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Richard III - Mobile Shakespeare Unit
Photograph: Joan Marcus

Ron Cephas Jones in Richard III

One of New York's fiercest actors plays Shakespeare's evil king at the Public Theater.

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It’s just after a freak hailstorm in Manhattan, in a little church atrium near Zuccotti Park that hosts soup kitchens and AA meetings. About three dozen men, women and a few kids sit clustered in plastic stacking chairs around a central space, waiting for a play to start. In a back row of exactly one, a goateed, rail-thin African-American in a scary-looking trench coat just scowls.

The scowler’s got one foot in a boot with a built-up sole, the other in a complicated metal brace that looks like it bends at the knee but doesn’t. There’s usually at least one person like this in any church community center—someone who gives off bad vibes and gets a wide berth from other 12-steppers. A couple actors set the scene, and as soon as they’re done, the guy in the brace stands up, staggers to the center of the room with a grin, glares at one of the actors, and says, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.” Ladies and gentlemen, Ron Cephas Jones is in the house.

The seasoned actor exudes credibility, which is one reason he’s in such demand on the new-play circuit (he recently finished a run of John Patrick Shanley’s Storefront Church). According to Public chief Oskar Eustis, when it comes to Shakespeare, Jones has shown “unbelievable clarity with the language that never seemed to betray a desire not to be who he was. There was never a way that he spoke the language that suggested that he wanted to be English.”

Right now, Jones has one of the toughest and weirdest gigs available—the massive title role in the Public’s stripped-down, 95-minute Richard III, always in a different venue, always dealing with some incredible concentration-breakers (a Mister Softee truck parked outside this evening’s performance and played “Pop Goes the Weasel” several hundred times).

“By the end of this run, we’ll be able to do the play in a wind tunnel,” jokes Jones. “Our concentration will be Zen-like.”

The production is part of the Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit, a traveling company that plays venues that are frankly a lot poorer than the New York theater audience: Charlotte’s Place, the Jamaica Service Program for Older Adults, Rikers Island, among others. “It is very much like community theater,” notes Jones, “but it’s important.” It’s also a far cry from Jones’s last major gig, touring Europe with intercontinental Shakespeare troupe the Bridge Project and sampling local cuisine. “It was a job to die for!” admits Jones with a laugh. He will end the Mobile Shakespeare Unit with a three-week run of Richard III at the Public.

In person, the 55-year-old actor is both cool and the cause of coolness in others. He has that chameleonic quality that really good actors get if they manage to avoid being associated with a single role for long enough—although he’d love to get that defining role someday soon. At dinner (oysters, steak, Grand Marnier, multiple smoke breaks), Jones makes a brief call to the Public, and his voice drops into modulated, decorous registers that say “newscaster” or “politician.” The waiter loves us.

He’s been in a lot of Shakespeare recently, but Jones is also a veteran of the gritty new-play outfit LAByrinth Theater Company, where The Motherf**ker with the Hat playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis penned Jesus Hopped the A Train for Jones and John Ortiz in 2000. In the prison drama, Jones played a killer incarcerated on Rikers (where, also, the production visited) who finds God in the slammer.

Back in red-meat-and-cognac land, Jones talks frankly about acting, and it becomes clear that he wants to score a leading part not so he can buy a yacht, but so he can be the guy producers bring in to open a show. Jones understudied Chris Rock in Motherf**ker last year, and while he’s careful to speak well of the stand-up comic and absolutely refuses to say whether or not the part of smooth, morally slippery Ralph D. was written for him, he talks about how the job made him feel. “Humble, man,” he says. “It was a humbling experience.”

And for someone who has made a living playing hard cases of every description, Jones is a hell of a nice guy. Regarding his working relationship with Rock, he says he made himself a resource. “ ‘Anything I can do to help you,’ I said, ‘let me know. I know the play really well. I know the writer really well.’ And eventually, Chris came to see me in Storefront Church.

What about his Broadway role, though? Jones pauses, and then, as though talking to Guirgis, says, “There’ll be another opportunity. There’ll be another time. Go ahead and do your thing, make your mark, have your hour. And go ahead and reach back.” He takes a drag. “And he will.” Here’s hoping.

Richard III is at the Public Theater through Saturday, August 25, 2012.

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Q&A: Ron Cephas Jones on the Bridge Project
Review: The Motherf**ker with the Hat
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