Like Troy Maxson, the character he portrays in Center Stage's production of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Fences," Gilbert Lewis once thought he'd become a professional athlete.
But unlike the fictitious Troy -- a star slugger in the old Negro League -- Lewis' sport was basketball, not baseball.
A former all-New Jersey high school basketball player, the 6-foot-4-inch actor was approached by the Harlem Globetrotters when he was a junior in high school. He turned down the offer. "I wasn't considering the Globetrotters as a serious team," Lewis recalls while sipping coffee on Center Stage's mezzanine before a recent rehearsal of "Fences," which begins previews tonight.
"Then I got hurt seriously. I hurt my knee," he continues. Advised to sit out the next 18 months, he chose instead to change his name and play semi-professional basketball. It was a choice that "really messed my knee up," says Lewis, 52, who attended Morgan State University for a year and a half on a basketball scholarship, though he never played.
However, the stately looking actor has something else in common with Troy Maxson -- a character he has portrayed in four previous productions of "Fences," including one on Broadway. Just as the playwright has given Troy a form of heightened, almost musical speech, so Lewis has a poetic way of expressing himself.
Consider the way Lewis phrases his assessment of Troy -- a man whose life has been filled with bitterness, frustration and pent-up emotions ever since he was passed over by the major leagues. "He grew out of a soil that was unhealthy," Lewis says. "What is happening to Troy at this point is the environment, the macrocosm that made him this rigid, highly principled human being."
This description is informed to a large extent by Lewis' own experience over the past year. "I spent a year not working by choice," he explains, "The reason was to see if I could find the person that lived closest to the essence of who I am, and free of color barriers. My efforts were successful, but the environment told me it's impossible."
One activity Lewis engaged in during his year off was writing. The author of several plays as well as some poetry, he also produces his own line of greeting cards and is working on a novel.
He chose to conclude his self-imposed sabbatical by returning to the role of Troy in part because "Fences" is his favorite August Wilson script. The play is the 1950s installment of Wilson's decade-by-decade chronicle of the black experience in 20th-century America.
At the time "Fences" takes place, Lewis was a teen-ager, roughly the same age as Troy's younger son, Cory, whose disagreements with his father form one of the play's main conflicts. However, the actor says, "My relationship with my father was very different. My father was a warm person -- a minister."
Lewis, who has two daughters, is also apparently a considerably different father from the harsh, stern character he portrays. His older daughter, Laurae Darcel Gilbert, 35, a graduate student in family counseling at Old Dominion University, has seen her XTC father play Troy twice. The first time was on Broadway, and she cried.
"The role was so contrary to what he was, but he still mastered it, and that's the talent," she says.
How is he different? "My father is strong not just physically, but strong emotionally. He is very secure with his feelings. He has no problem conveying them," says Gilbert, who also serves as her father's manager. ("Lewis Gilbert" is her father's legal name. He reversed it for the stage because there was already an actor by that name in Actors Equity, the professional actors' union.)
In preparing for a role, Lewis says, "I do intense research." For example, in a 1988 Los Angeles production of "Fences," he portrayed Gabriel, Troy's brother, who suffered a brain injury during World War II. "I talked to nurses and doctors about the metal plate in his head, how that could affect his speech and movement," he says.
In the case of Troy, he has based his portrayal on a composite of older men he remembers from his youth in Atlantic City and, in particular, on one man, a contractor, a family friend who had a dominant personality.
Lewis didn't become interested in acting until after he'd graduated from college with a degree in accounting. One day he was watching some children play, and he began writing down what they were saying. Two weeks later, he'd completed his first play, "Big Talk," which was produced in New York by the organization that became the Henry Street Settlement.
When he began studying acting, he did so strictly to improve his writing. "I had no intention of being an actor," Lewis says. The only other time he'd been on stage had been less than an encouraging experience. "I was cast in a play in grammar school and got kicked out. I laughed at a girl who forgot her lines," he recalls.
Nonetheless, his professional acting career quickly took off, with roles at the New York Shakespeare Company, the Negro Ensemble Company, and before long in Hollywood as well.
One of his more unusual credits is a Michael Jackson music video, "Who Is It?"/, scheduled to be released as a home video next week. Lewis, who worked with Jackson on the video two summers ago, believes the child abuse allegations leveled against the performer are false. "I got a pretty good reading of him during the time I spent with him," Lewis says. "I don't think he's guilty. I really don't."
However, he also feels that Jackson, who recently canceled a world tour, will withdraw from public life entirely. "You'll never see him again," he says. "He'll pull down the shades and never come back out."
Although "Fences" is Lewis' first role at Center Stage, the actor appeared at the Mechanic Theatre twice in the mid-1970s, starring in "The River Niger" and "What the Wine Sellers Buy." In 1974, he told a Sun interviewer, "Eventually, I know I'll direct."
Eight years later he made his directorial debut with a production of Samm-Art Williams' "Home" in Atlantic City. Last month he was named artistic director of Passage Theatre in Trenton, N.J., a theater with a reputation for presenting work of regional interest, including, but not limited to, black plays. "They play the whole piano. If the note they want is black, then they play it," Lewis says of Passage, where he initially worked as an actor and where he is currently collaborating on a play about the deaf.
Lewis may not have become a professional athlete as he once expected. But between acting, directing, writing -- and, oh yes, he also designs jewelry -- he has led a more diversified life than he probably ever imagined.
And at this point, what Gilbert Lewis enjoys most is having a wealth of choices. "I'm on the path and I just keep stepping," he says in his characteristically poetic style.
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with matinees most Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., and Dec. 1 at 1 p.m.; through Dec. 19. (Sign-interpreted performance Dec. 18 at 2 p.m.; audio-described performance Dec. 5 at 2 p.m.)
Call: (410) 332-0033; TDD: (410) 332-4240