Brandon Dirden Brings August Wilson’s Wisdom And More To Two River

November 21, 2018
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Blake Morris (King Hedley II) and Harvy Blanks (Elmore) in August Wilson’s “King Hedley II” at
Two River Theater. Photo courtesy T. Charles Erickson

By Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen |

For now, Brandon J. Dirden is an actor who also directs plays.

But maybe not for long. He might be transitioning into a director who also acts.

Dirden, 39, is the son of actor Willie Dirden, older brother to actor Jason Dirden, is married to actress Crystal Dickinson and they have a 4- year-old son he calls a “theater rat” because he spends so much time in them.

Dirden made his Broadway debut in “Prelude to a Kiss” (2007) and portrayed Martin Luther King Jr. opposite Bryan Cranston in his Broadway debut as Lyndon B. Johnson in “All the Way” (2014).

He’s appeared on TV in “Brain Dead,” “Elementary,” “Blue Bloods” and “The Good Wife.” He was a regular for the last two seasons of FX’s “The Americans” playing FBI agent Dennis Aderholt and is a recurrent actor in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Get Down” for Netflix.

He also has acted in five of the 10 plays August Wilson wrote, each set in a different decade of the 20th century and all but one set in Pittsburgh, referred to as the Pittsburgh Cycle or the American Century Cycle.

In 2015, though, at the Two River Theater Company, he made his directorial debut with August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars.” He’s following it up by helming the Red Bank theater’s current production of “King Hedley II,” which runs through Dec. 16.

Brian D. Coats plays the role of Stool Pigeon in August Wilson’s “King Hedley II.” Photo courtesy T. Charles Erickson

“It just so happens I really love it. I really, really, really love directing,” Dirden said in an interview at the theater during a technical rehearsal break. “Do I love it more than acting? I can’t say. I feel like, at this point in my life, I am able to add value to this world in a way that I can not as an actor.”

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That “value” is passing on knowledge he learned from working with actors and directors who knew and worked with Wilson, who died in 2005 at age 60.

In 1990 Dirden was cast as the young boy in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at the Alley Theatre in his hometown of Houston, Texas. The director was Claude Purdy, a friend of Wilson’s who, Dirden said, convinced Wilson to give up poetry and start writing plays.

Dirden also worked with other “August Wilson journeymen,” he said, including Roscoe Lee Browne, nominated for a Tony Award as Best Featured Actor in a Play for “Two Trains Running” directed by Lloyd Richards (1992), as well Kenny Leon who directed the Broadway premiere of “Gem of the Ocean” and “Radio Golf,” both nominated for Tony awards, plus his nomination for a Tony in 2010 for Best Director for “Fences,” starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.

Also, Ruben Santiago- Hudson directed Dirden in “Jitney” both on Broadway and at Two River (2012), as well as directing “Two Trains Running” (2014) and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2016), with Dirden in the cast in Red Bank.

“I was able to work with three preeminent directors of August Wilson’s plays. Only Lloyd Richards is more significant,” he said. Richards staged the original Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” in 1959, and in 1984 introduced Wilson to Broadway with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and helped develop his career.

Brandon Dirden, actor/director and devotee of August Wilson’s plays, directs “King Hedley II” at Two River Theater now through Dec. 16. Photo by G. Van Benthuysen

“Not too many people have had the good fortune I’ve had to soak up the knowledge and wisdom of these directors. I cannot let this information I have die,” he said. “So I feel a personal responsibility and strong commitment to pass on the information I have and share with younger artists.

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“I can’t do that if I were just acting. I get young artists all the time asking, ‘Hey, can I get pointers on how do I do August Wilson,’ and the best way for me to give out this information is through the process,” he said. “So I feel particularly compelled and convicted to direct.”

And he’s not afraid to take risks. This is the first time a Wilson play is being staged in the Marion Huber Theater, a black box space with seating for 110, rather than the traditional Joan and Robert Rechnitz Theater that seats 349.

“As a director,I get to be in a small rehearsal room usually sitting at a table 10 feet away from the actors,” he said. “When you get in a larger theater some of the intimacy doesn’t make it to the stage.

“I wanted to give the audience the experience of having that proximity. Of all of August’s plays, this one is best suited for intimate staging because there are a lot of two-person scenes and it’s one of his smaller casts with only six people and one set,” Dirden explained.

The play is about encroachment, Dirden said. The city of Pittsburg wants to tear down people’s homes and displace residents with eminent domain.

“I felt like all of those elements really gave us a perfect scenario where we can cocoon the audience inside of the Huber. We could really take care of you, bathe you in the language, then rip your heart out,” he explained. “Then we can put it back together. We can build you up and send you out in the world richer and fuller for having this experience.

“There’s no escape in this play. There are no outs for these characters. And there won’t be any outlets for us either until the final curtain call and we’ve gone through this thing together.”

Tickets $40 to $80, with discounts available for groups, seniors, and military personnel, their families and veterans. Limited $20 tickets at each performance, may be partial view. Patrons 29 and younger $20 when available. Call 732-345-1400 or visit tworivertheater.org.


This article was first published in the Nov. 15-21, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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