It was right after Damon Gupton’s electrifying performance in “Othello” for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival that he packed his bags and moved to New York.
His time in Kansas City was over — but the few years he spent here as an actor and as the Kansas City Symphony’s assistant conductor loom large in his memory. “Othello” was what we might call going out with a bang. And that he did as the Moor of Venice in 2008, portraying a charismatic leader driven by jealousy to the brink of madness. In the process he left his mark on the Kansas City arts community just as indelibly as he had as a conductor.
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Gupton’s initial appearance as an actor here came in 2005, when he was cast as a fictional Kansas City jazzman who bore certain similarities to Charlie Parker in the world premiere of “Carter’s Way” at Kansas City Repertory Theatre.
“I hope to come back,” Gupton said recently from New York. “I have a big chunk of my heart still in Kansas City. For the right project, I would definitely come back.”
Indeed, Gupton was back in town in March and heard the symphony perform under the baton of guest conductor Christoph von Dohnányi. It was his first taste of the exceptional acoustics in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center.
“I saw the new hall and I was floored,” he said. “I was so moved and happy for Michael and Frank” — the Symphony’s music director Michael Stern and executive director Frank Byrne — “and the musicians. It’s such a great hall. I live in L.A. and I see the Disney Hall all the time, but the hall in Kansas City is better.”
At the moment Gupton, 39, is appearing in “Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York. It marks Gupton’s Broadway debut and it’s not a bad way to start. The play won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and the production is up for four Tony Awards, including best play.
The satirical play deals with race and real estate in Chicago. Norris uses as a point of departure Lorraine Hansberry’s classic 1959 drama, “A Raisin in the Sun.” Hansberry’s piece, based on her own family’s experience, depicted the stiff resistance facing the Youngers, an African-American family, when they buy a house in Clybourne Park, an all-white neighborhood.
That house is where the action of Norris’ inventive play is set. The first act, set in 1959, tells the flip side of “A Raisin in the Sun.” Russ and Bev, the white homeowners, are preparing to sell to the Youngers in the face of pleas by white neighbors not to let a black family buy the house for fear that property values will fall.
But Russ and Bev are grief-stricken over the suicide of their son, a Korean War veteran, who was treated badly by their neighbors. The two are willing to sell at a low price.
In the second act, Norris leaps ahead 50 years. Now Clybourne Park residents are entirely African-American, and a young white couple, Lindsey and Steve, are in the process of buying the house. It’s the beginning of gentrification and the couple intends to tear down the house and build a new one. As you might expect, their plan meets resistance from the neighborhood’s black homeowners.
Norris specifies that each actor is to play two roles. In Act 1 Gupton plays Albert, the taciturn, sardonic husband of Francine, Russ and Bev’s African-American housekeeper. And in the second act he appears as Kevin, who is married to Lena, a niece of the Youngers. Albert and Lena represent the neighborhood.
Gupton performed the piece with the same cast two years ago at the off-Broadway Playwrights Horizons. He said being in a Tony-nominated show is an experience that at times doesn’t quite feel real.
“Oh, it’s wonderful,” he said. “I think any actor would be deeply moved. It’s like a dream.”
When Gupton first came to New York, the first play he saw was in the Walter Kerr, the theater where “Clybourne Park” is playing now.
“We know there’s a lot of talented people who never got a chance to do something like this, especially to do a play that has a lot of weight.”
And there’s an added benefit: He’s never done a show quite like “Clybourne Park.”
“It’s very unique in the way that Bruce has crafted a play that has an incredible backdrop of race set up by ‘Raisin in the Sun,’ ” Gupton said. “But the play is actually about loss, lack of communication, the fact that we don’t as a society really talk about things. Those things for me, at least, are the highlights of the piece. And Bruce has found a way to make us fidgety, uncomfortable, laugh our behinds off and then scream — all in one piece. I think that’s a particularly unique gift.”
Gupton said the actors were contracted to do the show through July 15, with the possibility of extensions.
“I’ll stay with it as long as it goes and then go back to Los Angeles or where ever the next opportunity presents itself,” Gupton said. “You just never know where you’ll end up.”
Gupton said he decided to relocate from New York to L.A. about two years ago. And he’s had considerable success since then. He landed a regular role on “Prime Suspect,” NBC’s American version of the popular British crime series. He played homicide Detective Evrard Valerio, a longtime friend of the central character, Detective Jane Timoney, played by Maria Bello.
Gupton said 13 episodes were filmed before the series was canceled. He was saddened by the show’s abrupt end, but it cleared the way for him to do the Broadway production of “Clybourne Park.”
“It was extraordinary,” he said of the series. “Best job I ever had. It was like going to school. It was exhilarating. The cast was fantastic. I miss that show very much. It was a really good show that was just getting better. But if things don’t click, they don’t click. And patience is a virtue. But everything is happening the way they need to be happening.”
Gupton’s focus for the last few years has been acting, but he continues to conduct when opportunities fit his schedule. Next year he’ll conduct the world premiere of a new symphonic work by Yotam Haber with the Alabama Symphony. The piece commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four girls in Birmingham at the height of the civil rights struggle.
“My schedule last year did not allow me to do as much as I wanted to do and NBC certainly had me under their power, so I had to cancel several engagements,” Gupton said. “When we finish ‘Clybourne’ it will be a year and a half since I conducted. And that feels strange. But I always wanted a dual career and that’s what I’m pursuing.”