Versatile and regal with a side of charisma, Kim Sullivan made history last February when he starred as landlord Seth Holly in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone; the final of all the plays in the August Wilson Century Cycle.
Sullivan is back in St. Pete to start a new cycle of American Stage roles, beginning with his role as Wynton in The Royale.
The Philadelphia native says he can relate to Wynton. “I’m at that point where I would be a trainer,” he says. “My time is over, but I’m still in the game. Kim as an actor is still in the game. Roles at this point in my career are seemingly hard to find, and yet here is a prime one, a role that I’m deadly right for. So, I’m happy about that as I mature. I used to be the youngest in everybody’s company, and now I’m the oldest in everybody’s company. I’ve gone from extreme to extreme (laughs). As long as I have my hair, my teeth and my plumbing still works, I intend to work.”
Sullivan grew up starring in school musicals, and earned a full ride to NYU. He’s toured the national professional circuit extensively and has dabbled in some film and TV work. Some of Sullivan’s Wilson roles and others at American Stage have garnered Best of the Bay honors. The Wilson Cycle offered a range of characters — men who aged alongside him.
(Side note: It’s quite a feat for one theater to produce all of Wilson’s 20th century plays; American Stage is only one theater of 12 to reach this milestone.)
In The Royale, Sullivan plays the paternal and wise boxing trainer. Co-starring with “young bucks” didn’t rattle the ego of this gentleman.
“I’ve reached the tender age of 65,” he said, broaching the topic with levity and bittersweet humor. “I don’t have to put out the energy the boxers in the play put do, but it’s still strenuous, shouting at the top of my lungs, trying to remember intricate little phrases. Those two young bucks would knock me flat in 10 seconds! I admire these young fellas for their strength and stamina, knowing their lines beforehand — which made my job that much harder because I had to play catch-up.”
The Royale has a certain mojo and poetry that seems a perfect fit for Sullivan. The drama by Orange Is the New Black and Sons of Anarchy writer Marco Ramirez uses rhythms to mesmerizing effect and defies convention. Its script follows, more or less, the life events of the world’s first African American heavyweight champ, Jack Johnson, during the peak of his career amids the segregation of the Jim Crow South. Johnson’s life also inspired Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope, a 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning play and 1970 movie. James Earl Jones starred in both. Plus, a two-part Ken Burns television documentary (“Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson”); and music by Miles Davis and Mos Def. Johnson’s career helped define a new archetype — the celebrity athlete.
Sullivan, a champ in his own right, met up with Creative Pinellas during the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. He reveals his favorite Wilson role and gives us his take on Philly’s “brotherly love.”
Often the most compelling character in boxing stories is the trainer, especially true in The Royale. You play trainer Wynton, who delivers an important monologue in the play, which also includes an anecdote that inspires the play’s title. Could you tell us what made you connect to your character?
“Wynton grew up hardscrabble, fending for himself. He learned his fighting skills fighting in battle royales, as they were known at the time. So, he was a dirty fighter, a street fighter. He knows all the tricks; not the Marquess of Queensberry Rules type of boxing; a gouge-you-in-the-eyes, fighting-with-elbows type of fighting. He learned his manner of boxing from the street. … He gets a chance to show Jack what boxing is really about. Until he could box, Jack knew he could knock people out. He had a big couple of arms. He was a big buck. The art of boxing is totally different. There’s a ring science. … That’s our bond. I show Jack how to stand, where to stand, how to duck, how to get out the way, how to hit, how not to be hit, how to box.”
As a trainer, wouldn’t you say that your character is a father figure knows how to get inside the head of his fighter? You know like Micky (Burgess Meredith) in “Rocky”?
“We try to show that Svengali atmosphere. The play is short so it’s in glimpses here and there. Our bond is close and it’s true, but we’re in the barnstorming era of fighting, when you could rack up everything and go from town to town racking up everything and looking for challengers. … You don’t really see how close they are until I give the monologue about The Royale. … At this point in Jake Jackson’s career, aka Jack Johnson, he pretty much knows what he’s doing. He’s now at the point where he’s ready to take on the Heavyweight Champion of the world, who’s in retirement, sitting for for four or five years. He’s at the peak of his career so there’s no need to show a lot of training. … The conflict is that the champ wants to duck him because he know’s Jake is contender and that will send the whole fight game on its ear if he wins.”
How do the racial tensions around boxing in the Jim Crow era an rear their ugly head in the play?
“We show how there’s a lot of death threats, lots of people trying to trip Jake up, lots of people trying to throw him off and get into his personal life, which was raunchy at best. He violated every rule — he lived high, he dated white women and yet he was always ready to fight. He was also a bright fellow. He read a lot and specialized in fast cars and lofty topics. He was an educated boxer, which went against the idea of a boxer being anything but a pug. Also, Jack was a true gentleman. He was a connoisseur. He liked to eat well, do well and be well.”
I’ve read in The New York Times review of the play that The Royale distinguishes itself from other plays in the genre with its “stark lyricism.”
“Yes, it’s lyrical in that sense. What you see are bouts stylized and the conversations around them show what’s at stake and how intense this atmosphere would have been, and how dangerous it would have been, for a black boxer trying to show off his skill in front of a white crowd.”
Congratulations on performing in all 10 of the plays in American Stage’s history-making completion of the August Wilson Century Cycle. Do you have a favorite Wilson role? If so, what makes the character special to you?
“My favorite is Wining Boy in Piano Lesson. Whining Boy is like an old pair of shoes for me. He gets to tell all the juicy stories; he’s extremely funny and he’s very. very tender. He doesn’t come out until he reads the death letter about Cleotha, and that one scene, if done well, can bring tears to the eye and endear him to ever woman in the house — because it shows everyone that this roustabout, this player did indeed love somebody and it got to him. He puts the letter announcing her death in his breast pocket. That’s what I did, put it right up to my heart. … It’s a sweet role, a tender role, a classic. I believe I got a Best of the Bay award for it, so that endeared me, as well. I also loved The Piano Lesson because nobody gets killed. So many of August Wilson’s play have violence. In The Piano Lesson, people just get roughed up by a ghost.”
I rewatched American Stage’s promotional interview with you for Jitney, in which you talk about your formative years in the glee club and attracting lead roles in H.M.S. Pinafore and A Christmas Carol? Hearing about this made me wonder: What was your first dramatic role and how did it affect you going forward?
“I guess Tony in West Side Story. I got to sing and act, and it was fun being the lead. West Side Story is sort of deep but it’s really fluffy; Capulets vs. Montagues, basically. In our high school, we had to have Latinos go up against the blacks because we didn’t have white students. (Laughs) We got along fine, but to create a rivalry we had to create some sort of antagonist of the other, so we did. The reaffirmed my desire to act. Up until that point I sort of let acting go. I thought it was frivolous, not masculine, but by high school I was right back in it. That’s when I realized I can do this. I want to make money at this. It’s when I was recruited by Lloyd Richards and got a full ticket to NYU, and the rest is history.”
You have performed in several cities. Do you still live in New York?
“I actually had to move back to Philadelphia. I moved back in 2016 to take care of my mother, who passed this year. In fact, she passed in March in between the time I had left and come back. She had hung on just long enough for me to get back from on the road.”
I’m so sorry. How old was she?
“She made it to the ripe old age of 85. … I need to write a play about caregivers because I didn’t get it until I actually had to do it. Caregivers are the backbone of this whole society. She took care of me, and I took care of her. She never thought in a million years that I would just pick up and drop everything to move back home to Philadelphia. You’re so wrapped up in your career; I didn’t think would come. I said, ‘It’s just me you and you, Ma,’ and that career can wait. I can pick it up anytime.”
What lies ahead? Are you going to keep traveling? Are you going to settle in one place?
“I’m always ready to go on the road. Although, the road gets weary as you get older. I’m selective about what roles I take and where I go. I still feel the fire and I’ve still got the juice. As long as I can walk and talk, I’m staying in the game.”
You’ve come to St. Pete a lot. I guess it’s become a home away from home for you.
“Oh, yes. I know St. Pete like the back of my hand.”
Which are some of my favorite places here?
“My favorite restaurant is Ceviche. Where else? … I used to go up to Ringside, which is now where Trader Joe’s is. That broke my heart. There used to be a club called Kismet, where I used to go and have some fun evenings there when I started visiting St. Pete. Now it’s boarded up with a Now Available sign. Yeah, so, a lot has changed since I first started coming here, and every time I come back, something has been boarded up or changed hands. It’s a little tricky, a little sad to watch the constant gentrification of this town. It was rather sleepy and quaint at one time, and now it’s becoming a cinder block mess. … Your national bird is the crane, atop all these buildings!”
Are you enjoying being back in Philly?
“No, I don’t like my hometown either though, so I’m pretty restless. I’ve outgrown Philadelphia. People there can be some of the meanest people in the world, quite frankly. Philly is pretty to look at. It’s a beautiful city on the river, but that brotherly love stuff went out the window with the Quakers. … I’d live here permanently if I could get work here full-time.”