John Earl Jelks doesn’t like to talk about himself. That’s not his style.
Instead, theÂ 51-year-old actor would rather leave it all on the stage, where his acting skills speak volumes. He’s currentlyÂ in the Neil LaBute play, Break of Noon, directed by Jo Bonney and running through March 6 at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.
Now take Tracee Chimo — the only other member of the New York cast of Break of Noon, besides Jelks, whoÂ crossed the country toÂ continue the premiere productionÂ in LA. Chimo loves to talk. She’s a bubbly 31-year-oldÂ who will tell you in a New York minute how much she loves what she does and relishes the opportunity to spread her wings and flex her acting muscles at every turn.
“Performing makes me happy,” says Chimo, who hails from Saugus, Mass., but now lives in New York. “I love hearing people laugh, knowing I’ve touched them in some way or maybe had them think about something.”
“I’m not one to talk about myself,” says Jelks, who hails from Chicago but also calls New York home. “It’s just not me. I’d rather leave that to others.”
That’s unfortunate because if he did like to chat, Jelks could talk about how he was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance as Sterling in August Wilson’s Radio Golf or how he appeared with Phylicia Rashad on Broadway in Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean as Citizen, which garnered him an NAACP Theatre Award and an Ovation Award.
He could boast about winning an AUDELCO Award in 2008 for his work in the Off-Broadway revival of The First Breeze of Summer or talk about other regional theater credits like Fetch Clay, Make Man, the world premiere of The Shawshank Redemption at the Gaiety Theatre in Ireland, Magnolia, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Diary of a Black Man or the fact he also appeared in Spike Lee’s film Miracle at St. Anna.
With all of those accomplishments, he’d have a lot to talk about. But, alas, that’s not his style. However, after a bit of nudging, he agrees to sit down to discuss Break of Noon. “Not only do I think this is a great piece of writing,” he says. “Now that I understand the story, I truly believe no one would want to live inside LaBute’s head.”
Break of Noon, whichÂ stars Kevin Anderson and also features Catherine Dent, explores what happens after the selfish, philandering liar John Smith (Anderson) becomes the lone survivor of a horrific office shooting and how his constitution changes after hearing what he proclaims to be the voice of God.
It’s a heady piece of work with controversial undertones. “I hope the audience walks away not only understanding what Neil is trying to say about Break of Noon and John Smith,” says Jelks, “but also understanding no matter what your beliefs are, there is something greater than you. A miracle can happen and they do happen.”
To help him flush out his characters, Jelks credits the directorial skills of Jo Bonney. “Wow,” he says. “This is my first time working with her. She’s really fantastic. She knows how to move the story. I like a director who knows the written word. In this play I went some places I probably could have gone using my skills, but Jo helped me find different ways to find the two characters.”
Jelks, who plays a detective and a lawyer he loosely based on the late Johnnie Cochran, comes off asÂ a laidback guy with a smile that lights up the room and an easy, calming persona. He’s tall and lean and has an East Coast swagger that reveals itself as he leans back on the couch in a room at the Geffen, dressed casually in a black knit cap, plaid shirt, jeans, leather jacket and sneakers. Jelks’ cool is cool.
CHIMO GETS IT DONE
Chimo also has a savvy East Coast flair. She not only exudes confidence, she displays eagerness and genuine excitement about tackling LaBute’s work. “I like that he pushes many, many boundaries,” says Chimo. “I like his fast-paced interruption dialogue. That’s how people talk in real life. I really like that his subject matters are uncomfortable to talk about.”
Since she began her career, Chimo has been careful to select projects that reflect a diverse body of work. She appeared in Irena’s Vow on Broadway andÂ Circle Mirror Transformation Off-Broadway, where she received a Lucille Lortel nomination and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble Performance. She also played Regan in The Bachelorette. Other credits include Vendetta Chrome, Guilty, Bushwhackin’ and Vamp.
Both Jelks and Chimo appeared in the New York production of Break of Noon last year at the Lucille Lortel Theater in a co-production with the Geffen.
“I really wanted to do this show because of the nature of these two different characters they were asking me to play,” explains Chimo, who saw it as a chance to, once again, show her range as an actress. Her scope was demonstrated in Circle Mirror Transformation where she played a 16-year-old girl.
“I got all this heat and new representation,” says Chimo. “Everyone thought I was 16 and I was actually 30 when I played that part. When it closed I got offered all kinds of teenage roles.” From there, Chimo played a 30-year-old drug addict in The Bachelorette.
“I went from playing a 16-year-old girl who was introverted to a blown-out bitch pill popper,” says Chimo. “It got me a lot of notice. I made a little bit of a name for myself. So this play comes along and they are asking me to play two completely different women. It was more opportunity to show people I don’t do only one thing. I play a TV host named Jenny, plus Gigi, a prostitute who is the daughter of one of the killed office workers; also Jill, which is the prostitute’s real name. So, actually I play three characters. This is really a juicy role. It really is. I lucked out.”
THE LEFT COAST
Both actors looked forward to the Los Angeles run of the show but for very different reasons. For Jelks, who has appeared in several Los Angeles productions, it’s like a second home. For Chimo, whose goal is to do films, it would be her Los Angeles stage debut and a chance to take advantage of auditioning during the television pilot season.
She’s not nervous about her Tinseltown unveiling. In fact, she’s heard so much about the differences between New York and Los Angeles audiences, she’s looking forward to reactions from a City of Angels theater crowd.
“New York theater audiences and Los Angeles theater audiences are very different, so I hear,” says Chimo who is decked out in brown knee-high boots, black-rimmed glasses, skinny jeans and a blue sweater. “New York audiences sit there and give you the attitude of “˜OK, entertain me.’”
Jelks agrees. “People in Los Angeles are not going to be here saying, “˜show me something,’” says Jelks, a widower and father of three. “On the other hand, New Yorkers have a lot of theater. When they sit in their seats they want you to bring it. They are a lot tougher. They come and say, “˜hmmm entertain me, tell me the story and it better be good.’ In LA, it’s “˜tell me the story and if it’s good, I’m going to love it.’”
Jelks, who considers this a “fun gig” because he isn’t “playing a heavy,” began acting at age 18. It wasn’t something he planned. “I went toÂ City College [of San Francisco] looking for a job and found a career,” says Jelks. “I saw this girl I wanted to talk to, and I followed her all day. She went to what turned out to be an audition. I waited for her. The director came out and asked if I wanted to audition, because I had a nice voice. I read it. He offered me a job. I told him I wasn’t an actor. He said, “˜I’ll give you $500 a week.’ I said, ‘sure, absolutely.’ The show was No Place to be Somebody.” Jelks got the part but didn’t get the girl.
After he did No Place, one job led to another. Jelks was seven years deep into acting before he even needed an agent. Acting seemed to come naturally for him. He remembers the moment he knew he had made the right career choice.
“This woman came to see a show I was in,” says Jelks, who always looks at a family photo and says a silent prayer, “˜let me get this right,’ just before going on stage. “I played an abusive lover. She wrote a long letter about how she had been abused. This play changed her because she didn’t understand why he was the way he was. Seeing it gave her an understanding of why she stayed in the relationship. I said, “˜Wow, do actors have that kind of power?’ I guess I’m in a life-changing type of situation if I stay honest to it. I decided right then, I want to do this. It’s like therapy for me.”
When Jelks started his career, he said he only had one dream ““ to make it to Broadway, get nominated for and win a Tony. “Eighteen years after I started acting, I made it to Broadway,” he says. “It was everything I thought it would be, well, except the dressing rooms. While I was there I saw all the names of those who were there before me written underneath a table. So I wrote my name under there too. I wrote, “˜John Earl Jelks was here. Citizen Barlow Gem of the Ocean.’”
TO ACT OR NOT TO ACT
Chimo never intended to go into acting. “I don’t know I wanted to act,” says Chimo, who at one time wanted to go to clown college because of her love for the circus and animals. “It chose me. I was an only child until I was eight. It was just me hanging out with myself. I was obsessed with Disney, so I made tapes of all the Disney films and played all the characters. I also started doing impressions. I didn’t have lots of friends growing up. They thought, “˜that girl is weird.’ I was just having too much fun. I realized what I was doing was this thing called acting.”
Several times she thought about quitting. “It took me a long time to get here,” says Chimo, who bartended, waited tables, walked dogs, cut keys, babysat and house-sat in order to make enough money to do showcases. “Success didn’t start until I was 28. It was seven years of pounding the pavement. I’m aware I’m different, not the conventional gal. I want a role that sets me apart from everyone else. I always knew somewhere in my brain this feeling was too good to go through life without it.”
Jelks also feels the pull of theater. “It’s like church,” he says. “It’s live. You’ve got beating hearts in those seats. They can feel you or not feel you. You got to bring the spirit of the character. If they feel it, they’ll give it back to you. It’s like call and response.”
Because he’s had enormous success in the theater, Jelks wants to encourage others. “I’m putting together my story and writing about the plays I’ve done. I traveled the road that was less traveled. Who knows, I may be able to inspire some actor.”
The Break of Noon, co-produced by MCC Theater, opens Feb. 2; plays Tue.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 3 and 8 pm; Sun., 2 and 7 pm; through March 6. Tickets: $37-$77. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; 310.208.5454 or geffenplayhouse.com.Print