“I think it’s gonna be something special because I’ve never experienced it,” the 53-year-old told me. “It’s gonna bring some newness to my sense of creativity. And might help me find newness in this character.”
That character is the acerbic Rust Belt shock jock Barry Champlain from next-door Cleveland, Ohio. Eric Bogosian’s play, which became a 1988 Oliver Stone-directed film, tells the story of Champlain, a radio talker whose talent for vituperative nocturnal jousts with racists and loonies is matched only by a psyche so neurotic it’s pirouetting on the edge of meltdown even while on the precipice of grand success. (Champlain is partially informed by real-life Denver talker Alan Berg, who was murdered by the Order, a neo-Nazi group, in 1984.)
In the last week of June, after more than two decades on stages and screens, Royo will go on his first creative retreat. It came by invitation from a small arts organization: a week in a cottage in the woods with his friend and collaborator Mark Armstrong, a New York director, to do nothing but think, write and workshop some scenes for “Talk Radio.”
The play will be staged off-Broadway in New York later this fall. And Royo has a big fan in the playwright. “I love Andre and I love his work,” a covid-stricken Bogosian told me in a recent email, adding that he first became aware of the actor from his character on “The Wire.” “Andre is an energy actor, an actor who commits himself totally. And he seems to love the role. I would pay to see this performance.”
Both Bogosian and Royo say that, to their knowledge, Barry Champlain has never been played by a Black actor. Thus the role was waiting as a challenge for Royo, who has wanted to play it for many years. “We as Black artists feel so regulated as to what parts we do portray, or see ourselves involved in, that it’s only natural to feel like, ‘What if …, ’ ” Royo says. “Watching the movie late at night, back in the day, I remember being drawn into the character of Barry Champlain and his desire to be heard, to feel like his point of view mattered and was relevant to some form of contribution in society.”
Royo’s residency in Indiana is the latest chapter in an arts experiment born out of covid. Krista Detor, a noted folk singer-songwriter, lives with her husband and sound engineer, David Weber, on Hundredth Hill, a bucolic 51-acre property north of Bloomington (home of Indiana University). Since the pandemic, Detor and Weber have been gradually making Hundredth Hill a creative retreat, with a pilot program providing quarantine space to nine New York University playwrights in 2020.
With its three cottages, a vintage Airstream trailer, a barn and generous outdoor areas for camping and performing, Hundredth Hill is now a nonprofit that accepts donations to support residencies. In part it reflects Detor’s notions of mixing local talent and national and international artists. Allies in her mission include actor Jesse Eisenberg and his wife, Anna Strout, who is a native of Bloomington and a veteran of New York film and theater. They are part-time locals. (A casual conversation between Strout and Armstrong in New York earlier this year ultimately led to Royo and Armstrong’s Hundredth Hill invitation.)
“Indiana is not a place that has ever been on mine or anybody in my neighborhood’s list of destinations,” Royo told me. “But it proves that art is one of those things like sports that just brings races together.”
Given the Hoosier State’s history with radio and race, it’s not a bad vantage from which to consider Bogosian’s classic play. Indiana native Jean Shepherd, of “A Christmas Story” fame, set the postwar standard for on-air monologues. A range of personalities — from Klan leader D.C. Stephenson in the 1920s, to the nationally syndicated, edgy drive-time duo Bob & Tom, to early ’90s conservative talker Mike Pence — all rode Indiana’s airwaves to impact.
“I would be remiss if I said anything less than place does matter. Especially in Baltimore’s case — it was the best character in ‘The Wire,’ ” Royo says. “Whatever project I’m doing, if I find out where characters are from, I gotta look into it — that’s part of process. That character of Eric’s moved around a lot, trying to find footing, ground, trying to look for his happy place.”
Royo says his happy place has always been the stage. He and his “Talk Radio” director met 20 years ago, the night after Royo took part in 24 Hour Plays, Armstrong’s New York drama outfit that, from writing to staging, produces quick-turnaround theater. Their meeting happened to be the night before Royo’s “Wire” audition, which Royo, feeling a bit haughty as a stage actor, nearly blew off. (“Why don’t you do the audition first and then turn it down if you get it,” he remembers his agent saying.)
Since “The Wire,” he’s become a ubiquitous guest star and supporting actor on dozens of TV shows, most recently “Truth Be Told” on Apple TV Plus, “With Love” on Amazon’s Prime Video service and Fox’s “Empire.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) He says coming across an old “Talk Radio” Playbill around 2018 reminded him it was time to return to the stage.
The Barry Champlain character leaves latitude for experimentation. Liev Schreiber, in the last 2007 Broadway staging of “Talk Radio,” opted to play Champlain a bit more laconically than has been typical. But for Royo, he won’t just be reinterpreting Champlain. The part will also be his contribution to an ongoing Black reclamation of stage after centuries of historic, and hostile, marginalization.
“I came from a borough that created hip-hop because it needed to be created. We needed to find another vehicle or avenues so that we could express and that can get us money,” he explains. Part of the appeal of “Talk Radio,” he told me, is that “behind the mic, you can be anyone you want — and I think a lot of minorities in America are trying to be someone who they want to be or need to be. It plays into another dynamic, another layer that makes the play revealing and provocative.”
Jason Vest lives in California.