Black History: "Growing up African-American gives you a special perspective."
By Angela Wampler | A! Magazine for the Arts | January 31, 2012Jasper McGruder is a New York-based performer and director who lives in Abingdon when he works with Barter Theatre. He has performed around the world, in film and theater, both on and off Broadway, and hosted a radio show.
McGruder is drawn to projects dealing with his African heritage and culture. "My great-grandfather was born into slavery in 1841 and the family has lived in New York since the mid-1850s. My father, born in the 1890s, served in the all-black U.S. Cavalry," he says. "Growing up African-American gives you a special perspective. In acting as well as in life, you must learn to accept in a very honest way who you are and appreciate the positive aspects of what you have to offer."
He was raised in a family of 14 children in upstate New York in a town with a population of 5,500. "With no electricity until the 1950s, my family sang at home a lot," he recalls. "Dad would come home and sing work songs and we would be his chorus. I grew up with the blues and didn't know it."
After McGruder served in Vietnam, he says, "My brother Charles and his friends would bring their Hendrix and Muddy Waters records to my apartment. One day my cousin James left a harmonica and I began fooling around with it. The blues took me home to a place I didn't know I'd been. I haven't been the same since."
He played harmonica with The Blues Duo and, for five years, hosted a three-hour "Gutbucket Matinee" for a New York radio station (WBAI), featuring in-studio performances and interviews, which allowed McGruder to meet many musicians he loved listening to — David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Henry Butler, Deborah Coleman, and Shemekia Copeland. In addition, he worked on a couple of projects with Taj Mahal, including a workshop developing a musical about legendary baseball player Satchel Paige.
McGruder never considered performing as a career until he saw black actors in Zoo Story by Edward Albee and Soul Gone Home by Langston Hughes at the African Cultural Center in Buffalo, N.Y. He recalls, "I was so excited and enjoyed it so much, I signed up for an acting class. That fall I enrolled in college as a business major, but ended up receiving a degree in theatre."
He has worked with acclaimed writers, including Pulitzer Prize-winning African American playwrights Rita Dove and Suzan-Lori Parks and poet Yusef Komunyakaa (McGruder narrated Komunyakaa's poetry set to jazz).
McGruder started performing and directing productions in New York City during the mid-1970s. He taught acting and playwriting for several organizations, including The Young Playwrights Festival. In the 1980s he toured England and Scotland with acting companies that he formed for The American Folk Theatre.
Also in New York City, McGruder performed in The Darker Face of the Earth (1997) and was the narrator for Africa! Spirit Ascending (2000), about Orpheus McAdoo, a former slave from Greensboro, N.C., whose minstrel troupe, the Virginia Jubilee Singers, presented a series of concerts in Cape Town in the 1890s. Other performances include Cotton Club Gala at La MaMa Experimental Theatre and Imperceptible Mutabilities at the Manhattan Theater Club.
In 2004 McGruder was touted as a "Blues Radio King" on the cover of Big City Rhythm & Blues magazine. In 2008 McGruder appeared in Conjur Woman, a one-act folk opera in New York City and Rome, Italy; in this tale of woe — told in a series of songs — Conjur Woman turns her husband into a tree so slave traders won't get him, but she can't save him from the sawmill. Last year McGruder did a staged reading of John Byrd's Poles Apart, the story of African-American Matthew Henson, assistant to Commander Robert Peary, and the discovery of the North Pole.
At Barter Theatre, performing in WMKS: Christmas 1942 "allowed me to explore the music puzzle of where bluegrass, gospel and the blues all meet together," says McGruder. "In Virginia, the early popular music was by minstrels and troubadours. The early blues musicians would take a song like 'Clementine' and jazz it up. An early instrument was the banjo, which came straight from the African banjar."
This season at Barter Theatre, McGruder will star in two productions:
• Looking Over The President's Shoulder is a one-man show, based on the true story of Alonzo Fields, who served as the White House chief butler during four presidential administrations (Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower). Fields, an African American, is an elegant, educated and profoundly cultured man, who wanted to be a classical singer but found himself as a servant on the front row of history.
• In The Sunset Limited, two men are trapped in a room with their opposing beliefs. It's the story of a man who wants to end his life and another man who wants to save it. One's belief in God is sincere; the other has a dark, realistic view of the world. Speaking of realistic, don't go looking for a neat ending.
Previous Barter appearances have included roles in Doug Pote's musical Jimmie Rodgers: America's Blue Yodeler, as well as Driving Miss Daisy; To Kill a Mockingbird; The Full Monty; Of Mice and Men; Little Shop of Horrors; and Frankenstein; and he directed the Barter premiere of Where Trouble Sleeps.
Elsewhere, McGruder directed productions of Enough is Enough; Laughing Matters; and Monk 'n Bud, the story of jazzman Thelonius Monk's relationship with fellow bebop musician Bud Powell (presented in New York City and at the National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, and the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre in Egypt). Recent projects include Zora and Langston (famous black writers during the Harlem Renaissance) at Theater for the New City in New York.
- Jerry Jones, author of Segregation, Tolerance and Reflection
McGruder, left, in Barter Theatre's WMKS Christmas 1942.
Barter Theatre's The Full Monty with Jasper McGruder.
In 2008 McGruder (second from left) performed in Conjur Woman, a one-act folk opera in New York City and Rome, Italy.