Another cold day in London, but two hours of it are warmed for Kreol Magazine by a fascinating interview with Joseph Marcell. Most often instantly recognised from his creation as the butler, Geoffrey, in the NBC hit sitcom, ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air‘. A charming and articulate gentleman from whom words flow with the ease you would expect from a man whose voice is his livelihood.
Born on the Caribbean island nation of St Lucia on 14th August 1947, Marcell later grew up in the UK. His is not a fairy tale story of overnight fame. He is proud to have worked long and hard to establish himself in his profession. A star of both stage and screen in the UK & the USA he has toiled to make the most of every opportunity that he has been presented with.
“The problem is, that even though so much has changed, non-white actors are not often given the chance to practise their art. We can only improve if we are given the chance to fail, to try things out and learn. That is where I have been lucky.”
Marcell first realised that he had no option but to become an actor at the age of 18. He was following a path set out for him by his parents. Learning a trade with an apprenticeship as an electrical engineer. Spending some down time with his mates one weekend in the West End, his eye was drawn to a theatre billboard.
“We saw, that at the Aldwych Theatre that there was an American company, I think it was the Negro Ensemble, they were performing a play called ‘Black New World’. I persuaded my friends to go in. We paid our money and watched this amazing piece of theatre. That was it, I was a goner, a goner.
From this point on he devoured theatre, seeing anything and everything that time and money allowed. He went on to study at The Central School of Speech and Drama and subsequently got his first big break when he joined The Royal Shakespeare Company in 1972. He became what is quaintly known as a ‘spear car rier’, filling out the crowd scenes. More importantly he was also given a small part as the boy Lucius in Julius Caesar and Eros in Anthony & Cleopatra, working opposite John Wood and Patrick Stewart.
“I watched and learnt. That is the wonderful thing about working for a company like the RSC. It is a long contract and you learn so much just being surrounded by all that talent.
More opportunities presented themselves. He joined a touring company called Paines Plough and soon made a lifelong friend of a writer there, David Pownell. Pownell has written four plays for Marcell, the sort of meaty matter that he thrives on. Also in the late 70s he was particularly proud to have been associated with the BBC production Empire Road, the first series for television written and directed by talented black artists.
His is a career with many highlights. A long association with Nick Kent at the Tricycle theatre afforded him the opportunity to appear in many exciting productions including the plays of the American iconic writer August Wilson. Wilson’s 10-play cycle charts the history of the African American from emancipation to the present day.
“In many ways Nick was a visionary, he had a small, out-of-the-West-End theatre, but he had a loyal audience base who knew that by going to his theatre they could see a diverse range of plays with a fine ensemble of actors.”
More roles were offered with the RSC, Shakespeare’s Globe and The Royal National Theatre. Classical theatre is his passion and of the many roles he has played, he feels most connected to Othello:
“I enjoyed Othello the most because I had decided, consciously, that I would go beyond the ‘noble savage’ interpretation. I believe that audiences appreciated this. He was not a character who apologised for who he was; he was arrogant and full of himself.”
What about his work in America, was Fresh Prince the first door to open there?
“I first worked in the USA when the RSC went to Broadway with a production of ‘Sherlock Holmes’. Later joining an ensemble, Shakespeare & Company, working in Massachusetts. I also became a part of a small group of actors from the RSC, under the direction of Patrick Stewart, who toured with 5 actor productions of Shakespearean plays.”
So when the call came from NBC you didn’t have any concerns moving over there?
“It was an amazing chance to work with, a predominantly, African-American pool of talent. I had no idea what would happen or that I would still be being followed through the streets today by people calling ‘Geoffrey’ in the hopes that I will react and confirm their suspicions. Being away from my family proved lonely at times, my daughter was young but we made the decision not to leave the UK altogether. We became a part-time family and our telephone bills were monumental.”
Marcell demurs at being labelled a trailblazer and yet, as a black artist in the UK, his career is populated by a string of ‘firsts’. Let’s review these: we have already touched on his involvement in the TV show Empire Road. Then there are the plays which premiered with him in the lead role written by David Pownell. Perhaps most notably here is his piece Black Star the first play to be written about the 19th century black American actor Ira Aldridge. Add to these Creon by Stephen Spender and Let There Be Love by Kwame Kwei Armah. He played Willy Loman in the first multiracial production of Death of a Salesman, a venture which even Miller himself thought timely. Played Peer Gynt at the National Theatre in a production that had three actors present the role as the character aged. He’s the only British artist to narrate the words of Martin Luther King accompanied by the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra. He’s sung with Kermit the frog and Miss Piggy. He co-chaired the National Black Theatre Festival in Carolina and participated in an internet extravaganza, 24 hours with David Choe, the wealthiest, living, urban artist in the world. He joined a cavalcade of all-black, all-American talent to present the poetry of John Edgar Wideman at the Ford Theatre in Los Angeles. Then, of course there’s that TV show which made him a cultural icon, another first, the first black British performer to land an American Prime Time TV series.
Although Fresh Prince ended in 1996 the worldwide audience fascination continues and Marcell admits that it is this fascination that has led to some interesting engagements. He cites the 25th anniversary of St Lucian Independence as one of these.
“I was invited by the St Lucian government to return home for the celebrations. I watched and took part in many wonderful presentations about the Island and its history. It was a great honour to be there. I discussed the beauty of St Lucia with Prince Andrew and had afternoon tea with the Governor General. Not bad for an almost electrician!”
Marcell’s first love is the stage and he continues to appear in both England and the USA.
“The screen pays better, but the stage is for the soul. The stage forces you to maintain a performance over several months. You learn to adjust to the eccentricities of your director and the discoveries of your fellow actors. The interaction with the audience keeps the play alive and evolving.”
Last Summer he completed his second season with the The Olde Globe in San Diego and racked up another ‘first’ in their production of Inherit the Wind. Marcell was cast as the reporter E K Hornbeck, a part made famous in the film of the play by Gene Kelly, a part which has always been played by a white actor. He goes on to single out his participation in A Free Man of Colour by John Guare at the Lincoln Center as a tremendous experience.
“It was an epic piece of American history about the Louisiana Purchase, Guare’s writing is perfection and the impeccable direction of George C Wolfe created a tour de force that the piece deserved. I shared the stage with such a fine company of committed performers led by Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def.”
In May, Marcell returns to Shakespeare’s Globe in London in the title role in King Lear a production which will go on to tour in Europe and, if negotiations work well, will also visit St Lucia. Is he excited or nervous at the prospect of taking on such a huge role?
“A little of both, I have wanted to play this part for so long I have so many ideas that the prospect of finally getting what I wished for is quite daunting. No matter what role I am preparing for I like to do my research, finding out all I can about the historical or factual context of the piece I start my day mucking out our two horses with the family, they are not in the least bit interested in what I do for a living, just whether I have brought them a treat. Every day is exhilarating, hard work and very long. I love it!”