John Douglas Thompson (Le Moyne College '85) has taken on some of theater’s most challenging roles, garnering critical acclaim for his portrayal of numerous iconic characters, including Othello, Richard III and Macbeth.
What people may be surprised to learn about Thompson, though, is that he did not plan to become an actor. A confluence of events, inspiration and talent – along with a remarkable work ethic – brought him to this point.
In the late ’80s, Thompson lived in New Haven, Conn., and worked in marketing for the global technology company Unisys. A business major at the College, he traveled up and down the East Coast, from New York City to Maine, selling computers and ATMs to businesses in the financial industry. He was successful and content, and envisioned a long career with the company, a family and a house in the suburbs.
Then came a moment Thompson today describes as “serendipitous.” He invited a friend on a date and, wanting to impress her, suggested they see August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at Yale Repertory Theatre. It chronicles the lives of several freed slaves living in the North in the early 20th century. The night of the play, Thompson’s friend didn’t make it to the theatre. He decided to stay, though, and what he saw changed the course of his life.
“I was watching this play and suddenly I was engaged in a way I never had been before,” he recalled. “It was kind of an epiphany.”
The show remained etched in his memory over the next several years as he continued his work at Unisys. When an economic downturn eventually cost him his job, Thompson decided the time was right to make a change. He sold his home and car, dipped into his savings, and set off to study acting at the Trinity Repertory Conservatory in Providence, R.I. He was the second-oldest student in his class, but soon discovered that there were advantages to that. He had more life experiences to draw upon than many of his younger classmates. He also found that his work in sales, which emphasized the value of communication, collaboration and hard work, served as an excellent foundation for a career as an actor.
After completing his studies at Trinity in 1994, Thompson set his sights upon performing Shakespeare. He realized that, even some 400 years after the plays were written, they spoke to the human experience.
“Shakespeare is universal,” he said. “He wasn’t writing about Martians. He was writing about human beings, so I knew I had a place in that constellation…Playing those characters allows me to understand my humanity and to understand others.”
Thompson was also drawn to Shakespeare because he wanted an opportunity to tackle roles that are not traditionally played by African-American actors.
“I know how important it is to see someone on stage you connect with and how that inspires you,” he said. “If I am holding up a mirror, and I can’t see myself in it, it really isn’t inclusive.”
Following appearances on Broadway in Julius Caesar and Cyrano de Bergerac with Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner, Thompson performed the title roles in The Emperor Jones, Richard III, Macbeth and Othello, receiving outstanding reviews from The New York Times, Boston Globe and Variety, among many others. He was also acclaimed for his portrayal of Kent in King Lear opposite Sam Waterston at the Public Theatre and for his performance in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre with Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy.
More recently, Thompson challenged himself to portray jazz legend Louis Armstrong and his manager, Joe Glaser, and artistic successor, Miles Davis, in a one-man show titled Satchmo at Shakespeare and Co. in Lenox, Mass. The play is based on the biography, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, by Terry Teachout, the theater critic for The Wall Street Journal. Thompson has been busy listening to music from different periods of Armstrong’s life and conducting research at the late artist’s New York City home, which is now a museum dedicated to his work.
Thompson is a recipient of the Obie, Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, Callaway, Outer Critics Circle, and Robert Brustein awards, and was nominated for a Distinguished Performance Award by the Drama League. Yet, with everything he has accomplished, Thompson is still not entirely satisfied. There is still much he wants to learn and a long list of roles he would love to tackle, including Hamlet, Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Harold Loomis from Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, the play that so inspired him many years ago.
“I am a work in progress,” he said. “I always will be.”