Oscar-nominated actress Juanita Moore took her 15-year-old grandson Kirk Kelleykahn under her wing, giving him priceless advice on acting. The Manhattan Beach resident has continued her groundbreaking legacy with his acting career and through revitalizing the Cambridge Players, an African-American theater group his grandmother had help form in the late 1970s.
Kelleykahn now co-stars in the Los Angeles premiere of “The Whipping Man,” produced by West Coast Jewish Theatre and directed by Howard Teichman. “The Whipping Man,” written by Matthew Lopez, tells the story of two freed slaves at the end of the Civil War in Richmond, Va., during Passover, when the only child of the Jewish family that owned them returns, badly injured. Tempers flare as they cope with the new world and when long-buried secrets are revealed.
Kelleykahn said he loves playing John.
“He is like no other character you’ve seen before,” he said. “He’s a freed slave, but very rebellious, mischievous. He is the kind of character that will not take no for an answer. There are so many twists and turns to the plots of the play. John is the comic relief … he’s happy-go-lucky, but the things he does will blow your mind.”
Kelleykahn was cast late into rehearsals after the lead actor dropped out of the production. His co-stars, Shawn Savage, who plays Caleb DeLeon, a Confederate officer who returns from war to see his childhood home in ruins, and Ricco Ross, who plays a long-time slave in the DeLeon home, had the script for more than two months when Kelleykahn came aboard. He said it was “grueling,” but he has extensive theater experience.
“With the training I have, I’m used to stepping onto Broadway in a week and learning my part and going,” Kelleykahn said.
There was a lot of homework when it came to this role, according to Kelleykahn, who had to learn about Hasidic Jews who owned slaves. With his heritage of having a Jewish father and African-American mother, Kelleykahn knows what it’s like growing up Jewish.
“When you say black Jews, people want to say Ethiopian Jews, people want to say Jews who converted like Sammy Davis Jr.,” Kelleykahn said. “They dismiss the fact that if you have a mother or father that’s Jewish and you grew up learning the Jewish way … people say you’re half Jewish. No. There’s no half. You’re a Jew. You can be Jewish and black … like Lenny Kravitz and there are so many others.”
Kelleykahn was already well-versed in Hollywood history. In 1959, his grandmother was the fifth African-American actor to be nominated for an Oscar in any category (third for best supporting actress) for her role in “Imitation of Life,” which she starred opposite Lana Turner, Sandra Dee and Susan Kohner, who was also nominated for best supporting actress that year.
Aside from his grandmother, his acting lessons extended to Hollywood legends such as Marlon Brando, who taught him “acting is reacting.”
“Marlon taught me to listen to what the actor is saying before you react. Most people just say lines. You don’t want to just say lines, just to be saying something. You want them to have meaning and intent so you’ll know why you did what you did. It’s not just walk to the mark and say your line ... put your own stuff into it and make that character as real as possible.”
Elizabeth Taylor was a teacher as well.
“With Elizabeth Taylor, it was more of how to listen and how to study to know when it’s your line, when you should respond. Because most actors, if they hear a pause, they think, ‘Oh my god, I should be saying something.’ No, let that actor finish what they’re doing, their business if you will, and then you’re fine. You’ll know mostly to work on instinct.”
Kelleykahn starred on Broadway and was a busy actor, but he felt it was time to revive the Cambridge Players, with the blessing of his grandmother. The group was named after Edmund J. Cambridge, a founding member of the Negro Ensemble Company in New York, and formed by African-American actresses older than 40 who were trying to find better parts, including Moore, Esther Rolle, Helen Martin, Lynn Hamilton and Royce Wallace, in Hollywood.
“She said, ‘If Hollywood is not calling you in, you call Hollywood in,” said Kelleykahn of what his grandmother said about the Cambridge Players.
The revived Cambridge Players had its premiere in 2008 with “Reunion in Bartersville,” which also starred former Manhattan Beach Mayor Mitch Ward, a play about a 50th high school reunion that takes a mysterious turn. After a hit run in Hollywood, the play went to North Carolina for the Black Theater Festival. At the 19th annual NAACP Theater Awards, Kelleykahn took home the Producer of the Year award. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work after raising more than $35,000 to get Cambridge Players off the ground, after he and his partner, Doug Fager, had maxed out their credit cards.
In the fall, the Cambridge Players will produce Gammy Singers and Gloria Calomee’s “Camp Three,” the story of the first black lumber jack foreman in Louisiana in the 1930s. The play is based on the life of Calomee’s father.
Through his years on the stage and in front of the camera, Kelleykahn has kept a lot of his grandmother’s wisdom with him, especially after she died on Jan. 1, 2014, a few months after she turned 99 years old.
“She taught me to be true to yourself,” Kelleykahn said. “Bring something forward. Never cheapen the character or yourself in life.”
“The Whipping Man” runs through Sunday, April 13, at the West Coast Jewish Theatre, which is located at Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles.
For more information, visit wcjt.org or call (323) 821-2449.