by Anne Spiselman
If you’re a Chicago theater fan, you’ve probably seen James Earl Jones II on stage more than once.
The 40-year-old actor, a third cousin of the more famous James Earl Jones, has performed with most of the Equity companies in town, including Goodman Theatre, Lookingglass Theatre Company, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Writers Theatre, Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook, Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Northlight Theatre, and Theatre at the Center. His most recent role at Court Theatre was as the irrepressible Eat Moe in “Five Guys Named Moe,” the 2017-2018 season opener. And from April 19 to June 3, he plays Bobby in “Memphis” at Porchlight Music Theatre, where he also appeared in “The Scottsboro Boys” and “Sondheim on Sondheim.”
Jones moved to Hyde Park in 2010, when his parents bought a three flat on block-long Washington Park Court, but he attributes his choice of career to his experiences in the neighborhood several years earlier. “My very first acting job as an adult was as Giuseppe in the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company’s 2003 production of ‘The Gondoliers,’ and I remember it as if it were yesterday,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about reviews, and I was amazed that the Herald reviewer—my first—would write such kind words without knowing me.” He adds that his reception was so warm, he decided to return the next year to do “Patience” for free, even though he’d been offered a paying gig at another theater.
Originally, Jones had no intention of being an actor. He wanted to become a doctor. Raised on the North Side, he went to Decator Classical Elementary School and Whitney Young Magnet High School. He participated in a medical program at UIC between his junior and senior year in high school and was accepted at Emory University. He says his hope was to help people through difficult births like his, which he thinks may have caused his Tourette’s Syndrome
Then a friend pointed out that he’d have to spend ten years in school to get a medical degree, and he decided he just couldn’t stand that. “I was wracking my brains for something else to do,” he says, “and someone who knew I’d studied voice suggested I might be able to get a scholarship if I auditioned.” So Jones tried out for thirteen schools and ultimately went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 1995 to 2000, because it gave him a “full ride” and was “far but near” home. Trained as an opera singer, he got his degree in vocal performance.
But a crucial event caused him to shift direction. The voice teacher with whom he had been studying since high school died and left him his piano and all his music. He also left a letter. “Essentially, it said that I hadn’t lived up to half of my potential,” Jones says. “He told me that I had to step out of my pattern of annual recitals at the Fine Arts Building and do more. So I started auditioning and didn’t stop.”
Since returning to Chicago, where he lived at 91st and Stony Island Avenue for a decade before relocating to Hyde Park, Jones has appeared in musicals, plays, and operas virtually nonstop. The longest stint was two years in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Drury Lane Water Tower Place (now the Broadway Playhouse) in 2006-2007. He’s also worked as an entertainer on the Spirit of Chicago cruise ship and gone out on the first national tour of Diane Paulus’ Broadway production of “Porgy and Bess.”
Jones says that Court Theatre’s 2011 production of “Porgy and Bess” holds a special place in his heart. “Charlie (Charles Newell, the director) did a wonderful job of re-imagining the show, and I loved playing bad guy Crown,” he recalls. “When Todd Kryger, who was Porgy, got injured and never came back, I moved into that role, and everyone was amazingly supportive. Once I settled in, I loved that, too.”
He also gives Newell high marks for casting him as Ben, a role rarely played by an African American, in “The Secret Garden” in 2015 and remembers it as an awesome experience. Replacing Allen Gilmore as Man 1 in Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s “The Good Book” the same year was a joy, too. Jones only got to stand in twice for star Barry Shabaka Henley in the solo “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” but it was memorable to say the least. “The first time, Henley got sick seven minutes before curtain time,” he says, “and I had had only four rehearsals.”
One of Jones’ favorite non-musical roles was the title character in the premiere of the biting satire “Carlyle” at Goodman Theatre. He admits he identified in some ways with the life, if not the opinions, of the African American lawyer and GOP candidate who explains in a play-within-the-play how he became a Republican. Also high on the three-time Jeff Award nominee’s list are Haywood Patterson in “The Scottsboro Boys” at Porchlight and Donkey in “Shrek” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, because growing up he idolized Eddie Murphy.
In what little spare time he has, Jones says he likes going to Court Theatre, The Promontory, and Chipotle for a bite. When Henley was in town for “Satchmo,” they ate at Ja’ Grill all the time. He takes his 13-year-old daughter Semaje to the Hyde Park Taco Station and Kilwins sweet shop, as well as the Harper Theater.
He also laments the loss of Hyde Park haunts he loved,, among them Clarke’s, Dixie Kitchen, and Calypso Cafe. “The neighborhood has grown and changed so much since I started hanging out here on my own in 2000,” he says, “but it’s still a melting pot, and I truly enjoy the fact that I can see people of every race, color, and creed accepting and appreciating each other. I also remember how stunning I thought it was the first time I came to visit a girlfriend in Madison Park in 1994.”
On top of all this, Jones, who has a deep, resonant voice, has done lots of voice-over work. His’ film credits include “The Poker House,” shot in and around Chicago, “Watch Dogs,” and the forthcoming thriller “Breaking In,” for which he also recorded the song, “Sunday Morning.” He’s appeared in several television programs, among them “Chicago Fire” and “Empire.” He’s even gotten to play a doctor or two, most notably, oncologist Dr. Lynn Ray on “Chicago Med.” The voice teacher who urged him to live up to his potential would be very proud.