It’s tempting to give Walter Coppage a nickname: The Voice.
The veteran actor, one-time touring comedian and former KCUR radio announcer benefits from one of the most important tools a stage performer can have. That would be his golden-throated, deep bass-baritone that rings with authority no matter the character, no matter the play.
“My dad had some old reel-to-reel recordings, and I heard myself at the age of 10 or 12 before my voice changed,” Coppage said recently. “I sounded like Mickey Mouse. But my father had a deep voice. My grandfather had a deep voice. My son has a deep voice. It took college and work and training to really achieve the resonance.”
Coppage, 55, has performed in Chicago (“The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” for Steppenwolf) and Washington, D.C. (August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” for Studio Theatre), but these days he finds most of his work in Kansas City.
He just finished a hit show at the Unicorn Theatre — “How to Steal a Picasso,” which was extended a week because of demand. He’s now directing “The Island” for Kansas City Actors Theatre, which begins performances March 9. (Coppage is a founding member of KCAT.)
And in April he will appear in the Spinning Tree Theatre production of Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus.” The show will be unique because Coppage will alternate in the roles of Salieri and Emperor Joseph with another of the city’s most respected actors, Robert Gibby Brand.
We caught up with Coppage not long ago for a conversation about his life and career.
Q. Where were you born?
A. I was actually born just outside of Tacoma, Washington. My dad was stationed at Fort Lewis. He was career military, so he just happened to be stationed there when my mom was pregnant. He was career Army, 26 years. He prided himself on the fact that he was an enlisted man. As he put it, “I work for a living.”
Q. Your father was African-American but your mother was Japanese, correct?
A. Yes. It was in the late 1950s that he met her. He was stationed there for a short tour. … My mother was born on the northernmost island of Japan. It’s part of Russia now.
My grandfather was taken (by the Soviets after they seized the island) because he was a well-to-do fox farmer and owned the only movie theater in town and was a city councilman. They rounded up all of them and took them to Siberia and that’s where my grandfather died, at a camp in Siberia.
My mother, as the eldest child, became head of the family. So when they relocated near Tokyo she ended up doing all kinds of jobs. She did calligraphy for office letterheads and at night she was working at a restaurant. The story goes that she pours a bowl of soup on him. She’s terrified because here’s a young soldier covered with soup. But he looked at her and burst into laughter. He thought she was beautiful and ended up pursuing her.
Q. Do you consider yourself Asian-American as well as African-American?
A. Yes, I do. I’ve always self-identified as African-American. It’s partly because I grew up in the ’60s. On the forms the choices were “black,” “white” and “other.” And “other” meant everyone else. There was no “multi-racial” or “biracial.” You had to choose back then.
So I always just checked “black.” So if people ask what my heritage is, I say I’m biracial. Because of my appearances most people assume I am just African-American. But like so many others, I’m mixed.
Q. And you’ve been in involved in Tradewind Arts, the pan-Asian theater and arts group founded by Andi Meyer.
A. I’m not heavily involved. But, yes, I joined the group at its inception. It was a group of Asian-American artists of all stripes.
Q. Describe performing in “How to Steal a Picasso.” You played a frustrated artist with delusions of grandeur who was married with two young-adult kids. You were more expansive in your performance than theatergoers had seen before. Had you performed farce before?
A. The only other time I did a true farce was a million years ago over at the Rep. They did Moliere’s “The Misanthrope,” and I had a tiny part. That is the only time I can think of when I did a farce. I have done farcial works and most of them have been connected to the Unicorn. …
But there’s something very liberating about these characters who are so sure of themselves. A lot of it was just keeping up with (co-star) Cathy (Barnett). And she just owned the show. She in so many ways seemed versed with this.
Q. How did you get involved in the show?
A. My involvement started about a year ago in the staged reading of it (at the Unicorn). The playwright is generally not present at readings, but Bill Downs was there, which was unusual. Afterward he just embraced me and told me how much he loved the way I played Otto.
I figured there was no way I would be cast in the actual production. But sure enough, I get this call. Bill actually changed the script to accommodate an African-American father and make the children adopted.
Q. Last year you played Judge Keller in the Coterie’s multi-ethnic production of “The Miracle Worker.” You played an Alabama planter who had not gotten over being on the losing side in the Civil War, which was a first. What was that like?
A. I got this phone call from Jeff (Church, the Coterie’s artistic director). He said he wanted me to play Keller. And I went “Papa Keller? Confederate Capt. Keller?” It was a leap of faith. But it was a fantastic cast and a great concept and it actually worked.
Q. Now you’re directing Athol Fugard’s “The Island” for Kansas City Actors Theatre. And in April you and Robert Gibby Brand will alternate as Salieri in “Amadeus.” You’re a busy guy.
A. When it rains, it pours. Six months down the road I may be sitting here and questioning my life choices. But it’s good to be this busy. I don’t know if says so much about me, but it says a lot about this town. We are great supporters of the arts, and we are great supporters of our artists.