette walking down the street, and as with all stories, when they affect your or teach you, you start to relive those emotions that bubble up inside you and how they manifest into this play is how the story unfolds. I’m dedicating my performance to my father, who is 87 years old, and I will do whatever it takes to get him and my mother to come see the show.”
This powerhouse of an actor also demonstrated how powerful the process of preparing for this role was to him. “There’s this perspective of your outside armor and what that uniform represents. It’s not just metal bars on your shoulders; rather, it’s about how it’s draped on you. You’re making a statement with everything you wear and how you wear it. His hat and his glasses are representative of who he is. He uses his glasses as a shield and only wears them when he’s engaging with white officers. In 1944, this was a real rarity, because instead of cow tailing and being subservient, he has equal reign – to reflect yourself in his glasses and say I’m not intimidated or afraid is his strong way of rebelling, and it speaks a lot to Captain Davenport and his methods.”
Blair, who explained that a revival is meant to bring something fresh so that audiences see and feel things in a new way, also began to gain a different perspective, and hopes that this version will resonate with a new generation. Working with acclaimed director Kenny Leon also allowed Blair to expand his creative horizons. After all, Kenny, who has been described as Broadway’s leading African American director, won the Tony Award in 2014 for Best Director of a Play for A Raisin in the Sun. This historical drama may have history repeating itself!
“I was aware that a lot of these soldiers were not given the respect they were owed after fighting for this country overseas. In this world that Kenny has created, you feel things in different ways, and that affects how you live the character and create your performance. What I love about the performing arts is that you’re receiving knowledge, and just like with a book or documentary, when you can translate emotion into intellect, it becomes a much deeper journey.”
Even with decades in the business and a new play, nothing can hold Blair back from bringing new projects to life, including a moving movie set to be released early next year. The film, which is in four parts, focuses on Madam CJ Walker, played by Octavia Spencer. Blair plays the husband of Walker, who became the first African American multi-millionaire from her African American haircare products empire.
The unstoppable Underwood also narrated a book coming out called Olympic Pride, American Prejudice, which was a documentary written, produced and directed by Deborah Draper. So far, he has done five books with Simon and Schuster called Blair Underwood Presents. Olympic Pride, American Prejudice is a story from the 1930s that ties in thematically with A Soldier’s Play.
“It takes place during the Olympic games where Jesse Owens won four gold medals, but there were 17 other African American athletes who set out to find honor and dignity and to complete in Nazi Germany in 1936. People said you shouldn’t go over and give them the time of day, but they said, ‘If we can prove our athletic prowess, and show that we’re as good or better, we should do it on the world stage.’ It’s based on an award-winning documentary and is now a book written by Travis Thrasher. I also did a project called Dear White People for Netflix. It’s fun and satirical but gives a very insightful look into African American students on a white campus. The writer and creator, Justin Simien, then invited me to be in his movie called Bad Hair, a fun production he wrote, produced and directed. It’s going to premiere January 23rd at Sundance. There’s this whole genre of hair possession films in Korean and Japanese culture, where the weaves possess people. This project is about black people and their weaves. I play the uncle of the female lead whose character sheds light into hair and how it gets into our DNA, our biology.”
He might live in Los Angeles now with his wife and three children, but Blair has always been a fan of the Big Apple. Over the years he has lived in the city while filming different projects, including Sex and the City and The Good Wife. “I love New York. Every chance I get, I’m here. Part of being an army brat is I’m ready to get on the next plane out. I live in Hell’s Kitchen and can walk to work. I’ve always felt like a New Yorker in spirit; it feels like home. I love California too; it’s a balancing act. When you grow up in a nomadic lifestyle, you learn to enjoy things wherever you are. I love the integrity of the theater and the artistic work here. It’s a different texture than that of Los Angeles. There are so many great places here, but when I go out, I like this little Italian restaurant called Orso. I used to go to Sardi’s every night when I was working here years ago. They would put me at my favorite table in the back corner.”
Though none of his children are planning to follow in their father’s acting footsteps, Blair’s 21-year-old daughter, who is currently studying communications in college, did inherit her dad’s dedication for storytelling and already has an eye for discovering talent. Don’t be surprised if you see this father-daughter duo collaborating on a film in the near future!
With an exciting new play and additional projects in the works, including a film he wants to direct and star in after his Broadway run, Blair always brings it, and he just keeps getting better!
Agency | Finn Partners, Helen Shelton
Styling | Steven Lassalle
Assistant Stylist | Andy Solano
Grooming | Chauntelle Langston