Theater News

Dennis Haysbert Enters the Race

The award-winning actor discusses making his belated Broadway debut in David Mamet’s engaging legal drama.

Dennis Haysbert in Race
(© Carol Rosegg)
Dennis Haysbert in Race
(© Carol Rosegg)

Dennis Haysbert has portrayed some of the most notable African-American characters in television and film, including President David Palmer in 24, Raymond Deagan in Far From Heaven, Dr. Theodore Morris in Now and Again, and Sergeant Major Jonas Blane in The Unit, as well as being instantly recognizable as the national television spokesperson for Allstate insurance. Now, Haysbert is finally making his Broadway debut in David Mamet’s legal drama Race as attorney Henry Brown. He recently spoke with TheaterMania about joining the cast of this engaging play.

THEATERMANIA: You have been acting professionally for more than 30 years. Why did you choose to perform on Broadway at this point in your career?
DENNIS HAYSBERT: It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always considered doing stage a luxury. I started a family early, and quite frankly, I had to work in television and film to make money. But theater had always remained just one of those loves — and, if you will, guilty pleasures — that an actor has. You don’t do stage for the money, you do it for the love of getting out in front of a live audience and putting it out there.

TM: How does Henry Brown fit in with the type of characters you enjoy portraying?
DH: Henry is very important in that he gets to speak on a subject that will never be boring or solved. I feel like the entire nation should see Race, because the poetry in the words are so important in that they are said in the way that they are written. It hits people in a way that they should be talking about it long after they’ve seen it. It should be allowed to gestate. I think all four of the characters in Race are just amazing, because you don’t know who’s innocent or who’s guilty, and it’s up to the audience to try to figure it out.

TM: You worked with David Mamet on The Unit. What does it mean for you now that you have been in one of his stage plays?
DH: I likened Race to being invited to his home. This is where David lives — on stage, on Broadway — and where his most important works are done. Having worked with him for four years on The Unit is one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had on television, bar none, but being on stage with the most provocative production I’ve ever been involved with is just an amazing ride. I’m like a kid in a candy store with a pocketful of quarters!

TM: What is your earliest memory of yourself as a performer?
DH: I didn’t start performing until I was in high school, and I did it at the same time as I played football, and that was very interesting. We just didn’t go into the theater. It was looked at as, “Oh my goodness, sissies do that.'” And I would say, “Run around my side, and say that as you’re running.” I played an outside linebacker, and I hit very, very hard. I’d say, “I bet you’ve never been hit that hard by an actor!”

TM: You have said that you really enjoy self-help books. Which is your favorite one?
DH: My favorite would have to be The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz. It rings the truest and it is the least cartoonish. You read it and you say,”‘Okay, that works.”

TM: If you were going to write a self-help book, what would you call it?
DH: The Art of Being

TM: Now that you’ve conquered Broadway, what future career goals have you made for yourself?
DH: To continue playing characters that people enjoy and talk about and wish were actually living. I always try to bring a little bit of depth and a little bit of something that maybe the writer thought about subconsciously to each role. Still, you have to ask yourself where you go after playing characters like Jonas Blane and David Palmer. I have been very blessed.