There & back again

John Jelks left town wanting to become an actor. He returns this weekend in the long-running play The Diary of Black Men.

The cast of <i>The Diary of Black Men</i> in costume. That’s Jelks to the immediate left of the woman with the inverted-triangle hat.

The cast of The Diary of Black Men in costume. That’s Jelks to the immediate left of the woman with the inverted-triangle hat.

The Diary of Black Men,
John Jelks loves the theater. When he isn’t stealing bows and basking in heartfelt applause for his riveting role in a stage production—such as The Diary of Black Men, which rolls into the Community Center Theater on July 7—you can find him at most any high school, college, church or Broadway play, sitting there, analyzing and critiquing the production from beginning to end.

“I knew when I was 10-years-old I wanted to be on stage acting,” says Jelks, 41, who now lives in Chicago but grew up in Sacramento and graduated from McClatchy High School. Jelks adds that ego and peer pressure from his high-school buddies almost kept him from pursuing his true calling. “In high school, all my partners were jocks,” he says. “None of them were into the theater. I didn’t want them to label me as soft, so I ended up running track.”

Although Jelks excelled at track-and-field events, he would have preferred to be in the drama department, reciting lines from a Shakespeare play instead of running or jumping the high hurdles. “The problem was, there was no way in the world I could let my friends know that,” he says, laughing. “They would have never let me live that down.”

Eventually, Jelks gave up sports altogether. After graduating from McClatchy, he moved to San Francisco and enrolled in San Francisco City College’s Dramatic Arts Department. To this day, he credits the guidance of his drama teacher, Gloria Weinstock, for not only nurturing his passion for the theater, but for life in general.

“I was pretty upfront and brash about my goals with her,” he recalls. “I remember telling her that I didn’t want to take 10 years to get where I wanted to be. At the time, I’m sure she must have thought I was just another cocky kid looking for an easy ride. But she sat me down and really laid out a road map. She suggested I take all sorts of courses—not just theater-arts ones, either. She felt this would make me a well-rounded person and help me along in my career.”

Weinstock was immediately impressed with Jelks’ acting skills. She put in extra hours to help him hone his craft. Jelks soon landed his first college role, in a play titled Pinocchio Jones. “With a name like that, you know it was a black play, but with a twist,” he says. “It still was a really good introductory play for me. I learned all the ins and outs of the theater—everything from production to even singing and dancing. To hear the audience applaud my performance was an incredible adrenaline rush. Once I experienced that, and that was just on a real small scale, I couldn’t wait to find out what it would feel like when I did bigger productions.”

Jelks didn’t have to wait long. He quickly began to audition for gigs with theater ensembles in Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Chicago and London. “I was fortunate to have surrounded myself with some very supportive people along the way,” he says. “Having people who truly believe in you, help you realize potential you never even dreamed you had, is what really gives you strength in this business.”

Jelks is proud to be associated with The Diary of Black Men, a play, written by Thomas Meloncon and directed by Clarence Whitmore, which chronicles the lives of African-American men and their evolving viewpoints on life, love and relationships with women (it’s subtitled “How Do You Love a Black Woman?”). The production began touring in 1983 and has continued every year since. “It’s probably one of the longest running, most successful African-American plays today,” says Jelks, one of the seven cast members who have been with the play the longest—11 years and counting. In Diary, he portrays the characters of a Muslim, preacher and a gay guy.

“We were invited back to London last February,” he says. “It was our fourth time there. They took to it very well.”

John Jelks looking reasonably casual.

Diary, in addition to its success internationally, has consistently sold out performances throughout the United States. “I believe much of the success of this production can be attributed to what I like to think is a black theatrical-renaissance movement,” Jelks says. “We’re starting to see more and more black productions being made, financed and making their way into theaters. That’s a very good sign, because many people were beginning to think that black theater was dying a slow death.”

While Jelks maintains that some critics say these upstart productions lack substance and are put together haphazardly, the flip side to that assertion is that—good or bad—they lure the African-American community into the theater.

But once writers, producers and the players behind the scenes who green-light new productions see that there is a demand for African-American plays, Jelks thinks they will be motivated to produce even more compelling shows. “Right now, gospel-music plays are all the rage,” he says, referring to such successful productions as The Gospel at Colonus. “As you can imagine, they have a huge following. The next big thing is the hip-hop-oriented plays. Those will probably have the potential to really do well; record companies can get behind them financially and make them a huge success.

“The bottom line,” Jelks adds, “is this is a good start for African-American theater. More importantly, this rebirth of black theater has proven that a play can be successful within the African-American community, yet still be in relative obscurity within non-African communities. The play almost becomes a subculture.”

Even so, Jelks is convinced that there remain a number of talented writers with great theatrical scripts who, for various reasons, can’t get them marketed. He is encouraged by stories like that of Jesse Maples, the very first Black camerawoman for NBC. In the early ’60s, Maples opened a theater in Harlem; she also produces movies. “She was very instrumental in developing black upstart filmmakers such as Spike Lee,” says Jelks, who landed a role in Maples’ new movie, My Closest and Dearest Friends.

“It’s people like Maples who have great stories to tell that will keep black theater vibrant and strong,” Jelks says. “But like everything else, the success of African-American theater is based on dollars and cents. It costs so much to produce a play, a really well-done play. A playwright has to bring something to the table that is going to make that person financing it let go of their wallet and say, ‘Yes, I’m going to get behind this.’ It’s a gamble. But to them, it almost has to be a sure thing.”

As much as he loves performing on stage, even Jelks realizes a theatrical career can be as uncertain as a roll of the dice. Tiny audiences, bad press and bad acting can spell the demise of the most well-intentioned play. That’s one reason he snags a few movie roles here and there and relies on other uses of his acting talents. “Voiceover work pays well,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate to get it consistently. I live pretty good off that alone.”

Jelks has lent his distinctive voice—which can also carry a tune—to numerous Coca-Cola and car commercials. Lately, he’s even taken a few personal gambles that have begun to pay off. “With the money I made doing voiceover work,” he says, “I’ve invested a few dollars in independent films. They’ve become like my lotto ticket.”

Jelks is banking on a small-budget movie he starred in last year; it’s titled Compensation. He calls it a love story with an edge. Out of 5,000 movies submitted at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Compensation earned the highest honors in its category. This year, audiences can view the film on cable TV via the Sundance Channel, Showtime and BET Starz.

Yet an even bigger coup for Jelks is that Compensation received a big stamp of approval from legendary filmmaker Gordon Parks. “He told me he loved it,” Jelks says proudly. “He even gave me a check for $10,000 to help me market it. That’s really how I was able to get it to cable. I mean, to have Gordon Parks embrace my work like he did just blew me away. It was a wonderful validation of everything that I have done in my career up to this point.

“Who knows?” Jelks adds, musing out loud. “Maybe this means I’m about to arrive.”