When he was an Atlanta actor in the early days of his career, one of Brandon J. Dirden’s first leading roles was in a 2006 version of the drama Take Me Out at the now-defunct Theater in the Square. Sixteen years later, he’s now part of the Broadway revival of the show, which opens Monday night at New York’s Second Stage Theater.
Richard Greenberg’s drama, which won the 2003 Tony Award for Best Play, follows Darren Lemming, a mixed-race star baseball player who decides to come out as gay, prompting tension among some of his fellow teammates. In the revival, Dirden stars as Davey Battle, Darren’s best friend who plays for a rival team.
He was hired for the show more than two years ago. As the cast went into rehearsal in February 2020 and got three weeks in, though, “the world was put on pause,” Dirden recalls. The initial word was that there would an approximate two-week hiatus because of Covid-19, yet it stretched much longer. Luckily, he and the other ensemble members — including Gray’s Anatomy’s Jesse Williams as Darren and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as accountant Mason Marzac, a role that won Denis O’Hare a Tony — were able to return once theater companies were able to produce again.
Davey, Dirden feels, is a complicated character who has taken the younger Darren under his professional wing. He’s also a religious man. “On the surface there is a passion in his mind to be an outstanding and just man,” Dirden says by Zoom from New York. “I think maybe he is misguided in some of that. In my personal life, I tend to play it safe so I love to play a character who doesn’t care if people like him or not.”
Ironically, in the Theater in the Square version, Dirden played Darren. That experience was a highlight of his professional time in Atlanta. “I remember the closeness of the audience. It was in the black box space, maybe 100 people, and I remember being so exposed, literally and figuratively, and feeling the power of that. At first I was wondering — I am out here nude in some of these scenes and everyone is looking at me. But as an actor, what more can you want? You want undivided attention.”
That production taught him just how impactful theater can be. Some patrons might have been tempted to attend because of Take Me Out’s Multiple nude shower scenes, he feels, but it was the show’s themes that ultimately resonated with them. “I had so many conversations with people who say they knew there was going to be a lot of eye candy onstage but they left with this story and had so many emotions. I felt so much pride to share that. I was changed by doing it.”
Dirden also remembers the show being staged in Cobb County, known for its earlier anti-gay resolution. “It wasn’t a safe space. It was quite conservative at the time. I remember picketers coming with their signs, people throwing Bibles at us, not having read the play at all. I wanted to have a dialogue and they were not interested.”
After attending Morehouse College from 1996 to 2000, Dirden went to grad school at the University of Illinois, where he met his wife Crystal Dickinson. When she got a job teaching at Spelman College, the two moved back to Atlanta in 2003. The idea was that they’d be back for a year but that turned into five. During that time, he was busy all over Atlanta stages. His first production was Time Flies at Horizon Theater as part of its 2003-2004 season. He also has fond memories of Metamorphoses and Twelfth Night at Georgia Shakespeare Festival and Conversations with Older Men as part of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theater Company.
Looking back now, he sees that added time in the area as a blessing. “What Atlanta gave me was a place with a very generous artist who are nurturing and adventurous. That is my foundation. I worked nonstop there, and when I got to New York it wasn’t a question of whether I thought I could act. I had a real confidence and an understanding of theater being around the community.”
After he moved to New York in 2007, his first show was the Broadway revival of Prelude to a Kiss. Other plays have included The First Breeze on Summer, The Piano Lesson and all the way, in which Dirden starred as Martin Luther King Jr. in a cast that also included Bryan Cranston.
Finishing a run in the Broadway debut of August Wilson’s Jitney in 2017, Dirden was afraid he wouldn’t know what to do next. “For so much of my life, August Wilson had been the North Star for me. To be able to present his last show on Broadway, it felt like a culminating event and that I had achieved a lifelong dream. Anything else would pale in comparison.”
Dirden eventually branched out into television, with a regular role in The Americans and later in For Life. His brother Jason is also an actor and the two have worked together multiple times, including in The Piano Lesson and Topdog/Underdog.
Take Me Out is not the first Covid-era production Dirden has been involved with. He also starred alongside Philicia Rashad in Manhattan Theater Club’s staging of Dominique Morriseau’s Skeleton Crew earlier this year.
It’s his belief that audiences are ready again for live theater. “It was touch and go at first because we were shutting down because of Omicron. Broadway had a clumsy restart but all the actors and technicians wanted to be there, and I saw real hunger from audiences to come back safely. Since then, there have been no signs of fear. We have safety measures in place but there is a real energy and thrust to be there.”
The actor has been encouraged by the Take Me Out crowds so far who have attended preview performances.
In many ways, he feels Take Me Out is just as relevant now as when it was first staged. “The themes in this play — the racism, homophobia, xenophobia — they didn’t start overnight and they aren’t going to be fixed overnight. When this play premiered 20 years ago, we were still wrestling with problems 400 years in the making. The ideas and values in America are deeply rooted in racism and homophobia in this puritanical beginning that we had. (The play) is topical because we need more time to wrestle with the truth of our beginnings.”
His son goes to school now with kids who have same-sex parents and the young student doesn’t bat an eye, says Dirden. That’s not the reality Dirden knew when he was eight years old, however.
“I think we are finding that we are open to re-learning what is good or acceptable or human. We are at a time where we are expanding our sense of humanity, hopefully, but I think it will take more time. I hope we can decrease the time by doing more plays like this that are relevant. The next time (this show is staged), I hope it will be a time capsule or museum piece. It’s not that way today.”
Jim Farmer covers theater and film for ArtsATL. A graduate of the University of Georgia, he has written about the arts for 30-plus years. Jim is the festival director of Out on Film, Atlanta’s LGBTQ film festival. He lives in Avondale Estates with his husband, Craig, and dog Douglas.
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