Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Chuck Cooper

Artist Profile by Sierra Meszaros


Chuck Cooper (He/Him) won the 1996 Tony Award for best featured actor for his portrayal of Memphis in Cy Coleman’s The Life and continues to appear on screen and stage. Cooper has been featured in screen titles such as Madam Secretary, House of Cards, Gossip Girl, and Sara Bareilles’ 2020 Apple+ series Little Voice. Notable Broadway credits include Chicago, Finian’s Rainbow, and Caroline or Change for which he received the Audelco award for best actor. Cooper made his Broadway debut in 1983 in the musical Amen Corner and is known foremost in the Shakespearean world for his roles in the Public Theater’s 2019 production of Much Ado About Nothing, as well as the 2014 production of Romeo and Juliet where he portrayed Lord Capulet against Condola Rashad’s Juliet. Cooper is an acclaimed Shakespearean actor and dreams of portraying King Lear someday.

Cooper often says that he was brought up in the theater, because he attended nursery school at the Caramel House in Cleveland, Ohio, which was also home to the local theater where his father was an active participant. Upon graduating with a degree in theater from Ohio University, Cooper made his way to New York in 1979 with the dream of making it on stage and on screen. Within one week of his arrival, Cooper was booked and busy making his way across the country in a Theater Works USA production of Young Mark Twain

Of the many productions he has been a part of in the Shakespearean world, Cooper considers his time in the late John Hirsch’s Coriolanus to be one of his most cherished experiences, particularly because of Hirsch’s practice of digging in with each character, one-on-one, to develop them as a complex person. Cooper’s resume is rich, but his most favorite roles have been the ones of father to Alex, Eddie, and Tony nominee Lilli Cooper, and husband to playwright Deborah Brevoort. Cooper is represented by Don Buchwald & Associates in both NY and LA, as well as by SMS Talent, Inc in LA.

Contact Information:

For New York representation, call Leading Artists at (212) 391-4545. For Los Angeles representation, call SMS Talent (310) 289-0909.

Full Interview Transcript


MeszarosHello, my name is Sierra Meszaros. I am a student at the university of Chicago divinity school, and I am honored to be able to enter this video into the black Shakespearian database featuring, incredible actor, …Tony award, winning actor, Chuck Cooper, and we’re just going to launch it. Thank you again so much for being a part of this project and allowing us to profile you not only to expand the way that folks in our country think about Shakespeare, but also to create more opportunities for black artists across the board. Not only when it comes to Shakespeare, but theater in general, as well as film and television. So this is a really great opportunity. We previously had some questions, so I’m just going to throw it out there. You’ve been in this business for some 30 years and have been recognized for your performances in plays and musicals, including the Life, Choir Boy, and the Piano Lesson, receiving a Tony award for your portrayal of Memphis in the Life..and you have even had the opportunity to work with your Tony nominated daughter on a number of different projects. When you were at the beginning of your career, did you imagine where this art, your art would lead you? and what was it that initially drew you to stage and screen?

Cooper: Wow, well, the short answer is no, I had no idea that I would be sitting here today, speaking to you, being so, profoundly grateful for a career that has really done things and achieved things that I had no idea were within the realm of possibility for me….that said, it happened, Oh my God. I got to live a life as an actor and the theater and kind of make my way! What originally got me into this…well, let me first say that as a young high school student about to graduate from high school and going to college and, you know, facing the ‘what am I going to do?’ question, I only knew one thing very firmly in my mind and in my being, and that was that whatever it was that I chose to do as a vocation, I wanted it to be something that was fun.

My father worked for United Airlines, as a Porter and as a black man in America, carrying people’s bags at the airport, it was not the most fun job say the least. It afforded him travel, he had passes on the airlines and what not, there were, you know, it was a decent paying job, but the social aspect of it was horrible and he hated it. And it was clear when he would come home from work. I figured that, you know, you spend a lot of time at work and so it should be something you’d like to do. And my father also was, active in community theater in Cleveland. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and so I was almost familiar with the theater… as a matter of fact, I often say that I was brought up in the theater because I went to nursery school in the theater that my father, and my mother, acted in, it was called then the caramel house in Cleveland, Ohio.

It was a settlement house. So, it was part theater, part community center. Just a place for the community to come together and be together and do projects together. So when I went away to college it just so happened that in my freshman orientation, you know, when you go down there just before school starts and fill out the form about what your interests are and what not I was undecided. So they try to guide you towards something that you might be interested in. The advisor for my group happened to be a professor in the school of theater and upon looking at, you know, what I had done in high school, I sang in the choir in high school. It was an amazing choir because I had to audition to get in and I got in and, and we toured the country and made albums– not CDs– albums.

And so, he suggested that I try the freshmen track in the school of theater. I said, Oh, wow. I never– it never occurred to me that you could do that. I had originally gone there thinking tacitly that I might try the school of radio, television, communication to be a disc jockey, as I thought, records, that’s fun. But so made the suggestion about the theater department. I thought, well, that’s interesting. I, you know, that could be fun and, and you can make a living in the theater as an actor. Wow. I didn’t really know that. And you knew, I knew there were movie stars and TV stars and all that, but the theater? So I did it, I took, you know, acting 101, dance 101, movement 101 in the freshmen track and loved it, had a great time, so I met with some early success.

And so that was really the springboard, the journey that brought me to this moment, we are now in. I went through the professional actor training program at Ohio university, auditioned in my sophomore year to get into the studio, which is a conservatory program– pretty intense– where I was trained to be an actor and upon graduation, I took the leap and moved to New York to try to be an actor. And it worked, the dream worked. I started living the dream. It’s so funny because when I first moved, I moved in 76, the bicentennial year, and I gave myself two years to get my equity card.

Now, there were upperclassmen who had graduated, you know, a year or two ahead of me that I knew who had already started their careers in New York and whatnot. And one of them recommended me for an audition for a children’s theater company called… back then it was called the performing arts repertory theater. Today it is called theater works USA. It’s one of the largest children’s theaters in the country. And she got me this audition the first week I was there, they hired me and I got my equity card the first week.

So I got a job. I literally put my bags down, went and did the audition, got the job, did the rehearsal then was off on the road doing children’s theater all across the hinterland. The first show I did for them was Young Mark Twain where I played an ex-slave named Jim and I had some fabulous song. And then I did Freedom Train, which is the story of Harriet Tubman. And that then led to regional theater work and then it was just like the breadcrumbs along the journey…meeting people. It always turns out that it’s who you know…so one friend would say, hey, there’s this audition over here, or one friend would say, ‘Oh, I just recommended you for this thing!’ And it just blossomed into the garden that is my career!

MeszarosThat’s such an incredible story. I started doing theater in high school, and I was watching all of my friends getting ready to audition for college. There’s a part of me that regrets that I didn’t just stick it out and like follow through, but I felt like I had gone into it too late and that I was too old and that there was no changing tracks, but that’s neither here nor there. 

The journey that you’ve been on potentially speaks to a particular moment. And I’m wondering from your perspective, if you feel like the, the way that folks communicated when you were starting out your career…potentially a shared sense of success when people that you’re connected to do well, and you’re sharing names, do you feel that that’s something that’s changed over time in the theater world…how have you seen sort of the theater world change since you got started?

Cooper: Oh my God. I mean, consider this. When I started, when I got my first job with theater works USA and children’s theater, there were no cell phones. There were no computers! There was no internet. There was no social media. There was none of that. So when you got an audition, your agent would call your landline or you would have to pay for a answering service basically. So you pay for this service where they give you a telephone number. You give your telephone number to your agent, and when your agent wants to call you, they call this number and leave a on the answering machine, remember those things.

And that was one of the ways in which information was passed on. There were trade magazines that we would pick up every week. They published what was the backstage and show biz. And you would have to go to the news, stand by a newspaper and leaf through the newspaper to see what auditions were there, what agents were perhaps looking for people or whatever. And there was much more, it seemed like there was much more “let’s have lunch tomorrow” and talk about whatever and or why not, why don’t we get together and do a showcase, we’ll pick some show, a couple of scenes pull our money together, rent the theater and have an evening of short scenes and invite agents…this kind of networking situation went on back then.

Wow! You know, as I watched my daughter (Tony nominee Lilli Cooper), its so facile with all the social media platforms…Instagram and tweeting and you know. Now you can self-promote. In a sense, you don’t need anybody else. You can do it more by yourself. And so that’s vastly different from my beginnings. I honestly can’t imagine how a young person trying to get into the business now would approach it, because it’s so different. It’s such a different animal now. When I moved to New York, my first apartment was a one-bedroom walk up on 79th street that I shared with a friend of mine from college. And the rent was $260 a month. And that was a lot! And we only had to walk up four flights of stairs…260, Oh my God, how are we going to make this rent, you know, 130 bucks each! Now, you know, thousands of dollars! You got kids, four and five to a one-bedroom apartment. I just, I don’t know how, how they do it, they are still trying, and the beat goes on.

MeszarosYeah. I know many kids that I went to high school with that went on to incredible performing arts, colleges, and really put in the hustle and then went to New York. And it’s just been sort of a continued hustle. All good things come from hard work, or many good things come from hard work. But there is, an element of luck to it today, especially when it comes to self-promotion over social media. You never know what’s going to be the thing that makes you go viral. So you constantly have to be putting information out there. And I think it is a huge challenge. It changes the nature of networking. You’re talking about building genuine relationships, and now we’re talking about putting on a face, that is a constant face, right?

If you’re performing, you’re used to getting into different characters and maybe that’s fun, but what happens when suddenly your everyday life is this constant putting on different faces? It’s very difficult. Anyways. We’ll shift gears a little bit! So, I want to bring us back just to talking about Shakespeare and some of the roles that you’ve done, most notably in 2014, you starred in the onstage revival of Romeo and Juliet at the Richard Rogers theater on Broadway. Of the Shakespearian roles that you’ve had the fortune of play throughout your career, what have been some of your favorites and why those ones?

Cooper: That’s a very good question. Well, the short answer is I have thoroughly enjoyed every time that I have been called upon to render my services in Shakespeare. And that, that is not true for a lot of the other stuff. And I don’t know why that is! Maybe it’s because I had a profound sense of how rarefied it is for a Black actor to get to do Shakespeare, especially when I was coming up. But there was also the work, there’s also Mr. Shakespeare. He is exquisite…to sing his music, as I often say, is quite a joy. The universality of it, the scope of it, the depth of it… was just intoxicating to me. The artist, and maybe accurately, the human being in me, really responds to the work specifically.

If I had to say a favorite one, I’m going to go back to a production of Coriolanus that, I was part of at the Old Globe Theater, which was directed by the late, great John Hirsch. Dakin Matthew, who was, I think, one of our finest actors. Byron Jennings played Coriolanus. I played Tullus Aufidius, Coriolanus’ arch enemy, and what was so significant about that production, and why I hold it up, is because I believe that is where I actually learned how to perform Shakespeare.

The director, John Hirsch was a famous Canadian director and he’d direct all over the world, was very lauded in his career. And he gave me this, this great part. And I remember early in the rehearsal process, I had table sessions, one-on-one table sessions with John Hirsch, no one else, he would carve out, you know, one or two hours in the morning where he and I would go over the text and scour it, and mine it, and excavate it. And he taught me how to break it down into its component parts, so that I wasn’t looking at a mountain, I was looking at a rock and I could look at each rock that made up the mountain, and therefore have a better understanding of what fact the mountain really was. So that experience was transformative. Then marry that with being on stage with Dakin Matthews, and Byron Jennings, who were, much more experienced than I, and I dare say infinitely more talented than I, and to be able to observe them in their process. How they digested it… how they donned their characters. And so that was an education process in and of itself. So the combination of my director being so fabulous and my fellow actors being so fabulous, helped me understand where the bar is and how to get over. And so, that production was pretty successful, folks responded quite well to it. And that is the production that I would say has the most meaning for me.

MeszarosAre there any characters in the Shakespearian Canon that you have yet to play that you’re excited about, or any characters that you would want to reprise?

Cooper: I don’t know about reprising any of them, cause most of them I’m too old to do, but the one that I have yet to do that I would love to do is Lear. And I actually want to do Lear with my daughter. That would be fabulous. 

MeszarosThat would be a powerhouse team on stage!

Cooper: That would! I respond so much to Lear, because being where I am in my career…you know, I’m sitting up here in a home that my wife and I were able to buy on the Lake, and I’m collecting my pension. I won’t say that I’m at the end, but I’m certainly not at the beginning. And I have that 2020 ability to look back at the decisions of my life, both professionally and with my family. And when I look at a character like Lear who begins the play, divvying up his kingdom among his daughters, I find a kind of synergy with that. I find a kind of understanding about what that is and how frailties and complexities and failings. And I find that very intriguing because he makes bad mistakes and I have made some mistakes. And look forward to that process of healing, that’s amazing.

MeszarosI would say that you have plenty of time left and so someone better snatch you up for that Lear! So, I just have a couple more questions. Zooming out to sort of any of the roles that you’ve played, or maybe just thinking about moments in your life that have… or in your career that have sort of reflected the excited and fulfilled feeling, any sort of “I really made it” feeling. Or this is what success means to me, what has been some of those roles or those moments that have been the most fulfilling?

Cooper: I laugh at that because whenever that has happened, and it did happen, it hasn’t happened very often. But when the one or two times when that has happened, I was quickly reminded that that is not the case.

MeszarosWhat do you mean?

Cooper: The first time it had happened was a kazillion years ago and, the phone rings, I pick up the phone and it’s Douglas Turner Ward from the Negro Ensemble Company. He called me and he asked my availability to come and do a Leslie Lee play called Colored People’s Time.They had lost an actor and they were inquiring about my availability to come into rehearsal tomorrow, the next day. And in my young naive brain, I thought, oh my God, I am going to do an NEC play. Clearly, I have arrived!

And you know, I did the play. It was fabulous. I mean, the cast of that play folks won’t believe it! I mean, it was, Sam Jackson..Angela Bassett was an understudy. Jackée Harry, Debbi Morgan…who else? Chuck Patterson, who passed here recently…Juanita Mahome…an incredible, incredible cast. Sam was Sam, he wasn’t SAM yet. He was just another guy, you know, we were doing this show and, you know, we did it, it was whatever it was. And then it was over. And I found out that I had, in fact, not arrived! I had to get out there and start auditioning and doing the same old grind. It wasn’t like people go, Oh, he was in a NEC show, let’s get him. No, it wasn’t that. The second time it sort of happened was when I won the Tony award. And I thought, well, come on, I won a Tony award! Clearly that means I have a lot. Right? I mean, that’s the thing everyone wants to get is a Tony award. Right. And I got it. So I gotta be all that in the bag of chips. Right?

So what I discovered was the Tony award…it gives you a lot of visibility. There’s name recognition, but the funny thing is people then often call you up to do benefits and to do these things for free, because they want to have your name on their roster of people that are going to be on the benefits so that they can make money for whatever because it is. And that’s a wonderful thing! and I have enjoyed doing that and helping out the actor’s fund, or helping out a theater that needs to fundraiser, that’s great. But when it comes to like a job, where you expect your compensation to reflect your award, they tend to forget about that.

…This is funny…I won the Tony award and then I went out to LA because I thought, okay, I’ll go out to LA and you know, I’ll walk in and I’ll just set it down on the desk! Well, I’ll never forget…This one guy said to me, well, so what’s a Tony? The Tony award, the Antoinette Perry award. So what is that? I was like, wow! Here, this guy is sitting behind a desk, making huge decisions, giving people jobs that are life changing jobs…these jobs where you make, you know, $20,000 an episode or whatever… crazy, crazy money. And he really did not know what the Antoinette Perry award was.

Right, right? But as I think about it now, it’s a good thing. It’s a good thing because, you know, I was Chuck before I got a job at NEC. I was Chuck after that. I was Chuck before I got the Tony and I was Chuck after that. And that taught me that I just have to be me! I just have to be me, and I just have to do what I can to further myself, my career, my person. And the external things that contribute or detract from that are out of my control. I can’t do anything about those things. I’ve blessed them, and I’ve released them. It was sobering. But it was also affirming in a sense, because it made me, as I said before, it made me realize that who I am is a product of what I endeavored to do. And that’s what’s important. That’s what is enduring, and that’s what will feed the future.

MeszarosIt’s kind of the truth of life, right?

Cooper: You’re exactly where you are. You here, you’re not anywhere else.

MeszarosThat’s something that I’ve struggled with as I’m starting my career, or deigning to start a career in an economy that is difficult to begin in, but trying to figure out where do I want to be and what is going to be, but I think it’s a constant struggle, right? You come back to it, you come back to needing to remember that you are who you are. And that is in some ways your superpower.

Cooper: Right? Right. Well, many things in life have that duality, like breathing. We breathe in and we breathe out, there’s daytime and there’s nighttime. There’s this flux, this ebb and flow to the universe. And what is most advantageous is to learn how to be comfortable with that. You must learn how to be comfortable with being, and you must learn how to be comfortable with uncertainty…And understand that the only constant in the universe is change.

MeszarosYou can say that again! So, my last question is just thinking about the future. We’re right on this sort of precipice of getting back to normal after the last couple of years. And I think there are many elements that sort of define this past year and a half between COVID-19, and our country going through a national racial reckoning which I think really impacted the theater, and particularly the Broadway community, with campaigns like we see you White American Theater…folks coming out about their experiences working as actors of color in different productions. Particularly productions geared more towards actors of color, or seemingly geared more towards actors of color. I’m interested in, are you ready for theaters to reopen? And what is your sort of hope that the theater community will…the learnings that the theater community will take with them into this new era? If we can call it that, but it feels like a new era, right? As everything’s sort of reopening at the same time, how do we mark this transition?

Cooper: That’s a fabulous question. Let me first say that I hope we don’t get back to normal. Normal actually wasn’t working that good. There are improvements to be made. And I don’t say that to say that things are horrible, I just say that because there’s room to be better. And we should avail ourselves of this opportunity. 

Am I ready for the theater to open up all my God? I miss it. I think the society and the world at large misses the energy of live performance. I think the energy of live performance extends beyond the walls of the theater. I think that the energy dynamo that happens when a group of people come together with a single purpose, to present something and another group of people come together in purpose to witness.

And when that gyration occurs, something really unique happens. And I think it can only happen, in live performance, there is a certain rarefied kind of empathy that is created. And I think that empathy…that energy that seeps out beyond the walls of the theater, because both artists and the audience experienced this thing together. And then they go out into the world and they carry that with them. They carry it with them and it affects things in tiny new ways and in the same tiny minute way in which drops of water in the ocean affect the erosion of land, in the same tiny way in which a Zephyr of wind changes the landscape.

We’re ready for it, I’m ready for it. It will be different because as we know everything changes, and COVID as had an effect. George Floyd has had an effect. People can see more… some people can see more, some people see less, but the folks who can see more, well we’ll have no choice, but to act on them. People in power have been made to see things and will be made to see, people will be less quiet when something is not right, less willing to accept something is not wrong. And there’ll be mistakes.

People will go too far, but the needle will move. The evolution of the species will continue and evolve. I often like to say, you know, way back when, when we were apes up in the trees, there are only a few apes that climbed down on the ground and see what’s out there. And, and that you are the ones who lead you, who have that exquisite characteristic of curiosity…between curiosity and empathy there’s nothing we can’t do. I feel the tragedy, the horrible suffering that has unfolded will be met by a balancing energy. I look forward to seeing the fruit

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