Broadway hit at SF Playhouse, Carl Lumbly stars

The San Francisco Playhouse continues its celebration of their 10th season. The company has moved into larger, remodeled digs, 450 Post Street @ Powell (formerly the home of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre) opening to appreciative audiences. Up next, a stirring production of playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2011 Broadway hit, The Motherf**ker with the Hat. Acclaimed thespian and TV star Carl Lumbly (Southland, ALIAS, Cagney and Lacey) wears “the hat” as Ralph D, a questionable drug and parole counselor with a flair for covert coercion.

Firing on all cylinders, “The Hat” is an incendiary torpedo of laughs and gasps, placed confidently in the nimble hands of Lumbly alongside Gabriel Marin, Rudy Guerro, Isabelle Ortega and Margo Hall, and guided adeptly by SF Playhouse Artistic Director, Bill English.

The play runs January 29 to March 16, 2013. Get additional information at

In short, The Motherf**cker With the Hat is the story of Jackie, a former drug dealer who has recently been released from prison. Although Jackie is clean, his girlfriend Veronica still uses drugs. When Jackie finds a strange hat in Veronica’s apartment, he suspects his girlfriend is cheating and asks Ralph D., for help. The Hat originally opened on April 11, 2011, starring Bobby Cannavale (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) as Jackie and Chris Rock (Good Hair) as Ralph D.

I sat with Lumbly on stage at the Playhouse to discuss “The Hat” and his professional relationship with English, making this their third production together; the previous two, Guirgis’ “Jesus Hopped The A Train” and Cormac McCarthy’s “Sunset Limited.” The latter was produced for HBO starring Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction) and Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive).

Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: This play has a feisty title…

Lumbly: Yes, and until I am actually onstage, I refer to it as the MF with the Hat. I don’t actually curse in my (personal) life but I definitely do it on stage and have it done from time to time. So at the appropriate moments, through all the rehearsals, I’m sure MF will become something I’m fluent with but it’s rough. Of all of the things to have to say, this particular word has always struck me as being one of the tougher to say…given the idea and the image.

Talk2SV: That is a perfect set up for what I have been dying to ask; yes, you’re right, I’ve never heard you use profanity in times past but the staged works of late have been laced with salty language. Is this an escape for you?

Lumbly: I don’t know, maybe. Maybe in the way somebody thought they were escaping on the Titanic (wryly). I don’t know, perhaps it is. I don’t know that I’ve ever been afraid to take a piece because of language but it just happens that lately, a number of pieces have come to me like this and maybe to the degree that I’m less precious with myself in certain ways in my life. As you get older and you’ve had a number of experiences that cause you to realize, ‘well that didn’t kill me,’ I’m more resilient than I think I am. I think that (resilience) has made certain characters more attractive to me. People who are less and less like me.

Talk2SV: How and in what way is Ralph D attractive to you? In many ways he has unsavory flavorings…

Lumbly: One of the things –that is tragic to me about Ralph D– is he has brought himself to a place of 15 years of sobriety after having had a period of substance abuse and I think that’s highly commendable. To take one’s self in hand, as has been my experience, no one is perfect. You make mistakes, you make misjudgments, and you follow a certain path. If at a certain point it’s pointed out to you that it’s the wrong path I think it takes quite a bit of character to stop, regroup, address the reality with honesty and move in a different way. So I respect that about this character. He is a serial womanizer and he is married. I don’t particularly respect that, that wasn’t my way or my choice but I can’t make judgments about it. Everyone has different experiences. Perhaps one makes a choice that you believe is going to be a life choice and as you move into it you realize this isn’t for me. Whereas I, Carl, have had to move to a different place with it, I used to make a pretty serious judgment about that kind of behavior and what it revealed or what it said about someone.

I played a lot of sports in my life; I’ve seen a lot of infidelity. In Los Angeles, I’ve seen a lot of infidelity; people who have made promises then make arrangements alongside those promises. People who operate in open marriages where they say we are together but in this particular area we reserve the freedom for ourselves and our partner to experience other people. It’s not for me but maybe it is for them… what business is it of mine? We are all trying to move through life the best way we can. I like the fact that Ralph, as with all of the people who are in Alcoholics Anonymous, have come to a point where they say, ‘I can’t do this myself.’ And with the help of a group, with a belief in whatever is identified as a higher power, I’ll take each day and try to do the best I can. I find that very attractive about Ralph.

Talk2SV: And not just your character, Ralph D. When we take a closer examination of each character in this play, none of them hold up to the letter of integrity that you would want people to: all of them are challenged by character weaknesses, mostly narcotics and alcoholism. They find themselves in close, confined quarters having to work through their circumstances. The way they do it is funny, yes; riveting yes, and provocative, absolutely. Given the backdrop of all the characters, as we peer inside of this story, what do you think is consistent about each of them?

Lumbly: Sex.

Talk2SV: I wasn’t expecting that response…

Lumbly: They’re all challenged by sex. Yes, there’s much to be said for sobriety but you can still be highly dysfunctional and as sober as a judge. I think that’s part of the lesson that this piece holds –sex as a way to establish bonds.

Sometimes, perhaps there is a kind of superficiality to sexual encounter because you can do it with anyone. But I think that at certain points when you are engaged in the sexual act with someone there is closeness, a bonding, even if it’s only going to be fleeting. You can’t deny that and they all have the desire for, or the inability to stop themselves from having the desire for it. It sometimes serves as the substitute for something that they can’t get from the other person or perhaps serves as the motivation for getting to know someone. But all of these characters –in one way or another– are trying to deal with, conquer, and negotiate their sexual appetites.

Talk2SV: What allows you to take risks with the varied array of characters that you’ve portrayed? Your performances are always dynamic but I’m often curious to know what allows you to take these characters on, many of them, multi-dimensional figures that we rarely encounter in our day-to-day living.

Lumbly: I had a very fortunate, privileged childhood and I’ve had a very blessed life. I’ve had a reasonable amount of material gain, a certain amount of success, and I’m pretty well regarded by a number of people; I have good friends, I have wonderful family. I’ve been very, very connected; I’ve had an amazing, amazing relationship with a beautiful, beautiful woman (the late Vonetta McGee) who is the mother of my child. I have an unbelievable son (Brandon), I’ve been very, very fortunate. I think that maybe I’ve been given those things in a way to fortify me so I can be braver in the way I approach doing this work.

Doing characters for me is living on an edge in the way that I don’t live in my life. The more extreme the character, in some ways, the more appealing it is to me because I’ve never been homeless, I’ve never had a substance abuse problem, and infidelity has not been one of my challenges. Though I have had many challenges, but that hasn’t been one. Much of what I’ve done in my life has been my choice and much of what happens to characters are circumstances in which they find themselves. I think it’s the quality of excitement that I feel in dealing with characters that I try to minimize in my own living.

Celebrity is an interesting thing; I love the fact that certain people may know of my work and may appreciate it, but it’s not always something that you want to be singled out for. I try to do the best I can but that’s what you’re supposed to do.

More on Carl Lumbly

For his remarkable performance in “Jesus Hopped the A Train,” in 2007, Lumbly was honored with a San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award for Best Performance by an Actor. He met critical praise for the 2010 production of Sunset Limited. Most recently, arguably, Lumbly braved the most challenging onstage performance of his lauded career in Lorraine Hansberry Theatre’s production of “Blue/Orange,” a courageous and poignant dilemma of a young man at the crossroads battling borderline personality disorder.

Boundless in his capacity, from stage to screen, Lumbly is an actor respected for his steadfast talent, versatility and class. His prolific career includes over 50 credits in television, film and the theatre and extensive acclaim. He recently had a recurring role on the TNT cop drama, “Southland,” where he played a new police captain. Other notable television roles include his work for five seasons on “Alias,” and in the hit TV series “Cagney and Lacey.” Throughout his celebrated career, Mr. Lumbly has earned a variety of awards and nominations for his work.

His extensive film feature credits include Men of Honor Everybody’s All-American, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, South Central, Pacific Heights, To Sleep With Anger, The Bedroom Window, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai and Caveman. For television, he starred in “Color of Friendship,” “Little Richard,” “On Promised Land,” “The Ditchdigger’s Daughters,” “Nightjohn,” and “Sounder,” ABC’s telefilm remake of the 1972 classic. Mr. Lumbly also starred as the voice of action hero ‘J’onn J’onzz/Martian Manhunter,’ in the Cartoon Network’s animated series “Justice League.”

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